Sunday, October 08, 2006

Depth vs. Breadth

Next week we have our first batch of exams; the nine week's exams. To be completely honest, I don't think my students are ready for them. In the past 9 nines, we've only covered three and a half chapters in Physical Science, a rather slow pace if you ask me. I have read, time and time again, in various education books, that many public high school teachers teach "a mile wide, but only an inch deep." My goal over the last 15 months of my teaching career has been to erase that stereotype, even if it's on a small scale. Because I go above and beyond the textbook, it takes me quite a bit longer to cover the material. I think it is a fair price to pay; however, I do sometimes wonder if teaching more in-depth is best for ALL of my students. I have a handful of students who are very bright and have a strong work ethic. These students seem to appreciate the depth with which I cover topics. The majority of my students, however, seem to be in school only because they have to be. They don't want to learn any more than what is absolutely necessary. If a topic isn't in the textbook, they resist with all their might. And then I have the handful of students that I really worry about. These are the students who consistently tell me they are dropping out the second they can and may or may not pursue their GED. For these students, it doesn't matter what I teach them or how I teach them, they don't seem to care.

So the vast majority of students resist my attempts to go above and beyond. Because of this obvious fact, last week I resolved that I would stick to the textbook, speed up a bit and see if most of my students could do better. I tried it for the week, and they still complained. It was as if I didn't make a single change. I was so frustrated. Then one student changed it all. It was a student I had last year, a trouble maker who seemed to never pay attention. I remembered he barely passed my class with a 71%. I found him standing in my door way after school. He informed me that he was taking chemistry and that it was "so easy" because he hadn't learned anything new yet. Everything they were covering in chemistry had been already explained to him in Physical Science. He spoke of electron configurations (a topic with which many students struggle) coming to him right away. He said that he was the only student in the class that had recognized a Lewis dot structure. Best of all, he said, "And it's all because I took your class last year, Mr. Lochen."

It's moments like these that give me a greater sense of purpose. Believe me, they don't come often but when they do, these moments make me feel like I'm actually making a small difference. So, I am reverting back to my former teaching strategy (after the nine week's test) and I'm going to continue to teach topics with more depth than breadth because maybe, just maybe, students will come to appreciate it and achieve more as a result of it, in time.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Getting Students to Do Homework

I admit I am still struggling with motivating students to do their homework. It seems that no matter what I try, I can never get 100% participation, and forgive me for being pessimistic, but I am willing to bet that none of you are either. Even the best of teachers must surely struggle with students not completing assignments. So first years, if you and your students are struggling with homework, you're in good company. I'll let you in on a few of my secrets.

The first thing I do is to establish a homework routine. There are of course, many components to this routine, some obvious, others not so obvious. Every day, I write the homework assignment in the same place and in the same format. Yes, I tend to give homework every night (except Friday) with a few exceptions. This is all part of the routine. Every day, before class, they put their homework in the homework box (which hangs on the wall just as you pass through the door) before they do anything else. They always do their homework in the same format, using the same headings, and on the same type of paper (loose-leaf of course!) So there is an air of familiarity with every assignment. The intent is that they will establish this routine and it will become second nature to carry it out. (In a perfect world.)

Second, I hold students accountable. If they don't turn in an assignment, they must sign their name on the "I chose not to do my homework last night" sheet. This ensures that they at least consider the fact that they didn't do it and it will affect their grade. Too often, I think students who are not explicitly held accountable don't even realize that they are not doing their homework anymore. It's almost as if they are living in a fantasy world in which homework doesn't exist. Signing their name forces them to consciously think about their choices each time they chose not to complete an assignment. Furthermore, it also gives me ammo for parent-teacher conferences. I can simply pull out the no homework sheet and easily explain that Tamekwa is actively "choosing" to fail my class.

Last, I solicit the help of the parents. I send home a letter each quarter reminding parents that I do in fact give homework, and they should be expecting their children to be working on it at night. I also include a plea to the parents to take homework seriously and to simply ask little Suzy if all of her homework for Mr. Lochen's class is complete.

Even with this three-pronged approach, I still fall short. On a good day, I can get about 70-80% participation. On a bad day, I'm lucky to get 50% participation. Some days I feel like pulling out all those studies that suggest students are given too much homework, and lightening up a little. It would certainly do away with some stress, but I truly believe that homework is beneficial for students (to an extent of course) because it allows them to practice the material independently, a feat not usually accomplished in school thanks to the cafeteria (the site of rampant cheating.) Anyway, that's my two-cents on the homework war.