Wednesday period 5 – Homework, trying to make it work better.

As a classroom teacher for a generation, I’ve always set homework, doable, purposeful homework. As a chemistry teacher my favourites involve some experiments at home ( testing pH etc) but I do like research too – it’s what we chemists do of course. Many a pupil having loved to ‘find out’ – they either tell you so or else their work is the proof. But frankly there is a lot of bread and butter homework too: finish this, annotate that, read up here, a test on that…..

Homework itself covers a multitude of activity and areas, the debate over primary pupils doing homework is likely to be different to those in key stage 4, so let’s try and be pragmatic. As a teacher I think there are lots of reasons for setting homework and they have to outweigh the hassle of ensuring its always done. My top reasons are to do with widening interest, bringing more enthusiasm and passion for my subject, getting a clearer understanding and testing that understanding and my worst reason is ‘following a school policy’. However as a senior leader I think it has to be articulated carefully to parents and children as to what they have this homework to do and a duty to make sure there is not too much, its active and manageable and support offered where necessary.img_3648

Our main reasons for setting homework are:

  • To establish good habits and in due time to help create independent learners amongst our students.
  • To complete activities and work that aren’t covered in a lesson or are carefully designed by teachers to enhance learning.
  • Because we think children can expand their horizons with some learning activities done outside the classroom.
  • There isn’t enough time in school (25 hours) to do everything and we like to offer as broad a range of curriculum as possible. So there really isn’t enough time
  • Homework works – it helps to deliver success.
  • The government and Ofsted seem to think it’s a good idea and actually so did our pupils too!Academic research concludes: “homework contributes to achievement at secondary level and the effect is stronger amongst older pupils”.
  • it might just help build self-respect and some resilience

So during the 2015-16 academic year we carried out some simple and definitely non-scientific research into an important aspect of our school life homework. this at a time when some schools declared NO HOMEWORK

imageWe began by asking our pupils a series of questions – we did make an important assumption that our community of parents, pupils and teachers see a value in homework so this wasn’t about forgetting or abandoning homework. It was more to pinpoint any stressful areas for each group and see what improvements we might make.

Understanding the importance pupils attached to doing homework was pleasing to read and we were even more encouraged by the number of responses and the ‘common sense’ shown by everyone. A few pupils managed to contradict themselves but the general message was ‘homework routines are about right’.

picjumbo.com_HNCK3576The following action points came from the pupils:

  1. Please set homework early in the lesson and not in a rush at the end.
  2. Please set realistic deadlines–sometimes all our teachers set homework with short deadlines.
  3. When we have two teachers in a subject (e.g. in Geography or in most sixth form lessons) please don’t overload us.
  4. Make it clear how we can get help in your subject.
  5. If teachers can do so, please balance harder homework tasks with easier ones and longer tasks with shorter ones.

We discussed these with teachers and most are achievable and manageable. However, for different subjects there are different issues for example, number 4 above, some pupils found it difficult to log onto a site in a subject, but some just found the content difficult, so they each need a different type of ‘help’. We were pleased to see there wasn’t very much moaning about ‘worthless activities’ which showed pupils value their homework and our teachers avoid time-wasting undertakings. We were proud that our pupils approached homework (and the survey) in such a mature manner.

Parental responses were high: 59% Y7; 70% Y8; 64% Y9; 71% Y10; 25% Y11; 17% Y12&13. We expected the sixth form and parents of older students to give a different response as their private study work is completely understood to be intimate with their work in lessons and a huge factor in any success in those very demanding post 16 lessons or in order to aim higher with success at GCSE.

imageThe following action points came from parents.

  1. Please could teachers spend some time explaining how to revise and study your subject?
  2. Can teachers avoid ‘research’ which is just a general “use the internet.” If possible give some specific websites to work from.
  3. If teachers know useful books or other resources please tell pupils about them.
  4. When there are two teachers in a subject (say in Geography or in most Sixth Form lessons), please do not overload the students. Communicate with colleagues if you share a class.
  5. Be realistic about the amount of time a homework task might take.
  6. Try not to overload pupils with too much holiday homework.
  7. Please try to turn around homework/give feedback fairly quickly but at least in a reasonable time.

