Learning is....
Planting a seed in our brain... learning to water, nurture and grow it.... so we can live on the fruit of our learning and plant more seeds.

Friday, 27 February 2015

Homework - the eternal can of worms for teachers, students and families: "To give or not to give? That is the question!"

Homework comes up every now and again, with the arguments for giving and doing homework as opposed to the arguments for not giving and not doing homework.

Homework has been around forever!!

When I was a kid, in the juniors, we had home reading.  I remember being very excited to get my hard folder with the elastic inside to keep the book safe in my bag.  Mum tells me that it came home about three nights a week and was not tedious at all, because I was a good reader (and better than my brother - don't tell him that though). 

Of course I got older and went into the senior class (we only had two classrooms until late in my Standard 3 year) and the homework was different.  Each week there were two kids in charge of running the homework.  They would decide each day who would do what homework activities for the following day and ran that time at the beginning of each day.  They could divvy out the following:
  • book review
  • hobby
  • mime
  • impromptu speech
  • blindfold tasting
We also had a country of the week to research.  Mr Smith would work his way through the alphabet as the year went on and we learnt about countries, capital cities and important facts from all over the world, as well as about how to read maps.  I think this is the reason why I know where so many places are and have a rough idea about many countries.  I still am fascinated with maps and the like.

When I was at high school there usually was homework for a class, such as reading a book, writing an essay, drawing pictures, creating 3-D dioramas, memorising chemistry symbols, practising maths which I sucked at.... studying for exams.

Then you go to University and there is always stuff you have to do independently out of lecture and tutorials like reading, research and writing essays... and in the case of training to be a teacher, there is lesson planning and resource making.

This week's #asiaED slow chat on Twitter is focused on homework.  So far three questions have been asked:
Monday: What is your opinion on homework?
Tuesday: How would you define a good homework task in your subject area?
Wednesday: How can technology be used to make homework tasks even better?

A slow chat is when a question is posted fairly early in the day (because it's being posted somewhere in Asia it is about 10 or 11 am New Zealand time) and you have all day to respond.  #asiaEDchat lasts for a week with the same topic but a different question each day.

On Monday I was able to participate.  I happened to be the first person to respond to the first question because I was on Twitter at the time.  Below is a Storify of the chat over the day, which I mostly took from what @asiaEDchat tweeted and retweeted.

Sadly Storify has deleted itself from the Social Media landscape and none of my Storifies exist anymore.  😭😭😭😭

On Tuesday and Wednesday I was not able to participate, but I did Storify the conversation from what was tweeted and retweeted by @asiaEDchat.

Sadly Storify has deleted itself from the Social Media landscape and none of my Storifies exist anymore.  😭😭😭😭

So this is my initial tweet (and I apologise for any spelling errors, my phone and/or tablet and I don't always get it right, and in the heat of the chat we sometimes don't spell check) where I say I can take homework or leave it:

Why can I live without giving homework?  Because that is one less thing I would have to do with my day and my week.  Homework takes up a lot of organisation time, class time, growling at those kids who didn't do it time and analysing time.  Because you see, I don't give out the stock standard worksheet anymore.  Once upon a time I did, and it was easy, and I had them all photocopied out at the beginning of each term for the whole term ready to go before the term even started.  But now I don't.

Here is an outline of what I give for homework:
  • reading - if the child is age appropriate or above, I prefer that they choose their own reading material, be it from a browsing box, a library book or a newspaper or other text within the home.
  • spelling - each child has their own spelling list.  The words for each child comes after in class testing of the NZCER researched Essential Spelling Lists 1-7 as well as a list called Commonly Misspelt Words.  The child only learns the words they got wrong.  For my more advanced spellers I have a book called Spelling for Frustrated Teachers.  From that book I write up a list of words on the board for children to choose from.  In some multilevel classes I would have three different lists depending on ability for students to choose from.
  • basic facts - again this is derived from testing.  I have sourced, through one school I worked at, tests for each Numeracy stage for basic facts.  At Stage 2/3 they must get 28 or more out of 30 to progress to Stage 4.  If the child gets less than 28 correct, their basic facts homework focuses on Stage 2/3.  From Stage 4, a child must get 56 or more from 60 to progress to the next stage.  When some children are very close to the achieved mark I give them the stage that they are working on, plus the next stage up to learn and practise their basic facts with a bit more of a challenge.
And this is why I give homework:  I've seen the reading, spelling and basic facts levels of my students improve - some with little jumps, some with steady jumps, and some have made massive jumps. 

