Thinking about Improving Homework

Thanks Terry Heick and TeachThought for publishing this recent post on June 20, 2016.

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The end of the school year can be challenging with so many changes occurring: the weather, spring sports, weeks of standardized testing, field trips and other activities lead to oftentimes, chaotic schedules.  These changes can decrease motivation in students and in some cases, teachers as well, and result in a feeling that the school year is over before it really is.

I notice this gradual transformation each year, and do my best to mix things up, to keep learning going, and to stay strong until the end.  This year seemed to be a more challenging year, although I cannot pinpoint why, but as I mentioned in my prior post, I decided to do something about it. I made the decision to try some new methods, reevaluate how I have been doing things in my classroom, and what could I be doing better.

The last grading period has been a time to test out some new tools, give students new opportunities, more choices and be a little less structured, allowing for some spontaneity in our learning.  So as part of my “staying strong till the finish”, after mixing up the seating arrangements and receiving positive responses, I shifted my focus to a new area:  Homework

What Is Homework, Anyway?

Recently I have been giving a lot of thought to homework.  My focus has been on really looking at the types and the frequency of assignments I give.  Over the past few years, I have changed my thinking and tried to move away from a “one size fits all” assignment and move toward a more personalized, authentic assignment.  There have been several reasons for this change in thought.

Hearing from other educators at conferences, input from my students, and as a language teacher, also having to find ways to avoid student use of translators for assignments. These experiences, in addition to a little frustration from homework not being completed, have led me to really try some new methods in this area.

Some of the areas I considered when thinking about homework were: the types of assessments I use in my classroom, my students, the frequency of homework completion, the type of homework, and even more closely, a look at the individuals within each group of students that I am teaching.  My goal is to continue to reflect on whether or not the type of instruction and the strategies I am using, are beneficial to them and if the homework I assign truly has value and builds their skills, or is it just busy work. A lot of the discussion out there now is about getting rid of homework assignments and traditional grading.

Why I Decided To Do Something Different

I have been teaching foreign languages for almost 20 years, and I notice how quickly time has passed, when I find myself teaching a concept and I feel like I just taught the same thing the day before. This “déjà vu” experience leads me to think about the progress I am making with the curriculum in the current school year, and how I have paced my instruction throughout the year. But what I have come to realize more this year than any other, is that it should not be the goal to be at the same point at the same time each year. In my mind, that simply should not be how it goes.

I think a lot of people consider teaching as a profession in which the same plans are used, lessons are taught at the same pace, the same assignments and tests are given each year. If we truly did that, then the profession of teaching would seem to be a rather easy and predictable one. However, that is not the way it is.

I had a conversation with someone that thought teachers simply used the same exact materials each year, with each class, and that teaching was a really easy profession.  This conversation bothered me, and the last part about it being “easy” really hit me. So this inspired me to think about my teaching practice.  What materials I was I using in class? How was I providing instruction for my students and was I using the same resources each year with each class?  Had I been doing the same thing in my classroom every year?  Did I simply pull out a folder to make copies or open up a computer to reprint what I had used each of the 19 years prior to this one?

Honestly, sometimes yes. I had. I had used the same worksheet, or a document for a part of a test over the years.  I hadn’t done this because I was lazy.  In some cases it was for providing a quick activity or assessment, and others it was because I thought the materials were valuable and would help the students to learn.

Thinking About Homework In Your Classroom

Ask yourself these same questions.  What do you come up with?  If you have been doing the same thing, then maybe it is time to make a few changes.  Think about what would work best for and help your students.  This means more than just looking at each individual class, it means really looking at the needs of each individual student.  To do this requires that we get to know our students, and to know our students means we have to build relationships and understand where they’re coming from and what they’re interested in doing in class.

What helps them to learn the best?  What do they want and need from us?  So I decided to use this as an opportunity to take a bit of a risk and try some new methods during this final grading period. It made sense because then I could really think about it over the summer and start fresh in the fall.

