Does Homework Always=Learning?

This post is in response to this week’s question from the 2014 Teacher Leadership Challenge

hwThis summer, I experienced first hand a small taste of what some of my students experience on a nightly basis from their classes. I took a graduate class from 8am-4pm for six days. Each night, after returning from the eight hour class, I had on average three hours of homework. The first night I returned home, I was exhausted. My brain was spent, but I had to push through the task…and it was one of my least favorite memories of the summer. Luckily for me, I only endured this for six nights. High school students experience this often and for their entire high school career.

The idea of homework is definitely controversial. Some teachers feel they must give it in order to have something to grade or feel that students need the practice outside of school. Some teachers only grade for completion, but don’ t even check the homework. Parents become angry when their students are not bringing homework home, as they feel their student needs the homework.  So where do we draw the line?

In my opinion, the amount and type of homework many students receive on a nightly basis is outrageous. We expect students to be in school for seven hours a day, and then head home to work on an additional two to three hours of homework a night. And for the struggling learner, that number can increase two fold.  My biggest complain with homework comes from the excessive amount of “practice” of a particular skill and the type of material covered. When a student takes home homework, the material should be something they know how to do. Students should not be teaching themselves the material. At that point, the “practice” is simply “self-teaching” or lack thereof of the material.

For the student that struggles with the homework or is more advanced in the skill, homework many times=failure. For the struggling student, when they don’t complete the homework, they earn a 0 for the assignment. And the determinant of zeros on a student’s grade is so great. For the student who is more advanced, and does need this “practice, ” they too are impacted grade wise like the struggling learner. Only they often have the stronger test taking ability, and can do well enough on tests to where they can still pass.

Homework does not always=learning. And in fact, the time during which students are in the classroom working with and learning from their teacher and class mates is much more a time of learning then doing homework to get the grade. When homework goes home, how are we sure the student is actually doing their own work? What if no one is home to assist with the homework or doesn’t have the skill themselves to help the student?  What if the student doesn’t get the homework? How are we setting students up for success when they experience one or more of these situations?

As Allen Iverson said repeatedly at a press conference, “We are talking about practice?….we aren’t talking about the game?” We need to be more focused on how students learn the material and can apply what they learn, and not be so hung up on the need for repetitive “practice” (homework.) Let’s focus on the game for students, recognizing what they know and have learned and how they can apply this information.

How Important is Relationship Building in the Classroom?

relationship2Think about the people in your life you are closest to. If they asked you to do something for them, even something absurd, would you do it? Why?

How about someone you know but you do not particularly like or who does not seem to care much for you. If he/she asked you for a favor, would you do it? Would you want to?

I believe the same rule applies in the classroom. There are many students who have been brought up to respect authority and follow directions simply because a teacher tells them to, and we are very thankful for these students. These sweet, well-behaved kids deserve all of the love and attention we can give them. However, there are also those few who seem to want to do the opposite of what we ask and may not always be interested in our consequences. This is where relationships come in.

I still remember my education professor at Hope College imparting her wisdom: “Some kids won’t do anything for you… until you build a relationship. Then they’ll do ANYTHING for you!” I have taught in elementary, middle, and high schools, and I believe these words to be true at every level.

Check out the words of one of our most struggling and sometimes verbally inappropriate high school students about a teacher who has taken time and energy to build a relationship with him:

“She makes sure I have my work done or at least am attempting at it. If it was another teacher trying to nag at me about doing something, I would of simply told them off. For some people, it’s really hard to get someone to do something. At least for me, I’m probably the most stubborn and hard-headed in the class so that’s pretty impressive. I’ve been kicked out and suspended from the class before (more than once) but she still was there to help. I’ve improved myself I think because of her. She also happened to be there when I was struggling in life. She asks about why I wasn’t at school and how to help. I’ve also more understood that not all people are bad or wish the worst on you to do bad. Most teachers couldn’t care less about you… she could of chose to be like that, but she didn’t. I appreciate that the most. For her to take extra time from her job and put it elsewhere is a great thing. She could hate me and just say I’ll become the next dropout or screw up my own life but does she? No. If more teachers were as helpful as her, some kids would be able to look forward to going to school.”

Building relationships does not:

  • mean you do not give consequences
  • happen overnight
  • involve being on a “friend level” with students, or that they don’t respect you as authority
  • ever become wasted time

Some specific tips I’ve developed over the years:

  • I try to keep this thought in mind: The 55 minutes in your classroom might be the most attention that student receives all day.
  • Kids like to know we’re human beings. Telling stories or even apologizing for something we did wrong helps build a relationship with them.
  • All students, but especially older or “at risk” students, will want a rationale about why they need to do an assigned task. The more we can honestly explain the necessity of a direction we’ve given, the more the relationship is built and the happier the student will be to complete it.
  • If you’re about ready to give up on a student, realize that probably every other teacher (and maybe even the student’s family) is too. That’s exactly when they need you in their corner the most: not letting them get away with anything, but also not disregarding them as “not worth the time.”
  • Some kids enjoy compliments, but to build relationships with those who don’t, I simply make observations. “Oh wow, you got a haircut!” “You really know these quadratic equations.” “Looks like you got new shoes!” These things still show them you’re noticing them.

