Homework – Moving from “Alfie Kohn” to “Robyn R. Jackson”

For years I basically subscribed to Alfie Kohn’s approach to homework, which he hammers home briefly and succinctly in the video clip: “Making Students work a Second Shift”

It seemed particularly unfair for my deaf and hard of hearing high-school students to have to work “a second shift” doing homework when they live so far away from school. Some of my pupils leave the house well before 7 a.m. and return home after 5 p.m.  Not only is dealing with texts in English (as a foreign language!) such a struggle for many of them, many of the kids were notorious for not doing homework before I got them! Therefore, I did not give homework on a regular basis.

But I wasn’t happy with the situation. Some of the students were not taking the learning PROCESS seriously enough and only cared about tests. In fact, I had to admit, that not only weren’t they working “a second shift” – some weren’t working much during their “first shift”!

A few months before this school year began, I read about Robyn Jackson’s approach to homework in “Never Work Harder Than Your Students”. She discussed two elements which I felt were “written for me” :

1)      Focus on quality rather than quantity

2)      That small amount of homework IS IMPORTANT (otherwise I wouldn’t have given it – no busywork) so it’s not going to go away, it has to be done.

I agonized all summer about how to make sure the students did the homework.  WE are not in America – suggestions I found in the book such as utilizing Lunch Period (which we don’t have) or having children stay after school (they are all tied to transportation schedules, NO flexibility there!) were inapplicable.

Since I always “learn by doing” I decided to start without having solved the problem. I created a class website. Every Monday (homework only once a week) I post new homework, but the previous assignments are still visible (I use the format of a table).  I told the pupils that homework is presented online and they can email it me or hand it in, as they prefer. I explained that we’re using online homework to enable me to use color and media. In addition it is good for the environment. The assignments are short and focus on point I want them to pay attention to (such as six sentences on the difference between “how long” and no longer”).

Most of the new tenth graders were onboard right away (though two do not do homework to this very day!) Some even told me they felt that this was a serious class! At first, the others hoped that if they ignored it, I would drop the issue. I kept reminding them that important info is waiting for them. When I congratulated them on getting a good grade I reminded them that their teacher evaluation would still be low because by not doing homework they didn’t complete the learning program. After the first round of tests, the pupils who did fairly well to very well asked how they could prevent the teacher’s evaluation looking bad on their report cards and sat down and made up all the assignments! I even heard another teacher say that the pupils told her that they consider English to be one of the serious subjects because there is regular homework! I didn’t expect that!

The current situation is that about 80 percent of the 65 pupils do homework. I know that a weekly point I want to emphasize is getting across and feel very good about it. Unfortunately, not all of the pupils do the homework on time. I’m not sure how to get around that because by now the pupils know that my focus is on the learning aspect and don’t feel pressured to hand in the work on time. For the second semester, which is about to start, I plan to make a rule that homework can only be made up in the month it was given.

One thing is for sure –  my husband feels that since I read the book  “Never Work Harder Than Your Students” I’m working harder than before!

From Persistence to Vulnerability

As I’m fairly new to the “blogoshphere”,  I’m not quite sure how to use “TRACKBACKS”, but I would like to point out once again that I’m following a fascinating discussion on the blog THE LINE

Not only has Dina brought up the topic of persistence which so relevant to issues I’m battling with at school, she has now posted a link to a fascinating talk.  The talk itself isn’t about schools but in context of the discussion is so very relevant to the vulnerable situation one puts oneself in when trying to get others to cooperate in trying new things.

Actually, forget about school – it’s a great talk!


Saturday – Book Day!

Well, after reading two books in a row relating to the World War 2 (“A History” by Elsa Morante about the war in Rome and the one from my previous post about Roald Dahl) I chose something completely different!

Now I’m reading “The Shipping News”, by E. Annie Proulx, which takes place in Newfoundland. A very readable novel and I love the author’s clever  use of  quotes from Ashley’s “Book of Knots”! Knots as a metaphor to life’s issues – brilliant!

From “Richard Cory” to “The Road not Taken”

Last year I taught the poem Richard Cory for the first time. I chose the poem after hearing a great lecture by another teacher about the poem. But my main reason for choosing it was because I felt that despite the difficult language, the concept would be easy for my pupils to understand.  And they did. For them Richard Cory was rather like the celebrities they see on TV and follow on the Internet. He was handsome and rich but not happy. “Outside” isn’t the same as “inside” – that made sense to them.

However, after teaching the poem I received a great deal of criticism and many heartfelt, emotional (and scary!) warnings that teaching a poem relating to suicide to teenagers is a risky business.

So, now I find myself about to start teaching The Road Not Taken. It’s a lovely poem and on the national curriculum, but I’m a bit concerned. The vocabulary is very hard but then so was the vocabulary of Richard Cory. I’ve prepared pre-reading activities and vocabulary exercises. But the concepts seem more abstract to me and some of my pupils tend to think in a very concrete manner. I can imagine some of them saying: “what difference does it make which road he takes, as long as he exits the wood?”

