Thursday, November 19, 2015

The need to talk about Homework. Plain and simple

I posted this on Twitter when I was a bit frustrated...

And it got quite a response.


Don't roll your eyes. ; )

Homework has been debated... and I mean a TON over the years.

I've watched for many years as my own children have labored through hours of homework each night. We've had some interesting discussions over how much of that work they feel actually has value. I listen mostly and keep my observations silent. 

Most often their homework is in excess of three hours per night. It's increasingly rare that they get downtime in the evening or get any significant family time save our parental demand to eat together, uh, when we can.' Extra curricular practices and jobs often interfere with any sort of schedule that puts us all together in the evening. We eat separately often, and struggle to carve out time to actually 'connect.'

Unfortunately over much of their academic lives homework has carried penalty based grades and wasn't viewed as formative assessement. That's another discussion.

I've thought many times in my life how I'd love to reclaim so much of that 'homework' time and actually do something else with my children.

And yes, I do 'help' with homework when I can and try to be involved. But it's not substantial or practical to think I can be involved often.

I hear this struggle in many circles of friends who have middle through high school age students... and most importantly from students themselves. I talk with students about it everywhere I go.

Disclaimer... I work in education and I've always wondered and challenged the value of excessive amounts of homework. 

Often relentlessly.

I collect information about the business of 'homework' on the web. For nine years it is was part of a project based learning ramp up I did with high school students on how technology is effecting education. Those projects included student analysis and parent interviews each year... and were very telling.

I've read countless articles, journals and such and I have interviewed many experts on the topic. I also broached the topic with over 50 schools worldwide as part of a sabbatical exploring innovation in education. Yup. It's a weird hobby I guess.

So I decided to do a small survey of my own finally. I surveyed 60 people from three different schools as follows:

20 students in grades 9-12

20 adults who work in 9-12 education

20 parents of children in 9-12 education

Each group was asked various questions and the first was about 'homework.'

Without entering the debate of should we have homework or not, or even what constitutes value in homework, I focused simply on 'volume.'

Of the students surveyed, all 14 of 20 reported having more than 2 hours per night.

10 of 20 reported having three hours or more.

4 reported having more than four hours per night.

3 out of 20 reported 5 or more hours per night.

When surveying parents, 18 of 20 reported that their children have too much homework.

Homework was also a hot issue on the survey over school breaks. Of the 20 students surveyed, all 20 reported having homework in excess of 15 hours over a week long break... that means roughly two full working days of homework.

Of the 60 people surveyed, the breakdown for whether we should have homework over breaks / vacations lays out as follows:

No: 20
yes: 0

No: 20
yes: 0

Adults in education:
No: 12
Yes: 8

That's an interesting split isn't it?

Many teachers reported they were encouraged to give homework over breaks.

Of course, one student story may seem biased to thread into a report such as this, but, I couldn’t resist.

A student came into class one day very upset that one of his teachers that day had assigned 150 pages of reading to be completed that night, the same night that he would leave school early (at 1245pm) for a hockey game. The return time from the game, when the team bus would arrive back at school was estimated at 1230am. Of course, that doesn’t not factor in drive home, a shower, likely something to eat, and actually getting to sleep, and getting up (as the student reported) at 545am the next morning to get ready and get to school. When the student explained his schedule for the day, the teacher simply replied ‘you can read it on the bus.’ The student then asked me if I’d ‘ever tried to read 150 pages of a book on a hockey bus with 25 people, gear, music, conversations and bus noise?’ We both had a good laugh and I asked him to talk to the teacher about an extension. The student came back later in the day and said the extension was 'denied.'

Homework management policies are in place in many schools throughout the country. Many allocate extensions for folks with heavy workloads, extended extracurricular events, personal issues, and the like. Again, extending homework excessively into the evening, and on school breaks and vacations is part of that school time creep that is robbing students of valuable time to connect with family and to actually take a break or to pursue other interests.

We sort of understand in the workplace that a 15-16 hour workday is 'too much.' Just not so much in education.

What does the student day, on average, actually look like at your schools? Are we actually asking people to practice what we preach... or are we making a series of unrealistic demands that they just need to figure out?

