Sunday, October 31, 2010

How can I remember when they are not my memories

At our school we are starting to plan our Remembrance Day Assembly.  We look for meaningful ways to give the students an idea as to what this day means.  Our school, along with many of the schools in my district, has used a great video by A Pittance of Time by Terry Kelly that does a pretty good job of showing why we have our moment of silence.  For the past two years we have brought in veterans, but many of them are elderly.  We try to explain what this day means and why we celebrate it.  We talk about it, we try to show it and we do our best to make them understand it, even though many Canadians are disconnected from what November 11th represents.  Truth be told, I am not certain that I fully understand it.

My closest connection to what this day means is my grand-father.  My grand-father was an amazing man, someone that I miss dearly.  In the last few years before he passed away I developed a very close bond with him that I will cherish forever.  When I look at his life I am constantly amazed.  He was 19 when World War II started and shortly after was captured and would spend the next 5 years of his life in a German POW camp.  When was I the exact same age I was in University unsure of what I was going to do.  I took 5 years to do my BSc., undecided as to what I was going to do next with my life.  I finished my degree and went to work while I tried to figure out the next phase of my life.

My grand-father and I lived very different lives.  While he was on meager rations of food trying to survive, I was hanging out with my friends ordering burgers and chicken wings.  While he struggled to keep his sanity, I was playing video games.  How can I fully appreciate what he, and other men who enlisted or were drafted into the army, went through, even though I benefit from their sacrifices?  The closest I can even come close to some form of understanding what he lived is watching the Omaha Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan when you see the Americans landing and being systematically killed.

When my grand-father passed away my mother was going through his personal effects and came across a journal that he kept during his time in the prison camp.  Towards the end of his journal he was describing his journey as he was been marched daily while in the process of being released at the end of the war. I remember my grand-mother describing his release as she went to the train station every day hoping he would be on that train.  She would wait with mothers and wives.  She would hear children asking their mother, pointing to servicemen as they descended from the train if that was their father as many children had never met their fathers.  She went to the train station daily for a week.  The last page of that journal was the day he got off the train and there was one word written, Suzanne, my grand-mother's name.  His 5 years of hell were over and he was back in his country with the woman that he would marry a few short months later.

My brother and I would try to ask questions about the war, but he would never answer them.  One day my brother found some of his old service gear and asked him about them.  My grand-father avoided the questions and then moved his stuff.  I sometimes wonder if he never told us because if he did, he would have to remember what he went through.  I can't even begin to imagine what he went through.

I live in a free country, where I have the freedom to choose my career and walk into stores that sell products that are far from essential but sure make life enjoyable.  I do not have to live on rations as my family did after the war, walk miles to get my limited amount of coal to heat my home nor sell my worldly possessions to be able to feed myself and my family.  I live in a country that has not had a war on its soil in over a century.  I do not fear being persecuted for my faith, having armed men firing their guns in my streets and children are all expected to go to school.  Most of us are 1, 2 or 3 generations removed from anyone in the family having witnessed war.  I give thanks for those brave men and women who have fought to give us the freedom that I enjoy, and am proud of Canada's continued role in other countries trying to afford them the same freedom and choices I have.

I do what I can to help the students understand something I struggle to understand and fear that I won't do a good enough job.  I worry of having a generation of children who live in the richness of our country and do not understand why we have all that we do.  I will continue to do my best and hope that they understand.  I will spend November 11th thinking of my grand-father, the amazing man he was and give thanks that he was able to come home.  I wonder what my students will be thinking on that day.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

How can I get mad when I did the same thing as a kid?

A few days ago, a couple of my grade 5s were running towards the playground with a monster-sized umbrella.  Looking at the two boys, I knew exactly what they were up to.  I called out "Don't even think about it!"  They looked at me quite befuddled as to how I knew what they were going to do before they even got to playground.  They were planning on climbing to the top of the playground, probably around 7-8 feet high and see if the umbrella would act like a parachute.  How did I know?  Because I did the same thing as a kid, and truth be told, there was a part of me that was very tempted to join them.

Every once in a while I have a student who has been sent to the office.  They tell me the story and I have to stop myself from laughing, or try to act upset, when in the back of my mind I am thinking "Yikes, I did that around that age", or even worse "that sounds like a lot of fun...".  Of course I would never admit it to the kids in the office, but it is always good at a dinner meeting or two to share the story about using sticks as swords, rolling down muddy hills on your side, running on sheets of ice...

