Sunday, August 29, 2010

Where am I now?

When students come back to my class in August, I have the luxury of knowing where they left off in June. Either they were in my own classroom, or they were in the classroom of my evil twin working on coordinated assignments and assessments which let me know exactly what they know. It's fun to meet them on the first day with feedback of where they were and how to set goals for the first two weeks-hit the ground running.

So now we are entering week 3 (2nd full week) and it's time for the students to start setting their own goals. For several years I've been working toward having students evaluate their own performance toward mastery and set goals for how to achieve the next level, and we are making a dent. On Friday, the students took a self-test, evaluated it themselves and set goals with specific tasks that will help them get there. And my job, this week, is to help them get it in motion.

Let me be more specific. 8th grade Latin students must know noun endings in order to determine the use of a noun in order to put it in the right place in a sentence in order to determine the meaning of the sentence. (yes, this can work in the opposite direction too, which is the trick). Students figure out how much they know and where the gaps are. Then, I have to provide the practice, steer them to the right one, and help them measure their growth.

I've consulted "On Common Ground"'s section on Assessment for Learning, pp. 76-77, and was fortified by two statements: "Use. . . assessments in collaboration with students to track improvement over time." and "Assessment promotes growth and then verifies it." I'm convinced that students who develop the ability to assess their own performance in middle school will have a distinct advantage in the future. And I'm all about Latin providing all the advantages that it can.

So, after they evaluated their performance we had some basic-middle-advanced discussions and the goals are, certainly, mixed in how useful they are. How am I going to hone this skill? Okay, first, I'm going to send them to the right practice in wordchamp. Second, I'm going to have to use a simple hand-made chart in the classroom for awhile. Third, I'm delving into how blackboard can help me create groups that have a common goal and organize students into smaller learning communities.

I'm asking lots of questions of other teachers in my plc, including you all, and am looking forward to making a big dent!

On a lighter note, gaping void has become a daily destination for me! I urge you to check out the thoughtful cartoonist Hugh MacLeod!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Back to School 2010! Do your Homework!

Homework! What do I think of homework? Well, first, let's make a few provisions:
1. Homework should reinforce student learning with the necessary practice to master concepts.
2. Homework should offer students feedback on how they are progressing.
3. Homework should give the instructor information about how to help the student.
4. Homework should be timely and not a time-waster.
5. Homework should NEVER be a penalty.

I LOVE homework. This kind of homework is a wonderful tool for me as a teacher and in the last few years I've made some changes that completely altered how I and my students feel about it.

First, the homework that I assign is "outsourcing" and that means tasks that can be done outside of class to give the necessary repetition of items for a student to master a skill. After a few practices in class only a fraction need the drill and kill. The rest should not suffer.

Second, the homework is due within a window of time-meaning that the students have the assignment several days ahead and can fit the homework into their schedules. This is especially great for vocabulary that needs to be mastered within a certain time period. And the rate of completion goes up to close to 100% when the middle school student learns that she can choose to do it on Tuesday after soccer or Wednesday before watching TV. What a great skill for students to learn! In the real world adults have deadlines and set their timelines, and this is how children learn the skill of time management.

Third, the students can see exactly how having done the practice improves their performance. "Gee, because I had practiced and used the feedback to learn I helped my team in class win points on the challenge questions. Hmmmm. Maybe this is cause and effect?"

Thinking hard about good homework assignments isn't easy, but the payoff is HUGE. Students who are meeting expectations on time and are ready to learn at each step makes my job of planning much easier. When the student isn't succeeding, I can address it quickly, provide opportunities to catch up and they are then back with the class having a great experience. The stress level has gone down considerably for everyone involved (parents have noticed), and students are willing to take risks because they know if they fall down, they won't be left behind and trampled.

What set me off about homework anyway? The fantastic book, The Art and Science of Teaching by Robert Marzano. His discussion brings many studies into the question (Good and Brophy; Cooper; Bennet, Finn and Cribb; Epstein) but the bottom line is this: "Small amounts of well-structured homework. . . may produce the desired effect."