Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Helping with Homework? Have a Highlighter Handy

It always happens when you are most busy trying to get dinner ready, getting some work done, or hustling the kids toward bed time. “I need help on my homework!” The worst part is that helping your kids with homework the right way takes a lot longer than you would like.

When I was teaching 8th grade, I had a lot of parents ask a lot of questions, but they almost never asked the most important question: how should parents help with homework? If they did ask, my short answer would be: help with a highlighter.

The worst thing a parent can do is just give the student the correct answer. First, it gives the student an easy way out without having to learn the lesson in the homework. Secondly, it leads the teacher to believe that the student has mastered the material when he or she has not. Lastly, it subtly gives the message that the parent does not believe the student can get the answer. But, it is a lot easier and faster for the parent.

The best thing a parent can do is show the student how to get the right answer. If the student doesn’t understand the concept, a few minutes of explanation can make all the difference. It may only take ten minutes, but rarely does a classroom teacher have ten minutes to devote to each student.

Parents should also teach their children how to catch their own mistakes. When my students wrote essays, I asked their parents to “Help with a highlighter” because highlighters are good at marking a spot on the page but bad for writing corrections. Parents should mark where a mistake is, but let the student figure out what was incorrect and how to fix it. When my son has math homework, I always look it over afterward. If I find errors, I tell him how many mistakes there are and let him find them. I might add that it is on the bottom half of the page if the homework is long. By training students to catch and repair their own mistakes, parents prepare them for the times when they are not around. 

This is especially helpful since kids need feedback as fast as possible. If a student knows there are spelling mistakes on tonight’s homework, he or she is motivated to make the corrections. If that same student gets a paper back a week later with spelling errors marked, it means nothing. This was a motivating factor when we were developing our Clickademics Essay Engine. If we could teach a student to write an introductory paragraph as they were writing their essay, it would be meaningful to the student and, hopefully, stick in their long term memory. In most classrooms, students learn how to write an introductory paragraph a week before writing the essay or a week later when the teacher reviews the corrected essays in class. By then it is ancient history.

So helping your student with homework is pretty much like everything else about parenting, there is an easy way that pays off now, and there is a harder way that pays off later. Usually pays off longer, too.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Easiest Way to Do Better in School

After a decade and a half in the classroom, my best advice for students: ask questions.

Here is a little secret, teachers love engaged students. Many of us went into teaching to work with curious young people, to help them discover more about the world and themselves.  Nothing spoils that quite like a group of distracted students, unless it is a group of zoned out zombie students. Just one student who is listening, thinking, and wanting to understand can make a teacher's whole day.  With just a little effort, your child could be that student.  A simple, "Why does it work like that?" Is all it takes.

Students should also ask questions to clear up confusion. Between the teacher's lesson, directions for assignments, and classroom management, there are a lot of instructions in an hour of class. No student can remember them all. A student should ask right away if he or she does not understand something, because if one student is confused, there are probably others in the room that have the same question. When I was teaching, I had students who would only ask questions after getting the wrong answer on an exam or scoring poorly on a project. By then, it was too late to help. If they had sent an email or stayed after class for 5 minutes, I could have cleared everything up. 

Lastly, students should ask questions to show initiative. Teachers create assignments and project for the whole group, but not every student learns the same way. If a student has a clever idea, it never hurts to ask. If the student enjoys making movies, he could ask if he could make a documentary instead of writing an essay. Why not? The teacher may still want him to work on his writing skills, but it shows the teacher that the student is thinking ahead, and perhaps the teacher may create a film making project later in the year. I remember being in a college philosophy class that had one of my last final exams of the year. I asked the professor if I could skip the final and instead write a paper that showed that all of the major concepts that would be covered in the exam could be found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The teacher loved the idea, I showed that I understood the concepts, and I got to fly home a day early.

Of course, the delivery of the question matters. The middle of class is fine if the student is confused by the lesson being taught at that moment, but most other questions are best before or after class or by email.

Here’s a couple questions for you. Have you checked out our Clickademics Essay Engine yet? Have you told a friend who needs help writing essays? Have you liked us on Facebook?

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Computers Should Be Like Art Supplies, Not Textbooks (or BYOD)

Many schools are thinking about 1-to-1 programs where each student receives a tablet or laptop. The reasons for these programs are very compelling.  Teachers can assign exciting, high-tech projects, students can access all of the new content online, and parents and people in the community are impressed by the students carrying around fancy hardware. 

In this sense, schools are treating devices like textbooks where each student receives one at the beginning of the year. I believe, however, that schools should think of devices like art supplies. No school would ever buy a full set of paints for every student in the school. Instead, they have many different types of art supplies available for students to use depending on the project.  When students want to make a sculpture, the school provides clay. When the student is painting, there is paint available in class. If the student is asked to make a simple poster or a photography project, the student just uses colored pens or a camera that he or she already has at home. This is how devices should be in schools. 

Schools should not be buying devices for all of their students for a few reasons:
  1. Many students, especially at more affluent schools, already have a computing device at home. Giving the student a second one is redundant. 
  2. Schools will always buy the same device for all of the students, but they don’t all need the same one. Some students use prefer a tablet to a laptop, Windows to Mac, depending on their learning style and experience.
  3. Students may need different devices on different days. iPads are great for consuming media like educational videos and electronic textbooks. Laptops may be heavier, but they are necessary for content creation like writing a long paper or a using photographs. Editing a video is best done on a desktop computer.
  4. Most educational tasks - reading textbooks, writing notes, composing essays, watching videos, using educational apps - are web-based, so the device is just a window with internet access. Though many apps are device specific, written for iOS or Android, more and more will simply be web apps that are independent of the operating system. This is why we at Clickademics chose to make our Essay Engine a web-app instead of a native iOS app.

If the school does not purchase devices for all of the students, it is difficult to expect every single student to be able to complete projects that require a computer or tablet. I would propose that the school help families for whom it would be a burden to purchase a device. Like a scholarship, the school to arrange discounts or provide free devices to the students that require it. The school should also have a number of tablets, laptops, and desktops available to students who have come to school without a device or require something different for the day’s lesson. One or two members of the IT staff should be available to troubleshoot and perform basic repairs. All of this would be significantly less expensive than buying an iPad for every student.

The most important thing is that the learning comes first, not the device. Teachers and administrators need to set learning goals first, then figure out the lessons and projects that will help the students master the learning. Only then should they think about devices necessary to reach those goals and complete those projects. Sometimes, paper and pencils are still the best devices for learning.

Lastly, remember that the life expectancy of computer devices is shrinking. Desktops used to be good for about 6 years, then laptops were good for about 4. Tablets and smart phones are usually used for two years. If a school invested in an iPad program, they would be left with out-dated hardware after a 3 or 4 years. Students would begin bringing their newer devices from home, and the school would soon become a campus where the students bring their own laptop or tablet from home, similar to what I have proposed here. Schools should save the initial expense and start a Bring Your Own Device program from the start.