Monday, October 9, 2017

A Modest Proposal

Note: My school uses PLC as a teacher collaboration structure. PLC stands for professional learning community. I work on the algebra 1 PLC which is comprised of the algebra 1 teachers and the algebra support teacher. We meet once a week for about 90 minutes. 

1/11/18 Update

Today is the day I'm going to share the new homework structure with my students! I came up the following template for homework (now called Lesson Reflection).  I plan to give this once a week and let the students choose the lesson they want to reflect on. The reflection will be due the following Monday.

To be honest, I'm really nervous about changing to a lesson reflection from traditional homework. The reason I am nervous is because...well, I feel like I'm breaking a BIG rule. Math teachers give homework. Math students (should) do homework. What if the students stop taking my class seriously because there is no homework? What if the students don't remember anything because they didn't practice? What if there is a total break down of the system without homework?

I"m keeping Jo Boaler in the back of my mind today...I know the research supports this. But change and growth always feel scary.

I read Mathematical Mindsets by Jo Boaler this summer. I loved this book! I would recommend it for any teacher--not just math teachers. There are powerful messages about equity and mindset as well as strategies for effectively teaching a diverse population of students.

Mathematical Mindsets reminded me that some of the routines I do in my class aren't just things I like to do--these routines support students in seeing math as a space where learning happens via mistakes and productive struggle. My HW grading routine, my warmup routine of My Favorite Mistake and some of the group tasks I do give student space to make mistakes, reflect on the mistake, and try again (without being punitive in terms of grades).

My favorite poster in my room: "Mistakes Are the Gateway to Understanding"

Mathematical Mindsets also challenged my thinking about certain aspects of my teaching practice; especially around grading and homework. My algebra 1 classes already use an alternative grading scale that our came up with several years ago. I like this scale--we had to do a lot of work to calibrate our tests with this scale (as well as how we grade tests), but, after 3 years, we've worked out many of the kinks.

Algebra 1 Grading Scale (we do not give a grade of D)

Now, as I begin week 9 of this school year, I'm really thinking about homework. This sentence from Mathematical Mindsets is ringing in my ears: "when we assign homework to students, we provide barriers to the students who most need our support" (p. 107).

So this morning I shared a modest proposal with the algebra PLC leads: could we discuss homework at the PLC meeting this week? Specifically, I asked them "in the spirit of inquiry, could I not give homework to my algebra 1 students? Like, can we see if my students do better/worse/the same as the other teachers' students on the unit test if I don't give homework?"

I feel like asking the PLC to consider this is taking a risk. But I also think teacher leaders need to take risks. Again, I can hear Jo Boaler, in her lovely English accent, saying, "if as a teacher or school leader you want to promote equity and take the brave step of eradicating homework..." (p. 108). Yes! I want to promote equity! I can see, real time, that the biggest outcome from homework right now is amplifying existing inequities. Yes! I want to be a teacher leader. So I'm going to take the risk.

I'll let you know how it goes!


  1. Hey Rick, please report back! I'm super curious how this turns out.

    Nick and I have thought a lot about homework over the years, and we came to a really different plan than what you're thinking. We give homework once a week - a four page packet (2 pages double-sided) that we give out on Monday, and collect on Friday. It's always printed on orange paper, and it always has exactly the same formatting. The first page is always about what we're currently studying, but lagged a few days or even a week. The inside has a review of a previous topic, some number sense practice, and the back has a "test question" like a multiple choice that we ask them to explain, usually related to what we're currently studying, and then two ken ken puzzles. I keep track of homework turn in on a small public chart on the wall, right next to the cabinet with extra copies of the homework, and I allow students to turn it in late (for one less point) until the end of the semester.

    With this system last year I got close to 90% or more turn in by the end of the semester, and the kids who didn't do were not necessarily the ones who need the most math help. The more kids I had doing homework, the more it seemed like the retained by the time I gave a test, and the more could articulate what we were working on, it seems to act a bit like cement.

    Our logic was:
    - make it recognizable and simple to understand WHAT you're supposed to do
    - make it absolutely mind-numbingly consistent
    - giving it on Monday and due on Friday means everyone can find time somewhere in the week to get it done, even if they're working most nights
    - equity (believe it or not) - homework is a learning opportunity, not giving it to students who will and want to do it just because other students can't or won't I think is inequitable. I think my students should have just as many learning opportunities as rich white kids, and so I felt like I needed to give them at least the opportunity to do homework. Making it accessible/understandable/etc. is my job then.

    Just wanted to share. Let me know what you think and/or how your idea turns out!

  2. Looking forward to hearing about your brave step. I love the first day of my school week because there is no checking of homework and I get the longest solid block of sustained classwork and discussion of the week. This obviously makes me want to eradicate the self and peer check of the homework, after the short discussion I have with students. Unfortunately, I don't take the time to have students correct in a certain color pen or give them ALL the answers, just discuss the answers and solution methods that I find the most troublesome or related to an upcoming assessment topic.

  3. The people want to know!! What happened?!

    1. I talked to my PLC. I shared the Jo Boaler info from Mathematical Mindsets regarding homework, which I think helped. It grounded the conversation in something more than my own emotional appeal.

      The other teachers are supportive of me not giving homework. We discussed the situation of another teacher's algebra student saying something like, "...but Mr. Barlow doesn't give homework." The other teachers agreed that if that comes up, they will let the student know that Mr. Barlow isn't their teacher.

      The algebra support teacher asked that I give some type of homework--since she teaches the class where students get algebra homework support. I'm going to give a lesson reflection type homework that was mentioned in Mathematical Mindsets.

      Katie, to your point on homework being a learning opportunity that you want for ALL students. I totally understand what you're are saying. I think, for me, all this is built on an assumption that homework is not a learning opportunity--for anyone. I think the homework system your team came up with is a solid routine that builds a positive culture around homework. For me, however, I just don't feel like homework is worth my time (making it, grading it, enforcing it) and I'm not sure homework creates opportunities for students to learn. Hence, my modest proposal to not give homework. If I notice a dramatic decrease in students' understanding of math, I will go back to giving homework!


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