Once again we think these are all manageable and we are pleased so many parents are involved checking books or checking diaries and of course giving support and help on occasions. Most homework is communicated to our parents via a child’s contact book even if that says“science homework–see exercise book”. We understand sometimes as a school we seem to say homework isn’t complete and that a parent may not know what it is the child hasn’t completed. Occasionally parents ask us to email the work. In very exceptional circumstances we might consider that but it is quite onerous and we are in danger of the pupil being left out. It is the pupil who needs to be clear and if he or she is struggling we should attend to those reasons which might range from confusions through lack of understanding to…laziness. There are several ways we think parents can  help:

  • encourage a good attitude to learning the value in doing some further study beyond school lessons
  • helping with routines to do homework, a space at home or a time and of course a look over books and an interest in the work being done
  • support the work – don’t do it for them but for example if a pupil is stuck often it is follow up work from what was done in the lesson have a look over the material a few pages earlier in exercise and text books
  • help pupils to see homework enhances what they did in the lesson.

Finally, in our survey/research we put these points to staff and had about 80% response:

  1. They agreed there could be inconsistency across subjects about how much homework is set (e.g a subject seeing pupils once a week might not be able to set homework every week).
  2. There is a workload issue – we try to turn work around in a reasonable time but it can be a challenge at certain periods e.g. If a teacher has other classes who are preparing for exams, or when we are writing reports. We don’t want to ‘not set’ work.
  3. A lot of teacher time goes on chasing up homework – often it’s the same pupils and often despite sanctions.
  4. There is extra help available during lessons or lunchtime and after school–quite a lot of pupils don’t take up the opportunity.
  5. Homework often looks like it’s been left to the last-minute and is rushed.
  6. Some of our pupils need to see their homework as important, shown by:
    • Handing it in on time.
    • Understanding there is less help if we are chasing you, more help if you try to more progress that way too. No one was ever shouted at for not understanding.
    • Not being rushed.
    • Being properly completed – including being well presented.
    • Not being just copied and pasted from the internet.

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We will be trying to make sure teachers explain clearly what to do if pupils are stuck with homework. We have a homework club after school each day Monday to Thursday from 3.30 to 4.30 with staff and Sixth formers supervising,there are even refreshments. This club operates for Y7/Y8/Y9. For other years there is a similar arrangement  but students work on their own and in silence using the facilities in the School library. Again research shows attendance at school based study support is associated with positive effects.

Overall, it was good to see a general confirmation of the processes we use and a common understanding of the value (and snags) with homework. A big thank you to everyone who contributed.

….and for the few cycnics check out this story of the boy who did homework by the light of a local McDonalds in Cebu the Philipines_84190737_daniel

Some Questions

Q1 How does your school encourage pupils to engage in homework?

Q2 Are there other benefits to setting homework and are there other annoyances?

Q3 What other ways might we help young people become lifelong learners?

Tuesday period 6 – “How was school today John?”

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This is my Mother who sadly passed away in March 2016 having just turned 96. I am very proud of her, and although she was a little more frail in her final days, she was as sharp and good humoured as I can ever remember. I spoke to her every day, and our conversation had a reliability about it. She always asked me ‘how was school today?” it’s a question I have heard from aged about 5 to 18, and it re emerged as I started my PGCE back in the 1980’s. It’s a genuine question about me, about the day, about the children I teach and the colleagues I work with. In some ways it epitomises my Mum and perhaps a good parent. It didn’t end there, at tea time, oh No. Any spellings or vocab was tested to destruction, my books were looked at, not checked just read with a genuine interest, delight and conversation. Of course as a very little person I was read to, and listened to with glee, with enthusiasm and with endless patience. She did of course have to tell me off occasionally but I’m sure for every harsh word were a hundred of encouragement and hope. She was the eternal optimist and there was always bags of encouragement to me and my friends: ‘never mind pick yourself up, there is always hope’ there spoke a survivor of the Coventry Blitz.

