The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Archive for August, 2015

The Homework Menu

For the past four years, I have struggled with homework in my classroom. (And if Bill Waterson’s Calvin and Hobbes is any indicator, I’m not the only one! Click the image for many more related comics.)

Not assigning it; that has always been easy: give 25 students a copy of a math assignment and tell them it is due the next day. And not grading it; homework is practice, so it doesn’t need an actual grade. I just check it for completion, give it a star, and return it to the students.

No, the struggle has been more of an existential one: why? Why give homework? The students who need the extra practice tend to be the ones least likely to do it. The students who don’t need the practice tend to be the ones who do it, anyway. So why am I doing it? To communicate with parents? Surely there is a better way for me to do that!

There is only one kind of homework that has been an exception to this: reading. I tell my students on the very first day of school that they will have reading homework every single night. That assignment is to read for at least 25 minutes independently. Sure, I still have students who struggle with reading and will try to avoid doing it because it is a difficult task, but most of them are willing to read at home and most of their parents are willing to support this.

But for the other traditional math homework assignments? I wasn’t buying into it and my students and their families weren’t buying into it either. Then I started paying attention to what other teachers were saying and what other families were saying. And then I decided to look into the research. (Did you know that there are people who have dedicated their lives to researching the value and effect of homework?) Here are some things I learned in my research:

  • While there is generally a correlation between homework completion and student achievement, that correlation is much greater in grades 7-12 than it is in grades K-6
  • Homework is often a source of tension between schools and homes
  • The most effective homework provides students with differentiated choices

(Most of these points have been drawn from Cooper, Robinson, and Patall’s 2006 meta-analysis of homework research from 1987-2003 published in Review of Educational Research, Spring 2006, Vol. 76, No. 1, pp. 1–62.)

So over the summer I began to reimagine homework in my classroom. I began to ask myself what I would like to see if I had children who were in school. I talked to friends whose children have struggled with homework and those whose children have not. I read what other teachers were doing. I thought about what would work well for me. And then I began to draft some ideas. I shared these with others, got more input, and revised and edited. What I came up with what a concept I am calling the Homework Menu.

When I go to a restaurant, I sit down at the table and find my utensils already there. If there isn’t a menu on the table, the server hands it me. Usually, though, there is already a menu there and the first thing I am brought is a glass of water. If the server doesn’t bring a glass of water, he or she asks me what I would like to drink before anything else. Then I am given time to peruse the menu before ordering. I don’t take one of everything, nor do I always get the same thing. (As much as I love bacon cheeseburgers, sometimes I am really in a mood for a chicken wrap or a pasta dish!)

How does this apply to homework?

Well, the first thing my students need are the tools to complete the tasks. This may be access to an online learning site or a book to bring home or a project assignment sheet to work on. It may be a math reference sheet or a set of manipulatives they can use at home. I want to make sure that they have the right utensils.

Then my students need a drink. What is the one thing that they are expected to do every day? What is the thing that should just be a natural reflex? What should be habitual? Reading! A minimum of 25 minutes each day. What can they read? Oh, the list is endless, but it includes trade paperbacks, informational texts, websites, newspapers, graphic novels, comic books, magazines, subtitles on television shows or movies… I could go on and on. There are so many different things they can read! The most important thing is to read every single day.

Once they have read (or planned their reading), they need to pick something that they want to work on that they know will help them. Maybe it is something they love doing, such as math on Front Row, Prodigy, or XtraMath. Maybe they want to check out Khan Academy. Maybe they love doing worksheets and have asked for one. Or maybe they have a story they are writing or an ongoing research project they’d like to work on at home. Then again, maybe my student has a 60-minute soccer practice after school and that is a worthy activity that encourages team work, cooperation, problem solving, and physical activity. Another student may have piano lessons. The fine arts are an important part of a student’s learning. Instead of me telling every student that they must do the same thing as everyone else, I am giving them choices. (And yes, if I notice that a particular student needs to spend some extra time on a very particular skill or concept, then I will strongly suggest to that student and his/her parents that that be the homework focus.)