Home reading gives that bit of extra practice on top of the reading we do at school - shared reading with the newsbook and poetry, guided reading, silent reading, reading for research, sneaky reading (aka singing).... and I want home reading to encourage a passion for reading, to read when the teacher isn't looking!  All that reading adds up to a child being a more confident, fluent reader.  This picture below, even though it is from the US, demonstrates the difference for young readers if they do not get enough reading in their day.

Reading is a vital skill for every person, so Dr Seuss said it best when he said this:

Spelling is incredibly important in order to be able to write.  Doing spelling homework alone does not a good speller make.  The writing process, the phonics and word work done during language time, those games we put out to reinforce sounds... it all combines with homework to improve spelling.

Two years ago I had two Year 5 students who could barely write a sentence.  They had no writing vocabulary and no sound knowledge despite having had assistance all through their school years.  We did all of the above in our daily programme.  The RTLB working with them got them My Dictionary books so they could have a place to look for words they wanted to write with and collect words for the stories they wanted to write. 

Each term when we did the tests on the Essential Lists they improved; slow, small steps at first, but by the third term there was a big increase, and the last term I taught them they were having a go at lists they never would have dreamed of doing.  Added to that was the fact they were now using inventive spelling, using their sound knowledge to spell words they had no idea how to spell, and these words were mostly readable in the context of their stories. 

They went from not even being able to write one sentence, to writing a huge paragraph with five or six sentences and even asking to write!  When I asked them what the big difference was for them with their writing, they said it was being able to spell the words they wanted to tell the story with.

These two pieces of writing were written in their second term of Year 6, but this was independent writing, something that a year before they could not do.  I was very proud of them.

They took their spelling homework seriously (as did their mum) and the work they put into it made a big difference in not only their Essential Lists testing, but in their writing and self esteem.  The rest of the class were very encouraging towards these two children in all aspects of learning, even the ones who also had areas they struggled in.

Again I test my basic facts each term.  I set the homework for each child based on the level they are yet to master.  After the first term I also give most of the students the next stage above as well to give them something to aim for; to improve at that level for those who have already had a go at that level, or for the ones who haven't, an opportunity to practice that level.  This is an example from Stage 5:

Some of my top kids in basic facts ask for the work for all the levels available, and despite the fact that I do factor in practice of the lower levels in each level as they progress, who am I to argue with a kid who wants more homework? 

When it comes to the strugglers down on the Stage 2/3 facts, I try not to put the pressure on, but experience tells me that it's not that they don't know the answers, it's just that they don't have the speed to do it in the timeframe of the test.  Consequently I have sometimes given the next level up to them as well in consultation with them and their parents.

I've also been a bit adventurous in giving students the opportunity to do a more inquiry based homework.  Here are some things I have tried and some comments I have about them.

The Alphabet Inquiry was something I came across while relieving at an Intermediate with School of Education students coming in.  One class I was relieving in was actually me supervising a student teacher, and he inspired this piece of work.  It is actually a lot of research, and I mostly used it in this form with Year 7/8 students and it would be two weeks worth of homework.

When I wanted to use it for younger  students I cut down the activities as you can see above.  This homework was presented as shared learning, and this means that I didn't mark it.  We took turns giving our information and discussed and debated it.

The Anzac Day homework is something I give out every year.  The Scavenger Hunt gets the kids looking in the newspapers, magazines or online.  The newspapers are really good at looking at their "local Anzac heroes" so the local small time papers are a treasure trove for kids as well as the bigger national and regional papers that they may or may not get.

I ask the kids to discuss what Anzac Day means to their family and how do they spend the day.  It is amazing how many of these kids inspire their parents to go to the dawn parade with them as a result.

