Monthly Archives: October 2011

The Out-of-Control Dilemma: Homework, Study Skills, and Student Home-Life

As October comes to a too-chilly and weirdly slush-filled finish, I’ve tried to look back at my thoughts for the month in an attempt to slow life down and see if my perspective has changed thus far this year. These ideas and thoughts should be easily found here in the blog, right? But upon finding only one entry this past month, I’ve slumped my weary head down to my chest and have shaken my head at myself in lameosity (SMH).

Look at all these amazing distractions from blogging. So many theme parks, spas, massages.

Two weeks ago I did sit down on a Tuesday night and typed up some of my school related problems and ideas, only to tire and pass out minutes later without completion. Many a night I can remember having the option of formulating something nice to write down and share with my friends and family on the blogosphere. On almost all of these nights, the other options of watching TV, playing basketball, or video games have dominated my free time and squashed any chance of a blog post like a helpless little bug. This will end tonight, as I will squeeze a post together for the end of October.

First and foremost, last week was a week that I was looking forward to. The eighth grade had a trip to the Tenement Museum on Monday, and then a Middle School-Wide trip to a State Park on Tuesday.

Imagine two of these. Now imagine them in a row! BTW, is that the Hoff?

I know you just tripled back to read that last line over and over again because you thought that it couldn’t be. It’s true though, A DOUBLE TRIP!!! Consecutive field trips to start a week definitely have the disadvantage of being tiring, but nevertheless, they are incredible. I’d say that this particular scenario is almost as good as a double half-day or even equivalent to snow day in terms of happiness for teachers.

That said, I went on the Tenement Museum Trip with the students and it was a lovely and enjoyable trip in which the students learned about tenements and the immigrant story of New York. We spent the rest of the time walking around the Lower East Side and filling out a Scavenger Hunt at places like Katz’s Deli. When I got back home I was indeed exhausted. I took a standard half-hour nap, wasted some time, went out the dinner with family, and came home feeling like ten bricks had been stacked on my head. When I awoke, I had a raging fever, a sore throat, and a grade a headache. Because this post will not be about my sickness (because that would be really lame and full of talk of sweat), all I will say is that on Tuesday the doctor confirmed I had the flu, and I spent the rest of the week in bed recovering.

Thinking back to the other weeks in October since I last posted about my students already faltering grades, similar issues still permeate life at school and dominate my mind at work.  The most agonizing dilemma in trying to help many of my kids is that soooooo much of the reason their grades are so low is due to a lack of homework completion and study skills.

I always tell them, "If this owl can study, you can too". This owl example has failed to improve student study skills every time. Maybe because he looks arrogant.

Last week I did an entire lesson on what reasonable study habits should be (how long you should study for a quiz or a test, the various ways you can study material for individual classes, in what kind of environment should you study so you can remember material etc.). I learned a great deal about how much responsibility a majority of my students have at home taking care of younger siblings, and how loud and full of distractions many of my students’ apartments or houses are.

Many students in low-income communities have these same problems, and with many parents out of the house during the afternoon and evening hours, completing assignments or finding a quiet time to study outside of the confines of school is a major obstacle.

I think that I am aware of many of these distractions and do empathize with most situations, but then after this sympathy, where does that leave us as teachers? The bottom line is that if students cannot bring in their homework or study for a test, they will eventually fail. Too often, these same students are the ones who drop out of High School and become unproductive members of society.

I struggle with this dilemma all the time as I try to increase their habits at home and tell them a million times that although homework seems annoying sometimes, it all matters in the long run.

Believe it - I've gotten this excuse multiple times. In addition to, "My sister ate my homework!" and every other excuse ever.

I think that THE most frustrating and aggravating thing about not seeing the results that you want, are the things you can’t control. In this case, students’ with less support at home are always the most difficult to push toward success. The only thing that we can do is affect what is in our control, and this means we have to get funky with different ways of having the students buy into homework and studying. Hopefully we see improvement.