A couple of weeks ago I saw a boy wet a paper towel look skywards and was about to launch it towards the ceiling when I happened to check in because I was hearing some noise.  He looked at me, I looked at him, he put it in the trash, apologized and we had a little chat about respect.  In the back of my mind I am thinking, hmmm, grade 7 if I recall.  I had walked into the boys washroom and saw a ton of toilet paper that had been stuck to the ceiling and I started to wonder if paper towel would stick as well as toilet paper.  Now there was a ton of tp on the ceiling and I have some rather cursed luck when it comes to timing.  I launched it at the ceiling and just as I did the custodian came in and saw me throw it, looked at the ceiling and next thing I know I was talking to M. Talmanis, my principal.  The worst part of it was that my mom taught at my school so it did not take long for her to find her way down to the office to join in the fun or berating me for my lack of respect for the school.

A few years ago I had a kindergarten boy in my office because I had heard that he said a bad word.  Usually this consists of idiot, stupid or something like that.  Occasionally they are harsher words.  This boy had been told by a friend of his brother's that there was a word that he could use that was really bad and that it was fun to see people react to him using it, the F bomb.  When I asked him what was it that he had been saying he told me flat out, which caught me off guard, as usually they will just say "the f-word" and not the actual f bomb.  I asked him what made him say that and he told me the story, again dropping the F-bomb when he came to what he had said.  I told him that he should not be using the word anymore but he said that he had to because I told him that he had to tell me truth.  Got me on that one.  How did I relate? I was 4 or 5 when I found out about that word and loved to write it out to get a rise out of other people as well as writing it around the entire perimeter of my bed to the point that when my parents moved my bed they were greeted by that word written many times over.  My mom likes to share that story with people at dinner, although her reaction at the time was not quite as amusing.

I am not trying to justify the "Boys will be boys" attitude, but rather just share the random thoughts that pop into my head.  Every once in a while I look at many of my more intelligent ideas, some of which I can lay blame on my older brother for encouraging me to do it, others were purely of my own creation.  I deal with them appropriately, but every once in a while, after the kids of left, a staff member joins me and we get a good laugh out of it.

examples of not so great ideas:
1) Hanging out of a second floor window because my brother told me that I could easily jump to the ground and hanging from the window sill and screaming until my parents, who were having a dinner party, came up to pull me back in.

2) trying to climb a tree by attaching a rope to a very large rock and only watching to see if the rock went over the branch and not where it was going to land.  Not sure I ever recovered from that concussion as a 6 year old.

3) Being 15 and hell bent on doing a 360 while skiing meant finding a jump that was around 6-7 feet high, flying off of it, only getting around to do a 180 and crashing in the powder.  Then I would get back up and try again.  Never did do a 360, but I did have bruises 360 degrees around me.

4) Playing follow the leader, as a 7 year old, on bikes while crossing a major street (King Edward for those in Vancouver) and somehow only getting a sprained ankle from when the car hit me.

Is being stupid a right of passage for boys, or do we just become smarter about the stupid things that we do?  It does make it easier to see what is about to happen because, more often than not, I either did the same thing of thought of doing the same thing.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sir Ken Robinson, Creativity and Pole Dancing

I had the great fortune of seeing Sir Ken Robinson in person twice this week.  Every time that I hear him, I re-examine my own actions in my school.  His thoughts on creativity are logical and path that we should be following.  Are we educating our children based on the skills that they will need, are we limiting their potential because we have narrow scopes as to what defines a successful student?

I kept on writing down some great quotes, and he is a master of powerful quotes.  He is
brilliantly funny, and some of his tangential comments are hysterical.  I believe that Sir Ken is person who can discuss the fact that dogs cannot pole dance and link it to education and creativity.  He was talking about the settlement patterns of humans, related to soil conditions, water availability, ports and so on, but that Las Vegas made no sense.  Las Vegas is in the middle of a desert with access to very little water and yet has been amongst the fastest growing cities in the United States.  Vegas was created on different principles then had existed before. Vegas -> Pole Dancing -> Dogs can't pole dance only humans can. 

