Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Our Approach: Friday Raffles: Where Learning is the Prize!

Going back about fourteen years to when I was teaching first grade, I started doing two things with my students, one was every Monday and the other was held every Friday.

Today, even though it is not Friday,  want to explain the concept behind the Friday Raffles...this was something that I touched upon briefly on Twitter last week and promised that I would do a post or two explaining the concept for all of you to try.

First, some background:
Back then, I taught at a private school with a partial immersion French program. Tuition was very steep, parents were very involved and interested in their child's learning and overall progress, and there was a sense that children should have nightly homework.

That being said, the traditional nightly homework idea was not something that I felt even remotely comfortable with or supported, as I am a big advocate of children having time to relax and enjoy their family and friends after school hours, hopefully time spent doing something interactive and outdoors when the weather permits.

But then, it dawned on me that the problem with homework is not necessarily the actual concept of doing work at home that is the problem...
Instead, it is the type of homework given as well as the general perception (or what I think is a mis-perception) of homework...that it is tedious, boring, requires way too much time of a parent or caregiver to help get the darn thing done...
Homework in the traditional sense is generally dreaded and so, with this mindset, many teachers will give out rewards of No homework for you! certificates, special nights off, etc.

The whole notion of homework is typically portrayed to a child as work that you do at home that your parents wished you did not have to do but know that begrudgingly, needs to be done...

Well, if you are a kid who loves to learn and then, you bring home something that the parent is like Are you kidding me? This sucks! I have twenty other things I need to do today and now, I have to trudge through this assignment!, it becomes clear to the child that homework is not fun.

Then, sometimes, to add insult to injury to both the child and the parent who helps the child with his or her homework, one of three things happens:
1. You get a teacher who is all about giving positive strokes to the child and marks up everything with big smiley faces, stars, or stickers, but does not seem to notice that there are some glaring errors or omissions with the assignment.
2. You get a teacher who slashes the whole thing to bits, makes it exceptionally clear that the child has done a poor job, and almost makes the parents feel like they have failed miserably in their homework duties, too.
Or, 3. You get a teacher who is super overwhelmed with the myriad of other things that he or she has to do and the work is not collected or maybe is collected but ultimately, the homework falls into a big black hole and neither the child nor the parent sees the homework again, until possibly there is a comment about homework on the report card.

Have a great deal of respect for both parents and teachers who want the best for their children, but just think that sometimes, although there are good intentions on both sides, they get lost in translation when trying to walk a child through the homework process.

The other key problem, other than the dread factor, is that homework is NOT an egalitarian undertaking.

Cue Jonathan Kozol...he gets his book Savage Inequalities for his take on the have's and the have-not's...

Those who have parents with the resources, both financial and time-related, as well as those who actually support the notion of homework help their children. These children bask in the glow of traditional homework-dom... they are the kings and queens of homework success.
But the world is not even perfect for the well-to-do who have every possible resource at their fingertips...because some of these families and teachers that teach children from these families are so competitive, that all of the emphasis is placed on turning in the perfect product, the perfect specimen.
Sometimes, from these families, the assignments come back in looking like works of art! Awesome in appearance but not remotely authentic! Fabulous, bordering on unbelievable in some cases, that little Johnny or Susie was able to pull off a Herculean feat and have the poetic prose of Camus and / or the mathematical reasoning of Aristotle! These families still, while outwardly supporting the notion of homework (and why wouldn't they, as their kids are the clear winners in this scenario?) completely miss the point...the work has been done for the child. The child does not take ownership in his or her work, and the whole focus is on the adult making it perfect not on the child's reflection and learning.
There is no following the lead of the child in this scenario. The child becomes the pawn who submits the work that has been done for him or her.
He or she has little connection to the work, as it has been done for but not by the child. 

Then, there are those families who do not have the resources. They lack the money, the educational acumen, and the time to help their child to their homework.  Many times, these children cannot possibly complete the homework at hand.
They can try their best but they do not have what traditional homework requires and expects to get the job done...they might do the homework, but it will be lacking the bells and whistles of the more well-to-do child's work.
 On this end of things, sometimes, you have a child who comes back with either nothing at all, or else something that is so pathetic that you almost wonder how anyone would feel comfortable with turning in something like what has just been turned in...
Sometimes when this happens, it is due to the parent having to work two to three jobs, or a child who is living with a guardian as the child's parents are incarcerated, etc.

With the lack of financial resources or educational background,  the parent or guardian might really want the best for the child, but might not have a clue as of how to help or how to get the resources to get the job done.

Either way, whether on the rich or poor side of the homework tracks, it makes homework all the worse for society because in many cases, homework further delineates the have's from the have-not's.