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A Packed Bus, Organizational Woes, and Preventing Failure

As we dive headfirst into Autumn, which sounds much more poetic than Fall, the school year is very much underway, regardless of whether or not students or teachers want to believe it.

Let's hope we stick the landing.

If the school year were a giant red, white, and blue bus taking off for a long journey, I would say that by now, the second week in October, the wheels are spinning at nearly full speed. Many of the students are safely and quietly seated, as they had been instructed from the first day; yet some are still just now getting to their seats as the bus sways and bounces them around the narrow aisle. Even worse, a handful of students are still clinging onto either sides of the bus and bus entrance, trying not to fall off. I also feel like I need to add the few students that seem to be blatantly clawing to exit this bus, into this lovely, albeit chaotic metaphor.

Over a week ago I attempted to describe how after the first few, calmer weeks of the school year, students throughout our middle and high school started testing the boundaries of what they could get away with. Now, after a few more weeks, similar problems persist, but have taken a backseat (keeping with the bus theme) to students who are flat out failing their classes.

Exactly.

When I say failing their classes, one might think, “Oh I know the feeling of failing a class, I got a 62 once in Blah Blah”, or “I remember failing that tough Chemistry test in high school”. No offense, but these thoughts cannot compete with some of the epic failing that is going on right now with some students. A few examples of the types of bombing that some of my kids are encountering a mere month into 8th grade look like this: 8.2% in English, 16.3 in English, 35.1 in Social Studies, 23.3 in Math etc. Take those numbers in for a minute.

Today I helped check a few students’ grades online and the looks of utter shock and awe on their jaw-dropped little faces was so sad that it was almost funny. But after I went back to think about it, and realized that these students don’t even have their passwords to check their grades because they are that oblivious and spacey, I came back to reality and understood that it is not funny at all. Sometimes all you can do it laugh, have one more pep-talk with them about coming for extra help for their organization, and attempt to call their parents again.

Sorry quaint, home-town suburbs, but you are a cake-walk compared to that dirty beast in the background.

I want to take this moment to state something that I don’t think that I have deliberately said in the history of this blog. It takes a really unique, specific teacher to successfully teach in New York City’s Public Schools. I, by no means, believe that I am this teacher at all (the most kids I teach at once is 12), but I’ve come to recognize a few major differences between a great teacher in the suburbs (where I grew up), and the city. This statement will hopefully be connected to my following thoughts.

Back to the major frustration that is currently resting on my mind, a great deal of our students (and students in low-income areas all over) have not developed the study skills or organizational habits to succeed in middle and high school. Not only are a majority of these kids behind in their basic math, reading, and writing when they arrive to middle school, but possibly even worse, they have not yet learned how to complete homework, study for a quiz, test, or even keep a folder for each class separate and neat.

Typical backpack. Add the incredibly popular "Draw-on-each-other-in-Sharpie" distraction and you have a recipe for trouble.

In the wealthy suburbs, if a teacher comes to class with an engaging and effective lesson, assigns homework, and gives reasonable tests to assess his/her students, you’d consider this teacher proficient because most of the students would DO THEIR WORK. In my experience working with students who are that much farther behind in the numerous aforementioned fields, the same teacher in a poorer area could have a very nice and well-behaved class, and still wind up with over half of his students failing because of lack of homework, lost materials, and poor preparation for assessments.

I’ll wrap up this post without with a magical strategy that works for all city teachers in improving their students’ school habits, but solely with a hope that people reading will understand how much of an uphill battle it is to actually reach the majority of a struggling class. It’s amazing how many more obstacles to success there are when teaching students who have never learned the ‘right’ way to succeed in school, and who often have very little support at home.

I know that all of my students will improve (can you really get worse than 8.2%?) over the next few months. I think that the trick now is to continue to be creative and persistent in keeping my students afloat while the leaves change color and fall in the coming October weeks.

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