Well, I’m going to find out!

A different kind of Greenhouse Effect

Today, an 18-year-old twelfth grader wanted to know why I couldn’t move the time of the NATIONAL Matriculation exams from one p.m to 09:00 a.m. I explained ( and not for the first time!) that I don’t make decisions regarding such exams but he insisted” You don’t understand” he said. “It’s not comfortable for me , I want to do it in the morning, please move it”.  Sigh.

It makes me wonder if it is a problem we have with our system. Some of these kids go through till 12th grade (or beyond, they can stay an extra two years!) feeling that everything is about THEM and what THEY need or want. Special Ed programs are often called “greenhouses” becasue we protect them, but when do we let them see the real world?

I actually do understand that it would be easier for my pupils to take the exams in the mornings but when you claim you want to reach national standards you have to go by national rules!

Every now and again I have pupils who seem to think that if I really wanted to, I could move the exams to the mornings…

Saturday – “Book Day”!

By Graeme Base
By Graeme Base

This book is marvelous for both the family and the classroom. My boys love it! Each page is devoted to a letter of the alphabet (sometimes a double page). There is a huge amount of amazing drawings of things beginning with that letter, some easy to spot, others requiring some effort. I don’t think we ever found everything on some of the pages!

For pupils in class with small vocabularies I supply a brief word list for every page and they look up the words in their dictionaries and then find the pictures. Works very well!

Y.A.L.P 10 Minute System – Part 2

Here’s how it works in my class:

If you imagine two 10th grade students, Karen is the tutor and Tom is being tutored. Karen is a weak, struggling student and Tom is on 10th grade level and has just begun working on “connectors”. We have a designated table at the corner of the English room for the sessions.

1) Karen welcomes Tom to the table.

2) Karen “quizzes” Tom on the pack of flashcards. Each flashcard has English on one side and Hebrew on the other. Karen knows all the answers because they are written on the side of the flashcard facing her.

3) Together they count how many words Tom knew and mark it in the tracking sheet, in column A (they write the date, too).  See sample tracking sheet here:

tracking sheet sample

4) Then they play with the flashcards. They match them to pictures, play “disappearing word”, Tic-Tac-Toe, bingo (with buttons!) and more.

5) Once again Karen quizzes Tom on the same words. This time they mark the results in column B. The result is almost always higher for column B and the kids enjoy seeing it in graphic form.

6) Part with a quick feedback exchange.

* Tom repeats the same process with his speech and language clinician during their weekly session.

** Every time Tom triples the number of words he knows, we give certificates 9as opposed to achieving a certain number of words known).

The kids love it!

The Y.A.L.P “10 minute system” – Part One

This method has had an INCREDIBLY positive impact on acquisition of vocabulary in my classroom this year! And the beauty of it is that it is versatile and can be adapted to the needs of different learners and classroom settings!

I heard a lecture about the system and read about it here:


With the help of the endlessely patient coordinator at the other side of the world, IN AUSTRALIA, we began the sessions in which  pupils meet once or twice a week with  a teacher’s aid, or another student acting as tutor. Together they practice vocabulary items using flashcards and track progress according to a set meeting structure we learned.  The student tutor can be a very weak student as the answers are all on the back of the flashcards! The weak students are thrilled to be able to act as tutors.

In addition, each student works on the same words once again during his /her weekly session with the speech and language clinologist.

We give out certificates every time a student triples the number of words he/she knows, not when a certain number has been reached. The progress is marked on charts, in color.

How exactly does it work? More about that in the next post!

Neko Harbor, Antarctic, Jan 2010
Neko Harbor, Antarctic, Jan 2010

As a special ed. teacher, it has always been my policy to create learning experiences as related to the pupils’ personally as I possibly can, but to leave my own personal life out of it. The pupils know I have two boys, and that I am always a 107 years old, and that’s that.

But one year ago almost to the day (Dec. 25th to be exact) our youngest son went on an amazing youth trip to the ANTARCTIC!  We were extremely excited before he left and of course during the three weeks he was away (B.T.W – almost no phone contact the whole time. Just postings on the expedition website! HARD!) I didn’t mention this in class.

After our son returned, he made a slide show and lectured in different classes at his high-school. In the slide show you could follow the stages of his long journey on the map, see icebergs, penguins and life on the boat. So, I decided to create a suitable worksheet (with answers to be found in the slideshow) in easy English for my pupils and bring it to class. The level of general knowledge and world geography knowledge is pretty low in many of my groups. I hoped that the fact that this is a true story about my own son would capture the student’s interest and something about the Antarctic might sink in.

The results were mixed. Some pupils did react as I had hoped. But others basically only reacted to the fact that the teacher’s son was lucky enough to get a full scholarship and THEY would never be so lucky (luck, yeah, he found the organization, filled out forms, wrote essays, got recommendations, got the scholarship only the second time round, but for them it was like winning the lottery). They weren’t interested in the rest at all.

I haven’t shown the slideshow to the new 10th graders this year and I’m debating if I should…

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