Sir Ken is better in person that on video.  If you have not yet had a chance to see/hear him, you really should take the time.  Here are 3 links to different presentations that Sir Ken Robinson has done.
 Do Schools Kill Creativity
Bring on the Learning Revolution
Changing Education Paradigms

His views on education are bang on.  We seem to try to fit too many square pegs into round holes with many students being asked to follow the same course loads as their neighbour even if that is not the best path for them.  The time limitations are the same, the school year is the same, the blocks of time are the same.  We tend to use the same material with the same strategies even each year the classes are different and the kids are different.  He used a great metaphor that makes perfect sense:  A farmer knows that what made a successful harvest last year will not necessarily make a successful one this year. Conditions change and as those conditions change, they need to adapt to them.  Why are do many classes seem to be the same year in, year out.  Something else he said that brings this point home was that life is not linear but education is.

One of the more powerful comments that I heard was that creativity is a person's birthright.  Everyone is born with huge natural talent.  He defined creativity as putting imagination to work, it is the power to bring to mind things that are not present.  He showed a longitudinal study that measured creativity as the children aged.  When they were kindergarten-aged 98% scored at a genius level on creativity and as they aged the percentage of students who tested in the genius range decreased dramatically.

He often used the term organic, and linked it to culture, and that creativity was never dead but rather dormant.  He brought up Death Valley, the hottest and driest place in North America.  The reason that he discussed this was the fact that a few years ago it received about 7 inches of rain and suddenly, for a short time, flowers bloomed where they hadn't bloomed before.  I felt this was an excellent portrayal of a child's potential.  If you create the right culture in the classroom or at the school then the students will flourish.  Human resources are like natural resources, they are often buried and you have to find them.

He had an opportunity to work with Sir Paul McCartney and discussed Sir Paul's education.  Sir Paul mentioned that he hated music at school.  He and George Harrison, who attended the same school two years behind him, were both told that they had no talent.  Imagine having two members of the Beatles in your music class and not seeing their potential.  Will this continue to happen as we seem to define at schools useful and useless subjects.  If children are denied the arts and denied the opportunities to express themselves differently, how many other amazing people are we crushing?

As he was talking about the segmentation of the school curriculum it really got me thinking.  He mentioned that creative schools have creative timetables and do not separate everything into chunks.  Let's take Language Arts as an example.  Over the course of the year we might teach students poetry, expository writing, descriptive writing and so on.  Yet when it comes to projects and final assignments, how often is it limited to essay style paragraph writing with limited opportunities for the students to freely express their thoughts?  How many times does this occur in Science and Socials?  Do we allow students to write in verse, put together movies or presentations if they are more comfortable or better able to communicate their knowledge in different ways?  There is as much Art in Science as there is Science ad Art.  Why do they have to be segregated?

Sir Ken said that we are living in times of revolution, where things we take for granted are mistakes and things that we believe to be obvious are false.  We are in a crisis of of human resources where we process people in education with a certain type of role.  Students who are "quirky" tend to be shut down, when they try to do things differently they are told that it is wrong.  They begin to fear ridicule and failure.  If kids spend all day at school doing stuff they're not good at, they begin to feel as though they are no good at anything.

He said that great teachers make everything interesting.  If you are engaged, you do not watch the clock, you lose track of time.  He made reference to Ewa Mataya Laurance

He left us with some thoughts to process.  If the environment of the school/class makes a huge difference to how we feel, what changes can we make?  If being born is a miracle, what are we going to do with that miracle?  Lastly he discussed assessment.  He feels that assessment should be looking at the value and originality of the work under specific and relevant criteria.

We were very fortunate to have our Superintendent at our session as well as the BC Minister of Education.  Our Superintendent told us that he will support us in our endeavours to make this happen in our schools.  The challenge for me now is, what changes can I make to create the very environment that he describes.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Waiting for Wolverine

There is so much talk about the movie Waiting for Superman these days and the plight of education.  I think that the title gives an incredible bias to where the film is headed.  I have to admit that I have not seen it, and I am not sure that I plan to.  I chose Wolverine because he is a straight shooter and does not beat around the bush.  He is not a diplomat who tries to say all the right things and responds to criticisms.  He is a fun superhero, but one with a few obvious character flaws.  Superman is nearly perfect in every way, and one who allows himself to be publically chastized.  (This is just a quick interpretation based on my childhood preferences and not really a point that I feel like debating).