The first homework experiment

Students have a lot of homework and I do believe in the value of homework.  It is the way we help students to practice and figure out what they know and what they don’t know and how they can become better. It is one of many ways teachers can assess students and learn about their needs, provide instruction and valuable feedback.  But I’ve changed my thinking about homework.  I used to think that I had to give students homework every day.  And I also thought that homework had to be the same for each student and each class. In part, my methods were a result of the experience I had as a high school student.  I decided to change the daily homework assignments and make things more personal,  let the students determine for themselves what they could do for homework, and have choices.

Just as a start, I assigned each student to be the teacher for the next class period.   With a partner for example, we are working on the past tense in Spanish and in pairs, I let the students decide which verb tense they would like to teach their partner.  The homework was to simply come to class the next day with a way to teach their partner the verbs.  I said it could be something tangible in the form of a worksheet or any activity that they found, a website, a video, a game, or another resource. It really did not matter to me as long as whatever they had they could use in class and they could teach.

I believed that in the process the students would learn more and also develop collaborative learning skills.

What Did The Students Think?

While they taught, I moved around to interact with each group to see what it was they had prepared. There were worksheets found online, worksheets that students created, handwritten pages of notes, flashcards, some had found websites with games and others had found videos or had created a Kahoot or Quizizz game for their partner to play. But what was most important was that they sought out resources, they had an opportunity to teach someone else and their homework was personalized not only for them, but also for other students. It went well and they were enjoying it and learning.

I will admit that I was nervous about doing this.  Not requiring a specific form or product for each student to show in class, and being open to any format the students brought in, was very different. It was a risk. But I was amazed at how creative they were, how engaged each group was, and the variety of “homework” that had been done.

Student feedback is very important for me and I value their input and regularly engage them in informal conversations or will have them complete a survey.  I want to know their thoughts. What did they like?  What did they not like?  Did they learn? Was this an effective way to practice the material we were covering in class?  We spent two days doing this first assignment, so each person could teach.  And then I had them switch groups, and teach again.  The end result was that students were teachers, the learning was personal, they were engaged, felt valued, and the experience was meaningful and beneficial to their learning.

It is a risk and when you don’t necessarily have the whole plan set out, and you just kind of go with it, you might be surprised at the results.  Giving the students control, seeing their interactions, and knowing that this homework was the type that was beneficial to each of them, encouraged me to continue to find new ways to give more classroom control to the students.  Giving up some control is not always easy, but in doing this, it opens up more opportunities for facilitating learning, providing individualized instruction and building those relationships which are the foundation of education.

Using Technology To Help Students Lead Their Own Learning

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Using Technology To Help Students Lead Their Own Learning

 

by Rachelle Dene Poth

Technology provides ways for students to learn anywhere and at any time, and affords the possibility of providing learning at a pace that is comfortable for each student.

Teachers can teach students from inside the traditional classroom, “the brick-and-mortar” as it is called, or from other places anywhere around the world. Lessons can be pre-recorded and shared or streamed live, and students can access these types of tools at any time and refer back to them as needed. The availability of tools which lend themselves to more interaction between the teacher and the students–and the content can continue, in the mind of the student, to grow.

There are many options available and the best part is that with so many choices, it is possible to find something that meets the needs of each class and each student. Using digital tools provides more differentiation and personalized learning, and can provide opportunities for the students to take on the role of teachers and to create their own lesson and lead. Students can create with these tools and share lessons with the class, thereby increasing the resources available to all students. Or simply use the opportunity to become the creator, as a way to help them learn the material in a more meaningful and authentic way.

They Can Learn Anytime, Anywhere

The use of technology can mean that learning is no longer confined to the traditional time and setting of the classroom. In this way, it opens up the learning environment to anytime, anywhere–and at a pace that is comfortable for the students as well.

Teachers and students can access so many resources to teach the content and to help understand and then apply the knowledge they have gained. And when students are given choices in how to show what they have learned, they are more likely to be engaged and excited for learning. They will feel valued, and the lesson and learning will be more meaningful because it has been made personal to them. Given support, students can find resources that meet their needs, and teachers can also use these resources to find out what the student needs are.

With the multiple ways to assess students using digital tools today, teachers can have the data instantly, through live results, and can provide feedback to students when they need it the most. Students can take this information and then build on their own skills, and when they can’t or choose not to, you know where to start when helping them and their families growing as master learners.

It Give Them Choices

The timing and quality of learning feedback is critical for growth to happen. Students can also make choices about what types of activities they want to use and therefore are more empowered in their learning and can self-direct. If you give some of the control and leave the decision making to students to choose how to show what they have learned, or let them design their own homework assignment, they have the chance to be more empowered, and build momentum that can endure after the unit is over.

Giving students opportunities to work with each other and take on a new role, such as that of a teacher, enables you to also provide more one-on-one feedback. Teachers can become more of a facilitator and move around the classroom and learn more about the students and their needs, and also build relationships in the process. Relationships are key to student growth, and choice can be a significant boost here.

It Can Help Them Find Resources More Relevant To Them

One of the advantages of digital tools is that it can make some things more accessible; anytime, anywhere access to information, past work, groups, experts, and more are not the only benefit of technology. The resources and materials have more of an opportunity to stay up-to-date, and there are many so choices that each student can find something that is relevant to them.

 

Using Technology To Help Students Lead Their Own Learning; adapted image attribution flickr user sparkfunelectronics

Student voices, learners become leaders

Empowering Students To Find The Best Resources For Them

May 23, 2016  – Shared on the Formative Community Forum

By Guest Author Rachelle Dene Poth

HS French and Spanish Teacher Rachelle Dene Poth argues for more student voice, choice, and leadership when finding the right materials for every student. One of her students, Cassy, a 9th grader in Spanish I, reflects on what she’s learned from that experience.

Resources Are Everywhere: Where Do We Start?

Teachers work hard to find diverse resources to help students learn. Supplemental materials can be found in textbooks and other resources, through a quick search online or implementation of teacher-created or student-made materials.  An online search will result in a tremendous list of resources which includes webpages, images, documents, videos, and other media formats for a teacher to choose from. It seems simple enough, but it really isn’t quite that simple.  The challenge is finding the right resource for each student.  Being able to do this requires more than just conducting a simple online search. It requires that we truly know our students and understand their needs. Students do not all respond the same way when it comes to learning and feedback and developing these relationships will help teachers to provide the best learning opportunities.  Finding something that will enable each student to have an opportunity to grow, receive personal feedback, to experience learning multiple ways, is something that teachers strive to provide for their student.

Choosing Tech Tools For Students Is A Good Starting Point…But What’s The Next Step?

Technology offers many ways for teachers to differentiate instruction through digital tools. The number of tools and the features available changes every day. Finding something that works for everyone may take a little bit of time, and it involves some risk taking, flexibility and reflection to truly find what works best for each student.  And while teachers are good at determining what might work best for their students, it is important to hear from the students themselves.  Asking the students directly what helps them to learn better, stay engaged, and feel challenged will enable teachers to differentiate instruction and provide appropriate opportunities for all students.  Student voice in how they learn and their opinion of tools used in the classroom offers the teacher valuable information and different perspectives.  So it is worthwhile to take the time to investigate some tools, ask the students to try new things and then see what they think.

Rachelle's students drawing a watermelon with our "Show Your Work" drawing tool!

Rachelle’s students drawing a watermelon with our “Show Your Work” drawing tool!

Give Them Choices And Let Them Lead

So I wanted to know, what do students get from the choices they are given? Does it make a difference?  What helps the students to learn?  A few years ago I started giving the students different options for how to complete a project or an assignment. Other times,  rather than assigning a worksheet for  homework, they had other options such as creating a game, participating in a classroom discussion online, or even the use of blogging, all which made learning more personalized and meaningful for each student. I value the feedback that I receive from the students and when I try something new, I always want to know what they think of it. In order to learn more about student needs, I decided to have one of my students become the teacher, create a lesson using Formative, and share their thoughts about the new experience and the benefits.

Student Perspective On Edtech: Cassy Becomes The Teacher

Cassie getting ready to show tech tools that help her learning "catapult".

Cassie getting ready to show tech tools that help her learning “catapult”.

