First Person

Making homework more effective

Together, Kathy Granas and John McKinney, both Milken Educator Award recipient teachers and parents themselves, address ways parents can help their children get the most of out homework. They were interviewed by EdNews Parent expert Robert “Kim” Herrell, a retired Dougco teacher.

McKinney on “residual engagement”

John McKinneyUnfortunately, homework is a giant issue and most of it has to do with teachers and school policy. Somehow, working outside of school is falsely associated with rigor and quality teaching. That could be a whole other interview.

Despite all the challenges, we still know that somehow students need to practice skills outside the classroom to really remember what they are learning.  This leads to an obvious dilemma:  How can we design ways to get students to practice what they have learned in school at home, without making them hate school in the process?

We are exploring a new process in after school learning we affectionately refer to as “residual engagement.”  This is when a student remembers what they did that day and then explains it to someone without being asked.  We think this kind of activity might solve several of the challenges that confront traditional homework, while actually enhancing student learning.

Parents need to ask what the student is doing…what they are studying and learning.  Helping is great, but don’t do the homework for your child. I think it’s more important to ask the question, “What are you learning in school…in that class…in that unit?”  Mom and dad, don’t settle for “nothing.” Continue to press the issue.  Even if you don’t know what the homework is about, ask your child, “Is it difficult, and how is it related to the bigger ideas in the unit of study?”

I have a policy where parents e-mail me when residual engagement occurs at home. This is my primary homework assignment. The cognitive benefits of this are profound.  When students talk about school and learning, homework becomes a beautiful thing. The role of the parents is crucial in getting students to talk about their day at school.

Granas on how her mom helped her

Kathy GranasMy mom was always in the kitchen working on dinner after school each day.  I would work on my math homework in my bedroom.  When I would get stuck on a problem, I would run into the kitchen and complain that I was stuck on my homework.  My mom would ask me to explain the problem that I was stuck on.  Inevitably, before I finished explaining to my mom what the problem was asking and what I had tried so far, I would realize how I could get “unstuck” and I would go running excitedly back to my bedroom.

I used to think my mom was a genius!  I always seemed to “get the right answer” just being around her.  Years later I realized that my mom didn’t even know what a negative number was, but I had felt coached by her all the way through college-level mathematics.

Just by asking me to explain the problem and my thinking, she was able to help me keep going and get there.

McKinney on benefits of students embracing learning at home

The key to “residual engagement” is the student controls what they want to talk about with their parents. Anygirl doing school work teacher would agree the value of students willingly talking about school and sharing their learning is about the best homework. This kind of review is differentiated because it puts the student in charge of explaining something they have learned in their own words.

Here are the cognitive benefits of residual engagement:

  • When students describe what they learned or recount a demonstration they saw during the school day, they engage in an important cognitive process of review and reconstruction.
  • When students have conversations about their learning they are also engaged in an interesting type of formative assessment.
  • Students demonstrate deeper understanding of a topic or concept by applying it in a different context than it was taught.
  • Residual engagement often requires the student to provide relevant background knowledge and information from a lesson to the audience at home.

Parents are crucial in residual engagement.  We know that a supportive home environment is a key factor for success in school. Building a more positive attitude toward school and promoting student engagement outside the classroom are healthy habits that contribute to life-long learning.

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk