Helping Children With Homework

As we approach the end of another school year, homework will probably start to ease off. With most of the curriculum covered, and with school tours and sports days providing some much-needed relief for pupils and teachers alike, the focus of June will be about wrapping things up for the year and having a bit more fun.

Homework throughout the rest of the year has the potential to cause a headache for some pupils and for some parents. If you see a child struggling with something, your natural reaction is to want to help them. This is where the problem lies – there is a wrong way to help a child with homework (as well as a correct way, that will be discussed as well).

With all the best intention in the world from parents, homework may end up as a meaningless activity. Let’s look at a maths activity. A number of unhelpful approaches are as follows, and in no particular order:

  • Telling the child how to do the problem
  • Showing the child what number goes where
  • Confusing the child with an alternative method not yet learned , a prime example being the two popular subtraction methods: renaming (regrouping); and borrow and pay back.

Telling the child how to do a problem deprives them of their ability to think about the problem. It doesn’t matter if the child goes to school the next day with wrong answers. This is valuable information for the child’s teacher. The teacher can then have a conversation with the child (time allowing, of course) about where they went wrong and can offer them an opportunity to think again about the problem, to verbalise it in their own words and to maybe use concrete examples to assist. Even better, the parent can do this at home.

If that fails, should you just tell them the answer? Please don’t. Again, the child learns nothing, practises nothing and is deprived of the opportunity for their teacher to assess their work meaningfully for the purposes of future learning.

My last bulletpoint dealt with alternative methods for figuring out calculations. These are fine, but it’s worth letting a child master one method with a real understanding of what’s happening with it before showing your child how you used to do it in school. If a child is having trouble with one method, introducing another method will not help them to understand the original method better. Instead, talk to the child; ask what they were learning about; maybe have a look at the maths book; or simply ask the child’s teacher what method is being used.

The bottom line with this is that it’s ok for a child to experience difficulty, or even failure. Let them make their mistakes, let them think about their mistakes and let them learn from their mistakes. They will get there eventually – every child progresses at a different rate.

There are arguments for the total abolition of homework in primary school. Finnish schools don’t give homework and, amongst other reasons, are doing pretty well educationally. The question is: why subject children to even more work after spending five or six hours per day engaged in formal learning activities? Shouldn’t their free time be used for other activities so that they can experience a balance throughout the day?

There are also arguments to retain the practice of assigning homework. It is a way for parents to get some idea of what their children are learning in school. It reinforces what was done that day or that week. These are valid points but there are answers to these. Parents can ask their child or their teacher what has been happening in school lately. Communication can definitely be improved between schools and parents and there are, no doubt, many innovative ways for this to be done effectively and meaningfully. As for reinforcing learning? With home-school communication taken care of, parents can use their time with their children to reinforce their learning out in the real world, making memories and away from the abstract nature of the textbook.

Doing a Disservice to Gaeilge

I follow a number of teacher blogs through Facebook and I’m quite interested to see what these blogs have to offer. Some offer sage advice covering the many aspects of primary school teaching. Unfortunately, I occasionally come across bad advice. The latest I’ve seen is a mention of using translation, with very little comhrá, during an Irish lesson. This bothers me as the blog in question is quite popular, therefore many newer teachers or student teachers will be on the receiving end of unhelpful, or possibly damaging, advice.

Comhrá should be an integral part of any Gaeilge lesson, at any level in primary school – from Junior Infants to Sixth Class. This sets the foundation for the reading and written work that will come later on. Gaeilge will be an additional language to the overwhelming majority of primary school pupils so it needs to be taught with that in mind. The way we learn our mother tongue is through listening to the language and by beginning to use the words that have become familiar to us. We build this up to a level where the foundation for reading and writing is solid. The same approach to Gaeilge, albeit in a slightly altered form, is necessary. From First and Second Classes onwards, pupils will have begun to use reading and writing in their Irish lessons. This does not and should not take the place of oral work. Pupils should get used to using the vocabulary orally before they attempt to apply their reading and writing skills. Using language is naturally an oral activity so this should be applied in the classroom – use language in its natural form before tackling it at a more abstract level.

Translation is a useful skill in and of itself but it is not the sort of skill that should be encouraged during an Irish lesson. Translation slows down the thinking process if it is applied to the use of a language in a natural setting. The (bad) advice I read on a particular blog encouraged teachers to get their students to translate verbs as a part of a game. In the same breath the advice was not to do this in front of an inspector, so the question is – why bother suggesting translation in the first place if they know it is unacceptable?

Translation is a tedious way for children to learn or to practise a language. If the teacher is going to translate everything, that’s what the children will wait for. Why would they pay any attention to the Irish vocabulary if the translation to English is on the way? Their exposure to Irish will therefore be extremely limited because there’s no real motivation to listen to it. Translation is not real teaching and should never be considered an effective methodology for use with primary school pupils. The more effective way to teach Irish is through Irish, which can appear difficult at first but with some thought and consideration in advance, it won’t pose a problem. Speech should be clear and not rushed, with altered pitch when appropriate. Gestures should accompany speech where possible and visual aides will be invaluable. Will the pupils understand every single word you say? Most likely not. Will they get the gist? Highly likely. Give the pupils an opportunity to use what they have been taught with a partner or in a whole-class setting. Don’t be too worried about their mistakes because every language learner makes mistakes. When the focus is on encouraging use instead of correcting mistakes or just translating everything, you will begin to see success.

It is doing a huge disservice to Gaeilge  – and to the pupils who are learning it – if it is taught without the effort required for success. Teaching Irish properly in school will not answer the question of why some people choose not to use it in any other context – this is a discussion for another blog post. However, providing the best conditions for learning the language will at least give children the opportunity to make a real choice.

ClassDojo – Is it really worthwhile?

Over the course of my teaching career, I have had to consider how best I could utilise a behaviour management system in my classroom. When I started out as a teacher back in 2009, I taught 5th Class – 34 boys in a relatively small space with old furniture and no interactive whiteboard, in fact not much by way of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) resources at all. An effective classroom management tool was going to be crucial if I was going to make this first year a success for me and for the pupils.

This meant that I could not rely on any gadgets or graphical displays to assist me with classroom management. A simple teacher-made display sufficed, which was used to track and reward groups – not individuals.

Nearing the end of the second year of my career, we were blessed with a range of ICT equipment due to a grant from the Department of Education so this opened up a range of possibilities for me that I hadn’t previously realised. The following year I discovered ClassDojo. ClassDojo allows teachers to set up a way to individually track the behaviour of pupils in a class, by way of rewarding pupils with points or sanctioning them with the removal of points. Each pupil has an avatar of a little colourful monster linked to their name. The number of points currently held by the pupil is visible. All pupils’ avatars and points are on display together, projected onto the interactive whiteboard whenever the teacher chooses.

I tried this out for a few months at a time over the course of four years, each year hoping that I would feel more at ease using such a system, but each time I couldn’t shake the feeling that something about this method of classroom management didn’t seem right. I needed to give it a chance though, but I also had to question the system itself and my own reasons for using it. It was only near the beginning of the 2016/2017 school-year when I finally realised that ClassDojo was definitely not for me. The following are my conclusions about individual behaviour tracking using such a system. Continue reading “ClassDojo – Is it really worthwhile?”

Food for Thought for Student Teachers

At this time of the year, the majority of – if not all – student teachers are on School Placement (formerly known as Teaching Practice). It is arguably the most demanding element of teacher training. Due to this pressure, students in such situations may be tempted to look for ways to ease the workload. Some choose to purchase lesson plans online – I have discussed the issues surrounding this in a previous post, but to be blunt, it’s sacrificing long-term gain for short-term gain.

There is no magic formula for success on School Placement, but there are some steps the trainee teacher can take that will set good foundations. Continue reading “Food for Thought for Student Teachers”

Primary Languages Curriculum – A Review of an In-service Training Day

I attended training for the new Primary Languages Curriculum yesterday. The focus for this year is on the Oral Language (Teanga Ó Bhéal) strand for classes from Junior Infants to Second Class, while next year will see training of some sort in the Reading and Writing strands. An overview of this new curriculum is available here.

