Saturday, April 20, 2013

Staying Focused

Every year, the students (and the teachers, if we're honest about it) reach a point where staying focused and finishing the school year strong becomes close to impossible.  The weather slowly gets nicer, and the warmth and freedom of summer begin to dominate our thoughts.  "Homework? How can I possibly do homework?  Look how nice it is outside! I'll do my homework after I go for a walk...a long, slow walk." (As I write this on Saturday morning, the temperature outside is 37°, after being in the 80s earlier this week...welcome to Ohio.)

The problem is: not doing the homework this year in my class means not learning the material.  This was in the spotlight this week for me on two occasions.  First, early in the week, the discussions were lagging, and a quick check around the classroom gave me the information I needed: a lot of the kids had not done their homework, i.e., had not struggled with the exercises at home and prepared for the discussion.  This has happened several times in the last couple weeks, but I decided to wait and see if the kids would pull themselves out of it.  They didn't, and I called them on it, gently but firmly reminding them that not preparing for the discussion affects not only their understanding of the material, but everyone else's, since the poor discussions that result from the lack of preparation negatively impact even those students who have done the homework.  From that point forward, the kids did the homework, the discussions improved, and as I gave them the positive feedback, specifically mentioning that the discussions were much better than they have been recently, I saw a lot of nods around the room from both the kids who had never stopped preparing for class and those who had finally returned to doing so. 

Then yesterday I had a discussion with one of the English teachers who had thrown an open question out to her teacher friends on Facebook, asking how we assigned and used other words, what was our "homework philosophy".  I gave this some thought before discussing it with her, and it made me realize just how profound the difference from last year to this really is in my personal "homework philosophy".  Last year, homework was for practice of material and skills learned (or at least material and skills seen performed by the teacher) in class.  Homework was not for learning; homework was for doing the repetition necessary to memorize the algorithm, regardless of whether or not any true understanding of the material and skills existed.  This year, homework is for preparation.  It is for beginning to cultivate the questions about the material that will need to be answered, and discovering (or recovering) the skills, definitions, etc., necessary to find the answers.  Homework is for discovering and learning what you can on your own, and preparing your questions for the material that just doesn't quite click.

Through this reflection, I realized that in the past a lot of kids were able to get away with not doing the homework, or not taking it seriously, or just copying it from someone else.  The classroom was the only place where new material was presented, so putting off the practice required to memorize the material for the test until absolutely necessary wasn't a problem.  Everything needed for success on the test was delivered in class, so as long as the student paid attention or took notes, the timing of the practice (that day, or the day before the test, or whenever...) wasn't as important.  This is why cramming for a test could, potentially, be a successful strategy.  If the student can memorize well, then the day before the test is the perfect time to "learn" the material.  Of course, some kids need more repetition than others, so for some kids the daily practice was very important.  For others, however, not so much.  Which then, of course, brings forth the question: if a kid doesn't need the repetition, why make them do it?

This simply isn't true in a Harkness classroom.  The questions being asked on the test demand a solid understanding of the material to the point that some creativity is required.  Memorization doesn't come from sitting down and memorizing all of the material; rather, it comes from struggling with and working through and making sense of it, so that comprehension, rather than just pure memorization, takes place.  Both the discovery at home and the discussions in class are important parts of this process, as my students saw during the past week.  Personal preparation is important not only for the individual's understanding of the material, but also for that of the others in the class.  This makes the homework an integral part of the course rather than just practice (necessary or not) of the material covered in class.

Now admittedly, there are still a couple kids who possess solid problem-solving skills and can still contribute to the class (though not as completely or meaningfully had they done the homework) without doing the preparation at home.  However, a few of the exercises this week stumped them in class, and I firmly believe that had they done the preparation at home they would have successfully done the exercise.  Hopefully, this, coupled with the fact that they are perilously close to falling out of the A range, will inspire them to do the homework.  We'll see...


  1. I am considering using the Harkness method in my public classroom. Along with keeping focus, how do you handle students returning from absences?

  2. In general, it is the student's responsibility to get the discussion notes from a classmate, and my lecture notes from years gone by are posted on the class website for them to read. Beyond that, I try to keep tabs on the student over the course of the first couple days they are back in class, focusing in on their conversation a little more closely to make sure they are catching up, and filling in the details they may have missed.