Monday, August 30, 2010

NEW HORIZONS FOR HOMEWORK: READING INTO WRITING

There are very few areas of language learning where emotions run so high as in the case of homework. The enthusiasm with which it is assigned and the fury with which failure to comply is met, brings to mind emotions akin to those of Simon the zealot or other Biblical characters. The death penalty can’t be applied to those who fail to hand in homework but the reaction received by the miscreant is certainly similar to that received by a serial killer facing the public. Those on the receiving end, the students, develop a healthy loathing for homework starting very soon after setting foot in the trenches. The reasons are really very straightforward: homework is often deadly dull, seems pointless, is terribly time consuming and soul destroying, and half the time fails to achieve much. The reason for the latter, by far the most important consequence, is that students naturally go on auto pilot. Failing that, they devise shortcuts with no educational value. I remember the daughter of a friend of mine being told to write a few pages of “John played ball” for homework; the child, who had learnt how to write some time ago, turned her exercise book on its side and wrote “JOHN PLAYED BALL” in huge block capitals across the page. Her homework was over in seconds which naturally made my friend suspicious. After a brief discussion during which she defended her endeavor manfully on the basis that it was a page, she relented. When my friend came back to see what she was doing, she found her writing columns of John, played and ball all the way down the page; far quicker than writing full sentences. She was in first grade and she had already learnt that homework was rather like cod liver oil and childhood was certainly not the happiest time of your life. The methods of the assigning and completing of homework do not change as the years go by; the only thing that does change is that due to the tough competition, students develop more self discipline and suffer through their homework. Yet does it have to be so?

Do we need homework?

The answer to this question is affirmative for most people as timely consolidation will combat forgetting; however, everyone does not need the same amount of homework and there are some who don’t need any at all as they learn in class and do not ever forget. I remember the son of a family friend who arrived at the end of the summer some years ago and wanted coaching for the Matura. There was, to my mind, far, far too little time left, and I felt it would be unethical to take him on. This I explained to him but he told me he would be fine and wanted to go ahead; upon which I did. He turned out to be the most exceptional student I had ever seen in my 35 years of teaching: he would come in, loll about on a chair with his eyes half closed and absorb information like a sponge. Everything that passed my lips made a bee line for his long term memory and stayed there. It was like a minor miracle. Naturally, he did very well indeed and went to the university of his choice in Austria. He is, I am sure, not alone and there are others like him who don’t need teachers hassling them with homework. As the mother of an exceptionally bright child who had a lot of trouble with the system, I feel we need to be more flexible, and give students the responsibility, quite early on, to do as much or as little as necessary. People are not the same; they never will be, contrary to what a lot of educational systems would like. There will be those for whom the penny will drop immediately and those who will have to put in a lot of work to reach the same standard. Students should be given a yardstick with which they can measure their learning and given the responsibility to decide for themselves – and we don’t need to wait until the child is 18 to do this; we can start quite early on. The advantages of this approach in terms of personality development are enormous. However, handing over the reins to the students, who are pictured as vessels to be filled with knowledge, good values and rules of conduct, is something a lot of teachers and parents will find very hard. The reason is that this approach constitutes a radical about turn in our approach to teaching. Students aren’t going to learn to take responsibility as a result of constant policing; all they are going to learn is that they don’t need to worry at all as someone else is doing it for them. Taking responsibility is learnt through taking responsibility. It must be added here that it is a lot of teachers and parents who have the problem. All this is worth thinking about. After all, the teachers can keep tabs on the students through quizzes and tests according to the results of which revision can be assigned. This is the approach I mostly follow with my students. I make it quite clear to them what extra work they can do, I give them plenty of sources, I also give them answer keys and let them get on with it. Grammar revision can very well be handled in this way. The teacher will need to keep his eyes on the ball and advise the misguided about their work but this is much better than going all Old Testament on the students. This approach has an additional advantage: when the teacher actually assigns something to the whole class, students will comply like lambs – this has been my experience for years. For more on grammar homework please refer back to the paper titled “The Lord Said Let There Be English Grammar and There Was Much Rejoicing”.