Cassy: I believe technology is an important part of learning and is a great asset to teachers and to students. Technology allows students to have the freedom to choose how to do projects, homework assignments or other classroom activities. This freedom allows students to thrive and do the best they can. I know that I love the process of finding a new website, game, project or teaching tool that I can use to help my learning catapult. It is also fun to explore the possibilities of technology and what it offers me. I can be creative and innovative. Classes which integrate technology are completely different than those which do not, because they provide more opportunities for students to learn.
Formative is a great example of the infinite possibilities technology can offer students and teachers.Documents, websites, pictures, questions and drawings are integrated into this program which allows for differentiation and creativity in various ways. Also, many people can participate in one formative assignment. The teacher or creator of the formative can see individual responses and work with the student one on one and provide personal feedback. Formative creates an effective learning experience while keeping a fun atmosphere.
On May 16th, 2016, I participated with other students in the PAECT (Pennsylvania Association for Educational Communications and Technology) student technology showcase, where students from Pennsylvania showed how they use technology to its fullest potential. I made my own Formative and allowed others to try it, and highlighted all of the different uses and how effective it is for education. I enjoyed sharing how a digital tool like Formative can provide different learning activities, enhance how students learn and how teachers can teach.

"Formative is a great example of the infinite possibilities technology can offer students and teachers."- Cassie

“Formative is a great example of the infinite possibilities technology can offer students and teachers.”- Cassie

Why Having Tech Available In The Classroom Matters

I feel that making students turn off their phones or computers is not fair and is not smart choice. Teachers do that for their benefit, not for the students. The current  generation of students is extremely involved and knowledgeable about technology. If all teachers could dive into the world of technology and understand its importance, significance and benefits, and then take the time to explore new ways to integrate some technology into class, it would make a huge difference in a student’s learning experience. I don’t know why more teachers don’t use technology to teach because it is a way to get the students more involved in the learning material.

What Do Students Want?

I want teachers to empower, engage and inspire me. I want teachers to give me the freedom to be creative while I am learning. I want teachers to make learning relevant to my time, and my life experience. Technology is the way to do that, to get students involved. It allows me to have my own voice and learn in the way that is best for me. I do not want to be held back from the infinite possibilities that technology offers any longer.

Student Voices: Listen To What They Say

Rachelle: It is clear that students have opinions about technology and its benefits.  Having choices in how to learn, being exposed to different learning tools and styles, and receiving feedback are all benefits of technology integration and ones which positively impact students.  When they have opportunities to work with technology and choose how they learn, including them in the conversation and asking for feedback empowers students even more. Since students are the group most affected by the technology used in the classroom, we need to hear what they have to say.

Staying strong to the end of the year! Thanks Teach Thought

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The Year Is Almost Over. Don’t Miss The Opportunities.

by Rachelle Dene Poth

As the final grading period sets in, it’s hard to not look forward to summer vacation, having days where we don’t have any particular place to be or tasks to attend to, but we have to remind ourselves to keep our focus, stay motivated, and keep up that momentum until the finish. Too many days can be lost as a result of changes in schedules, standardized testing or any number of things that can take away from the valuable class time at the end of the year. There are many factors that can lead students and teachers to lose momentum such as: nicer weather, school sports, school musicals and activities and the rounds of standardized tests.

Classes, teachers and students can be pulled into many different directions and finding ways to stay engaged, motivated and working right up until the end can be a challenge. I am not saying that I have all of the right answers but I decided to do things a little bit differently for the end of this school year.  I decided to take some risks.  I wanted to try some new things, give the students more control in the classroom, and see what happened.

What brought about this change of mind, change of plans and new perspective?

Lots of things. A combination of finishing out a two-and-a-half-year graduate program for a Master’s in instructional technology, getting involved at education/technology conferences and edcamps, and interacting with people having various roles in these areas and hearing some really great ideas. A lot of my inspiration came from seeing my students involved in a technology showcase and the pride that I felt while watching them taking the lead, advocating for technology use, interested in more opportunities, and my desire to make things better, more interesting and meaningful for them.

So taking a bit of time over the recent spring break, I thought about what had not been going so well, things I might like to try to change or improve upon. I referred to my list of different ideas and tools that I’ve wanted to try in my classroom, but did not have enough time. I wanted to try different ways of doing things I had always done, to see if it made an impact in the classroom. I figured that now was as good a time as any to integrate some new ideas, to seek student input and to change things up a bit.

