Sunday, October 18, 2015

A Student's Team

Picture a hallway that is infinitely long. To the left and the right there are many doors. In front of you is another door. Opening the door in front of you merely allows you to continue down the same hallway. The doors on the left and the right are distractions. The doors in front of you are obstacles that will mark achievement upon opening them. This is how I picture a student's educational experience. As a teacher I must help my students continue down this hallway of learning and encourage them to not open any of the doors of distraction. I need two partners on my team, however; the student and the parent.

The other day I read a blog that was spouting the idea that parents are not teachers, they are parents. I could not disagree more. A student's first teacher is their parent. A parent should expose their child to reading, math, decision making, art, music, athletics and more before that child enters into an educational arena. Yes, parents, it is your job to do those things. To not do them is to not be a part of the educational team of your child. Let's explore how this team evolves.

When a child first enters kindergarten or preschool the players on the educational team hold different levels of importance (not one person is unimportant, however). In the beginning, it is my opinion that the parent is more important than the teacher who is more important that the student. Changes to this equation do take place at different points in each child's educational journey. At some point in that hallway, the student swaps places with the teacher. Yes, parents, you are still on top of the ladder of importance. I picture this change taking place around middle school. When the child reaches high school, there should be another change. The child needs to switch places with the parent. And in higher education, the parent falls to the bottom and the teacher in the middle. You will notice that at no point in my theoretical journey is the teacher the most important part of this team. Yes, the teacher is important, very important. But we as parents (yes, I am a parent too) need to teach our children to be in charge of their education. We do this so that when they reach higher education they can be in control and rely on us anymore. But, how can we as teachers and parents guide our students through the educational hallway?

I, as their teacher, will tell them exactly what it is they need to do to be successful in and outside of my classroom. I will tell them why what they are learning is important. I will model good behavior. I will teach and evaluate their learning often. I will help them open doors and continue down the hallway. I will discourage them from the distracting options to their left and their right. And when they open one of those doors, I will help them come back to where they should be. I will not be their best friend, but I will be a mentor. I will tell them "good job" when have done well and I will ask them to come see me when they need help. I will give them a high five when they score a touch down at their football game. I will change my methods when what I am doing is not working. The list goes on.

Parents, at home you will talk to them about what they are learning. You will ask them to explain it to you when you don't really know what they are talking about. You will help them study. You will help them organize. You will encourage them to ask questions in class and be self-advocates. You will teach them to be respectful and courteous. You will encourage them in their interests and discourage them from opening the distracting doors. You will contact their teacher when they are falling behind, struggling or when they will miss a week of school. This list, of course, can go on for much longer.

If we as teachers and parents do our jobs, then the students will know how to do their jobs. This, in turn, will create an effective student team that will lead to continually progressing forward and avoiding the doors of distraction. These distractions are not always bad, but we need to help them come back when they have turned left or right. Whether it be texting, video games, TV or just hanging out with friends doing nothing, we have to at some point guide them back to the hallway and help them to open the next door going forward. Some distractions are far worse than the aforementioned ones; drugs, fighting or poor diets for example. By doing our jobs early on we can make it easier for them to not open those doors.

As I read back over what I have now written, I can see that some may find it preachy. That's okay. As a former student, a teacher and a parent I feel I am entitled to give my opinion on these things. If you are wondering why I write this, I will tell you. Several days ago I sent out emails to a dozen or so parents telling them that their child was going to earn a D or less (F) in my class if they (the students) did not change what they are doing. I also encouraged the parents to meet with me and their son/daughter so we can figure this out. I have yet to hear back from any of them. Maybe they are discussing the issue with their child, maybe. But we are past that. We are 10 weeks into an 18 week semester and they are on a road to failure.

Please be a part of your child's team. I am more than willing to do my part. If your child is not doing their part and you aren't doing yours, how will they succeed? I need your help.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Homework - And an Educational Experiment

I teach Spanish. I work in a small town that has very few Spanish speakers. So where will my students get their connection to my subject area outside of school? The answer is homework. I have been teaching for nearly 12 years now and I have always assigned homework. I have always felt justified in assigning homework and I have never assigned work that should take more than about 10 minutes. But as my own children grow older I find that homework has become a nuisance. Homework has become a chore that is never-ending. It would be like taking out the trash only to come back inside and see the trash is full again.

I have had the teachers of my children tell me that they are going to assign a certain amount of homework so that the students feel prepared for all of the homework they will receive the following year. Is this a reasonable justification for working at home? I think not. A brief reminder of what was learned during the school day would be an ideal description of homework.

While there are likely many reasons or justifications for why teachers assign a seemingly endless supply of handouts, worksheets or projects to do at home, I am not here today to explore those. Rather, I would like to tell you about a short experiment I am doing with my Spanish 1 high school classes. An experiment I decided to carry out because of what my children are experiencing. As I said earlier, I always assign homework. So what's the experiment? Homework will not be required for one chapter. But wait! There's a catch. I am still going to assign the usual assignments that I would have assigned otherwise, but students that don't do the work won't lose points. I will, however, still go over the homework at the beginning of class like I usually do.

So what is the motivation to do the homework now that it is not required? Well, there are two factors that should influence my students to choose to do the work. The first factor is by doing the homework outside of class they will be stronger students. They will understand the material better than those who would otherwise choose to not have that quick connection to the material outside of class. The second reason is their participation grade. When I review the work at the beginning of class I ask students to raise their hand and participate by giving the answers to the various questions on the homework. If a student has not done the homework, then participation is not possible.

Perhaps you are thinking "so?" Would you no longer do the "optional" homework assignments? Well, here's why this is hugely important. Participation in my class is worth 20% of the student's grade. And, I base my participation grades on averages. Basically, if you have an average amount of participation points you get an A for the chapter. Being well above average gets you extra credit and below is of course a lower grade. While the students around you are participating the average grade is increasing while your grade is remaining stagnant. Also, participation is indirectly worth so much more. Much like everything you learn, the more you practice the better you become.

I am only a few days in to a two week chapter. There will be about six optional homework assignments. So far, I would say that less homework is being completed than usual. Once the chapter is over I will come back with exact numbers and compare not only homework grades, but test, quiz and participation grades as well with a previous unit that did require homework. I will then decide whether or not I will continue to assign homework as optional or not. Best of luck and good decision making to my students!