Results Count: Homework That Really Works

This morning, I read that French President Francois Hollande has proposed that his country eliminate homework in elementary and junior high school. From the article on NPR’s website, it appears that members of the French government believe homework places too great a burden on children, especially children with difficult home lives. And because of the centralized nature of the French school system, there is little room for teachers to innovate and try new strategies.

I wouldn’t presume to offer an opinion on the French approach to education. However, here in the United States, we have the same debate: what is the real value of homework for young children? Is is possible to design homework that increases student learning and motivates kids after a long school day?

My answer is yes, and I have results to back it up.
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Imagine You Don’t Get Your Way: Helping Kids Develop Emotional Resilience

This week, my second graders elected their Table Leaders for the first time. Each of the five groups in my class voted for a leader who will pass out papers, lead the group’s meetings, and have weekly Leadership Lunches with me.

In the lives of second graders, being chosen as a Table Leader is a pretty big deal. And the moment I announce Table Leaders — the moment when we do a drum roll and applaud — is exciting and emotionally charged. Many of the kids are hoping desperately to be chosen… and a few are hoping the opposite.

You can imagine how a moment like this one could go terribly wrong. Imagine the disappointment, the crying… the shouts of “why does she get to be table leader? I didn’t vote for her!” Now imagine how much harm that could do to the classroom community we’ve worked so hard to build.

Moments like this can bring out the best and the worst in children (just like in adults). If, as teachers, we want to bring out the best in our students, we have to prepare them for disappointment. We have to teach children to be emotionally resilient in the face of a difficult outcome. One way to do that is by having them imagine the outcome — and make a plan for responding — before it happens. Continue reading

Effective Effort and Eastern Approaches to Education

If you missed it this morning, you must listen to Alix Spiegel’s report on NPR about how Eastern and Western cultures approach learning. Listening to the radio this morning, I was cheering in my kitchen. It’s all about how Asian families and educators teach children that success comes from — wait for it — their own effort and time. Yes! Attribution theory! And Asian educators design tasks that are intentionally a little too hard for students. Yes! Zone of proximal development! And rather than giving up on kids, they make kids struggle with a task until they get it. Yes! I don’t know what that theory of learning that is, but we sure do it in my classroom.

What a pleasure to listen to a news report about something that really would improve American education… and not another report on testing, teacher unions, or textbooks. And make sure to listen through to the end, where Stiegel praises American strengths: teaching students to become creative and independent thinkers.

Good Questions: How do you motivate students?

I was recently asked how I motivate my students.  Immediately, I thought, what don’t I do to motivate students?  I do everything short of standing on my head… no, wait a minute — I do that too, along with cartwheels, Captain’s Coming, Indian dances, and “old school” 4-Square.

Motivating students is at the very heart of being an effective teacher.  It’s a huge topic that encompasses just about everything we do, so let’s break it down. Continue reading

Good Questions: Behavior Plans, Part 2

This is the second part of my two-part answer to Christine’s question about behavior plans and rewards.  Part 1 discussed whole-class reward systems, and now we’re on to individual behavior plans.

I use behavior plans frequently, starting around the second week of school.  Today, I’ll share three variations, but each of the plans I use is designed to do the same thing: to help students make better choices in the classroom.  Each individual student’s goals are different, but might be to focus better, to put more effective effort into their work, to work cooperatively with classmates, or to follow certain norms for classroom behavior. Continue reading

Homework That Changes Lives

love homework.  But I didn’t always.  I used to hate homework.  I hated it as a student, and I hated it as a teacher.  I hated it for all the reasons it is now questioned by education researchers.  Homework at the elementary level is usually:

  • Busywork (for teachers and students)
  • If un-differentiated: too easy for some students, too hard for others
  • If differentiated: unbearably complicated and time-consuming for teachers
  • Stressful for families
  • Graded too slowly or infrequently to give students valuable feedback
  • A poor form of assessment
  • Something we (and I mean all of us: teachers and students and families) do only because we have to, or because we think we should, or because other people think we should.

I am also really skeptical of the idea that homework at the elementary level teaches study skills in and of itself.  Now, if you put into place a real system for programmatically teaching children to study at home and at school and use homework strategically to reinforce that system, well, ok then.  But usually, people expect that just by giving kids homework, they will learn study skills.  Instead, I think kids learn how to procrastinate, how to put up a good fight with their parents, and how to put as little effort into their work as possible in order to get it done quickly.

I tried all kinds of traditional homework systems: weekly packets, daily assignments, even differentiated homework that involved making different packets for several different groups of students (which, by the way, is insane).  And then I went to the Skillful Teacher, learned about effective effort, and decided there had to be a better way.

I asked myself, what if homework was really valuable?  Better yet, what if homework was life-changing?  What if it could teach students — prove to students — that with effective effort and time, they could achieve anything? Continue reading

What’s Worth Rewarding?

What kinds of incentives you use to motivate kids in your classroom is a big question.  All the time, we use incentives that range from positive feedback and encouragement to stickers and prizes to extra recess and parties.  But what’s the most effective way to reward students?  How do incentive systems align with our ethics?  How do they align with our desire for students to become intrinsically self-motivated?  And how do we use incentives to encourage students to work for longterm rewards and not just short-term gains?

This week’s Marshall Memo summarizes an Education Week article titled, “Study Suggests Timing is Key in Rewarding Students.”  When they reviewed incentive programs, the authors of the study found: Continue reading