Saturday, October 4, 2008

Illiteracy and homework help

For those readers who are not familiar with the New York City public schools, we are really BIG on homework. I know districts outside of the city who do not begin sending homework until 3rd grade- not the case in the city. My students take home three assignments each night. They read the book in their baggie and fill out a Reading Log with a really simple task for each day. Since they are almost all ELLs I have them write 5 words from their book one day and draw a picture of their favorite part the next. They do one of these activities for every day of the week. It is very simple and follows the same format every week. They change their books every two days. I change the activities to be a bit more challenging in January and again in March. They also do an activity in their homework notebook. It is usually phonics related and reinforces our work in word study. I send a science or social studies activity on occasion in the notebook instead of phonics. Everyday before we pack up, we do the homework together on the board as practice so they know exactly what to do when they go home. I also tell the parents that I basically teach them how to do the homework each day so there is no excuse for saying "I don't know." Most of my students are able to do their homework by themselves. I designed it this way so that parents could provide the structure (i.e. time, a place to do it, and to check that it was done) without actually being required to help their children. I know that most of my children's parents do not speak English at all AND are illiterate in their first language. The third piece of homework is where we run into a lot of trouble-- Math. Each day the children take home Everyday Math Home Links, the homework book provided by the Everyday Math program. Each lesson has a corresponding homework assignment. If I teach lesson 2.1, then the children do the homework for 2.1.

There are several problems with Everyday Math Home Links and the Everyday Math program in general.
  • To start off, it is not designed for children with low skills. I have children in my class who cannot count to 20, cannot accurately count out 10 objects (including their own fingers), and cannot write their numbers. The program is designed for children with grade level skills and above. If you actually analyze the majority of activities that correspond to the lessons, they are so far above the state standard for the grade, it is no wonder our children can't do them. To their credit, they did add a small section at the bottom of the homework assignments to practice basic skills.
  • The second issue is that often the homework assignment does not necessarily correspond to the lesson that was taught in the classroom (although the latest addition has improved slightly in this respect). I have to spend 20 additional minutes teaching the children how to do their homework.
  • The third issue is that Everyday Math is so different from the way many of my students' parents learned math that they are unfamiliar with the vocabulary and the structure of the program.
  • The fourth issue is the "spiral" format of the curriculum. You jump from one concept to the next "exposing" them to a wide range of concepts that then get revisited later. The children never feel successful during this "exposure" and don't get enough practice with basic skills.
  • The fifth problem (I feel like I'm going on forever!) is that the homework assignments are very dependent on parents READING the instructions. If most of your children's parents are illiterate, how are they supposed to manage this?
The result: Many students either do not do their homework at all, someone else does it for them, or they do it so painfully wrong that it doesn't seem worth it. For example, an activity made to reinforce basic skills (usually an add-on at the bottom of the actual homework assignment) might look like this:

Count back by 1s.

_10_ _____ _____ _____ __6__ ______ _____

This is what I get from the kids:

__10__ __11___ ___12___ ___13___ ___6___ ___7___ ____8___

You can only imagine what the actual homework assignment looked like if this is how the basic skills part came out. I really think that Everyday Math NEEDS to rethink how it designs curriculum and homework. They need to really think about parents who CANNOT help their children.

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