Friday, January 27, 2012

Homework Ponderings

I have been pondering the whole homework issue on and off lately. With doing SBG, I don't grade homework. It's actually been rather liberating - I don't grade every little thing and students' grades reflect what they know. However, I am really seeing this year that my students don't do much of the assigned homework problems. We can make the list of excuses reasons as long or as short as you want. But the bottom line is that many of my students don't practice their mathematics outside of class as they should.

I suppose I could ponder as to why this is and we could all come up with a pretty long list. But I guess the bottom line is that as I look at students today versus 15-20 years ago versus about 25 years ago (when I was in school) is that society and home lives are much different now then when I first started teaching or even when I was a high school student myself. Add to that the fact that my students face a much different home and economic situation than when I was in school (some discussion on that in this post) and my current students' perspective on homework is radically different than mine.

Over the last few days, I have really been pondering about what to do to ensure my students practice the mathematics so they can be successful. I am pretty certain that my best students are doing that with little push from me. They have that motivation to do well and they realize they need to practice it. But what about the lower ability students - the ones who have struggled with math? They don't like math and often times don't want to do it, so if I'm not grading it, they don't have much incentive to do it. I can give exit ticket problems so they do one problem (or two) before they leave class. I can give opener problems for them to do as they come into class, but unless I collect it, they don't seem to put much effort into it. For that matter, even some of my best students don't put much effort into the warm up problems. I suppose I could do My Favorite No with their Warm Up Problems every day which would force them more into doing the problems. If I do that, it's kind of hard to do that with "Mental Mondays" and the multiple choice questions I use on Tuesdays and Thursdays for my Bellringers.

I am getting better at having them do a couple of problems during the lesson. Part of it is that I ended up going back and reteaching factoring using the GCF and in x^2 + bx + c form (see these posts for details) and I did note pages for them with examples for them to work as we went along. As much as I hate putting together note pages for them to work on, I have more of a chance of them actually doing notes if I do this than if I just tell them to take their own notes from my SMART Notebook file as I teach. Given that we are really moving into "new" territory for them, I am really debating if I should just throw in the towel and provide them note pages to write on and hope that they follow through with taking the notes or really continue the push to take their own notes. I am struggling with this because if they ever hope to survive in college, they have to learn to take their own notes. However, I have some students (who probably won't end up going to college) who won't do anything as far as notes go without some sort of push like having the note page provided. There are still students who won't take any notes at all and I am certain I am not going to change their minds no matter what I do. It's those middle to low kids who just might do something if I give them the paper that I'm hoping to get going in the right direction.

Anyway, getting back to the issue I started with... Part of what sparked these ponderings about homework/practice problems is what happened in class Thursday. I had put together this game (see the end of this post) where students had to work out problems and the teams got points and the winning team got blow pops and for 2 of my 3 classes it went really well. The kids mostly did the problems. In my lowest ability class of the 3, I was able to get around and help some students and got them on the right track. The students really liked it (and I think would have done it without the candy incentive) and were engaged with the math. My 2nd class had four students who pretty much ruined it for the whole class. I had divided the room into teams by where they sat and all four students were on the same team. They didn't want to try and would copy the answer from another student when it was their turn. So I added the condition that they had to explain their answer to get the point for their team. These four students' behavior pretty much demoralized their team and made what was fun for other classes not fun at all.

As I look at the students in question, one has really been struggling with math. This student has gone to get help which has helped a little bit, but the reality is that this student probably shouldn't have gotten the grades that were on the report card and maybe even shouldn't have passed Algebra 1. Two of the students have the potential to be decent Algebra 2 students but they choose to not put forth much of an effort. The fourth student also has some issues with understanding the mathematics as well. This student has had extended absences a couple of times due to medical issues and has come in for help a couple of times after those absences, but has not chosen to make much of an effort as of late. When they choose to practice problems, they do much better. Although I will be changing seats next week to help deal with the behavioral issues these four students cause for each other (and subsequently for the class on Thursday), it doesn't change the underlying problem of lack of effort.