Sometimes, schools try to balance out the have's and the have-not's by assigning homework that requires little parental assistance so the only thing needed to complete the homework task at hand is the worksheet and a pencil. Plus, in some cases, schools think worksheets are great because it mimics what they will have to do on standardized tests.
With paper and pencil homework, it is usually less necessary to have ample art supplies and parental supervision, is easy to fit in a back pack, and is somewhat easy for a parent to read the directions.
It is generally nothing more than skill and drill and does not get a child to do higher order thinking. Worksheet homework just goes over whatever the child has hopefully covered in class, or unfortunately, in some cases, it is a stop-gap measure to make sure that a kid who is behind can get "caught up" or else a teacher can say it was covered even though in reality, it is getting covered through homework because there truly is not enough time to cover said topic in class...

Well, when I started to reflect about my own learning, and about what had stayed with me over the years, I came back to a time when we were in Fifth Grade and Mrs. S. let us choose our own topic to research for a class project. Everyone chose something different, based on their passions for learning.
Out of over 50 kids, none of us chose the same thing...we all chose something unique to our tastes and interests.
I chose to research Florida. It was a fun project for me, as my family had been to Florida a few times prior and we actually went again to Florida during the course of doing my research project.
I gathered things from my travels, was able to draw upon my actual life experience of traveling to Florida, and therefore, gave not just the facts about Florida but my impressions of the facts and my perceptions of Florida based on our visits. 
I worked hard at having my project neatly prepared and was very excited when it was my turn to present it to my classmates. My project consisted of a research paper plus several artifacts from our trip, mostly souvenirs and brochures made into a scrapbook of sorts.
A fellow classmate had chosen to do a research paper on trees, which I remembered thinking at the time that her topic sounded somewhat interesting, but it was so sad when she got up to present...she had drawn make-believe trees and did not have any facts or anything at all other than her little drawings to share.
She had things like a drum tree, a book tree, a football tree, etc.
It was very bizarre, no research was actually done at all, and just more or less a bunch of her drawings of her imaginative take on trees.
What she should have probably done for her project was something about surreal art, as that really would have been more appropriate for what she actually turned in as her work...but what was sad is that she had not received any sort of input from her parents with her work...she literally had drawn the make-believe trees right before we turned in the assignment.
If only she had perhaps shared with Mrs. S. that she did not know about where to begin to research trees or that maybe really her passion was more with explaining surrealistic renditions of trees...but instead, she just turned in her work when it was due and then, Mrs. S. was left to try to decipher what to make of it...

What was customary back in the day was to have the projects hung up in the room...all of them, the good, the bad, and the ugly. Her tree fiasco was hung up along with everyone else's. You could see that she had a failing grade marked inconspicuously at the back of her paper, whereas the rest of us who had earned decent grades had them prominently written towards the front of our papers. Mrs. S. was a nice, thoughtful teacher...if only this student would have expressed that she needed some assistance, or if only Mrs. S. would have known the lack of familial support that this girl had...
things could have ended so differently for this student...

Flash forward from my time as a student in Mrs. S' Fifth Grade class to my time being a teacher at a private school, teaching first grade English Language Arts, and kind of being mandated that I was to give some homework to my students...

Well, it dawned on me that the only homework that I ever remembered or enjoyed doing was one that I had a personal connection to and got to do research, not just rote paper and pencil worksheets.
So, it got me thinking and what I came up with was a raffle idea.

Instead of homework being something to dread, it was the prize!
Learning is awesome in and of itself! Learning about a topic that you really can that be topped?!?
Getting to select something of your own choosing...getting to dig in deeper into a topic that you felt was neat...that was it!

Learning needs to be treated as the best thing ever, not the worst thing that you get to take a break from over summer vacation and when you get free passes to skip out on homework.

So, I started to listen and very intently observe my students and would take down things that they would say in an effort to have a better understanding of what made them tick.

Interest led learning is something that can take place both in a homeschool setting and in a school setting...thank you, Alfie Kohn, for awakening me to the concept of interest led learning!

What also became evident is that so many of the picture books that you would typically read to a first grade class for the idea of doing prediction would not cut it with this class, as not only were they already familiar with the story, but they had the book on CD and video, in both English and French, and had all of  the stuffed animal characters and toy spin offs that had been made to tie in with the book.
What did emerge though was that they had varied interests and that was something I could build upon and encourage.
So, during the week, I would write down on little Post-It Notes if I overheard a child mention something such as their interest in flowers or baseball, or their recent family trip to Japan.
Then, I would come up with interactive projects that would be built around the topics that I had heard them mention...and come Friday, the whole class would sit in a circle on the floor and then, we would start the raffle.
At first, I would read the description of the said project and the children would just light up and would say Oh, that is the one for me! I just went to a baseball game or we just visited a floral show, etc.!!!
The excitement would build and the children could not wait to get their raffle prize!
As time went on, the children took more and more ownership of the raffle...from reading the raffle prizes (and then, later, to actually submitting the ideas for the projects*...)
This raffle idea might sound a little corny, but it was a way to highlight authentic learning instead of just randomly assigning blanket, one-size-fits-all (really fits none) homework to children. 