Calls for 'More Rigor'

I've had many discussions in schools about 'increased calls for rigor.' All too often those calls for more rigor are simply unsophisticated calls for 'more.'

The debate needs to be more thoughtful.

If we start and continue meaningful discussions on the amount of homework... we may find we're kidding ourselves. When we boast that we need and value 'family' time, encourage kids to pursue their own interests, and even try 'reading for fun' then we should put more thought into analyzing what a student day is actually like.

What if we discover that kids are actually pursuing less rigorous classes because their personal lives can't handle or be restructured to accommodate highly excessive homework? Sound elitist? it is actually. Such practices punish kids and families. It prevents them from exploring opportunities.

Here's are four simple recommendations on homework

1. Ask teachers to analyze how much homework is given and try to make reductions. And then keep doing it. Such practices force deeper pedagogical thinking about what's actually going on during the day in schools and how classes are structured. 

2. Make the practice formative and not punitive. For many students with troubled home lives the only answer shouldn't be 'try harder.'

3. Don't give homework over breaks or holidays. Period. Actually encourage people to take a break. A Thanksgiving break, with travel often involved, and having 8-15 hours of homework is, well, not a break rather it's a stress inducer.

4. If an administrator boasts statements of 'increasing rigor,' I'd encourage people to start asking thoughtful questions. What does more rigor 'actually' mean and how does it translate into student and family lives? "Doing more and faster," as Diana Laufenberg put's is, "isn't a sustainable solution."

I received a note from Ned Kirsch, Superintendent of Franklin West Supervisory Union and they are diving into a 'no homework' experiment at a middle school. This is a good read, and a bold initiative. Interesting that they've received "no complaints" about the decision too ; )

I received another note from a person I used to teach with that inspired me to finally get this entry online:

"No homework over breaks anymore and a new school schedule that builds in PD and callbacks for students to get help. Both moves have your fingerprints all over it."

It was rewarding. Even if I'm not there anymore ; )

Slow change... but change nonetheless ; )

Status quo can evolve.

What are the number of hours in a student day look like from the survey? We'll take a look next.

#vted @betavt


Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Get students involved in renovating classrooms?

I've been speaking with a lot of schools recently about renovating classrooms. 

It's a task mostly taken on by adults.

What about getting kids involved?

It can be a multidisciplinary project that could bring some great rewards, seen and unseen.

Grab some paper and something to write with for drafting ideas (or a whiteboard). Divide up into groups and come up with some basic guidelines.

  1. Reduce storage: ID things that can / should go!
  2. Remove clutter: See item 1!
  3. Clean: Yup. It's important.
  4. Paint: There's more to learning than 'institutional beige' and primary school colors!
  5. Emphasize collaborative workspace: whiteboards, shuffle tables. Draft a floor plan with your group
  6. Lighting ideas
  7. Explore new furniture options
  8. ... and maybe flooring?

Then go!

What if classrooms moved toward 'learning spaces'  and
looked more like this?
Options: Make it a timed challenge. Ask kids to look up information on the web and display it things they find.

Renovations don't have to take a lot of money. Options 1-5 above take very little in fact.

Get kids invested in refitting and renovating... and we might get to hear what it's like for them to be in these classrooms all day ; )

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

VT Fest 2015 is a wrap... and a glimpse into the future...

Painting with programmable robots! A first, and hopefully not last at VT Fest!

VT Fest 2015 was a success! 

People I spoke with at the conference relayed it and the reviews have certainly said it as well. Three days at the conference did evaporate quickly. Here's a quick and important recap.

I've worked with the VITA-Learn board over the last four years to ramp up these conferences and we're making some headway. 'The new' this year included:

  • an expanded creation / innovation / maker space: Hands on, dive in with mentors and try out some creativity
  • food! New, improved, more choices, and (despite the lines) people got fed faster than in years past. Always a crowd pleaser
  • more diverse session types and lengths: 1/2 hour, hour, and 1.5 hour unconference
  • meeting spaces! Round table style, propose your own and advertise or go spontaneously
  • awesome keynote speakers at VT Fest: The amazing Diana Laufenberg was our keynote this year
  • innovation grant! 2k to one lucky winner to do light up some creativity