I thought that the end of the year seemed like a decent time to do this because it could lead to creative and innovative way of trying things, different from how we had done things throughout the year.  And it would provide an opportunity for reflecting over the summer break.

Sometimes change is good and the benefits are seen quickly and sometimes they are not. Worst case scenario in my mind was that the changes I would make and the different methods for enhancing student learning and interactions in class would not end up as I or the students hoped, but in the end, it’s all about learning and growing. And then figuring out what the next steps should be and starting from there. It is about taking risks, evaluating, reflecting and then moving forward. But there has to be a first step.

So if you find yourself feeling like this.  If you are seeking a way to help the students hang in there for the final stretch of the school year or to keep yourself going as well, think about trying something different, that has been on your list. Maybe it is a new classroom setup, or trying a different tool, or some other activity, that will give you just enough time to get some experience, involve the students in the decisions and get their feedback.

Having this information at the end the year can provide some really valuable information, leading you to reflect over the summer. Perhaps you will start off the new school year with these ideas. Worst case scenario is that it doesn’t go as you or the students had planned, and so you use that information to reflect and grow and plan something different or better for the future.

Starting with change number one.

I had a day to think about where I wanted to start.  Was it a specific activity? Or should I try a new tool in class? After some thought, it ended up being the same way I started the school year, creating a new learning space.

I am always trying new ideas, activities, tools and more now with my classes than I have never done before.  In some cases it’s trying out a new idea that I just thought up right before they came in, and in other cases it’s integrating a tool that we had used before, but because of lack of time, did not have opportunities to use recently. Regardless of what you decide, it will be something new and different and just might be that extra spark that you and your students need to stay strong to the finish.

I can give you some examples that have been working for me but again, it’s what you need and what’s best for your students. I will share some additional ideas and how they went in my next post but here are a few simple ideas to consider if the learning space is an area you would like to change.

Can you change around your learning space?  Can students be paired up and then rotate seats every so many days so they have a new partner to work with?  Does your classroom lend itself to movement and flexibility?

I changed the arrangement of my classroom so students would be seated across from each other. I wrote numbers on cards and the day they came to class, I gave each student a number written in Spanish.  They had to put themselves in numerical order and then starting with one, were able to go in and select their seat.  It was a fun activity and the students were really excited about the opportunity to choose their seat and the different setup.  I was nervous because I was not sure how it would all work, but I was willing to give it a try.

So, what happened?

I used the new arrangement as a way to have students work with peers more in cooperative learning activities during class.  This has had many benefits. I am still working through it, but my students like the arrangement and sharing the role of teacher and having opportunities to collaborate more in class.  I had them take on various roles and complete different activities with their partners over the first week. Sometimes it was seated in their group, others it was combining with another group, and a few times we did gallery walks with activities and stations in the classroom.

These are just the first in a series of changes/new ideas that I started with and I will admit, I was a bit hesitant and nervous at first because I did not feel as in control.  I can tell you that each class reacted differently and some reactions initially to the new seats, new methods were not all positive.

So I took this as an opportunity to ask my students for their input, whether in conversations, in writing, or surveys.   I had to set up some expectations and let them know that it was a risk and that it might need adjustments along the way.  After a few days, it worked out and the students have said how much they are enjoying this new experience. And I’ve noticed less students looking at the clock and less counting down the days to the end of school.

As a facilitator more with this arrangement, I have been able to interact more with them, answer individual questions, assess their needs more regularly, and continue to work on the relationships.  So I take these as good signs and what’s even better is that they seem to be making more progress with the material which is an area that is quite difficult for students in Spanish II to master.

So this is an evolving process and I would love to keep you up-to-date to where it goes for the rest of the year. So I leave you with this: think of a class or classes that you have, in which it seems like students need a little something extra.  Find a spark.  Ask them what could help them to learn better, make things more exciting, and then just try something.

Get them up and moving, mix it up, whatever you do it will be new and different and hopefully keep everyone going strong. And don’t give up too soon, give it some time and see what happens.

The Year Is Almost Over. Don’t Miss The Opportunities.; image attribution flickr user vexrobotics