I would be sure that the children and the parents knew that the focus was not on racing through the project, but to take as much time as they needed to do the project justice, and that if they needed any resources or any assistance whatsoever with doing the project, to please let me know.
The projects were all designed to focus on getting a child to think and reflect upon their really make the facts and figures they found about a subject their own...we talked in detail about the concept of meta-cognition and how it is important to really think about your own thinking.
I did not assign grades to the homework, as the focus was on the learning process and the sharing of the culminating product, not just on the final product itself. The work was to genuinely be sparked by something that the individual child was passionate about, and the work was to be completed by the child. A parent, friend, community mentor, etc. could give some guidance if the child needed it but the project was to be authentically created and presented by the child.
But just because I did not assign grades does not mean that the work fell into a big black hole...

On the contrary, the child had the floor when he or she completed their project and was ready to present. Thank you to Dr. Maria Montessori, who highlighted the concept of following the child. If you follow a child when they are sharing a project, they have the floor...they are the presenter and you are the observer.

*What also emerged as the year went on was that some children would propose their own idea for the Friday raffle...
Children started to take notice of my Post-It Notes and would tell me their thoughts on what they think would be neat to research and share, then they would add their ideas to the raffle. Some of them even would come to class and have their ideas written down and ready to add to the raffle!
It truly become something to look forward to! Friday Learning Raffles! How awesome!!!

Another thing that emerged is that some children wanted to work collaboratively with another child, so the two kids would choose to work on one project together...some would even do play dates where they would work on their raffle project together.

Then, there were other children who liked to do their projects when they would visit an aunt or uncle, or when they would spend the night at their grandparents' home...

The child would let me know in the morning that they had their homework raffle project completed and that they wanted to share their work.
Sometimes, the projects were completed within a few days, sometimes, a few weeks...the time was not the focus...feeling like they were ready to share was the key...
We would try to always work it that on the day they brought back their work, that they shared on that day.
The only exception was on days where maybe we had an assembly, a field trip, or something unexpected, such as a fire drill...

But the children loved it, and so did the parents and other helpful relatives and friends.

One parent who had been through a trying divorce had his daughter on the weekends. He was working hard at forging a new bond with his daughter and actually looked forward to when she would select something from the homework raffle and would want to work with him on the project.

I always made it very clear that if due to time constraints, that if a parent or caregiver (some of the children had nannies) could not get the project completed for whatever reason, or if they ran into any issues related to the project, that I was more than happy to help the child do some of the project during the course of our school week. I was a guide, not the lead in the project...if a child needed assistance, I assisted, but the child was to be the lead, regardless of whether the project was done entirely at home, or partly at home and partly at school...

When I moved from working at this private school and took a position at a public school, I did the same thing with my students in public school. Some of these children did not have the financial resources to complete their child's idea for their project, and more than half of them had parents who English was not their first language...
It did take some explaining and demonstration on my part to show how this new sort of concept of a  raffle could be even better than traditional paper-pencil, worksheet driven homework that many in the public school setting were more familiar with doing...but once these parents saw the joy for learning and the sheer level of work that their children were capable of producing when given something that was driven by their individual interests, they were on board with it. Since I did have more children who needed help rounding up resources, I made kits available that had the supplies in them for a child to take home and use. I taught in an urban area so even though some children did not have the money to buy materials to make a fancy project, they did have access to nearby free museums and the like, and that helped to bring to life the topics that they wanted to explore.

This was something that took a change of heart from me, as in the private school setting, I never had a parent approach me that seemed so overwhelmed and uncertain about the raffle idea. I had to learn to be much more empathetic, much more compassionate, and much more willing to help the parent and the child to make it a good fit of a project for their family situation...
At the public school, I had a child who had chosen to make a tall tale diorama and wanted to make the characters for her story out of clay, but the mom and dad both worked, plus the mom was going to school, and it was just too much for the mom to try to round up the ingredients to make homemade dough for the characters.
The mom came into my room crying and was so upset that she had felt that she had failed her child because she had so much on her plate and making salt dough was the last priority...
Had to explain to this child's mom that if her daughter wanted to do this or any other hands-on project as part of the homework raffle, that I would help her with parts of it during the school week. I did not want it to be a burden on the parents, or something that a parent was trying to squeeze in on top of a million other things...the whole point of the homework raffle was for the child to have a sense of accomplishment and a sense of enthusiasm for their work...the goal was to follow the child and to make the child reflect upon their draw their own opinions on the topic they had explored...
The mother who came to me out of sheer desperation left feeling validated and relieved that the goal was not to make a pristine picture perfect project but to have her daughter make connections with her real world learning.
Since there was not a set due date for the project, this mom went home, regrouped, and when it worked into their schedule to make some time to make some homemade dough from the materials I had sent home for them to use, they did just that.
Several weeks later, this lovely student of mine came in with her completed project to share with her classmates. Since she had taken some extra time to complete it, in the weeks in between, I had helped her find extra books at our school library on tall tales and extra resources for a take home kit. We had gone on a few field trips that also tied in with the idea of tall tales, so she had an even more of a knowledge base to draw upon than if she would have just done some paper-pencil worksheets about tall tales weeks earlier...