We honored two people for their fantastic work: Bonnie Birdsall with the ISTE Making IT Happen Award, and Bob Owens with the Frank Watson Lifetime Achievement Award. It's been an privilege to work with these folks over the years, to get to know them and I've such admiration for their work. We truly did surprise them... either one had any idea their award was coming ; )

Arlyn Broccoli from East Montpelier won the 2K Innovation Grant! Here's an excerpt from Arlyn's proposal:
"I have a supportive administrator who will help make something go if she sees the benefit for kids. My school's entire robotics instructional program is the result of $150 that I received from a VitaLearn regional meeting. Imagine what I could do with $2K!"
Congrats to you, Arlyn, your school, and the kids you work with. We're excited to see where this innovation grant helps you go!

What a privilege to have Frank Watson himself
come again to VT Fest to talk about people
who inspired him in Vermont education!
A special shout out to Lucie deLaBruere and the fantastic folks at the Creation / Innovation Space. The reviews were off the chart on your creativity and willingness to help mentor hands-on work.

And another shout out to the amazing Diana Laufenberg for being our keynote speaker and leading a stellar workshop. Diana is a master at parsing the complex into elegant simplicity. I'm always inspired every time I get the opportunity to speak with her.

VITA-Learn said goodbye to three board members at the conference. Sue Monmaney, David Wells, and Steve Jarrett... many thanks to all of you for all you've done for work with VITA-Learn and for kids in Vermont education.

We'll welcome three new members in, voted on from the members meeting, and we'll be announcing those shortly (once the invites have been officially accepted)!

As always, I loved the opportunity to see familiar and new faces. I made a lot of new connections and gathered some ideas to move into the future.  For me, VT Fest was recharging and, like every large event you help pilot, a bit exhausting. It was the first time in four years I presented... and did so this year three times.

On the last day of the conference I closed on a new house and the very next day after I set to move our family to the new space. It made for one harried weekend. After two days of mandatory district training on Monday and Tuesday and shifting around in a chair all day... I finally did unwind today with a very much needed day off.

We got some valuable feedback from our surveys... and thank you to all those folks who filled them out, There's a lot to do still. Some ideas brewing for VT Fest 2016...

We'll strive to:
  • make the food selection even better and more streamlined
  • organize new and more inclusive social events Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday night
  • continue to expand our offerings on session length and opportunity
  • advertise earlier... the conference itself and especially round table sessions
  • send invitations to more session leaders in other States
  • increase our efforts to poll our members for new and creative ideas
  • continue the awesome innovation / creation space: 2015 was the best yet!

... and the session I ran in the pool, the first in 30 years at VT Fest, will return by popular demand ; ) Hey, I can't think of a good reason why nobody thought of this in 30 years! Somebody had to do it!

Many thanks to ALL the folks at VT Fest who attended, vendors, those who helped organize, to the VITA-Learn members and board. It was a privilege to help organize and emcee the conference once again.

Now that I've had more some sleep (more than four hours!), that the Internet is live again after the move, and I am starting to find my clothes...

Thoughts are already brewing for Dynamic Landscapes in May!

DL is shaping up to be great! And yes, it's on a Monday and Tuesday! We wanted to take a shot at this to get away from the holiday weekend.

Invite students inquiry into the educational process. Give them a voice to help create, to help make schools more innovative, creative and rich with meaningful opportunities and connections.

We're expanding...

  • 1/2 day, full day, and two day workshops with options for college credit (re-cert / licensure) for specific grade levels on:
    • animation, programming, storytelling (video and audio) PLPs, maker space introductory workshops... to name a few. We've got some surprises in store... deeper pedagogical integration and wellness sessions, sessions for new teachers...
  • more meeting spaces: conjure a discussion, planned or spontaneous, you've got spaces!
  • more offerings and incentives for student inclusion
  • vendors with hands-on learning opportunities
  • downtown social event Monday night (live music?)

... to name a few!

Who will follow Gary Stager and Super Awesome Sylvia as keynote speaker at DL? We've got a few stellar invitations out and we'll be announcing it in a few days!

I'm off to prep... and to find which boxes I put some of my clothes in ; )

We win...