There are warts in the education system, anyone who denies that is fooling themselves.  There are systemic issues, monetary issues and performance issues.  This is not unique to education.  Similar documentaries could be made looking at the divorce courts and how some families are ruined because of the processes that are there.  How about we look at Fortune 500 companies who use overseas markets to reduce costs and are in markets with severe human rights violations occur?  Churches with sex abuse allegations? Doctors with malpractice lawsuits?  People have flaws, which means that there is no perfect system out there.

I think that, as educators, we need to get on the soapbox far more often than we do. There are so many outstanding educators out there.  Look at all of the professional learning networks that are being used via Twitter.  They are sharing, questionning, supporting, collaborating.  It is amazing.  This is all happening outside of the typical 9-3 hours that are associated with schools. This is happening during Christmas vacation, Spring Break and during the summer.  Teachers work hard to provide the best learning opportinuties possible for their students.  They carry the emotional burdens of some of the families and the struggles that kids are having.  They look to provide a safe haven for their students and their families that take them away from the abusive or catastrophic situations.  I believe that too many teachers and adminstrators are humble and do not want to have their picture in the local paper on a regular basis, unlike some of the politicians and institutes who believe in bashing education.  Their focus is where it should be, on the school and on the students.  We need to do a better job informing the public of what is happening within the walls of the schools.

There are comparissons being raised and discussed in this movie.  Let's start with an important aspect to consider, the film from what I have read in reviews, has a rather narrow focus.  Secondly, people also need to stop comparing apples to oranges.  Comparing different school systems is difficult at best.  There are circumstances that exist in each school, district, province (or state) and country.  How homogeneous is the neighbourhood, how big is the melting pot of culture around the school and in the community?  How many students are ESL, and how many different languages are spoken in their home?  How many families are struggling just to make ends meet? How many students are coming to school hungry or tired?  Does Finland have the same degree of multicultiralism, immigration, refugees or poverty that exist in our schools?  Do these other nations to which comparissons are made have the exact same social programs as we do?  Are there teachers paid an equivalent amount, givent the same amount of prep time, professional development and are they held in the same regard?  If you don't have an answer to these questions then perhaps you need to do more research before making the comparissons.

The Challenge we face when trying to come up with a one size fits all model is that what works 2 hours north of here might not work in my district.  What works well in a school 20 minutes may not work well in mine.  It is amazing at times when I have conversations with colleagues at all levels just how different our schools are, and this is sometimes with schools that are within a 5 minute drive.  We have a "Think Tank" in British Columbia, the Fraser Institute, that attempts to rank schools according to the provincially mandated Foundation Skills Assessments which are done in February at the grade 4 and 7 levels.  Schools can have similar test scores but the equation that they use can lower or raise it based on the estimated socio-economics of the neighbourhood. Simple factors that can influence the scores are:
1) some kids start the test and then we find out that they are going on vacation and will not be able to complete the test
2) A student who is quite capable struggles with the format or starts becoming anxious and it is deemed to not be worth it for the kid to continue so the test is pulled because a passing result in not worth the damage that it could do to the poor child
3) A teacher uses a kid's identification who was exempted or away to demonstrate how to do the test and then finds out later that the clicking of a couple of buttons resulted in a failed assessment.
4) a school's data is lost and the school is blamed for it so an entire class' results are fails.
Some of these errors can add up to a 10-20 % drop in meeting expectations which can result in a bad score which is published. (These are all real circumstances I have faced or some of my colleagues have faced)

We are letting outside agencies do the advertising for us and many do not appear to be interested in what is working in schools, rather they seem to be focussing on what is not working.  I suppose that I could have my students practice for a few weeks to take the test.  I could put every available adult in there to answer the questions immediately.  I could run a whole bunch of pretests, practice tests, old tests or my own tests.  I could do this and boost my results, but at what cost?  I am not willing to sacrifice my school's leadership programs, Peace Squad (peer mediators), playground leaders nor intramurals.  I am not willing to let go of having social responsibility as an important focus in the school, school wide projects for helping out in the community nor having seniors come in to work with kids at risk or those who just need a friendly ear to talk to.  I will not forgo the friendship skills sessions nor the Worry Dragons meetings that my counselor does.  I believe that kids are happy at our schools because we offer so much more than just the ability to take a standardized test.