So instead of her end project being just on one tall tale, she was able to compare and contrast several tall tales.
The salt dough was not perfect...her Blue from Paul Bunyan kind of looked like Cream of Rice with some light blue food coloring added to it, along with legs, a tail, and some facial features...but what was spot on was this child's ability to express what she had learned throughout the process and what she took away from her learning...she absolutely loved learning about tall tales and really enjoyed sharing her enthusiasm for them with her peers.

As many people are winding down their traditional school year here in the U.S., I wanted to share this with you, as somehow the topic came up on Twitter about homework and I felt obligated to give my two cents.
If you work with children, I challenge you to reflect upon your own learning, your own perceptions of homework, and your own experiences in school.

I do not hold the belief that having to do work at home is a bad can be a wonderful experience if it is embraced as a way to enhance a child's learning and connectedness within the family and the community. It can be great both as a homeschool family or as a regular school family if you embrace doing a project together that is driven by the interests of your child.

If you are from a traditional teaching background, or if you are a parent who attended a traditional sort of school, try to re-format your thinking about homework. Homework does not have to be a dreaded sort of thing that has to get done. Ideally, it should be interest led, child driven learning that embraces family and friends.

Giving out homework free passes should cease, as this really sends the wrong message to a child.

Work done at home should be something that builds upon what a child and his or her parents or guardians are interested in doing together as a family...and if you do not know your students well enough to assess what the family enjoys doing together, then set up a meeting to get to know them a little more. It also does not need to have lots of stuff to count as a research project...if a family likes to kayak, the child can share their actual experiences about kayaks, but might not necessarily need to make a kayak out of toothpicks, although if the family is crafty and the child would want to make a little kayak, then that is great too...

If the child lives in a situation that is not conducive to doing a higher-order thinking, process oriented type of work at home, then make it so that the child can get the job done doing the school or summer school week...

Any sort of project should follow the child's lead, meaning that if the child loves horses, that would be a good thing to use as a jumping point. You might have the need as the teacher or guide for the child to show you what they know about grammar, but if you focus on what the child loves, it will be ingrained into the child's memory, making it easy to tie in concepts that you hope the child is just do not get that from giving a kid some worksheets, nor do you get it if the topic is not at all appealing to the child.
The other awesome thing about tweaking projects into a raffle format is that everyone feels like they have won a prize from the get go...learning should be treated as a prize, not a punishment.

When you start, all you need is:
Some Post-it Notes or a Smart Phone to plug in notes as the child says things..
Some paper raffle tickets (not real raffle tickets, just little bits of paper with the ideas for the project on the papers)...keep in mind that these just are a way to get children to be excited about doing something that is driven by their interests. these do not have to be elaborate, nor do you have to feel that as the adult, you have to wrack your brain for the perfect project for the child...this just gets the process going...after a couple times, the children get that they are in the driver's seat with respect to coming up with what they want to just model the concept at the beginning or at times when maybe the child is having a hard time putting their passions into words...
A container for the raffle tickets...
Support from the community:

If you are a homeschool parent, get your spouse on board with this...explain how you are going to do projects that are interest driven and that the learning and skills will come, but that they are going to be meshed with your child's interests, not just skills and drills...

If you are a classroom teacher in a traditional school, first explain the concept to the children. The children will be super excited and then, they will help you to explain it to the school community at large.

If you are a teacher or guide at a school such as Montessori that typically does not do homework, explain that it is not homework in the traditional sense, that it is something to help a child make connections using the framework of family and friends to get the job done.

It is something that follows the child's lead, encourages higher-order thinking and meta-cognition.

It levels the playing field, in that each child does the project at his or her own level.

It eliminates competition, because grades are not assigned and the focus is on the process not on a glorious and perfect product.

What better prize is there than a love of lifelong learning?

1 comment:

Stephanie said...

What a great post! I think that you have really addressed something really important! Forced learning was one of the things that really influanced my desicion to homeschool. I want my kids to love learning and research, not to dread it. Thanks for showing us a way to do it!

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