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As a young teacher I was a little scared about parents’ evenings, I had all my facts and wondered what I might be asked. I soon found and continue to find most parents want to know the same things wrapped up in many a question, it boils down to: how their child is progressing, how well they are doing ( just compared to where I think they should be) if their child is trying and what they as a parent can do to help – I need my Mum there to tell them! Over many years of such evenings and other meetings with parents I think this is what most conversations distil out at. Of course for some they really do want to know “what they can do” with something of an air of despair – perhaps about behaviour, or effort or attitude. Then there are a few who just want to have a go at the school, if not me personally but very few.image

Once I had got over my fears of meeting parents I moved into the rather arrogant place of wanting to tell some parents just what to do! I still hear some teachers say ” wait until I see the parents of ‘ ‘ and I’ll certainly let them know what their child is like and what discipline is necessary. I rarely hear this from teachers who have their own children. Once I got one of my own to bring up I understood how tricky, how tiring and yet rewarding and challenging is the whole parenting thing.
I have a little theory that many children behave better at school than they do at home and we might work on the assumption that the smaller indiscretions or bad habits in school, the more that will be on show at home. This means parents, often without the backup of a big organisation ( no tutor to refer to, no head of year, no SLT, no green referral system no access to sims) their tasks are even more difficult.

imageI am a strong believer in the vital link between pupil, parent and teacher. I am also keen on the support of the wider community, it’s one of the best bits of working in a faith school. However it just isn’t easy bringing up children, even now with my two grown up I keep thinking I’m glad not to be doing that bit again, especially in this generation ’twas ever thus’. However schools must work closely with parents, we must communicate sensibly with them. We have lots of data and lots of jargon – some of it we find confusing. Think of the word ‘target’ we might wrestle with ‘predicted’, ‘actual’, ‘FFT’ (which one again oh D) in school I do hope staff are clear but we need to keep it simple for parents. This goes against some of my other blogs where I argue a complex organisation like a school should not be summed up in a word or a number. Our reporting must be simple BUT not just data never ever just numbers – ‘oh she is secure level 3′ perish the day. I think it’s why parents get fairly incensed when they sense teachers use phrases from a bank of sentences on reports. I think they understand it must be difficult writing 30 or 60 reports etc but they really want to know we care, that we know their child and we can show that to them in an annual report and at a parents’ evening or if we bump into them

I realise there is another post here about dealing with awkward parents (awkward in being unsupportive and awkward in being helicopter parents) but I’m considering the majority, those who want to see their children do well and genuinely trust the school. They really want their child to succeed, discover their interests for themselves turn from children into young adults. They probably know there will be a few bumps in the journey, they will probably take their child’s view more often than we would like ( it’s our job to help show them there are 2 sides). It’s also worth reminding ourselves how intimidating school can be for some parents, especially if the school has had to have ‘a word’ with them about behaviour – already scared to come up to the school, they now expect an evening of ear bashing and don’t come.image

Key to me is the relationships built up with parents from the year 6 welcome evening to Year 11 or Year 13. Formal stuff like parents evenings, letters, emails, web stories, local media stories, imageand informal at the school show, or on the touch-line for sport or after the concert. In fact I think it even goes beyond Y11 (Y13) beyond that. We should ‘keep in touch’ not formally but as opportunity arises, a kind of ‘once a X school parent and pupil, always a part of the community’

imageEx pupils and parents are the future parents and grandparents, maybe the future teachers, or support staff, or governors, or political leaders. That’s why community is important, and ethos and expectations. Year 6 welcome gets easier when a majority “know” what a school stands for, and expects of their children and of them. They might want help too on bringing their children up – help with e-safety on substance abuse, on bullying etc. A headteacher visit from Brazil recently told me he had school part 1 and school part 2 where parents went to school in the evening for basic skills ; literacy, numeracy, IT etc I know we are beyond that but the school commitment to parents was a vital part of the role.

Our recent visitors from China wanted to know how we communicated our ethos into our children and I found it difficult to explain – we just do! In thinking of an answer I realised again the importance of considering the parents and carers and remembering they too have bothers, concerns and stuff happening in their lives. I’m not saying we compromise behaviour because of what happens at home but we need to consider it, support, help and educate.