We work hard at what we do to create the best learning opportunities and it is probably time that we started talking about it.  Avoid the Superman diplomacy and use a little Wolverine attitude.  Part of me feels like saying that if you are going to criticize my field of work, then perhaps I should start criticizing yours.  Maybe I should start using stereotypes of your workplace, generalizations and make uninformed statements.  Debating is one thing, slagging is another.  Asking informed questions, or questions to become informed leads to worthwhile thinking while repeating something that Oprah said may not be.  Education is an easy target because everyone has been through it and has an opinion.  We do have warts, but unfortunately we cannot just put a drop of liquid nitrogen on our problems and make them go away.  We do need to continue to improve, just like any system out there, and we need to continue to be humble to remember to look at what can be better.  We need to continue to improve the 21st century skills that need to be taught. We can be better and we will be better.

If we want the public to have an understanding then we have to teach them.  I also like to tell friends who make negative statements about schools in general that I did not realize that they thought so poorly of me.  When they attack the school system they are attacking me, they are attacking something that I am proud of, that I believe in, colleagues that I have a world of confidence in and my friends.  Put a face on it, rave about the amazing things that are happening and then maybe, just maybe, we can get that vocal minority to see the world beyond published scores.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Technology brings us closer

I have heard on occasion that people fear that we lose our social connections by becoming too dependent on technology.  I guess that there is a certain element of truth to that, but is it not entirely dependent on the context?  I was watching a video Open and Connected and it raised a lot of good points.  I am going to put forward that technology actually brings us closer.

I am a child of immigrants.  My parents tell the story of my grand-father running alongside the train that was to take them on their journey and he ran alongside the train until he could go no further.  Planes were not as available as they are now.  When my parents came to Canada from Europe they came by boat.  My grand-father's fear was that he would rarely ever see his daughter again.  There would be an exchange of letters, but it would take weeks for the letters to arrive.  Phone calls were prohibitive because of the ridiculous costs.  It was not easy.

When I was younger I would see my French grand-parents about every 2nd summer, and that was with them coming here every once in a while.  I would talk to them every once in a while on the phone for a few brief minutes, always aware of the cost.  Birthday phone calls were a treat and I loved my Christmas calls as well.  I looked forward to the occasions when I could talk to them.  Eventually costs for flying came down so we started to see them every summer, alternating visits.

This is where technology comes in.  About 20 years ago my mom bought her parents a fax machine. Letters were transmitted instantly and letters flowed more freely.  It was great because I got news from my grand-parents much more quickly.  Just a little later when my grand-father was around 75 he decided that the old super 8 style movies that he was making just wasn't cutting it anymore and decided that it was time that he learned how to do digital video editing and he bought his first computer, which came, obviously, with email.  I was in touch with my grand-father so much more than ever and I developed a close relationship with him that I never had before.  Even though he lived 9 time zones away I felt as though he was very close.  Technology is what really allowed me to get to know him.  I no longer had to wait for special occasions to hear from him or wait a month to hear back when I wrote a letter.  Skype was just starting to come into prominence when he became ill, but if not I know we would have been having weekly conversations via Skype.

I am now connected via Facebook with 2 of my cousins in France, 1 cousin in New Zealand and another in San Francisco.  One of my aunts jokes around that I know more about her kids than she does because of Facebook.  I get to see regular updates as to how they are doing, see family pictures and stay in contact.  It allows my parents and my brother and sister to share family pictures much more easily than before.  Don't get me wrong, we talk by phone and see each other on a regular basis but we are much more connected as a result.  If we are online at the same time then we instant message each other and enjoy conversations that we would not normally have.

When one of my colleagues' son was off in Europe working they were in regular Skype conversations.  I found my godfather that I had not seen since I was around 1 because of the internet and I was able to re-establish that connection.  Through Twitter I have established great working connections and have begun to develop an amazing professional learning network.  Technology has brought us closer.  For me technology has made the world smaller and brought me into greater contact with my family and friends.  It has brought me closer to my family which is spread over 3 continents and I am grateful for that.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

MathMagic and Game shows

I have continued to think about Math homework and the impact that drill sheets can have on math confidence and interest in our students.  Are there alternatives to repetitive drill sheets or questions that could be stimulating for all levels?  Two different assignments that I used to do were Mathmagic and some questions that were done in the style of a game show from France (Les Chiffres et Les Lettres).  The students were still doing math questions, but there was a challenge and a purpose as well as taking it as far as they wanted.

