Thursday, December 17, 2015

I gave up homework this fall....and we all survived

This summer, I had the good fortune of participating in a 2 1/2 day institute with Laura Terrill, during which I committed to writing a thematically based curriculum for my 4th-6th graders.  Gratifying. Invigorating. Completely overwhelming. Laura gave a clear message to the participants that when taking on something new, we have to give something up, too.

Hmm? What to give up?  It only took me about 5 seconds to figure out that homework had to go, and from then on my mantra has been "Grade less. Plan more." I only have so much time-more learning comes from planning than grading.  Thank you Laura Terrill.   So, why the switch?

  • There is mounting evidence that homework doesn't support academic achievement in elementary(see The Case Against Homework), with little evidence that it does.
  • Thanks to Google Translate and Spanish speaking babysitters and family members, often the homework is not the student's work, and I don't get an accurate picture of what they can do or what they have practiced. 
  • I see over 200 students per week-tracking their progress and giving timely feedback on their in class work. In a day, I usually have eight class meetings.  There simply are not enough hours in the day for me to spend grading homework or giving up precious class time for students to check homework that doesn't support proficiency.   
Fortunately, I teach in a school that is open to change based on evidence, and I was able to let it go. Homework now is for fun projects like occasionally writing pen pal letters; and not every day nor every week.

I'm now three months in and here's how it's going:
  • Utter freedom from the looming pile. While my workload, like all teachers, is still heavy-I now focus my time on planning units, lessons and giving feedback on class work.  I don't feel guilty or overwhelmed by the paperwork or Google Voice assignments waiting in my inbox.
  • No one is losing out.  The children in my program continue to progress and build proficiency without homework, AND our time together is free from nagging about missing homework assignments.
  • I  assess/grade what's important: what students can actually do in the language.  By giving up  homework, I evaluate only assessments(free from GT), which demonstrate what students can do in the language-not how they've managed their time outside of class. 
  • I gained time to focus on the most important work. The last two years, I created my own homework book-which entailed writing performance based tasks for each unit, then have it copied and bound. I now spend more time planning for in-class learning experiences, and have more money in the budget!
  • Flexibility. Even though I created my own workbooks, I then had to stick to them. What if we wanted to spend more time exploring a topic or take it further?  The homework book didn't support that. 
  • I'm happier-which is better for my students.
I know that not all teachers can make this choice due to district/school requirements. But if you can-it feels almost as good as tossing your textbook.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Connecting Globally: The Communities Standard in Elementary

"Bring the world to the child." 
 -Maria Montessori

From the World Readiness Standards, 2015: Learners use the language both within and beyond the classroom to interact and collaborate in their community and the globalized world. 

Communities. This is where the rubber really hits the road-interacting with actual humans that speak the language. For teachers in K-8 programs, this standard can present challenges in terms of opportunity and age appropriateness.  I'm fortunate to work in a Montessori environment where independence is fostered and celebrated, so we are able to travel with the middle schoolers(I'll elaborate on traveling with 13 year olds later), but in elementary, making the community connection is still an interesting challenge. This year I'm experimenting with some ways the children can connect and use Spanish outside of the classroom without, well, going outside of the classroom. 

The Peace Corps has a program to connect volunteers with schools, so my third graders are corresponding with a volunteer in Costa Rica. Thanks to technology, our volunteer has been able to email us photos and letters and we can do the same. Fortunately she's a Spanish speaker and it's given my students a chance to use Spanish for introductions and asking questions, and they've learned a thing or two about life in Costa Rica.  

In upper elementary, I'm using E-pals to connect with children my students' age in Spain and Nicaragua. We're using paper letter writing which has been a fun way for the children to exchange tokens such as coins, school photos and friendship bracelets, but are also exchanging sound recordings using Vocaroo/email.   The ripple effects are being felt in our school community and more classroom teachers are asking about how to participate in  project collaboration and pen pal connections in their classrooms, too! 

In what ways are you bringing the world to the children you teach?

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Shifting Context

  Averting war is the work of politicians, establishing peace is the work of education.
Maria Montessori

Without context, it's very difficult to learn another language. In order to acquire language, we need to struggle with negotiating context.   Thinking about my own language learning, I faintly remember the many textbooks my teachers used that laid out units that jumped from topic to topic-travel, school, clothing, weather, food-all without much cultural context that ever veered off the beaten path of tacos and tapas. 

 In 6th grade Spanish we are wrapping up a unit on food. Well, not on food exactly.  At the beginning of the unit,  students were asked the question, "Qué come el mundo?" What does the world eat?  We starting by considering the book Hungry Planet which documents families from around the world and a week's worth of groceries.  After describing and comparing photos, it became clear that not all families have access to the same quantities or quality of food.  Later in the unit, we considered the work of the Spanish aid organization  Acción contra el hambre which explores some of the reasons for hunger in our world, and solutions to it.  Finally, the children reflected on their work with Common Pantry, and how they can support the hungry in Chicago.  What resulted was using Spanish language to create a campaign to build support for Common Pantry in our community.  Sure, the children learned food words  during the unit, but the enduring understanding is about increasing justice, peace and equality in our community and world.  It's all about shifting the context.