Getting creative with homework

A lot of teachers will go to great lengths to plan interesting lessons: they will read, do research, use teaching aids and worry about it. Yet they are quite happy to dish out the most tedious homework imaginable on the principle that the only thing necessary for doing homework is self discipline. Why different principles should apply to learning at home and learning in the classroom is something I, personally, fail to be able to grasp. A little thought and planning devoted to making homework more enticing could work wonders and wouldn’t really be that hard. It is to the issue of more interesting but equally useful homework involving reading and writing to which I shall now turn.

In two previous papers, I discussed The Cornell method and reaction essays. There are two further applications of these skills which I would now like to focus on. The first is an activity I have named “Research Writing”. This activity should not be attempted until making notes from a reading text has become second nature. What I do is this: I select a topical issue or a current problem that will interest the students but which they don’t know about, and give them a week to read up on it and make notes from the texts they read. I ask them to bring their notes to class a week later on which day they are given a topic which they can reasonably write using their notes. They are not allowed to produce the texts at all; only their notes. It works like a dream. The topics I assigned last year were as follows:

1. Citizen journalism ( They wrote about the advantages and disadvantages)

2. Mobbing in the workplace ( They wrote about the effects)

3. Multiculturalism in Europe ( They wrote about the causes or effects)

4. Street children( They wrote about the causes or effects)

5. Obama’s health care bill ( They argued for or against it)

6. Modern surveillance techniques ( They argued for or against them)

7. GM crops ( They argued for or against them)

8. Counterfeit and generic drugs ( They discussed causes or solutions)

9. The parliamentary versus the presidential system.( They compared them and made a choice)

10. The oil spill in The Gulf of Mexico ( They discussed the effects or the long term use of fossil fuels )

Before we started the activity, we had already spent a term writing summaries and reaction essays as described in the previous papers and students were completely on board. I don’t feel this activity will work without this background and if no effort has been made towards motivating students in the long term and team building. Students will just arrive without notes, not having done the work. All the methodology suggested in these papers should be taken as a whole. If you work towards this goal though, it will work. Last year, at the end of the term, I only had two students not complying who in fact later failed the proficiency test. This is not the only further application of The Cornell method; there are also papers or projects and it is them that I would now like to discuss.

As soon as we have dealt satisfactorily with The Cornell method, I give them a choice of topical issues to write papers about. The topics I gave them last year were as follows:

1. The Rwanda Genocide

2. The Darfur Crisis

3. The Stolen Generation of Australia

4. The Apartheid Regime and how it ended

5. How the EU was established ( Second term)

6. The Anti globalization Movement (Second term)

7. How India gained its independence ( Second term)

8. The Chinese Revolution (Second term)

After they had decided on a topic, I sent them off to do their research and let me know which texts they were going to read and how they were going to approach the topic. When that was done, they were given a fortnight to read the texts, make notes on them and bring me copies of the notes and the texts. These I kept so as to be able to compare them to the papers they would write using them. Last of all, they were given a further fortnight to write up their notes. One word of advice, I would recommend that you ask the students to turn in handwritten work so that you can really see what they are made of, and not accept any papers if you haven’t seen the plan and the notes first. In our university, students sink or swim on the final; the tests they take during term time only give them the right to enter. So when students were given this project to do, they knew there would be no grades and that they were only doing it for themselves. Nevertheless, all but two complied. This activity was possible because of all the motivation building accomplished since the beginning of the term.



The sky is the limit

The two activities linking reading and writing I described here have one important consequence according to my observations: they help develop a permanent reading habit. With the focus on current affairs and all the reading, discussion and writing, a habit is formed: halfway through the second term, I had students tell me about exciting current events before I had even heard about them. One incident I recall from 2009 is when one of my best students, Batuhan Tellio─člu, arrived in the second block saying he had overslept. He had gone to bed at three o’clock as he had been watching the UK elections. He was the first person to tell me that some people had been unable to vote as there hadn’t been enough ballot papers. What ensued was a lively discussion during which I discovered that at least a third of the class had been following the elections. This was by no means an isolated incident and when they happen, you want to scream for joy! The reason is that you have won; they are interested, they care, they always will and you, the teacher, have managed to achieve this. What is more, you have been working with a bunch of students who, until that point, hadn’t even looked at anything but the sports pages. It is this that I feel constitutes our main purpose in reading and writing lessons; not stuffing some soul destroying text down their throats. It is for this reason that motivating students is the single most important duty of the teacher. Once that is achieved, the rest just falls into place.

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