Why Math loves Wayne Gretzky
I would ask the students to tell me which hockey player is loved by mathematicians?
The question goes like this:
1) Choose a 2 digit number, but it cannot be a number with the same two digits (eg 26)
2) Reverse that number (eg 62)
3) Subtract the smallest from the largest (eg 62-26= 36)
4) Add the reverse number of the answer (eg 36 + 63 + 99)
The answer is always 99
The reason that you cannot use a number that has the same two digits is because at step 3 you would get 0.

The 1089 game
Similar question to the Wayne Gretzky question except that it is a 3 digit number and the number cannot be a palindrome (eg 323, 575).  I would take the kids through the steps and then have them turn the work upside down to show me that they have the number and then I walk around the class and whisper the answer to them and walk around and do the same for a number of kids.  The look of surprise on their face when I tell them the answer is 1089 is priceless.  If they do not have 1089 then I tell them they need to double check their work.
1) choose a 3 digit number (eg 367)
2) reverse the digits (eg 763)
3) subtract small from big (eg 763-367= 396)
4) Reverse the answer and add them up (eg 396 + 693 = 1089)
The kids should always get 1089

I would then challenge the kids to try a  few at home to try and prove me wrong.  Extensions that are possible:
1) ask them why palindrome questions do not work
2) Does this work for 5 digit numbers, 6 digit numbers, what are the exceptions...

This is a subtraction game
1) Have the students choose a 4 digit number (eg 4518)
2) Have them put the digits in decreasing order (8541)
3) subtract the reverse (8541-1458= 7083)
4) Repeat steps 2 and 3 with the answer (8730 - 0378 = 8352)
5) Keep going until you get the same answer 2x in a row
8532- 2358= 6174
7641-1467 - 6174
You should always end up with 6174 after a max of 6 operations
The challenge on this one is again to see of they can prove you wrong
The extensions would be 3 digit numbers, 5 digit numbers and if there are rules that need to be applied with respect to the type of numbers that can be chosen.

Les chiffres et les lettres
This is based off a game show from France (Wikipedia YouTube).  The object of the games is to take 6 random numbers and get a randomly chosen total.  You are only allowed to use each number 1 time, although you do not have to use all of the numbers.  You can use addition, subtraction, multiplication and division.  I have them start off in groups and share their joint solutions.  We would then take another random set and the kids would try them at home.  The object is to get as close to the number as possible, and the solution is not always possible.
What I like about this one is that to get the exact answer is great, but more importantly it looks at number fluency, multiple operations and all of the kids can do it.  We do it as a game show with prizes in the class and that makes the math fun.

The main point of this is that it does allow me to assess their math operation skills and allows the strugglers to do just a few and those that love math and excel at it have an extension.  The kids can test this on their parents or siblings and makes them excited about math.  It accomplishes the same objective of math worksheets but it makes it interesting, fun and easily assessable.  The conversations that arise from the sharing is rich and the problem solving solutions lead to amazing math dialogue and sharing of strategies.

Parents and kids would sit side by side and test this out.  The usual fights were not there because the students were motivated to do the work to prove that Mr. Collins was wrong and they had huge smiles on their faces if they were able to find exceptions to the rules.  A number of parents commented on the fact that they enjoyed watching their children enthused about math and how much they enjoyed talking math with their kids.

Math homework with a purpose, that allows for differentiated learning, multiple levels and enrichment and the kids enjoy doing it. Something to think about.

Monday, October 4, 2010

The Great Homework Debate, does it ever end?

I was reading Brian Kuhn's (@bkuhn) blog post What Homework Should Be and he referenced an article in Education Leadership The 5 Hallmarks of Good Homework and it got me thinking.  I then further explored that edition and had a great read going through it.  As a teacher, and then later as a principal, I have needed to ask myself what is the reason/purpose for assigning homework?  How many conversations, consequences and parent meetings have arisen because of homework?  How many times have I sat down with students having conversations about real-world, job-like training foundations as a reason for homework?  How many times have I sat down with parents at their wits-end because of the family struggles that resulted from homework?  Far too many before I woke up and thought about it.

