Lesson resources & essay contest

The Bill of Rights Institute makes lesson plans, activities and sample student essays available on its website for teachers to use in engaging students in discussions of civic values.  The materials can be useful for both English and social studies teachers and their students.

The Institute annually sponsors the nation’s largest high school essay contest. The Institute’s website says an announcement about this year’s contest will come out Wednesday, Aug. 31.

You can find a link to the Institute’s scholarship contest on its website’s programs and events menu.

Homework: folly or missed focus?

In a blog post today, David Brooks,  op-ed columnist at The  New York Times, gives a brief overview of a forthcoming study in the Economics of Education Review that seems to suggest more homework has no value for students in any subject but math.

The study entitled “Are we wasting our children’s time by giving them more homework?” is certain to be taken out of context, with the result that babies will be washed out with the bathwater like farms below the Morganza Spillway.

Economists Ozkan Eren and Daniel J. Henderson took a representative sample of US eight graders and correlated the amount of homework they were assigned in math, science, English, and social studies with their test scores in those subjects.  (Note that homework assigned does not mean homework done.)

The full study is worth reading. It is only 31 pages and a third is bibliography and appendices. If statistics make your eyes glaze over, you can skip the paragraphs with the Greek terms.

The researchers took great care to rule out all sorts of factors that might impact their results, including such things as:

  • Student characteristics, such as race, gender, and family’s socioeconomic status.
  • Teacher characteristics, such as race and gender as well as graduate degree and state certification status.
  • Class characteristics, including class size, number of limited English proficiency students, number of hours the class met weekly, the amount of time the teacher spent administering tests and quizzes.
  • Teacher evaluation of the overall class level, how much of the text the teacher covered, number of hours the teacher spent each week maintaining discipline.

The researchers apparently did not attempt to determine whether the homework activities and the test items covered the same ground.  I suspect that the reason the math homework had a postive correlation with test scores was that the math homework questions and the math test questions were very similar.

I doubt very much that homework in science, English, and social studies would correlate well with questions on the test used in the study. American education has standardized tests that are taken nationwide, but no standard curriculum that guides study nationwide. The lack of standard curriculum is less obvious in math than in science, history, and English. Without agreement on, for example, social studies topics that all eight graders should study, the likelihood of social studies homework boosting test scores strikes me as pretty remote.

Moreover, science, history, and English focus (or should focus) at least as much on the thinking processes used in those disciplines as on specific facts.  Those processes do not produce right answers in the same way that solving an algebraic equation produces right answers.

Homework in science, history, or English may be directed toward having students discover multiple options rather than toward one right answer. We tend to regard solving the math problem as mathematical thinking, but real mathematical thinking is as likely to result in several possible solutions as to find one “right” one.

Giving homework in which students develop a hypothesis to test empirically or having students write an essay about American history may be more important in the long run than giving homework on material that is more easily tested by blacken-the-bubble methods.
[11-27-2012 updated Eren-Henderson link]

Serious academic writing in middle school social studies

A couple years ago, Glenn Wiebe shared on his History Tech blog information from a conference presentation that I tucked away to follow up sometime.

Leslie Duhaylongsod, who at the time was teaching at the Winsor School in Boston, shared at the 2008 National Council for the Social Studies how she uses what she called argument writing with middle school students in her history classes. I’m not sure her students incorporated the refutation element that marks argument, but they clearly used thesis-and-support.

Duhaylongsod had students develop nonfiction thesis statements, find evidence for them, and explain how their evidence supports their thesis. From a writing teachers standpoint, it is useful to look at some thesis statements she shared at the conference:

  • The geography of Greece was an advantage of Ancient Greece.
  • The geography of Greece negatively impacted the lives of the Ancient Greeks.
  • Geography led to development of democracy.
  • Geography of Greece helped the ancient Greeks become powerful.

Wiebe reported that Duhaylongsod said the most difficult part of the work for her students was developing patience to deal with the frustration of writing on intellectually challenging topics.

Those of us who teach writing rather than history can learn from Duhaylongsod’s efforts. She  required serious intellectual work from middle school students. Granted, she taughts at a private school and didn’t have the hodgepodge of students that populate public school classrooms. However, that doesn’t mean the public school teachers shouldn’t be pushing their students for learning adequate only for blackening bubbles on multiple choice tests.

Also, instead of letting them choose any topic that interested them, Duhaylongsod required students to choose topics within her discipline. That kind of authentic writing rarely happens in the English classroom at any level from middle school through associate degree except for writing assignments about literature.

I believe Duhaylongsod is now in an education doctoral program at Harvard University. She has been presenting at various conferences this spring (NARST, AERA) on a team lead by Harvard Associate Professor of Education Tina Grotzer. The researchers are investigating how how children reason about the nature of causality.

Wiebe is a member of the Curriculum Development Team of ESSDACK (the Educational Services and Staff Development Association of Central Kansas).

[Broken links removed 2/26/2014; updated link 2/03/2016]