Learning My Lesson
I had asked my ninth grade students to write a “last” chapter to the novel Seedfolks by Paul Fleischmann we had finished reading as a class. I knew they had read the entire novel and even annotated it because we did all of our reading in this room. Sometimes we did it in a literature circle. Sometimes we did it by ourselves. Sometimes we used a form of Socratic Seminar to ask questions of each other and dig deeper into the author’s intended meaning.
But I knew all my students had read the novel and understood its metaphors, allusions and themes because we did the work together. And because of that, I knew they would be able to creatively adapt what they knew and believed.
I knew they’d be able to do it because I would be there to help them, guide them and monitor their progress because their work would be completed in class and during after school workshop sessions.
I knew their levels of competency because I assessed it every single day.
The pattern here isn’t new. Rick Wormeli suggests rethinking how we assign work to students and how we penalize them for not doing it. Both Wormeli and Doug Reeves make powerful arguments against “the zero” in the teacher grade book.
But my question: How do I hold students accountable for the work they don’t do?
For years I wielded my grade book like a weapon. Don’t want to complete that organizer on Romeo and Juliet? Zero. Oh, talking in class instead of completing that worksheet? Zero. That’ll show you, right?
All I had were students with long lines of zeroes, poor or failing grades and, I am sure, resentment. I also had students who were exceling on state standardized testing. More than 90% of my kids were proficient or higher. Yet more than 90% of my kids were not receiving As and Bs in my class.
How could they do so poorly in class and so well on state tests?
Maybe, I shuddered, the answer was more about me than them.
When I started collecting data, I began to understand my results. More than 90% of my students completed less than 43% of assigned homework. I asked my colleagues what they thought the issue was. Laziness was the top contender. Apathy was another. Some told me kids just don’t care anymore.
So then I asked my students why they didn’t complete their homework. Less than 10% blamed laziness or apathy. The rest gave me these reasons:
- When I go home, I have to take care of my younger siblings
- I play sports and only have an hour to get work done before practices and games.
- I am in dance class (karate, volunteer organizations) and don’t always get to my homework.
- I work with a family member to make some money so my mom (or dad) can pay bills.
- I don’t understand it, and no one is home to help me.
- I don’t see the point of finishing it. I know how to do it.
So why do we assign homework? What was my purpose? My first, quick response was that I did it to teach them responsibility and accountability. But weren’t they being responsible by watching their siblings? Earning money for their households? And it wasn’t like they weren’t taking ownership of the work – they knew it wasn’t done and they accepted the consequence I had in place for it.
So what was the purpose of my homework assignments? If it was to practice skills, then I was failing them because many didn’t understand what I was asking them to do. If it was to read, then I certainly was failing them, because many struggled with the texts I assigned and couldn’t complete it without help. Homework had become punitive – a way to punish, a way to exert my authority and control. My grade book had become my classroom management strategy.
Perhaps the biggest change we can make as educators is philosophical. When we see ourselves as partners with students in the pursuit of their education, we step off the stage and into the audience. We are both teachers and learners.
Change #1: Involving Students in Decisions About Work
The first change I made was in how I assigned work. The word “homework” was eradicated. Its connotation carries so much negativity and baggage because of students’ experiences with it. Instead, we engage in work that needs to get done, and I help the students plan out how they will complete that work. Our lessons are “mini” in nature as we identify a skill, practice it together, then work to complete assignments. The room has three distinct areas: desks in an L-shape where students can sit and work alone; a small grouping in the middle where students can meet up with one another and get help; another grouping of desks where students can go to sit with me and get more intensive help. The groups are fluid and students make decisions about moving between them based on their needs.
As a class, we set a date range for the work. Students make decisions about when and how to complete it. One student described the class as a place where she can “get help if it’s needed” and the work “isn’t too hard, but it isn’t too easy.” Tasks are scaffolded to support students at a variety of learning levels. On their own, students will explain that they want to work on this piece of writing or that reading assignment in class to get my help, and complete other work at home or after school.
The biggest reason students didn’t complete my work was that they didn’t understand it, so we started after-school clinics three days a week where students could come to get help with work if there wasn’t enough time or opportunity during class.
The rate of return for student work is nearly 100% now.
Change #2: Giving the Work Purpose
When students understand the purpose of the work, they also understand why they need to do it. When they understand why, they can make informed decisions. All of the work in our class is labeled and defined: practice, summative, reading skills, inquiry, etc. When it comes to practice work, students decide when and how much. For example, if some work is assigned for practice purposes, some students choose not to do it. It is, after all, practice, and if they don’t need the practice, then why should they do it?
This is a great deal of power, and it isn’t always used responsibly at first. Students realize they aren’t going to be penalized, so they don’t see the value. It’s my job to help them see the value. All practice work is tied to a summative assessment. Recently, students in my course were tasked with writing a “how to” manual for finding a character’s motivation or finding the theme of a narrative. We had several activities that were practice. Students were able to use the activities to find their own system for uncovering these skills. If students did poorly on the summative, it was almost always because they didn’t complete the practice activities.
When they come to the after-school clinic, we conference about their grade on the assignment and we look at their practice work. The first task when revising and redoing is the practice work. When they can make the connections between what they are practicing and their final product, the work becomes meaningful. They see the purpose. And they can see the results of their practice when their work is rescored.
Change #3: Redos and Retakes Are A-OK
Empowerment comes with responsibility, and this needs to be taught. Students don’t learn responsibility when they receive zeroes on work they never did or didn’t complete. They also don’t learn responsibility when they earn an A on an essay, but drop down to a B because it was handed in late. These practices don’t help students respect deadlines, and they don’t acknowledge that students learn different skills in different timeframes.
A colleague of mine stopped deducting points for late assignments when a student asked him which way she would lose more points: by handing in the paper without the graph she didn’t know how to do or turning it in late. Why should children be put in the position of choosing the learning over the deadline?
This practice also perpetuates the idea that the grade is what is important – not the learning. This student’s only concern was which way would give her the highest grade on her report card. It wasn’t the fact that she couldn’t create the graph for the assignment’s specifications. It wasn’t her concern that she hadn’t acquired a skill.
For me, this was the biggest reason to shift my thinking regarding homework, zeroes and penalties for late and missing work. If students didn’t understand it, shouldn’t they have more opportunities to acquire skills and knowledge? Didn’t they – more than anyone – deserve second chances? Rick Wormeli offers an interesting argument: When someone fails their driving test, doesn’t the department of motor vehicles allow them to take it again? For full credit? I have never heard of anyone who couldn’t operate a car on weekends because they had to take their driving test more than once.
Students are empowered when they have choices and they are taught to make those choices responsibly. One option in our class is to work on an assessment when you are ready. Part of knowing your personal readiness is self-assessment. Students need to provide evidence that they can be successful, and this is found on all that work they may not have done: the practice activities, the reading, the journal entries.
Now the work has meaning as well as purpose.
Caroline Gordon Messenger has taught English for grades 6 through 12 for the past 14 years. Before earning her teacher certification, she was a professional journalist. Messenger holds a Master of Arts in Oral Traditions and a research Master of Philosophy in the Sociology of Education from Lancaster University in Lancaster, U.K. She currently teaches English and Journalism at Naugatuck High School in Naugatuck, CT. Reach her on Twitter: @cjmessenger