The overall goal here is for my students to be empowered to make decisions that will help them improve their own learning. I want their time working away from school to be worthwhile and valuable. I want parents to know what we are doing and know how they can support their student’s learning. I want to keep the lines of communication open and the tension between the school and the home nonexistent.

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I am excited about this Homework Menu idea. I hope my students are excited about it, too. (And yes, just as a server at a restaurant writes down your order, I am going to expect my students to record what they have done and have a parent sign off on it. That is the oh-so-necessary accountability piece.)

If anyone is interested, linked below is a PDF of the Homework Menu. Feel free to contact me if you would like an editable word document! (I worked with my wife, a brilliantly talented graphic designer who helped create the layout and theme for this blog, to pattern the Homework Menu after a a restaurant menu.)


[NOTE: This is in no way intended to be a condemnation of any teacher who chooses to use more traditional means of assigning homework. Every teacher has to do what works best for him or her to help his or her students achieve their own personal greatness. The Homework Menu is my experiment to see what I can do to do my job better, not to tell other teachers what they ought to be doing.]

Student Guest Post 1: A Week in Review

As promised yesterday, I have decided to bring back my practice of inviting students to write guest posts for me on Fridays during our Read, Write, Think! time. I gave a very brief description of what the students could do, then asked if I had any brave individuals willing to write a post for us. (I will allow up to four students to collaborate on a post.) Recognising that this was the first time they had ever done anything like this and acknowledging that I have not modeled for the class how to write a blog post, what follows is the first student guest post of the year, exactly as written:

we did are science  project  about fishes    then  we did physical education   walking for 15 minutes.

Okay, so I definitely need to work with my class on adding more substance to their writing! I am actually going to use this post as a jumping point for writing on Monday. We will work collaboratively to correct spelling, capitalisation, punctuation, and spacing. Then we will add more content. The goal will be to turn this run-on sentence into two full paragraphs.

Still, not bad for a first attempt at writing a blog! Thank you to the two boys who took a risk and volunteered to go first!

Happy weekend, everyone! And happy National Bow Tie Day! (Sorry, Dr. Owen, for not wearing orange; I guess I need to find an orange bow tie!)

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Readers Theatre

(I know, I know, I haven’t updated all week. The first full week of school has been super busy but, on top of that, I’ve had my mother-in-law’s third degree black belt testing and graduation–she passed!–and my wife hasn’t been feeling well so I’ve been taking care of her plus I started my graduate classes this week. So I’ve had to prioritise what I do and, at least for this week, writing a blog post has not been as important as family and classes. I will make an effort to post more regularly in the coming weeks. I am also going to resurrect an old practice and allow my students to write a blog post each Friday during Read, Write, Think!, which is what I call our weekly preferred activity time. All of which is really neither here nor there in terms of the purpose of this actual post.)

This past summer, I had the opportunity to participate in a district workshop entitled “For the Love of Literacy.” Once a week for several weeks, I gathered with elementary teachers from across grade levels throughout the district and looked closely at the tools, resources, and assessments we use when teaching our students to be literate. We explored the Continuum of Learning associated with Irene C. Fountas & Gay Su Pinnell’s Benchmark Assessment System. We delved deeply into the Daily 5 and CAFE frameworks developed by Gail Boushey and Joan Moser (the “2 Sisters”). We looked into the Writing Workshop curriculum written by Lucy Calkins back in the 1980s and 1990s but recently updated to reflect the targets established by the Common Core State Standards. And we talked about literacy: what it is, why it is important, and different ways to teach it.

During this intense study of best practices in literacy instruction, I found myself thinking about what I can do to provide quality experiences for my students and their learning buddies who are in kindergarten this year. When Miss C and I first started collaborating, her students were second graders. Then she taught first grade for three years. Year five of this collaboration is seeing her with a kindergarten class now, which has forced us to shift what we do and how we do it yet again. One idea that came to me was the use of readers theatres.

I, personally, have disliked readers theatres since I was a teenager and was forced to do one for a church activity. I thought the script was bad, the story weak, and the characters boring. And I never looked back.

Until this summer.

I started thinking about what we could do, and then I learned that my students would be doing Dance & Drama during their first six-week rotation of fine arts. The fine arts teachers are always looking for ways to infuse arts into the classroom and I realised that readers theatres would be a perfect opportunity. I talked to Mrs. T about it and she was excited. We met, we planned, and we began implementing today.

