February 26, 2011

Homework Hassle

Mister Teacher is talking about his homework woes this week, and several teachers are chiming in. Wow! Do I feel his pain. Getting students to turn in work is something I always struggle with, and this year's students have been particularly stubborn about not doing their work.

Let me start off by reminding everyone that I teach accelerated English to 8th graders in a magnet program. They are our school's best and brightest. Granted, a lot of them are on a bus for a few hours a day to attend our school, but that is a choice their families have made. One wouldn't think that I would have too many issues with students not turning in work, right? Oh...only in a perfect world.

During most of the year, I give a writing assignment to be completed at home each week, but we start it in class on Monday, and the rough draft is not due until Thursday, when we do some sort of revision or editing activity with it. School-wide, students are expected to read 30 minutes every night, and over the years, it evolved into a system where they plan to read four nights a week--their choice of nights--completing a book a month. It does sound like a lot, doesn't it? I consciously do not plan for other homework, but students are also expected to complete any work not finished in class as homework. Those who stay on task do not usually have this type of homework...

A few years ago, my team instituted a no late work policy. It does cause a little panic, but many of us use some sort of Oops Pass where students have a few chances a quarter to turn in an assignment late with no penalty. It's a system that I like because it demands students do their work but gives them a break if they have a couple of bad days.

Although, my administrator approved my course expectations this year, and for the past several years, she prefers that we give homework detention. Now, it is not expected that we personally stay after, which would conflict with our contracted time, but there is apparently an aide who conducts the detention. At the beginning of the year, the details of this system were wonky, and at this point it conflicts with the system we have in place.

I have two major issues with the homework detention. The first is the paperwork I would need to do. I'm smart enough to understand that I can hand the kid the slip and make him fill it out, but the process of collecting and discovering who hasn't done it would certainly take more time than, "Okay class, pass your work forward." I think I could make it work, but what if the kid did not attend detention? Here lies my second issue with detention. If the student does not go, I should do something about, right? Well, I guess I could call home or issue it again, but I cannot refer the insubordination of not attending academic detention to the dean. Ultimately, the punishment if I assign homework detention is nothing for the student, and everything to me with the responsibility for me to contact the parent and document the insubordination. I mean, I guess I could just let it go, but if I dole out detention with no consequences, that weakens my authority. I guess I could say to students, "I do not accept late work, but if you would like a chance to turn it in, you must attend homework detention." Still a hassle. So shoot me for being a lazy teacher.

There is a third reason I do not like the homework detention "system" we have in place. It puts all of the burden on me, and just the thought of it gives me panic attacks. I have more than enough on my plate with the curriculum and grading. I try my best of offer quality units, which takes time--much of it collaborate with my colleagues. The program in which I teach demands a bit more paperwork, which is kind of an unspoken reality. Spending another hour each day cajoling students and their parents into contributing their share of the effort is a poor use of my time. I know I mentioned this at open house this year. Something like, "Hey parents, it's a poor use of my time, energy, and expertise to simply babysit your student."

Ah, but what if homework detention worked like a charm and students were compelled to stay after school to do their work? Well, it hasn't worked that well when I've done it myself. Just last week, after I discovered that many students did not turn in an assessment essay we worked on in class, an assessment grade that dropped them a full letter grade by not doing it, I handed out detentions to be served with me. Only 1/3 of the students assigned showed up. Do you know why? They don't care.

No, they don't care. If it really mattered to them, they would have done it the first time. This is why I should not stress so much about those who don't do their work and spend my precious time planning excellent learning opportunities for this who do care. Those poor brilliant, compliant students don't get enough of my attention anyway.

February 10, 2011

One Hurdle Down

Wahoo! We made it through the state proficiency writing exam. Of course, the results will not be back for a few months, but the TEST is over.

It's been a rough path because the test changed. In the past, our 8th grade students spent two days writing a one narrative or descriptive essay. Now the students are tested on two different expository topics in one sitting, much like students do for the high school exam. Apparently, the federal government thought our 8th grade test needed to look more like the high school exam, thus the change.

As you can imagine, in a time of test mania, we have always focused more on narrative writing than expository writing. Yes, yes, we did teach expository writing, but for the sake of the test, there was so much more focus on narrative. (Those high school teachers are going to so thankful with this test change for sure because their jobs should be easier now!)

I agree with having students write expository essays over narrative at this age, but I don't know if I agree with making them write two essays in one sitting. The time suggested is two hours, but as long as students are working productively, they may take as long as they need. For most students, it was between three and four hours. Rough!

So, with the change in test, it's been a panic to get the kids ready. It's been a rough road, starting from scratch with some of the students, and I still have students who can't write a decent thesis--by my standards at least. And I almost started crying when I saw one of my students, who was one of the last to finish, turn in an essay with three sentences in each paragraph. Bless his heart for trying so hard...but seriously, I wanted to quit on the spot. I wanted to shred the tests I glanced at that had a boring restate-the-question-in-the- answer-lead. I can't even tell you how many times I told them that they needed to make a good first impression and not do the functional, "If I were to compare and contrast blah, blah, blah..." And you know I didn't just "tell" them, right?

From the beginning when we heard about the change, I was worried sick about two general things: (1. distrust that the state's test, which was scant on information and materials at first, would actually assess what they said it was going to assess, and (2. our gains in writing the past few years (indicated on the old state assessment) would all be lost and nobody would acknowledge that our scores were lower because of the test bait-and-switch, not because of my instruction or our students' abilities.

The test is over now. I'm putting my fears on the back burner for now. We're moving on to the next obstacle: the state reading test.

(And the rest of the year: PROJECTS!)