In the wise words of my mother in law, “Everyone’s carrying their own cross.” When I’m burdened and stressed, I become less pleasant. What I need in that time is not only for someone to reprimand my behavior but more importantly for them to care about me, listen to me, and ask me if I’m okay. (See next tip)

  • Certain students are best disciplined in private. I have learned to switch my conversation from “Stop acting this way!” to “Are you okay?” Once I listen to the student about anything going on in his or her life that may be affecting their behavior, then we can handle consequences.

By building a relationship with your students, they will love you, be happy about coming to your class, and work for you, even when they don’t feel like it, because they know how much you care!

Some kids won’t do anything for you. Until you build a relationship; Then they’ll do ANYTHING for you.

A Day in the Life of One Resource Teacher

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After my first blog post, entitled, High School Support: Before the Blend I received a great response from an amazing fellow educator and family friend, Don Pata. He wrote,”  I feel that one of the every-day problems that I encounter with special education – regardless of the structure – is that we as classroom teachers don’t really know what happens in the special education classrooms!

Immediately I realized, that this is an ongoing problem in education. We, as educators, often have limited knowledge of what is going on outside of our classroom or department unless we are collaborating on an assignment or project. I don’t think this is anyone’s fault, but is a concern that I have had myself. Obviously, if you teach a content area, one would have an idea of what was going on in my classroom. But, with special education, many people only think of one or two ways in which a teacher in this field works. So, thanks to Don’s comment, I decided I would share about a “typical” day as a high school resource teacher…..although all educators know that “typical” rarely exists!

As I teach in a blended program, I am very blessed to work daily with two other amazing educators; Julie, a fellow resource teacher and Aubrey, a general education learning consultant with experience as a general and special education classroom teacher. We are a great team and we are so lucky to be supported by amazing paraprofessionals as well during the day.

A “typical “Monday class period begins with the “Weekend Update.” We found this to be an important time to connect with the students to hear about what they did over the weekend. Even at the high school level, students want to talk about what they did over the weekend, even if it was simply relaxing or going to the movies. We as the teachers also share out about what we did, and the kids then get to see that we are actually real people as well! After that, we check grades. Every Monday. This time gives students a chance to see how they are doing in all of their classes, and allows us to have one-on-one conversations with students that may be struggling to create a plan to get in missing work, connect with their classroom teachers and access teacher Moodle sites or websites. If students have Ds or Es, this is a time for them to call home to their parents and inform them of their grades. This in itself has been skill building.  Students learn how to have productive conversations with their parents and explain the plans in which they have created to improve their grades. We also have taught some kids how to leave a voice mail. Hey, spontaneous life lessons can be just as effective as planned ones! After the grading process students return to their pods in the classroom, and work with their team leader (a teacher or paraprofessional) to get support through pre-teaching and re-teaching of content from their other classes for the remainder of the hour.

Tuesdays through Fridays run a bit differently. On these days, class begins with a 15-20 minute learning strategy lesson. The most emphasis for these lessons is on organization, test taking strategies, advocating for oneself and personal drive. We ran a BYOD classroom this year, and integrated many types of technology into these lessons. Following the lessons, students  work with their team leaders through pre-teaching and re-teaching of content from their other classes for the remainder of the hour.

Just like general education teachers, I have a planning period or prep hour. During this time,  I work on IEPs, run IEP meetings, meet with ancillary staff (speech pathologists and social workers), check in with my caseload students and/or communicate with parents.  Other days I work with a student from our program studying for upcoming tests or editing a paper. Most of my lesson planning is done with my collaborating teacher outside of the school day.

As a special education teacher, I wear many hats. Some days I feel like a social worker, listening to the struggles students are having inside and out of school. I am cheerleader; helping my students learn that they can be successful; beaming when a student comes into the classroom with a smile on his/her face that they did well on a test we studied for together. Other days, I feel like a mom. Giving advice on life. Being a sounding board. And some days, I wear all of these hats more than once during the day.

I went into the field of special education  because I love working with struggling learners and want to make a difference in their lives while in school as well as beyond.

High School Support: Before the Blend

Traditionally at the high school level, buildings operate two separate programs to support students at the Tier II level. For struggling general education students, one program (sometimes called the Learning Center or Student Center) is run by a learning consultant or classroom teacher and supported by a paraprofessional(s). Here, general education students often work on study strategies, organization, re-teaching of concepts, and homework assistance and on a daily basis.

For students in special education working towards a high school diploma, the program, often called Study Skills or the Learning Resource program, is also taught separately, and focuses on study strategies, organization, re-teaching of concepts and homework assistance as well as test preparation. Here students work with a special education teacher and paraprofessionals to help them be successful in their classes and stay on track to graduate.

With these two programs, students with often very similar academic needs, work in separate parts of the building, with different staff, to accomplish the same goal: supporting students in their academic classes through teaching study skills, providing homework support and re teaching and pre-teaching future concepts. But why are these programs separate? Wouldn’t it be better to put all these great resources together? These questions would drive a group of teachers to try something new…..