She came down to our room this afternoon during our literacy block and introduced the differences between plays and readers theatres. Then we had the students divide up into groups of three, four, or five and gave each group a script to read. The students took turns with the different roles, experimenting with voice and helping each other with unusual vocabulary and new ideas. (One group of boys read a script for a retelling of Chicken Little and declared it to be inappropriate for kindergarteners because, in a shocking twist, all of the characters died!) We worked on this for about half an hour but I had the distinct impression I could have let the students keep going until the end of the day and they wouldn’t have minded in the least!

We are going to read the scripts again tomorrow and then the students will be performing for their classmates on Monday. Then we are going to select books that are of high interest to our kindergarten friends and each group will write a readers theatre script based on the story. Then they will perform for the younger students and we will record them so that Miss C can share with her class again. (I will also be posting the videos online through a private link so that we can share with families.)

I am really excited about this project and so far get the impression that my students are excited about it, too!

Jumping Right In

Apologies for not writing anything last Friday. As soon as I got done working with students for the day I was asked to set up Chromebook carts for three teachers in our building. Then I had to leave for a wedding rehearsal and dinner (my wife’s best friend got married on Saturday). By the time we got home it was late and I was exhausted and I simply collapsed in my bed. I fully expected to get a post written on Saturday but the aforementioned wedding took up the whole day, then we went to Indianapolis on Sunday. So if you are an avid reader, my sincerest apologies. I promise I was doing things that were valuable and worthwhile!

Today was our first Monday, which means it was the start of the first full week of school. After three days of setting expectations, establishing norms, and rehearsing procedures, we were ready to just jump right into things! We started the day with our traditional journal writing, followed by a morning meeting in which students got to share with one another what they did over the weekend.

Then it was time for a Big Thing: our first Major Assessment of the Year. I am planning on using a workshop model for math this year with lots of small group instruction instead of the traditional whole-class lecture format. In order to organise my students into groups, however, I need to know what they know! So I used a useful assessment tool I found a couple of years ago. It is a fourth grade baseline assessment. It starts off with a review of third grade standards, such as basic addition, subtraction, and multiplication facts, and then transitions to more and more difficult concepts, including dividing with and without remainders and adding and subtracting money. It is not an assessment of all fourth grade learning standards, however. It is simply a tool to establish where students are at. My wonderful aide, Ms.K, helped me grade all of them so that I can look over the data this evening and create my first math groups.

I’m excited to try this new format for teaching math this year and I hope that my students find it worthwhile, too!

Establishing Routines

A big part of building our community each year is establishing not just group expectations and norms, but also routines, no matter how mundane they may seem. And so it is that I spent the majority of the morning with my new young scholars discussing our routines for things such as lining up, making lunch choices, getting pencils or tissues, or using the restroom.

Because of a successful DonorsChoose project that I ran over the summer, I was recently able to acquire a new HP Pavilion Mini computer. This is a compact Windows-based computer that works perfectly with my Promethean ActivPanel Touch interactive board. (Similar to other interactive whiteboards except that it is a 70-inch monitor with touchscreen technology instead of a board with a separate projector.) With this fantastic tool at my disposal, I am able to use Google Slides to prepare short presentations to use at the start of each day so that students can both see and hear what they are expected to do.

I used a presentation yesterday to introduce myself to the class and help them learn more about what they could expect for the coming year. This morning’s presentation focused on routines and procedures. Instead of just writing them all out, I realised it would be much easier if I simply embedded the presentation right into this post! So here it is!

There are other routines and procedures we will need to go over as the year progresses, but I felt like these were the most important to establish from the start. What are others that we should add to our document?

Building a New Community, One Day at a Time

Today was the first day of school for my newest crop of fourth graders. (I’ve had two days of district training and have been working in my classroom for the past two weeks in order to get ready for today.) Even though I have technically been at work for two days, I continue to feel like the year doesn’t really start until the first day of student attendance. So today was, for me, the start of my fifth year teaching at Wiley, my eighth year teaching professionally, and my nineteenth year teaching. (Yes, I started teaching at the age of thirteen when I taught my Sunday School class for six months.)

