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Saturday, October 15, 2016

Hack in Action: An Excerpt from Hacking Homework

After ten years as a middle school reading intervention teacher and five of those years as a literacy coach, I've heard more excuses for missing assignments than I care to admit. Long gone are the shallow excuses like, "the dog ate my homework." As you can imagine, preadolescents are savvy and seem to know the perfect excuse to use and exactly the moment to deliver it.

Without question the coup de grace of all excuses is the excuse that shifts responsibility from the student to the teacher. The excuse goes something like this. The student looks the teacher squarely in the eyes and solemnly swears that they have already turned in their homework. It is the teacher's fault for losing it.

In a stroke of genius, the responsibility shifts from being the student's responsibility to being the teacher's problem. If you're like me, some days it is not worth going to the extreme to convince the student that their homework is, indeed, missing.

Three weeks later the homework surfaces during a mandatory locker clean up. It is now stuck to another piece of paper by a sticky red substance that smells like cherry.

As a part of my reading intervention classroom, I decided to dedicate the first Monday of every month to teaching organization. (If I had a new student I would schedule a time to meet with him/her one-on-one).
I would have my students bring in their backpacks and every scrap of paper they could find in their lockers, even if the scraps looked like trash.

At a table or on the floor, I would have the students write on three sticky notes: Keep, Trash, or a "?". The first pile was for papers to be kept and organized, including incomplete assignments, study notes, schedules, etc. The second pile was for papers to trash or toss out; students would often find doodle sheets, drafts of paper that had already been written, and even multiple copies of the same paper.  The third pile was for papers that the student wasn't sure if they should keep or toss. Students were taught how to assess the purpose of the paper so they could determine if it should go in the keep or trash pile.

I would literally pick up each piece of paper and ask, "is this to keep, trash, or you're not sure?" I added an extra layer of support by placing the "Trash" and "?" piles in a file folder until the end of the grading period. It never failed for a student to run into my room in a near frenzy because they believed they had thrown away a paper that was due.

Students who are learning to organize often do not have the skills to prioritize what is or isn't important. This was a way to scaffold learning using Gradual Release of Responsibility. It is a best teaching practice a teacher would use if teaching an academic skill like how to multiply fractions or how to write an expository essay.

If students do not have instruction and a workable process, they are not likely to figure it out on their own. Explicitly teaching organization gives the students the skills and processes they need to be successful - author's comment (Connie Hamilton and Starr Sackstein)

You can learn more about ways to teach responsibility and organization in the book,  Hacking Homework. It is now available on Amazon:

Confession Reflection:
  • Why is it important to teach skills like organization?
  • Teaching organization skills and teaching responsibility often go hand-in-hand. Why is this?
  • What is the difference been supporting and enabling? How can teachers discern between the two?
  • How would explicit instruction on ways to organize assignments benefit students beyond the walls of the school?