Parents please engage, schools can help, pupils can grow in confidence. Last words to my Mum “How was school today John?”

I first wrote this on a Friday in February 2015 and sadly on Saturday night/Sunday morning my Mum fell in her flat and broke her hip. We spent most of the day being wonderfully looked after by the NHS – thank you Queens Medical Centre. After an ambulance ride, A and E, assessment and onto a ward, they decided to get her a new hip ASAP. So by Monday lunchtime she was with the surgeon and by the evening she had a new hip and was sitting up in bed chatting away, drinking tea and guess what? Yep she straight asked me “how was school today?” 🙂

Some questions to consider

Q1 Do young staff need specific training in speaking with parents’?

Q2 What do the most effective schools do to engage parents who are scared of school, hate school or are not so interested in their child’s education?

Q3 Do parent teachers make better teachers?


 

If you work in a church school:

Ephesians 6:4 Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

Colossians 3:20  Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.

Exodus 20:12  Honour your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you.

Proverbs 6:20 keep your father’s command and do not forsake your mother’s teaching.

 

You might like to read other posts from my timetable of teaching – each is set out from lesson in the school week, before or after school or at the weekends, appropriate to the time of day. I have also started a  class lists or “set lists” which was to answer the questions: “why be a teacher?”or “why have other responsibilities in a school?” Shortly I am starting a new area about progress from one role or experience in teaching to another with hints and tips about successfully moving on in the job and your teaching career.

Tuesday Period 4 – Subversive activity

So if, like me, you are a teacher preparing for Tuesday period 4 here is something to help us. Do not be caught out, just be prepared, make sure you have planned and stay calm.

Hang on! For what?

If you are reading this you are a good or outstanding teacher, or you support them or help create them, and sustain them. I want you to imagine you preparing your  most liberated lesson. Yes imagine no Ofsted telling you what to do (in fact I’m not sure they do really). Imagine no governors or Head telling you what to do ( that may not be difficult if they don’t really tell you) and imagine no SLT interference. I am SLT so I know we really do tell you what to do, because each of us often tell you something different.

So this time the only matter to worry about is you and the class. Bet you are smiling, this is what you came into teaching for, this is the dream and vision you had all those years ago (or not so many years ago). Now I want to warn you, want to do so big time because now you are about to discover the subversives, yes now stripping away accountability you spot the subversives.  Not the subversive staff,  the subversive pupils, yes whilst we all worry about all those we are accountable to, there are those cunning individuals preparing disruption on a potent scale. They are in the disguise of older pupils usually matured and effective by Y13 but equally competent in Y12 and mastering the art in years 9 to 11. The art of teacher distraction , played out to avoid….a test, an e=assessment, a topic which feels “hard”

This is not silly behaviour issues, of course not,  they know you and me are good, they won’t mess us around, oh no they have discovered a more subtle approach. Operation Distraction.

I first learnt this at school myself. Back in a Grammar School in Coventry ( note Coventry; bombed, blitzed, historical Cathedrals new and old, Coventry) I was in the first generation to learn German and French not Latin and French (oh Mr Gove where were you?). Our German teacher (strictly our German Master) gave us a mini lecture on the Weimar Republic, the rise of national Socialism, and practical matters such as why the salute was so deeply offensive and why we mustn’t bring any light heartedness about such into the classroom. One occasion when we did, he changed, he halted from being our teacher, he reran his lecture taking almost the full hour. We were stunned, but we noted how he was riled, and whilst one of us had to suffer a Saturday morning detention it was worth it, not for the lecture, but to avoid the planned lesson , especially the vocab or grammar tests. (another blogpost will reveal the results at O Level of such a tactic from a class of 32 boys taught in the same class for every subject every year for 5 years).