Each year I have done something different on the first day of school. I come up with general plans for my day, but I allow the dynamics of the class to really guide what we do. I don’t do this every day, of course. I absolutely make plans for each day, based on my understanding of where my students are at, what they need to learn, and how they best learn.

But the first few days of school? I am building a new community of learners and that happens one day at a time. Day one was spent on an overview of what to expect for the year, setting classroom expectations, and writing. A lot of writing, actually. Students worked in small groups to come up with lists of what it looks like, sounds like, and feels like when they are being safe, respectful, and responsible in the classroom. We used these lists to come up with our classroom expectations:

  • Be Safe
    • Keep Hands, Feet, and Other Objects to Yourself (KHFOOTY)
    • Walk with a Purpose
    • Give Others Space
  • Be Respectful
    • Listen to the Speaker
    • Use Kind Words
    • Ask for Help
  • Be Responsible
    • Help Others and Work Together
    • Use Appropriate Volume
    • Do Your Own Work

Toward of the morning we did our first independent writing activity of the day. I shared this video (which I downloaded in order to avoid advertisements) with my class and then had the students think about what makes a day “the best day” in one’s life. Each student then wrote about his or her own best day, thinking about when it was, what they did, where they went, whom they were with, and, of course, why it was so wonderful. This will serve as a baseline sample of writing. As the year progresses, my expectation is that each student will improve him or her writing dramatically, referring back to this initial sample as a gauge of how far they have come.

After lunch we had our first read aloud of the year: Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson (with illustrations by E.B. Lewis.) I also shared this story with my class last year.

I love this story because it reminds us that we all have opportunities to undo an unkindness, but sometimes we waste those moments until it is too late. It is a powerful lesson for students on the first day of school: they can choose to be kind or they can choose to be unkind, but they can’t choose the outcomes of their actions. After discussing this briefly, we talked abut what Ms. Albert meant when she said that each kindness can make the world a little bit better. Then I shared another video with the class that supported this theme of kind actions and their ripple effect.

We ended our day with one final composition activity. Using Each Kindness as a prompt, the students were given time to think about a time that they performed a simple act of kindness for another or a time when someone did something kind for them. Then they either wrote about it in an open-ended haiku format or they drew a picture. (Some students chose to do both.) The poems and pictures will go on the bulletin board outside our classroom in time for our school Open House on September 3.

I know today was just the first day of school and that there will be many challenges ahead of us as we move forward, but I also know that we had a great day of building community in our classroom. Tomorrow will be a day with more community building as we establish routines and procedures, rehearse them and practice them and get to know each other better.

CU4TechCon 2015

Last May I received an email from my district’s director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment regarding an educational technology conference being hosted by the Champaign Unit 4 school district. Unit 4 was seeking presenters for their conference. I decided to take a risk and offer to present on Kahoot! in the classroom. My presentation proposal was accepted, which is why I was up at 6 am on a Saturday a week and a half before school starts.

I had seven teachers attend my session, including a college professor and three school librarians! I was initially a little worried about presenting to teachers outside my district (the first time I’ve ever done that), but I had a great group and, I hope, they found that the time spent with me was worthwhile. After my session, I was able to go to other sessions.

The first session I attended was on using Padlet, a free online bulletin board program. I got to play around with it a little and am thinking about ways I can use it with my students, with parents, with coworkers, and for my own personal use.

The second session was a focus on promoting digital citizenship. I was pleased to learn that Common Sense Media’s curriculum was highly recommended, as that is the program I started using with my class last year. The presenter also shared advice on being very clear with expectations for students and families.

My last session of the day was learning about Gamestar Mechanic, which is a free program that helps students learn about computer coding. I don’t know if I will use it with my entire class, but I will definitely have this as an enrichment option for students who are interested in trying it out.

After lunch, we had time to work with others at the conference to explore further, play around, and network with one another. I enjoy conferences that have the work time built into them, especially when there is so much being shared in such a short period of time! As I continue to integrate technology into my classroom, I love being able to talk with fellow techy teachers to share ideas and learn what’s working and what’s not!