Making Anzac Biscuits always goes down a treat in any house, and if I am really, really lucky the kids will bring in a biscuit or two for me as well.  We often end up making biscuits in class time as well, and we have engaged in taste tests between bought and homemade Anzac Biscuits which resulted in some venn diagrams and persuasive writing.

I also ask the children to look into their own families and see if there is someone who served New Zealand during a war or conflict.  Personally, my great grandfather fought at Passchendaele in WWI; my great Uncle Malcolm was in the first echelon and served through to the end of WWII; my grandad was in the home guard in WWII; my great Uncle Thorold served in Korea and his son Les in Vietnam; and my cousin served with the RNZAF in Somalia.  The personal stories mean so much and create a larger connection for the children, and it is amazing the stories that come in.

Auntie Alice is a song that was Top 40 in New Zealand before I was born, and my dad remembers it!  It is also a really popular song in our schools thanks to Kiwi Kidsongs.

But it has always bothered me:  What did Auntie Alice give the newly weds that had everyone so up in arms?

And the kids always ask this too.

So I put it back onto them and asked them to read the lyrics and come up with what Aunty Alice gave them.  The following Friday brings some interesting contraptions into class.  Some kids make replica old time radios.  Some make a juke box.  I had wiz bang contraptions with I-pods put in for good measure.

It certainly is a task that brings out some creativity.

May is New Zealand Music Month and I am passionate about New Zealand music and expose my class to it as much as possible.

They are actually really surprised at how much New Zealand music they know and I usually end up with a variety of really cool music coming into class. 

In 2012 a Year 5 boy introduced us to Devilskin because his dad is friends with the guitarist who was from Te Awamutu.  Before the year was out they had become one of my favourite New Zealand bands!

May also brings to New Zealand the International Comedy Festival.  So I decided my class should have their own festival!

You will note that I stipulate that the joke I am asking them to present has to be one they can tell the principal and their grandmother!

This gives me the opportunity to whip out all my child friendly bad taste jokes too.

But it also gives the children a chance to present to the class orally, and it is a short presentation so it is ideal in the lead up to speeches (which is often in term two).

It is amazing how many kids revert back to good old Billy T James.  And I have used Billy T James often as a class treat to watch on YouTube.

With this homework project I gave the children three choices:
* stop the birds eating our school strawberries
* stop the birds from flying into our class and multipurpose room
* that annoying fly buzzing around your head as you try to go to sleep.

This is a really good activity to get some technological creativity coming out in the learning, and it is also really good to get a measure of a child's sense of humour and family values.

I had one kid simply bring in a fly swat to combat the third choice.

Another child brought in a bullet to solve the bird problem (hunting and fishing family background).

And then I've had kids that have painstakingly constructed a miniature garden with the apparatus installed or a curtain of beads to cover a doorway!

And by the way, we did use some of the ideas to protect the school strawberry patch that summer.

Allergy Week was a real surprise for me.  Allergies have become an increasing societal problem and more prevalent at schools every year.

So a few days after I sent this homework home, I got a text from the principal's wife as their eldest son was in my class.  She offered to come in on Friday and talk to the kids about allergies.  I knew she had a few allergies, but I didn't truly understand the full impact on her life or how many until she did.

Sarah was able to tell us about how she discovered her allergies, the process of working out what she was actually allergic to, and how she mitigates it.  On top of what the children had found out themselves and presented before Sarah spoke, it became a very powerful discussion.

Consequently, whenever Sarah came into the school afterwards, the children were very aware of what was hazardous to her and would warn her if there was long grass, pollen, an animal or a particular food within the school that day.  That is imbedded learning!

One of the bonuses of doing these inquiries was the family learning that happened.  Mums and Dads would get engaged in the process, and when I would see them at the school gate or the supermarket or elsewhere I would hear the back stories of the projects and how they learnt together.

These inquiry projects bring amazing learning into the class, but I pick and choose whether or not every class can cope with this on top of the basic home learning of reading, spelling and basic facts.  For some classes it is an extra option, with usually the go-getters attempting it.