So dear reader watch for the subversive, they come in various shapes and sizes

1)    The very personable polite enquirer (PPE), the pupils equivalent to the progressive teacher. These take an interest in the everyday lives of teachers “How was the weekend Sir? How is your sick kitten? Sir we have all been wondering as no one has mentioned her again. The affable subversive

2)    The educational politicist subversive. (EPP) These are able to draw out us to distraction by picking up the debates from twitter or even a quick look at the TES.  “Surely you agree with Mr Gove’s latest idea Sir? Do you really think the GCSE is harder?” “Do you think Ofsted would…?”

3)    The pseudo academic subversive (PAS) shows a more subtle approach, by bringing stuff up during the lesson rather than at the start. Their’s is a distraction tactic. “Miss, didn’t you say we should have all read…. only it made me seriously consider…?” “Miss can you remind me where was that article about what an unpleasant if brilliant man Haber was?” Especially colleagues you must be very aware of the A* grade PAS who can also pick the topics which so much more easily get the teacher riled. Along the lines… “My great Uncle is a Chemist, he says the most important aspect of Chemistry is pH Sir, not atoms and bonding, which you occasionally mention.” (Note the politeness). “This is based on his study of Anfinsen when he won his Nobel prize, stated every young man who wants to be a scientist should study pH, Sir.” This sends you into Wikipedia whilst you set some hurried task to the class, in response to your part embarrassed (Who? Did he? Is this Unlce correct?) and in preparation for the return volley. All of which really deserves a QED because the test you were going to give…well it just doesn’t happen

4)    My last group are the wind up subversives (WUS). I have to say I have a secret admiration for these pupils. They are a mature version of group one. They discover your Achilles heel, for example that you are a Coventry City supporter. Mid lesson as they see you about to announce the test having given a few minutes to “check the notes” they come out with. “Sir, what did you think about Coventry buying back their ground thanks to that huge donation from Qatar?” These comments have enough truth to stun , to stop you in your tracks.

 

Of course none of us really fall for this, we know how important are relationships with children, we know the delicate balance of getting them involved and getting them thinking outside the box of the classroom, in fact we are actually hoping to create subversives because we come from a PGCE course where we all read…..”teaching as a subversive activity” but from now on colleagues do not allow a single chink on the armour of making those carefully made lesson plans be executed according to your plans, not ever ever distracted by subversive pupils. They are a much bigger problem than Ofsted will ever present.

I once planned a technically challenging and innovative practical for my Y12 Chemists. Like you I then thought long and hard about the students and the lesson and just knew many wouldn’t be able to get it to work with such complex kit. I then face the rare and unusual comment “oh this experiment didn’t work” so my decision was in addition to demonstrate the set up. So after looking over the instructions with them, there it was a demo of how to connect up the kit to make a conducting polymer. “Now just before you get going…are there any questions?” “Yes Sir?” What’s that Anna ?( not her real name she’s a fully qualified Dr now, and you never know…) “Yes Sir……..where did you buy that necktie, in fact where do you buy all your wonderful neckties?” …and by the end of the explanation and the rant…she didn’t get to the practical.

 

NB for those of you who are outstanding teachers you will have spotted more subversive pupils, click on reply and add their styles – let’s get them back.

By the way Sir “how did you enjoy Warhorse at Bradford Alhambra?”

Some questions to consider

Q1 How do we encourage pupils to “think”, to “question” and “argue” without hijacking our planned lesson, and without it becoming effectively low level disruption?
Q2 Teaching has relationship at it’s heart, we like to take an interest in our pupils, so are we surprised when they take an interest in us? We can say “not now” or “not about this particualr matter” Of course we can, but how do we keep the balance?
Q3 Some points made by pupils bring spark and life to a lesson so how can we foster this to make progress and help support achievement?

For those in a faith community
Moses and Aaron got into trouble in the OT when the suggested to Pharaoh they take a break Pharaoh wanted none of it.
Exodus 5: 4 -5
“Who do you think you are?” Pharaoh shouted, “distracting the people from their work? Get back to your jobs!”
In the NT Jesus wanted a focus on the call people felt was from God. Ultimately Jesus himself had to be fairly single minded in approaching his work on Earth
Luke 9:62
But Jesus told him, “Anyone who lets himself be distracted from the work I plan for him is not fit for the Kingdom of God.”