How do you get students to make the effort they should? Not every topic in mathematics is compelling to everyone and certainly not every topic in mathematics has "real world" application problems that I can pull out to help make the mathematics compelling (not that I am doing what I should be or could be as far as that goes, but that's another post for another time). If I can't control what they do outside of my classroom, how do I get them to work on the mathematics inside of my classroom? Some would argue I need to "flip" my classroom - have videos for students to watch for the lessons at home and have work time in class for students to work on the problems. I'm not convinced that's the way to go. For one, not all my students have access to the internet outside of school. For some students, their only internet access at home is through dial-up. This is a socio-economic issue here. We also go back to the issue of time and priorities that I mentioned earlier as far as even doing the assignment outside of class. I need to get back to reading Drive and ReWired, both of which I started before Christmas and haven't gotten anywhere since.

I know I certainly don't have the answer. I don't expect that others of you do either. At this point, I am just trying to sort through my many thoughts on the issue. My wonderful math tweep @cheesemonkeysf has said to me before that the answer is there, I just haven't found it yet. Blogging helps me get there - eventually. Meanwhile, feel free to add your thoughts and ramblings to mine in the comments.


DeaconK said...

I feel the same way you do. I would love it if my students would practice even a few problems outside the walls of my classroom. However, for many, when they pass through the door while leaving, the mathematic thinking process stops there too. I have given very minimal assignments outside of class this year. I'll assign a weekly ScreenChomp app assignment having them explaining their thinking on how to solve a problem and email it to me from their iPad. They have a rubric on how I grade the assignment so they know what is expected. I get fewer than 20 out of 100. I have come to terms with the homework though. Now it is carrying over into work time. I'll assign anywhere from 8-15 problems for practice and well over half my students will get only 3-5 complete in 30-40 minutes. Of course I have the ones who will do all plus more, but when is something simple like isolating a variable with addition or subtraction, and they only get 4 complete and they have errors, now I am at a loss.

We had a math dept meeting the other day and our AP asked what my biggest challenge was. I mentioned this and it came back that we have very few learners anymore. Students have been spoon fed and back rubbed to a point where there is something out of a comfort zone, they quit. If it looks hard, they quit. If they can't even ask their questions because they don't have the background skills and dont know what to ask, they quit. I say, they can't quit what they have never started. I keep plugging away trying to find ways into tricking them into doing math. Running out of ideas though. Keep up your fight and hard work.

misscalcul8 said...

I make guided notes for the students where they are mostly filling in blanks and working out examples. I like this especially in geometry because there is not time to copy down all of the diagrams and whatnot. Also, I had terrible college experiences so I don't want to put my students through the torture of writing notes all hour long and wanting to die. I structure my notes to have a picture or little explanation and then 3-5 problems for them to do on their own. I walk away from the board and walk by each students desk to see how they are doing. Then I have volunteers go write the answer on the board. I ask students to raise their hand or give me a thumbs up if they agree and if they disagree we discuss that as well. I find this works well because I am not lecturing and writing all hour, they are not writing nonstop notes off the board so that they don't have time to listen, and practice problems are built into classtime. With my bell ringer and exit slip included, I estimate that my students do anywhere from 10-20 problems a day plus whatever homework I may decide to give them.

One idea to help your homework is to have a homework quiz. The day after you assign homework, answer any questions the students have about it. The next day, give a 2 question quiz. Have students roll dice or something to pick two problems. These come straight from the homework so you don't have to create anything new. The students won't know ahead of time which problems will be on the quiz so they will have to do all of them and have all of their questions answered to make sure they understand. If you do this in every class, then you can grade each class while the next class is taking their quiz.

chowren said...

I teach 7th grade math and feel the same frustrations that you do. My school is a high rate of free and reduced lunch which tells me that these students face many more problems than math homework when they get home. I know we cannot compare kids doing homework now to what it was like when we were in school. The kids that walk into my classroom have responsibilities that I never fathomed at that age. It is frustrating as a teacher, but it is also the reality of what we are facing.

I don't have any answers, but to keep plugging away. I try different strategies constantly trying to find one that works for all. I know that one doesn't exist, but I continue to try to find something that will help my students. I do still give homework, but it is a much smaller assignment than what I used to give. I still try to reward the students that do the homework. (through grades, but also through small rewards such as candy, get to leave class couple minutes early, pick where they sit, etc.) The grade part of it actually motivates very few of the students so I try to find other little rewards that will help the other kids WANT to have it done. Definitely does not work for all, but that is what I try.

Not a lot of helpful advice for you, but just reminded you that there are many of us facing similar issues. Good luck to you, keep plugging away at em!