So lets look at the for and against arguments for homework:

The Benefits

  • The first benefit of homework is that it allows students and teachers to work more closely together. 
  • The second benefit is that it can bring families closer together as students may ask their parents or siblings for help on their homework; it will also allow parents to get more involved in their child's educational life.
  • Thirdly, doing homework will prepare students for the big end tests and also provides students with the opportunity to practice at what it takes to be successful in school.
  • Doing homework is also a great way to develop responsibilities;, that it has to be done by the next day.
  • And finally it allows parents to see how their children are being educated and they can develop a better idea of how they can help their child.

The Potential Harm

  • The first reason that children should not be given homework is that they need time to relax and take their minds off work, and they need time to refresh their minds and bodies.
  • Secondly, it reduces the amount of time that children could be spending with their families.
  • Thirdly, homework can cause conflict between children and parents when the parent wants to the child to do their homework but meets resistance from the student to do an overwhelming task.
  • Too much homework can encourage cheating because children end up copying off one another in an attempt to finish all their assignments. They then end up being rewarded for cheating which doesn't benefit them at all.
  • And finally, a lot of teachers don't often have the time to grade papers properly as they are too busy with designing lesson plans and consulting teaching resources in order to just manage lessons. So by the time students are getting their papers back, the class has moved on to a new topic.

The above summary comes from a post called 5 Reasons Kids Need Homework and 5 Reasons They Don't.  Even though it is a bit Americanised, it does ring true to many ideas around homework in New Zealand.

This New Zealand teacher at her blog site Learning My Way has put some thought into it.  Kerri discusses why teachers give homework in her post The continuing debate about homework... and explains how her beliefs have changed and what she does in her homework programme.  In her post Yeah, yeah, yeah... talking homework again! Kerri discusses the results of surveying her students' parents about homework and what sort of home learning programme she runs.

The subject of whether or not to give out homework and what homework should consist of will always be a subject of debate and vexation.  And I will stick to my original assertion, I can live without homework, but I know the benefits of homework and I know the basics work to support in class learning and progress.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Celebrating some of the extras at a country school!

I grew up in the country, attending two small rural schools (with two classes) until going to a big city high school with 1200+ students.  I've spent most of my teaching career in small rural schools with 2-5 classrooms and most of the time it has been wonderful.  So I wanted to celebrate in this post what I love about rural education.

School Gardens:
Most schools have them now, but the difference between a town school and a country school is how they come about.  Most town schools are big enough to have a grounds keeper/caretaker, who often take an active role in the gardens and help construct and maintain them.  At the school in these photos below, apart from the lawnmower contractor, there is no grounds keeper.  All work on the gardens is down by parent volunteers and working bees. 

At some point, prior to my arrival at the school, gardens had been put in.  In my second year there, a parent and I decided to work together with my class to make the gardens even more special.  The children did quite a bit of the construction themselves, but when it came to getting those blue barrels to stay put, we got a local farmer with building experience and his son to come in and help problem solve that one.

Agricultural Day:
Agricultural Day, also known as Ag Day, Calf Club and Pet Day, is a highlight of the school year for me.  I had eight years of taking a calf to Calf Club as a child, and along with the fond memories of a warm, snuggly calf and lots of ribbons, I also remember my mum nagging me to go out and feed her and brush her.

On the day there are kids proudly showing of their calves, lambs and goats.  You can tell the kids with the great love for their animals as they take them for walks around the grounds or hang out with them where they are tied up, ensuring they eat and drink.  There is also the raffles, the cake stalls, the sausage sizzle, the over consumption of fizzy drink, the excitement of seeing ribbons handed out and the odd run away pet.

I like to know that the children in my class know their animals well and how to look after them, so I always give out this homework project leading up to the day.  Here are two of the projects that stood out to me one year.

Flower Show:
When I was a child we also had Flower Show day with Calf Club.  So the day before the Calf Club we would bring bucket loads of flower arranging bits and pieced to school and try to enter everything possible.  The next day, after tying up our calves, we would rush into the classroom to check out if we had won any prizes. 