From the outset, it appeared that the facilitators were eager to address the concern that many viewed this new document as merely an assessment checklist, with individual tracking for each pupil. They pointed out that this was not the case and that the Milestones (from ‘a’ to ‘h’) were not to be applied to each pupil, rather they were to be applied to the class from a general perspective of where the group as a whole is currently at, with other milestones only being used specifically where differentiation was required. This was some relief.

The next clarification was that long-term and short-term planning does not need to change straight away. We are to continue planning as we normally would and to continue teaching as we normally would. This makes sense as it would be a complex task to rethink a curricular area in such a manner with just over one term left in the school year.

It wasn’t all positive unfortunately. I was particularly unimpressed with how the Gaeilge elements were presented. I heard nothing that teachers didn’t already know from the 1999 Gaeilge curriculum. “Make Irish interesting” was put forward as the answer to teaching it effectively – this isn’t new thinking! There will always be challenges when teaching Irish, and in fairness, a question on this was put to participants. School and local context will always decide whether you have an easy or a tough time teaching Irish. This point was acknowledged but not dealt with in any depth.

We were shown some videos of activity in a classroom, which looked normal. What I found unrealistic were the follow-up videos where the teacher was asking questions of individual children in order to assess what oral language milestone they were at. I call this unrealistic because I couldn’t hear the sound of any other children in the background. Where were they? What teacher could assess like this on an individual basis with a large number of pupils in her class? If a video of an unrealistic situation is being shown to me during a training day, I can only deem that particular element of the training to be without merit. Idealistic and realistic are two completely different things.

When it comes down to it, I won’t be teaching a curriculum, I’ll be teaching children. I will continue to use my professional judgement whenever the situation requires it. All this curriculum does is ask us to look at things from a slightly different angle. Teachers have always done this – it’s nothing new to us.

Fads in Teaching and Learning

While reading on in the new book mentioned in a previous post, I came across another quote that reminded me of a conversation I had a number of months ago with a member of staff in one of Dublin’s teacher training colleges.

“Teaching approaches can also be fashionable. You need to use your judgement in selecting methods, so you don’t dismiss a useful approach that is not in vogue, or embrace another approach unquestioningly just because it’s new.” (Delaney 2017, p. 59)

The conversation I had was quite short and casual and took place while I was filling a cup with tea. We discussed the evidence-based approach to teaching and why just because something is new, that in itself does not make it worthwhile. My thoughts directed themselves towards the new Languages Curriculum being introduced across Ireland’s primary schools. At this stage, all schools would have received their first inservice day (effectively a PowerPoint presentation from within each school last year).  Many schools have already undertaken and a lot are due to undertake the second round of inservice this year.

I have not yet had a chance to attend the second round of inservice but I have heard from many teachers who have. The feedback is not positive. This new curriculum has been described by fellow teachers as little more than an assessment checklist. In other words – heavy on paperwork. I have yet to hear any positive feedback. I’m not yet in a position to provide my own fully-informed critique as I will have to wait until later this month to attend the second inservice.

I think it’s important for all teachers to keep an open mind. That said, I also believe that teachers should not hesitate to question anything that they do not agree with. If the general feeling among teachers is that the new Languages Curriculum becomes a hindrance to real teaching, through an over-emphasis on unnecessary paperwork, teachers should be listened to and their views respected. I’ll be posting a response to the second inservice before the end of the month, when I have had the chance to attend it. Keeping quiet about opposition to what could be considered an unhelpful fad in education will ultimately be to the detriment of the main stakeholders – pupils and teachers. Everyone’s voice should be heard.

INTO Presidential Election 2017

For the first time since 1991, INTO members will be offered the chance to have a say in who represents them as President of the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation. The unwritten rule within the Central Executive Committee of the INTO has been that the longest-serving member of the CEC becomes president. This questionable notion has been challenged this year, as there are two candidates running for the presidency – one who is a current member of the CEC as Vice-President (John Boyle) and one who is a long-time trade union activist and challenging the status quo for these elections (Gregor Kerr). A quick Google search will point you to substantial amounts of information about both candidates.

The election will take place in March by postal ballot. I would encourage all members to inform themselves fully of what both candidates have to say and quite importantly, their track records in relation to standing with ordinary members on the most important issues.

In advance of this election, I have decided to do a bit of polling here. Who would you vote for?