I can think of 3 moments that gave me pause to consider what I was assigning and why I was assigning it.  The first came during a parent meeting because a child was struggling with work completion and I sat across the table from a former Canadian Football League Defensive Lineman (in other words, a man around 6'3" and 300 lbs with a very deep voice) asking me to explain my homework philosophy.  I muddled my way through making sure to add "sir" whenever I could.  As I was spewing my reasoning, I had difficulty believing it myself.

The second moment came from a conversation with a principal who was commenting on the practice of deducting marks from late assignments.  When we are assessing science or language arts assignments, where is the IRP Prescribed Learning Outcome (Integrated Resource Package, the name given to British Columbia's curricular guides) that outlines work completion as a goal of the Science curriculum or Language Arts curriculum?  Work habits and quality of the work may be linked, but at the end of the day, the work must be assessed based on its quality and not based on the day that it was handed in.  If the student is not handing in the work on time then work habits may be the issue and it is work habits that would reflect the tardiness of the work.  In the article Fair and Unbalanced the author examines her own personal struggles with trying to get assignments in and reflects on how her change in philosophy has helped.  I liked the quote of "The more teachers know about their students, the better they can tailor instruction and support for students' unique needs, the further they can push them to reach their potential. Paying attention to individual kids is a better strategy than making an inflexible rule. Better, but vastly more difficult".  It really summed up the point well.

The third moment came from a conversation about Math homework.  As we were in the process of shifting to a more problem-solving based from a more traditional repeated practice method, one of the presenters mentioned that maybe it was time to rethink math homework as well.  He basically asked how many times were we going to send a kid home to bash his head against the wall because he felt he was stupid because he could not do the work.  The kid would go home, try to do the homework, not get it, mark it in class and realize that he got it all wrong, or even better yet, have a classmate mark his homework and know that he got it all wrong.  If this happens a few times in a row, he is not going to bother doing his homework because it just becomes a waste of time.  Pedagogically it also reinforces incorrect understanding and the teacher will need to tear down the scaffolding that the child had based his math on and help him rebuild it.

This edition of Education Leadership on meaningful work, including a number on homework really hit home with me.  Another article, Homework Done Right, has a simple statement towards the beginning "When teachers carefully and purposefully consider the role of homework in furthering curriculum goals, they can turn a homework task into treasure."  Family interviews, observations around the community and searching for particular themes in the media are some of the examples that are given.  The article goes on to describe how the assignments can be an extension of the curriculum, and one that involves meaningful dialogue.

A principal at an elementary school in California (Homework Sent Packing) has banned all homework assignments.  She states "Research shows there is no correlation between homework and increased student achievement at the elementary level".  They have set a school goal of "Kindergarten through third grade students will need to read 30 minutes at least four nights a week. Fourth through sixth-graders will read 45 minutes."  They have focused their ideology that the teaching should be happening in the classroom as that is the teacher's responsibility.  There was a lot of food for thought in that article.

The last article, and perhaps the most telling, is one that examines the student's perspective.  Show Us What Homework's For breaks it down to a few very meaningful headers, and ideas that I believe really need to be considered when assigning anything that goes home.  They are:
1) Purpose.  Is this going to help them learn?  Is this going to help them get better?  Why do they have to do it?
2) Follow-Up.  There is nothing more frustrating for students when doing homework than knowing that it will be marked in class, if that, and that there is little or no feed-back.  Why "waste" hours doing something that the teacher apparently does not really care about see how there is no follow-up.  If they know that this will be used to help them then they are more likely to be motivated to do it.
3) No Grading
4) Better Use of Time.  Less is sometimes more.  Give them the opportunity to deepen their learning and understanding.
5) The 4 Rs (readiness, repetition, review, and revision).  Where does the homework assignment that you have just handed out fall?

All of these articles reflect the need to think about what we are giving students.  I think it is also an opportunity to reflect upon the role of schools?  Is our job to prepare the students for the "Real World" or is it to help them become confident learners, eager to continue furthering their knowledge in areas that they are passionate for?  There are basic skills that we do need to students realize in terms of literacy and numeracy. Are we working towards them becoming Jeopardy or Wheel of Fortune Champions or passionate learners who are confident that they can change the world?

The next time that you are thinking about a homework assignment, think about whether or not you can convince a 300 lb man whose job it is to chase people down and tackle them.  If you are not sure of the validity of your assignments then perhaps it is time to rethink what kids are going home with to work on.