July 21, 2011

Ugh. Homework. What's is Worth?

Darren over at Right on the Left Coast is discussing LA Unified's new homework policy. In the original policy, which has recently been canceled anyway, homework would count for only 10% of the grade. My administrator would support the idea that we teachers cannot control what happens at home and students have varying levels of support at home. Darren supports this idea, too, but he correctly predicted that policy would make it more difficult for students to earn good grades. Placing value on homework is more than a numbers game.

Over the years, as I try to fairly assess my students and attach a grade to what they do, I've struggled with what this homework business is all about and what it is worth. (A few months ago, I anguished over how to squeeze the blasted work out of students.)

In the past, I counted homework as 10-15%, and assignments that were considered homework are assignments completed totally at home, such as independent reading. If an assignment was started in class but needed to be completed at home, it was considered classwork (formative assessment), which was 35-40%. Assessments (summative) counted for 50%.

Sometimes I just couldn't get that 10% = homework to make sense, though. Throughout the year, students had projects and major reading and writing assignments that require more time at home than in class to finish. In fact, many independent reading projects were done completely at home. Technically, that's homework. However, those were worth a lot more than 10%, and often they were considered an assessment in the end. I always had to be explicit with students that just because it is being completed at home, it was worth a lot. I'm not sure if they were even paying attention to the weights of the class, but some students had to be reminded that doing assigned work at home is very important.

Ultimately, I have had difficulty justifying assignments that were worth a mere 10% of a student's grade. Sometimes we would go weeks without an assignment that was technically considered "homework." Everything required of them was very important! Even when students were asked to do small tasks that might not add up to be worth much in time and points, the completion of those tasks was usually integral in the students being able to participate in classroom activities and move forward in learning. Is it really necessary give points to every little step along the learning continuum? In the big picture of assessment, I say no, but students are used to being rewarded often for their work.

When my students struggle--in my class and in others--it usually comes down to this concept of homework. My colleagues and I use homework as a means for students to practice and extend their knowledge or prep for upcoming classes. In my class, that means that students should have rough draft writings completed so they can receive feedback for revision and have time to practice in class. In algebra class, that means students should practice the newly assigned concepts so they may apply them to the next lesson. In geography, that means students should read the textbook and add to the notes/concepts that were discussed or will be discussed in class. This is not busy work.

When students do not do their homework, no matter what the value of the grade it is worth, they are not taking responsibility for their learning, and that translates into a lack of performance extends throughout the rest of their work. So when we tell parents, "Your student needs to do his/her homework," it's a pretty big deal.

Is this where the argument about how not all students have the same support at home comes in? Not all parents are home to give help on homework. Some students have to care for their siblings after school. Some students have too many extracurricular activities. Maybe we should not even have homework, right? Hmmm. Maybe. Maybe some some students want to do well and require more time. Maybe those students have no problem with working at home. Maybe the students need time to process their learning, and that time is not afforded during the school day. Perhaps we could lengthen the school day! Yeah, that will happen.

Maybe...it comes back to the responsibility issue. Students must take responsibility for their learning. There are wonder students who do this innately, but usually do need all the support they can get from school and home, especially in the early years as they are forming habits. Yes, some students live in heart-breaking circumstances that make it difficult for them to find the support at home. That problem cannot be fixed with a certain percentage of a grade being attributed to homework when homework is part of a learning process.

Oh! Some might say that perhaps homework should not be part of the learning process. No, it's not crazy. I mean, where are we going with the concept of placing a mere 10% of a grade on homework? We could have a big debate on that alone. But think about it. What are your goals for students? Does homework enhance student learning? Is homework that important?

I know in my classroom, homework will not go away. A specific grade for it might, though. I will continually strive to make homework valuable for my students, for without it, they just cannot progress as quickly as they are capable of doing. Now, if I could drive this point home with my upcoming students...

July 17, 2011

A Working Summer

This is one of the posts where I explain where I've been all summer. I would also like to reflect upon where my summer has gone! Wow! Time is just flying by!

For the first month of this summer, I was busy with the writing project. I had the privilege to be a facilitator at the invitational summer institute, but at the very last minute, we lost some participants, so I wasn't really needed that much. In fact, I didn't have my own writing response group to facilitate. Basically, I was there as there to do tech stuff, and at times that kept me pretty busy as I took pictures, and archived the summer on our website.

For part of time, I was also hanging out with the youth writing camps, which were housed in two different locations. We have this cool program where students come to writing camp (grades 1-12) that writing project teachers consultants conduct, but last year we added a component where teachers earn college credit by participating in team teaching in the writing camp. While I was in and out taking pictures, I was also taking some video from students and teachers and the experience. The work everyone was doing was so amazing! The teachers were having a blast. The students were having a blast. All this excitement over writing! Now, that I have film and photos, I'm charged with creating some promos about summer camp. I'm a little nervous to put it all together, as I'm not a whiz with making videos--especially using video clips as opposed to just photos--but there's always room to learn, right?

As exhausted as I am from not having truly had a month off from work, yet, I was refreshing to work with writing project stuff this summer. There are always positive people learning, sharing, and writing new things. I was so done with everyone and everything and the end of the year. Who could have known that spending another month of working and talking writing would be refreshing? I only hoped...and thankfully, it did the trick. I am almost ready (no work until August) to strike up some enthusiasm to plan for next year!

(I'm really bummed that I only completed one piece of writing during the institute, and it was at the beginning.)

July 10, 2011

Reflections on Zombies

According to a series of Internet surveys, I have only 60% chance of surviving a zombie apocalypse. It was pretty consistent across the board. (Try a few surveys here, here, and here. There are dozens of them.) A mere 60%. I’m pretty impressed with those numbers considering I know nothing about how to survive zombie-ridden world, but then on the other hand if I can to go up against a rabid pack of zombies, I’d really want my percentages to be much better—more like a 100%. It’s my life we’re talking about here. But we are talking about zombies not the swine flu. Just how likely is it that zombies might attack me? Actually,  I’m not sure. 
Have you noticed our culture’s current obsession with zombies? For a long time, vampires were the monster de jour because somehow they were sexy and romantic. What other way could we women get a true (and literal) renaissance man and the hope of eternal life? Chilvary’s not dead! Any vampire I’ve met in pop culture, revels in eternal youth and beauty. Swoon! So what if I can’t die? Oh, the tragedy of enjoying everything life has to offer! Who cares that I would have to drink blood? Squirt some chocolate in it or mix it with some vodka. I guarantee it will taste better than that psyllium and lemon juice “health” tonic I drank this morning. Vampires and their lifestyle sound enticing, so I can understand how people could become fascinated with vampires, but zombies? Ugh. They have no glamour.
A charming zombie is a dead zombie. I mean really dead, incapacitated, and decapitated. This brand of undead has no class. Stinking, rotting flesh falling off their bones…grossly misshapen bodies drag across the ground… and apparently, zombies have one thought: “Brains!” Now, I don’t know enough about zombies to know if this is an exaggeration, but it is evident that zombies do not possess high-level brain functions as they simply wander around mumbling and groaning. Poor hygiene, decaying complexion, and a one-track mind--how can the public be so obsessed with this monster? 

It’s sad how the public mood has changed in its fascination with the undead. With an interest in vampire fantasies, people were often hopeful and optimistic. I know that not all vampires are like Lestat and Edward, but at least with a vampire lifestyle, according to popular fiction, one can function almost normally as a human being. I’ve been waiting for stories told from a zombie’s point of view, but that unlikely to happen. Zombies don’t think; they react. They attack and eat with no control, often infecting those they attack. This is where their popularity troubles me. With even one zombie comes a whole apocalypse. Why is our culture obsessed with a monster that will annihilate the human race? Are people wondering if the end is near? 

I’ve enjoyed good vampires stories for two decades, and in recent years, it has become such a popular genre that the market has been saturated with a glut of paranormal fiction. Never once in those years did I entertain the thought that vampires might exist. Not even when I’ve seen young people imitating the vampiric life, including the whole blood drinking thing, did I ever fear for my ephemeral life. Come on! Vampires? Wipe off your pasty makeup, pop out those fangs, and get a job! 

But zombies…as ridiculous as they sound, I have half a mind to believe that they could exist. As a culture, we are halfway there. Our attention span is limited to the equivalent of 140 characters of digital drivel, as we bump our way through society, stopping only to refuel with anything that comes with fries. Perhaps it is extreme to think that we are so disconnected we might as well be zombies. However, in all seriousness, if our world did become overrun with zombies, I wonder how long it would take for anybody to notice. 

Besides killing ourselves with mind-numbing “culture,” what we should worry about is biological warfare. Let’s consider government conspiracies and mad scientists who could create viruses that will spread like wildfire, killing the human race as we know it. You see, some of the popular zombie fiction is based on the premise that a zombie apocalypse begins after a terrible virus is released. Brain-hungry walking dead sound bit far-fetched, but evil men creating biological weapons of mass destruction are much more plausible. If you believe that biological weapons are also too fantastical to reality, consider these common diseases that could make one act like a zombie: 

  • Rabies. People infected with rabies, which comes from an animal bite, often exhibit strange and violent behavior. They might have paralysis and could become mentally impaired to the point of irrationality. Images of violent, crazy people foaming at the mouth coming to mind?
  • Sleeping Sickness. Induced by the attack of a parasite that goes right to the brain, the carrier gradually becomes less coherent as the parasite eats away at the brain. No brain function would certainly make one zombie-like.
  • Necrosis. Premature dying cell tissue can certainly provide the look of a rotting zombie. It spreads and can cause limbs to die long before the brain does. Stinking gangrene, anyone?
  • Leprosy. A highly contagious, often slowly developing skin condition that can deteriorate to necrosis and deformation, it is the epitome of what people might consider a zombie looks like. It’s been decades since anyone has seen leprosy, but often people who had it were treated as if they were already dead.
Of course, none of these afflictions alone makes a zombie, but what if a mad scientist mixed together a concoction of these diseases—or something even worse that we don’t even know about that includes cannibalism? Welcome to my dead man’s party! 

Perhaps you think you’re safe as long as no mad scientist comes up with a way to reanimate the dead? Think again and read some zombie fiction. These living dead don’t have to brought back to life. A nice coma would do if you really want your average zombie to have that classic element of surprise when you find that something you thought was dead really isn’t. Simply a degradation of human function would probably freak me out enough. One day my spouse is hugging and kissing me, and the next day he wants to get close so he can feed on my juicy flesh and delicious brains. “Holy Living Dead! When did my sweetie become a zombie? This wasn’t in the vows! RUN!” 

The real question is whether I believe enough that zombies could exist and if I should be prepared for an attack. Considering I’m an overweight, 40 year-old woman living in an urban area with only a 60% chance of surviving a zombie apocalypse, it’s quite unlikely that I’m going to take up an interest in machetes and shotguns. “I used to enjoy cooking and crafts in my free time, but now spend my time honing my commando survival skills. Wanna see my guns? A zombie apocalypse will come, you know.” How crazy does that sound? I think I’ll try to keep the possibilities tucked into my nightmares for now and hope that zombie popularity isn’t an omen.