Flower Shows are slowly becoming a thing of the past, but a few years ago I was at a school who did one, and thankfully not the day before Calf Club.

Some of the categories include:
  • unusual container
  • egg cup posie
  • buttonhole
  • sand saucer
  • miniature garden
  • flower in a jar
  • fruit and vegetable creature
Some schools also include sections for baking of specific items.

A Day at the Snow:
At some schools it is becoming an annual fixture to have a day at the snow.  It gives some children the opportunity to see snow for the first time.  For other children it gives them the chance to try out skiing or snowboarding, and those who have been before to extend and build on what they know.

Three years ago the school I was at planned a whole school excursion for the day to Whakapapa on Mt Ruapehu.  A fair chunk of the school went.  I will tell you straight up that I do not ski or snowboard, and given I have the dodgiest ankle and knew due to netball injuries I did not get treated for properly when I was very young and bullet proof, I did not even attempt skiing.  However, some of the mums and kids and I had fun riding the chairlift, making snowmen and snow angels, and sampling all the cafes.  And as you can see, I did occasionally take a photo.

Shows that come to school:
We get some hard case shows.  This one was Rosie the Cow from Dairy NZ I think.  Half of our students at this school came from dairy farms, the other half from sheep and beef farms and contractors.  At rural schools the visiting performers are really important because for some schools it is quite a trek to get into a theatre performance.

Guy Fawkes Day:
When I was a kid the communities of the schools I went to had a family Guy Fawkes evening.  It had a bonfire and families could bring a guy to put on it.  The dads would set off the fireworks.  And back in my day, we had Tom Thumbs and Double Happies, and if we were lucky the paddock had been freshly eaten out by cows who had left a lot of fresh cow dung on the ground which was ripe for exploding with a Double Happy and some poor unsuspecting parent with their back to the dung which showered them. 

Alas, we no longer have Tom Thumbs or Double Happies, but there is the odd community that still carries on the tradition of the family Guy Fawkes evening.

In the spirit of that, the community I was in a few years ago inspired us to have a Guy Making Day.  We set the kids up in teams and parents came to help and there was an awful lot of problem solving that took place.  We had two judges (a husband of a teacher and an ex-pupil who loves coming back to help out) and a really fun day.

By the way, not all the guys were burned - some of the kids couldn't bear to see their creations go up in smoke that weekend.

Kids for Kids Choir:
When I was a kid, there were music festivals held in two of the two towns closest to our school at the intermediates.  All the schools in the district practised and practised and then gave two or three performances as one large choir.

Scoot ahead to my grown up years, and this did not happen anymore.

But then World Vision and Suzanne Prentice came up with Kids for Kids Choir.  The resources are sent out to the school, the teachers school the kids up on the songs, and then we perform with many other schools for a night after a practise held during the day.  I've had this experience with three different schools now and it always is spectacular.

And the thing about doing this in a small rural school is that even the five year olds are involved (and they look so cute trying to stay awake on stage)!

Celebrating the Chiefs:
The great thing about being in a small rural school is the flexibility you have.  So when the Chiefs got into the final of the Super 15 the other year, we thought we should show them that we supported them.  So we spent a morning making posters and face painting each other and wearing our Chiefs colours.  It was fun.

We also sent letters to the Chiefs the following year to continue to show that we supported them.

Now I may have history of being a little obsessed with rugby, because one year the whole school went to the Waikato Rugby NPC Open Day to compete in the Mooloo Song competition (which we won and some of the team and One News visited our school as a result) and another time 80% of our school went to Waikato Stadium to watch the All Black Captain's Run (we got autographs and photos)!  It's all about creating memories and pride in supporting your team.

Logging Truck Safety:
Being a kid in a rural locality has its dangers.  Farms are hazardous places and so are the roads.  My last school was offered the opportunity to educate the students about logging trucks.  So we learnt how many wheels they have, how big the motor is, how heavy the truck and the loads are, and how long it will take a logging truck to brake to a stop.

This is just a snap shot of the awesome experiences rural education can have for students, teachers and families.  It is just one aspect of why I love teaching in country schools so much.