Rigor without homework? Five good reasons

I’ve been experimenting with a monumental shift in my homework policy. My original policy had been in place since I started teaching in 1993: students typically had homework Monday – Thursday nights with occasional long-term projects. When choosing and deisgining homework activities, I did almost everything right, according to the research that does exist about best practices in homework: it was not busy work; it was clearly related to both the content of the lesson in class and the objectives on which students would be assessed later; it was not excessively long; and students had access to a variety of resources to help them complete it. Everything was right…except that there is mounting research that homework has no effect on student achievement.

In mid-fall, I made a paradigm shift and did away with virtually all of my homework assignments (see earlier post). Now that I have been working without regular homework for several months, it is time to analyze, reflect and decide if this approach is proving valuable for teaching and learning. And the answer is a resounding yes–yes it is valuable.

That is not to say that there haven’t been some difficulties along the way. The biggest issue is that it now takes me longer to complete the teaching, practice, reflection cycle with my students because almost all of the practice now has to fit into classtime (and because I’m still not ready to completely “flip” my instruction and have my students try to teach themselves at home….more on that in a separate post). So it appears we are going much slower than in the past.

But that is it. The only negative. The only “con” to this approach. Are there benefits? Absolutely.

  1. Students are completing almost 100% of the practice activities now. Before, some students (the “best” students) did all of the practice. Now ALL students are doing  ALL of the practice. Research shows that the majority of students don’t choose to “neglect” homework, but rather that they don’t complete it because they don’t think they understand the material well enough to bother trying. By doing the work in class students can get immediate assistance from their peers or from me. This minimizes their mistakes in general, it almost eliminates fossilization of errors, and it maximizes quality practice that reinforces correct usage/application of the content in their brains.
  2. Assessment scores have increased across the board. My current students are scoring higher than ever on their various assessments (and I’ve been teaching for 23 years). Although this is not a scientific study, I do have some basis for comparison since I actually teach the same students year after year. This is one of the joys and benefits of teaching French: I love how well I know my students and the community that develops within our room as relationships are given the opportunity to grow over several years.
  3. Students are asking for help more often and students are also serving as in-class resources, helping each other. I’ve always had my students sit in groups. This is a language class after all, and I would like their speaking environment to be as natural as possible. I always thought the students would help each other and that would be a side benefit of seating them in groups, but this is the first year that such peer-to-peer assistance has been commonplace. Better still, the students are learning about each others’ strengths, and I’ve heard all of my students contribute positively to the success of at least one other student by helping–no matter how “low” the student may appear to be.
  4. When students complete independent practice, they are ready to do it at home, without their peers or teacher nearby–and they are still getting it right! I don’t assign as much of this as perhaps I should, and this will be an area of growth for me as I continue to work with this new approach.
  5. Students are generally more confident in class. In fact, French 3 is handling authentic literature with a degree of comfort and enthusiasm I have never seen before!

Too often, the homework assigned is busy work or it is students being expected to teach themselves. And even when the homework is relevant, it is often assigned too early in the learning process, which leads to many students feeling like it is pointless to even try the activity. Students need “guided practice”, which means that they need opportunities to practice (and play) with new material with the support of teachers, aides and peers before they can progress to “independent practice.” Guided pracitce is typically what is assigned for homework, often in a worksheet format. Most guided practice activities have only one right answer. We know that we need to move students away from this and towards open-ended, independent practice. But that doesn’t mean we skip guided practice: it is an essential part of the learning process. The students’ success with guided practice activities are the barometer by which we (and the students themselves) judge whether or not they are ready to work more actively and deeply with the material outside of the confines of our rooms and the support structures of our presence.


What to do with all those sticky notes?

Here are just some ideas: this page opens immediately when you install Evernote

My desk is covered in sticky notes. Correction: both my home desk and my work desk are covered in sticky notes. I also have sheets of papers with to-do lists, files for various projects, “stackers” holding things I am supposedly working on, etc., etc. A while ago a colleague mentioned an app called “stickynote” so I started looking around the app store for it. He liked it because it works a bit like mobile cork board; you put your note on a digital sticky note and put it on the board. I wasn’t that impressed (because I realized that I needed even more organization to my notes), so I looked around and stumbled upon “Corkboard”. It’s pretty similar except that it syncs to all devices that have “Corkboard” installed so that I can see my sticky notes on both my phone and my iPad.

I used it a couple of times. I smiled when I noticed that the sticky note I had added to my iPad showed up on my iPhone. And then I never used it again. Good thing it was free. It didn’t really improve my organizational skills the way I had hoped.

I wasn’t really looking for a replacement, but I follow a lot of professional associations on Facebook and Twitter and and I happened across a post from ISTE featuring a blog in which the author proclaimed his love for Evernote. After reading the article, I could see why: Evernote allows you to note anything anytime, anywhere and have all of your notes always available on any internet-capable device. Notes can be organized into categories, and you can even download an addiional feature that will automatically create notes out of any Tweets that you favorite: just think….no more scrolling through your old

Directions for linking Evernote and Twitter

tweets to find that resource you had stumbled across several months ago (I actually was just doing that this morning–no joke!!!).

