Sunday, December 27, 2015

Unsolicited Advice about Homework

No one has asked, "Hey Emily, what do you think about homework?" But I'm going to tell you what I think anyway. I've worked for eighteen years in three different grade levels across three different schools in different communities, so I've gained some insight into what works and what doesn't.

My views on homework have been deepened by the experiences of my own children. We've suffered through some poorly designed assignments and ill-conceived packets, but we've also enjoyed carefully crafted homework. (Thanks for the great reading packets and extensions, Nicole!)

First of all, I don't have much patience with the homework/no homework dichotomy. I think that it distracts attention away from the real issue--what do you want kids to do, and why? Teachers need to think of the "work" of school holistically, not just as home and school assignments.

Too often, teachers just assign homework because it is expected, or because they didn't get through everything during class time. Some teachers even seem to think that completion of a chapter means that every problem has been completed, regardless of whether a student masters the concept on page 2 or page 102.

I sat down and made a flowchart to represent what I think about as I plan homework. Notice that I start with two different possible goals. Students can do homework to practice or review a concept, or to extend and deepen understanding. Each one of these goals brings up new questions to consider.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Books for Students

I just love to get new books for the classroom to share with students. This fall, I've worked to expand my collection of graphic novels and ratchet up the difficulty level of my library to engage sixth grade readers. My sons are both comic book fans, so I spend lots of time in comic book shops browsing for new books.

Here are some of my favorites:

Roller Girl  by Victoria Jamieson
    I don't always have the opportunity to read with students during independent reading time. Too often I'm working on attendance, finding my papers for the day, or helping students write summaries for our weekly narrative homework. However, last week I just had to sit and finish Roller Girl while my students were reading. It didn't disappoint! If your students have loved Smile and Sisters, this book will be a perfect addition to the shelves.

The Graveyard Book Graphic Novels
by Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russell
     Okay, this one isn't in the book orders. A student who has been devouring graphic novels asked for something "spooky" and "mysterious". I knew that The Graveyard Book would be just the thing, and luckily my fifth-grader son is awesome and sometimes shares books from his personal collection. Once I saw how much students liked this, I knew I had to get my own copies for the classroom.
    At first, I thought that the value of graphic novel adaptations of novels was to make compelling stories accessible to students who may not have the skill or patience required to read the novel form. But now I see that, when done well, graphic novel adaptations can add a new layer of richness to an already rich text. Even a reader who has already read or plans to read the novel version can enjoy and learn from the graphic novel form.

Space Dumplins by Craig Thompson
Whale diarrhea. In space. This is often enough to get readers to pick up Space Dumplins! I like it because it shows a different view of space life than many other books, and its bright, bold colors make it stand out from other graphic novels. Its a thicker book than many other graphic novels, which makes some readers nervous at first, but once they glance through the pages they see that they want to take on the challenge.

...and my students don't know it yet, but they are also getting copies of Hatchet as a gift before our holiday break! Here is a little poem that I wrote to accompany the gift:

As you get ready for the break (or maybe you are already on it, in which case I am a little jealous!), I hope that you take some time to read and relax as well. Have a wonderful holiday!

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Collecting and Analyzing Data in Science

The weird toys that grow when you put them in water make a great hands-on measurement activity. Here's how:

1. Get some growing objects! Here's a set from Oriental Trading that is WAY cheaper than the set that I purchased at a craft store. I got four holiday-themed items (penguin, snowman, Santa, tree), one per group in my classroom.

2. Introduce the students to the activity. I worked with small groups of students as the rest of the class did some volume measurement practice with this activity from Kate's Classroom Cafe. We discussed the activity and made some initial measurements, recording the length and mass of each item at the start of our activity.

Even though I know that the sixth graders have studied length and mass before, there were still some questions about how find the millimeters and how to record the length in centimeters with a decimal. This initial small group activity was the ideal way for me to figure out what kids can do and what I need to spend more time working on.

3. Submerge...

4. Record data day after day! You can make a data chart for students, or engage them in making their own. Because I knew that measurement was an issue, I had kids create their own charts with specific measurements. On some days, groups of students found the data; when time was an issue, I'd pull individual students to do the measurements for the class.

I love the Amazon Basics kitchen scale that I bought for the class this fall. The $12 price tag means I don't have to worry when kids take it to different places in the room or weigh sopping wet penguins on it.

5. Discuss the findings each day. I started the conversation with "What do you notice?" and encouraged the use of scientific vocabulary like increase, greater than, and less than. Kids noticed that the tree lagged behind the others in growth, while Santa stayed true to form (much to their amusement!) When students expressed doubt at the data, as with Santa's growth, I encouraged them to take the next step and do the measurements themselves.

6. Graph. This will be our big task next week. I'm going to have students figure out the intervals and build the graphs from scratch, which will take some time. However, it's definitely something that sixth graders should be able to do! (Plus they'll get to use the fancy markers, which they love.)

7. Analyze the data. The toys that I bought make an interesting claim: "Grow up to 300%". Stating whether this claim is accurate or not will be a great way to bring our work with measurement into the real world.

I've been excited to see this unfold in the classroom and watch as the students get better with measuring length and mass. It's added a fun dimension to the sometimes dry "Preparing for Science" unit.

News and Notes
As my own kids and I were talking about the gingerbread man during holiday decorating, I got an idea for a story. What were the ingredients that caused the gingerbread man to come to life? And could someone apply the scientific method to making their own living gingerbread? I took these ideas into a fantasy world that I've been playing around with and "Dancing Gingerbread" was born.