April 28, 2018

Learning for Pleasure

For years, the debate about reading homework -- “daily reading logs” versus “weekly reading responses” versus “reading for pleasure" -- has raged among educators and parents. Each side has its own strong arguments and the truth is there is no right or wrong, so I won't even attempt to join the fight. However, I've recently been thinking about how our discussions about homework in other subjects differ from the reading conversation.

It is not uncommon for schools to assign 20-30 minutes of nightly reading, in addition to the standard "10 minutes of homework per grade." Even schools that don't assign "any" homework often still require some type of reading outside of the classroom. What message does this send to kids and families?

Math homework is easily as debatable as reading homework -- from “assign only review” to “provide immediate practice of the day's objective” -- yet I've never heard "math for pleasure” thrown into the mix.  In my experience, most writing homework is given a specific assignment, like writing a book report, biography, or research paper. And I've definitely never seen "nightly science, in addition to..." on any homework sheet. Why is this? What does it say about the purpose of homework?

Essentially we've created a narrative that reading doesn't count as homework, because reading is more important than the other subjects. Students should read for the sake of reading, to improve as readers, and to be more successful in their lives. Teachers, myself included, pass around infographics (like this one) about how far behind a student can fall if they "miss" those 20 minutes per night, but there are no infographics about the importance of getting 20 minutes of math per night. While I'm certainly not arguing that reading isn't important, it also isn't the only thing that's important.  

It's possible that the emphasis on reading started because as a society, we have traditionally accepted that some people are "just not math people" and "some people can't write."  Of course, as growth mindset work has taught us, there’s no such thing as a "math person" and anyone can learn to write. So I’ve been thinking... how we could apply the same line of thinking to math homework, writing homework, even social studies and science homework, that we're comfortable applying to reading.  

Math for pleasure -- whether logic puzzles, critical thinking tasks, or math games -- would be just as valuable for our students as reading for pleasure.  Writing, too, could be assigned with the same open-ended direction that we provide for reading.  Students could write fiction stories, poetry, editorials in response to topics they care about, or simply journal about what's going in their lives. What if we asked parents to check that their children had successfully "learned for 30 minutes" each night before they sign their agendas?

Obviously any homework debate will eventually come down to accountability, but here I think we can also continue the same logic we've used about reading homework for years. Teachers know some kids won't do the homework at all, some will say they did even if they didn't, and some will get too much parental support, but most of us assign homework anyway.  We know that if we let the pendulum swing too far to the “never assign homework” side then we risk sending the message that the academic work is not that important. Likewise, if we swing all the way to the other side, we risk sending a message that school work is only to please a teacher or earn a grade - which isn't right either.

What we really want is students who see that the things they learn in school don't exist only inside the four walls of their classroom, who recognize that learning, even learning for learning's sake, can be enjoyable, and who pursue their interests with passion and determination.  Listening to most homework debates, you would assume that homework will always stand in opposition to these goals, but could it be that rethinking homework could actually get us closer?  I think it's possible.

December 28, 2017

Learning Long Division

Math was definitely not my favorite subject growing up... I had trouble remembering multiple steps to solve problems and never had a good idea if an answer was "reasonable." Nevertheless, one of my favorite memories of doing math in elementary school was creating and solving extended long division problems during indoor recess in 5th grade.  We would write up 25 or more random digits and then try to divide by 2 or 3 or 5, working our way across the entire chalkboard! It was so satisfying to simply "divide, multiply, subtract, drop down" and get a huge answer that I could feel confident was correct! I now realize that I had no understanding of why those steps worked or what that answer meant, but it felt "smart."

Now as a math teacher, I don't want my students to
blindly accept that a set of steps "just works" -- I want them to be able to explain how, why, and when any algorithm is useful and efficient. Last year our math curriculum intentionally avoided teaching long division in 4th grade to encourage students to use place value understanding and other strategies to divide.  I enjoyed teaching this way... I could explain why each method worked and observed students making logical connections between multiplication and division to solve complex problems.

This year, however, we are using Eureka math which does teach the long division algorithm (alongside other place value strategies) in fourth grade. As much as I loved using this method myself, I was anxious to make it meaningful for my kiddos. We began with mental math division (25 ÷ 5 or 18 ÷ 3), which required students to use multiplication facts to solve quickly.  I wrote the equations out using the long division symbol, but resisted reciting the "divide, multiply, subtract, drop down" mantra. Instead I asked the kiddos questions like "why do I write this here?" and "what should I do next?" and "what does this number represent?"

Then we added in using "place value disks" to represent the division (see above).  I demonstrated using the long division algorithm alongside the place value disks to help students see the connection. The kiddos totally got it!  My Teaching Fellow even commented how clearly she could recognize the steps of the algorithm within the place value model when it was taught this way!  

After two days of using the place value disks and word problems to provide context, it was time to go all in on using the long division algorithm!  Rather than keep everyone on the carpet for a traditional lesson, I allowed the kiddos to decide when they had mastered this new skill. When they felt confident with the algorithm (without drawing out the place value disks),  they could leave the carpet to start the Problem Set. Those who still felt stuck or unsure, stayed with me to keep practicing. I could practically see the gears turning in their heads and they pictured each step. When the lightbulb finally went off, they were so proud of themselves! 

Naturally, there were a few kiddos who were still struggling at the end of class. Rather than move on or wait another day to review, I offered to host a "Long Division Lunch Bunch." I ended up with 24 fourth graders eating lunch and doing long division in my room that day (I teach three classes so I offered the Lunch Bunch to all of them.) As the kiddos ate and worked together, I could see them gaining confidence!  By the end of lunch, most of them had the same satisfied, smart feeling I remembered from 5th grade. But this time, as they followed a set of steps to solve multi-digit long division problems, I knew they really understood what it means to divide one number into another and how those set of steps make their problem solving more efficient! 😄

December 26, 2017

Getting Ready for Middle School

A few weeks ago, our fourth grade team had the opportunity to visit our local feeder middle school. Even though our elementary school goes to fifth grade, we often have families who start looking at private and charter middle schools beginning in fourth grade, so this trip served to raise interest among the kiddos in attending the public middle school. (As part of an urban district, increased enrollment in the school feeder path benefits both the elementary and middle schools.)

The school did a wonderful job welcoming us!  The principal had a powerpoint with information about the school's academic and extracurricular offerings, achievement and behavior expectations, and tips for the kiddos about preparing for middle school. The fourth graders were all ears! They sat up straight, raised their hands, and took careful notes. It was so cute to watch them snap to attention when the middle school principal taught them his call and response.

After a brief introduction, we got to go on tours led by "Middle School Ambassadors" -- including a few former students of mine!  The kiddos had to tuck in their shirts and bring clipboards along to take notes. We got to stand in the back of classrooms and observe some 7th and 8th grade classes.  The kiddos had to record the name of the teacher and class and note the objective for each lesson in their notes packet. They did such a great job -- walking proudly and quietly in the hallways, listening to all of the teachers, even trying to participate in some of the classes!

Obviously a trip like this isn't going to make our fourth graders suddenly turn in their homework on time, stay on task without reminders, or keep their binders organized... but it's great to be able to remind them of what they are working toward! This trip was also a great reminder for me that even though we are departmentalized and expect a lot of our kiddos, they are still just 9- and 10-year-olds. Especially compared to the 8th graders, our kiddos are still little guys who need lots of handholding, hugs, and encouragement.  While we work to prepare them for what's next, we have to keep in mind what they need right now.

At the end of our trip, all of the kiddos got some "middle school swag" on their way out the door. They could not have been more excited! 💙