Friday, February 17, 2012

Motivating Middle School Students

Students must see school as relevant.  Interdisciplinary projects can be one way to increase relevance.  When students see what they learn being used in all of their classrooms, they begin to see it as more relevant.  Math knowledge is not isolated just in the 45 minute period that they sit in Math class.

Teaming can provide an outstanding way to develop relationships.  It creates a small school inside of a bigger school.  For us at Arlington, we already have a small school.  When we created the Middle School Team, it allowed our teachers the ability to discuss student issues.  Additionally, students all had the same teachers.  The schedule became simplified.  All of the students were together at the same time.  This then allows flexibility so that you can experiment with the schedule.  At one point this year, for about a month, the 8th graders were tracked by gender.  This allowed the teachers to develop a different relationship with the students.

Making School an Experience
Fridays are activity days.  Our Middle School splits into 4 different teams based on their homeroom class. Students participate in competitions and activities for a 20 minute period.  This is a break from the normal routine and has students looking forward to Friday activities

Our teachers also develop interdisciplinary projects.  When we kick off the project, the teachers make a kickoff video.  The students all come together to watch the video.  During one kick off, the students then got to eat food from the time period they were studying in Social Studies.  They also do other hands on activities on these days.

Here are some links to videos that our Middle School Team created for the unit kickoffs:

Egypt Unit: Mummy Part I:

Egypt Unit: Mummy Part II:

Ancient Rome Unit

Recognizing Effort
Additionally, our state tests are called NeSA tests.  Our tradition has been to set goals with our students.  This year, if we are 95% proficient on the writing test, we will go to the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo.  On our other tests, it is not based on results as much as preparation.  If the students exhibit the behaviors that make you a successful test taker, we will have half a day at the local softball field where students will get to play, have lunch, and just have a fun day.  Celebrate success and effort together as a school and this increases student motivation.

Recognizing that they should not spend their entire life going to school and then going home for a second shift of school through excessive homework is also critical.  Nothing kills motivation faster than constant homework and the lack of recognizing what students enjoy. Celebrate successes and successful effort.  Once the school establishes systems promoting relevance, relationships, making school an experience, and recognizing effort, then students become more motivated.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Homework Grading Practices

Grading practice (homework or independent practice) can be counterproductive.  When students are learning, they need feedback but that feedback should not simply be a check mark on a paper.  If students are sent home with homework and know that the next day that homework will be graded, then often the student is doing that assignment for homework completion and not for learning.  Students need to be allowed to practice without it impacting their grades.

Homework Completion vs. Learning

When homework is about completion, then you will create situations where cheating is rewarded.  It also punishes students whose parents can't help them complete the assignment.  When it's all about homework completion, a student might complete the homework but not know any of the answers on the in class assessment.  Did the student learn?

Difficulty for Teachers

It is difficult for teachers who have always graded homework to give this practice up.  Teachers ask, what will the motivation be to complete the assignment?  Are we going to lose rigor?  Are the students grades going to go down (many students are saved by the homework grade)? What if some of the students stop doing homework?  This is a scary proposition.

Relevant Homework

So why would a student do the homework?  The homework must be relevant.  Students must  see the relationship between doing homework and learning.  If the student doesn't do the homework, they will not know the correct questions to ask in class.  The homework must advance learning towards the stated objectives.  Use brain research to find best practices for homework.  Don't just send students home with what we didn't get finished in class.  Students should be practicing the skill that was taught, not teaching themselves at home.  Teachers should check for understanding and do guided practice before sending students off on their own.

Students View of Homework as Practice

In a conversation in a teacher's class that uses the approach of not grading homework, an 8th grade student said "I wish you graded homework, then my grade would be better."  Another student replied, "Don't give her that idea, then if I don't get it (understand the homework) at home, then I will panic because I have to get it done."  The student identified that learning is the most important thing in this teacher's class.  In this class, if you don't "get it", you can ask without being punished with a bad grade.

Another student told me, the nice thing about Middle School is that it's not a battle about getting homework done.  Students and teachers work together to make sure that we (students) learn.

Things to consider when not grading homework

  1. Homework is most productive in Math.  Other areas show little, if any, correlation between homework and learning.
  2. Homework should be limited.  Add a zero to their grade for minutes of homework.  Sixth Grade = 60 minutes.  Each subject area should be at about 10 minutes because this is a total, not per class.  The default answer should be no homework and hopefully students rarely get to 60 minutes of homework.
  3. Assess students with several small quizzes. 
  4. Allow students to re-take quizzes.
  5. Check for understanding during class.
  6. Do Guided Practice during class.
  7. Create systems that require students to complete homework when they regularly don't do homework and do poorly on assessments (like a lunch time homework opportunity).
  8. Leave your answer book open-let students self check.
  9. Learning can and should happen in groups but the assessment should be to find out what an individual knows.
  10. Have an in-class test or assessment that is based on standards.  Assessments shouldn't be fluff.  In-class assessments and tests are the way to find out how much the student learned.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Homework at the Middle Level

Homework must be meaningful and must be limited.  When students get to the Middle School level, they are now moving between classes.  Teachers must plan together to assign the appropriate amount of homework.  Rick Wormelli talks about adding a 0 to the grade the student is in to determine how much homework a student should get.  If the student is in 5th grade, the appropriate amount of homework is 50 minutes.  An important point here is that 50 minutes is the total amount for all teachers to give as homework.  If we limit homework to the 4 core classes, each class should give no more than 12 minutes of homework per day. "No homework tonight" should be the default choice, not, "There is homework tonight." (Wormelli, p 41)

What amount of work takes 50 minutes?  That answer is going to be significantly different for different students.  It is important to either differentiate homework or send the homework home with a time limit.  The teacher can assign a number of problems for practice and tell students to practice for 12 minutes and then draw a line upon the completion of those 12 minutes.  Some problems will not get done.

If teachers are able to collaborate, then they should talk to each other about the amount of homework that is being given on a particular day.  If a large assignment is being given in Math, then maybe that day there is no assignment in Science.  Even then, the Math assignment should be reasonable.  Homework should not be assigned unless students have already been exposed to a topic and they have adequate background knowledge to complete the homework without additional instruction.  Homework should not simply be what we didn't get done in class.  Students should learn the topic before being sent off to practice on their own.  Following ITIP, teachers should check for understanding, then do guided practice in the room.  After guided practice is complete, then you can assign work to be done as independent practice.

Grading of homework is also an important issue.  Students' grades should not be based on their homework, but rather on in-class assessments.  Once work leaves the classroom, no guarantees can be made about who did the homework.  If in-class assessments are the way students are graded, then a student will gain no advantage by parents helping to complete the work or copying other students work.  The focus becomes learning, not homework completion.  Students begin to see a connection between the work they do and the learning that happens.

Works Cited
Wormelli, Rick. "Teaching in the Middle: Homework How we Assign it." Middle Ground:The Magazine of Middle Level Education. 11.4 (2008): 41-42. Web. 5 Feb. 2012. <;.