Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Why Mondays?

I am, as a rule, not a fan of homework on the weekends. In truth, I'm not a fan of homework at all; I avoid using the term with students and would love to banish it from our vocabularies. I'm the teacher no one will look at in a faculty meeting when someone says: "First graders need homework because. . . "

In my class, students are expected to read from their independent reading book for 30 minutes every day, though I base their score on three total hours of reading, so there's a little wiggle room. They memorize 5-10 countries on a map each week; last year this culminated in a four-continent final. They take notes on current events articles and write practice sentences. Anything assigned one day and due the next is typically very brief, such as "Finish your imitation of sentence 3 for tomorrow." Almost all longer writing assignments are completed in class. And they read from A Tale of Two Cities.

A Tale of Two Cities was originally published in 31 installments, so that's how we read it. I handed out sheets at the beginning of the year with the installment number and corresponding book and chapter numbers and titles (there are 3 books in the novel). I left a blank column for students to fill in due dates. There were a few weeks, especially at the start, when we skipped a week. This was usually because I, for whatever reason, wasn't ready. In May we read twice each week, on Mondays and Thursdays, in part to finish before end-of-the-year nonsense celebrations took over our lives and in part because the plot moves really quickly at that point. Upon reflection, even with more time to spare, I would still double up the installments those last 2-3 weeks.

The expectation, for the most part, was that students would read the assigned chapter(s) on their own and answer the prompt before class on Monday. (Some parents, especially in the beginning of the year, read with their child. I kind of loved this. This really helped a few kids, although one student complained that his mom and dad were so excited about the book that he had no idea what they were talking about most of the time.) Because it is a challenge to even comprehend the novel for most 8th graders, most prompts were comprehension questions ("Who fights in this chapter and why?") When I could, I also included a more challenging question, and students who really liked TOTC and/or were planning to take honors in high school were encouraged to answer that as well. A complete answer was 3-5 sentences (most wrote fewer), and full credit required a quote from the text. I posted the prompt after discussion on Mondays, and it was due, online, by 6pm Saturday. (I did this to discourage procrastination, and to allow me time to look over responses before class. In reality, I didn't have time to check on Sundays and rarely penalized students who completed the work by Sunday evening.)

It was important to me that we were consistent in our TOTC day, especially since we only worked with the novel once a week. And since we were often reading an additional book as a read-aloud, I didn't want TOTC to be something we studied midweek. Fridays were already busy with any culminating experiences for the week, and also had the most attendance issues due to students on travel teams, so Monday it was.

Which left me with the problem of assigning work, difficult work, on the weekend.

I'm fortunate that last year I had a teaching partner (she did two days each week of test prep and grammar) who is very experienced with middle schoolers and has a son who attends the Jesuit high school we feed into. She told me that the reality is that they will have work on the weekends in high school, sometimes lots of work, and we need to start preparing them for that. I have a tough time with doing something I disagree with just to support the next guy who is doing something I disagree with, but the high school culture isn't something I have much power to change. I hated the idea of a student struggling with Dickens, alone, on a Sunday night (this seems like an invitation to use the Internet badly), but I couldn't see a different way.

Students, however, had six days to do the reading. I allowed them to read A Tale of Two Cities during independent reading time, especially for those who wanted to get started right after discussion. The few who took advantage of this were the same ones who finished early in the week. It couldn't count toward their weekly reading goal, but the reality was that nobody wanted to read it if they could choose to read their own book, so it didn't cut into their reading time later in the week. My teaching partner ran an after school study session in my room for students who struggled with organization and time management, and a number of students would voluntarily stay to work on Dickens, either together or with teacher help. This was an assignment almost every single week, so I forgot just didn't apply. (I mean, it happened, but I wasn't sympathetic.) And some kids actually preferred to work on it during the weekend when they could dedicate a block of time to it. A few students, of course, tried to look up answers online, which was very obvious since I made up the prompts, and others failed to complete it most weeks. This was also obvious, even to the other students, but the majority of them muddled through most of the time, and it definitely got easier as the year went on.

Although I'm planning to change the way students respond each week, both before and after we read, Monday will still be our Tale of Two Cities day. Some students will be ready Wednesday, and others will wake up Monday and think oh crap!

I can live with that.

Currently reading: Undecided. I have several longer reads going, but I'm not sure what today's #bookaday will be.
That last statement is a lie. I'm reading Courtney Milan. Her books are awesome, but the cover of this particular title isn't quite teacher-blog friendly. So there it is.


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