….becoming the teacher's best friend!

Making Failure a Favor.

It has been preached for decades that those who fail come back with a new desire to achieve and have, at some point, learned from their lack of initial success. The most recent studies focus on entrepreneurial ventures and statistical data on failure based on previous experiences. But, for young learners, failure, in the allusive form of a capital F, comes early.

The school where I teach uses an aggressive math curriculum that is not designed for mid-year integration. It intentionally limits review of previous concepts and assumes that students have used the curriculum in previous grades. Because of this, the required unit tests (which are cumulative) cause many failing scores. I have a handful of students who know the basic principals of the content, but cannot see the complex nature of the multi-step word problems. They come home with tests where they scored 2 out of 10 points.

Because I am sensitive to the confidence of my math students, I limit the red ink, writing only Socratic questions next to mistakes and don’t put a percentage or letter grade score at the top. Instead, I ask students to take their test home and fix it.

For a few parents, the daunting task of fixing 8 impossible questions on a quiz that the student didn’t understand hours ago is a nightmare. For others, it is an opportunity to learn along side their child and to capitalize on the available time they can dedicate to gaining understanding of these math concepts. Parents are encouraged to sit down with their student and ask why they think their guess was wrong. Then, they have the student follow a process of explaining what the question is asking and what the steps in solving will be. Parents don’t realize that their investment of one-to-one time can make a big difference. Most parents visualize the teacher sitting down with their student to have the same lengthy conversations about a problem, but that is just not the case. Parents and tutors have the best opportunity to have face-time with a child and should do it whenever possible.

After a longer-than-usual homework session, students come to me the next morning, failed test in hand, claiming that they worked really hard and “got them all right”! I have parents approach me to say that they were proud of how hard their child worked and feel like they have come a long way with simply fixing a test.  To have a parent and teacher overcome the initial shock of a failed test and come together the next day to talk about success, is an awesome thing.

It’s not always that easy. My first year teaching this math curriculum was like a war zone with shrapnel coming from every direction. Parents would email the principal asking whether I knew how to teach math in the first place. Parents would gather in the hall and talk about their child’s failing grades. Of course, the parents of students who aced the test were not ready or willing to chime in and set everyone straight. I sought the expertise of my fellow teachers and they only suggested that I curve tests or drop harder questions!  With that, I would lose every opportunity to see how my advanced math students would score. And if I gave different tests for different students, I would have to explain it to the already-content parents. That’s when I decided to give the opportunity of learning from mistakes.

For those who passed a test with ease, they were praised. Their confidence was soaring and they learned to ask for more. For those who failed, they were asked to fix mistakes at home that night and the praise came the next day. To get every question right on a test, initially or after a second go, is a feat worth celebrating. My class discussions are now full of comments about how a student got a problem wrong initially and learned to navigate their incorrect thought process and come to the right conclusion. Parents know that it will take at least one full academic year to integrate into the math program and that the growth from pre-test scores to fixed post-test scores is a better gauge than the report card grade. More importantly, I take the time to tell them that I see improvement in the classroom and that their child is learning more than they had in previous math programs.  Now, with parents on my side and the students focused on finishing and not failing, I’m done with the warfare.


Filed under: pass or fail, supporting teacher, , , , , , , , ,

Missing Link? Students Get Home and Forget How to Help Themselves.

Ever check in on your child while they are doing homework and find them staring at a worksheet with no idea where to start? It begs the question, “Were you listening during class today?” The automated response to such a question will be, “yes”. But a better question is why your student comes home with extra practice that they are unable to do independently. Perhaps they showed temporary understanding of the concept in class, giving the teacher the message that they could do it again 5 hours later. The teacher may be required to use a curriculum that does not slow down for a student who needs extra practice of a foundational concept before moving on. This is why it is so important to communicate a “missing link” between the lesson in class and your child’s ability to recall information at home. Should the teacher have the ability to “individualize” student work, this message will allow you to have resources at home that build up to the assigned work.

Laurena, a fifth-grader in Denver, Colorado experiences temporary gaps in understanding caused by a change in math curriculums two years in a row. In class, she appears to understand the concepts and seems ready to practice later that night with a homework assignment. At home, mom tells a different story. It is very apparent that Laurena needs more practice before she can work independently, especially on a complex word problem. Laurena’s mom has turned to a tutor to help shorten the gap as well as help Laurena gain confidence in her ability as the math continues to become more challenging.

In this case, the tutor helped to identify specific skills that Laurena needed to practice. She coaches her in study techniques and boosts overall confidence. However, the message needs to get back to the teacher that the student is not working alone. A teacher can easily mis-identify completed, accurate homework done with a parent or a tutor as evidence that the student is ready for more challenging work. Helping too much can also cause a student to ace homework assignments, but fail tests or quizzes. When helping your student with homework, look for a few indicators that your assistance is becoming a crutch.

1) Your child won’t get their homework out and get started until you are sitting right there with them.
2) You and your child revel in how “evil” the homework assignments are together.
3) You often argue with your child about what they are supposed to do on an assignment.
4) Your child is afraid to turn in an assignment unless it was done with you.

Parent help with homework is often expected and an American tradition. But when you must communicate a “missing link” between lessons in class and expectations on homework assignments, things get tricky. First, check that you are following the advice of “homework experts”.  If your child craves a clean, quiet work space….provide that. Start homework by helping your student review the assignments for that night or week. Ensure that they know what they are to do and let them go. Tell them that you are available if they are unsure, but make an attempt to get out of the area. If an assignment comes home that your student cannot complete without you basically doing it for them, it’s time to talk to teacher. At least you can start the conversation by saying you’ve tried everything!

That Parent: Scribbles a nasty note on the assignment, expressing their opinion that the assignment was wrong or inappropriate for the abilities of their student. They may also storm the classroom 5 minutes prior to class starting to show that their student could only do the first two problems. This will set the tone for many conversations to come if the student has real challenges and needs lots of support.

Favorite Parent: Takes a deep breath and assures their child that as long as they understood the lesson in class, they should be able to complete their homework. But sometimes homework assignments cover older topics or ask for more than what students practiced in class. This parent encourages their student to try their best to show the teacher what they can do alone. After some guidance, the Favorite Parent shoots a quick email to the teacher indicating that the assignment was too hard for their student to do independently. They share any insightful details of what went right and what went wrong. Then, the Favorite Parent asks the teacher if the assignment was designed for parents to assist with. This will communicate to the teacher that it was assumed that the student can do the work on their own. If the teacher feels that a student needs nightly homework assistance by a parent or tutor, it should be formally recommended. Next, the Favorite Parent will keep track of assignments that were “too hard” to look for patterns or to help guide them to the path of identifying what additional resources or support they may need outside of school.

According to a 2006 study, seven in ten parents (73 percent) say they have used the Internet to assist their middle school-aged child with after-school work. The study, comissioned by LeapFrog Enterprises, Inc. in conjunction with the National Education Association reveals that nearly nine in ten (86 percent) middle school students say that they still turn to their parents for homework help.

If you choose to support your student by doing extra work at home to fill holes, turn to the internet. Though many “homework help” sites require membership, fees or are ridden with ads, there are a few that are used in the classroom and are appropriate at home. Visit these blogs to find an updated, content-rich list of technology for the classroom and your home.


Filed under: asking for help, parenting advice, resources for home, , , , , ,

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