But I was even more impressed when I got to the end of the blog post and saw the comments from others who were already using Evernote, and using it to engage their students in very meaningful ways. Now I’m hooked.

Time to end the post….I need to download Evernote to every device!

Just starting to scratch the surface of the projects I'm working on!

3Rs…low tech

I found myself thinking about the fact that when I prepared the video on the theme of “classroom innovation” for my application for the Google Teacher Academy (as of this writing, Google has not yet notified applicants as to whether or not they have been selected), I spent almost my entire 60 seconds talking about Web 2.0 tools I use–and more importantly, my students use–in my classes. I suppose this makes sense given the focus of the teacher academies, but I began to wonder if perhaps the focus on technology caused me to fall into the same trap that so many other teachers fall into, a sort of false equation: technology + students = innovative.

Don’t get me wrong…I absolutely LOVE technology, especially the use of Web 2.0 tools to take my students’ work and perspectives out of the classroom and help them truly interact with the viewpoints and perspectives of others. I just wonder if I put too strong an emphasis on technology as a factor in innovation as opposed to technology as one of many tools to use in the innovative classroom. Furthermore, just who was being innovative in my video? The students? Myself? Or no one? When we talk about innovation in education, what’s really important?

When using Google’s “define” search parameter, the definition of “innovative” is as follows:

  1. (of a product, idea, etc.) Featuring new methods; advanced and original.
  2. (of a person) Introducing new ideas; original and creative in thinking: “an innovative thinker”.

Where in the definition is the use of technology? Are some teachers (and others) assuming that students using technology is automatically innovative? Are other methods and approaches that don’t use technology being relegated to “less innovative” as a result? Are our students and community members also connecting innovative with technology, perhaps at the exclusion of innovative thinking or innovative creation that is accomplished without the use of Web 2.0 tools?

What makes an approach (with or without tech) innovative? How does innovation connect to “rich, relevant and rigorous”? The definition above helps with the first question: New methods, advanced, original, creative. Of course, that makes me wonder if anything I do is truly innovative. I don’t think I do anything that’s new….I strive to apply the best methods, activities, and assessments to my instruction at all times. I keep my eyes open to ideas, resources, and strategies that may not normally be associated with world language teaching, but they are ultimately ideas, resources and strategies that others have proposed.

Perhaps the subject-specfic skills maps from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills can be of some assistance in pushing forward the conversation on innovation in the classroom. Although the use of a variety of technologies and media is reference throughout the world language 21st century skills map, a quick look at the “then and now” page, highlights the truly “supporting role” nature of technology.

Technology plays a key role, but not the only role, in the rich, relevant and rigorous 21st century classroom

Many of the characteristics listed in how languages are taught in the best classrooms “today” coincide with strategies associated with “innovative” teachers and programs: assessment for learning; authentic assessment for audiences beyond the classroom and the teacher; interdisciplinary instruction, practice and assessment; instruction that is truly crafted to achieve the desired results (“backwards design”), etc. Technology is an important support and media literacy is a critical skill our students need, but it’s clearly only a piece of the innovation puzzle.

The other day in my advanced French class, we analyzed the lyrics to a classic French song, watched a short film made using the song more than five decades later, and then students connected their own definitions of love (crafted using the song lyrics) to the chapters they were reading in a French novel–first after reading one of two chapters about the relationship of the two characters, and then after getting more information in the second chapter. Other than using a projector to show the video, there was no technology in this lesson.

Was it innovative? Perhaps. Using the definition above, it approached the song, the film based on the song and the novel (which was written before the song) in a new and hopefully creative way. The lesson was rich in content: not only French (as the academic content requiring students to use their linguistic proficiency to understand and respond to multiple authentic documents), but also in connections to literary analysis from their language arts classes and standards in the visual and performing arts. It was also relevant to students, all high school sophomores, juniors and seniors who have had and witnessed various types of relationships and definitions of “love”. Relevancy was further enhanced by the exploration of a theme across several decades, including one interpretation in 2004. And because the song, the film and the novel were all originally created by (and are all well-known among) native French speakers, students viewed, analyzed and discussed the same material native French speakers also experienced, thus giving the American students insight into cultural products and perspectives that monolingual English speakers cannot access. What about rigor? Linguistically, the lesson was quite rigorous: it demanded extensive application of the linguistic concepts across the years the students have been studying the language. It would have been even more rigorous if I had connected this particular lesson to an authentic assessment, but later the students will be completing a student-created museum with exhibits about the novel, its themes, and the author.

Another blogger talked about the curiosity box: a box in which he places random objects for students to use when analyzing a concept. Students pull an object out the box and must find a way to make and explain a connection between that object and the concept they are studying. I first learned about this approach several years ago. At the presentation I attended, it was called a synectic summary. Students love it–I use it to help them make and express connections between authentic art and literature, music and literature, or to create a richer, more meaningful analysis of current events from French-speaking cultures around the world. If innovation and creativity are inextricably linked, we must find more opportunities to push students’ thinking beyond bubbles, lines and text boxes, and into creativity generators, like the curiosity box. We must go beyond being innovative ourselves to help students see connections where they had never thought to look before so that they will become innovative thinkers and leaders. We can model innovation, but students must practice innovation. Technology may help, but it is not required.