Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Should School Days be Shorter?

A second-grade teacher friend is facing a much longer school day this year. She will have her little charges from 8:15 to 4:30 every day. I suspect she's going to want to crawl under her desk at around 2:30. 

The most surprising thing, though, wasn't the change in her hours, but that the school day for her is actually longer. I've seen more arguments recently for a shorter school day.

There are many arguments for a shorter school day such as young people needing more time for extracurricular activities, jobs, family time, and just free play, but the most compelling argument I have seen is that kids aren't getting enough sleep, especially teenagers. Lack of sleep can lead to obesity, depression, and of course, lack of focus in school. 

I think it's a myth that teens stay up late because they want to. My own experience and my teens' experience is that there really is enough homework, music lessons, sports etc... to fill up all the hours after school until late at night. Chronic sleep deprivation is a real problem for some teens who are earnest in their studies and other activities. Teens are also wired for a different circadian rhythm than adults. One study showed that with a later start time for school, teens actually slept an extra hour rather than filling it with other things. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 8 1/2 to 9 1/2 hours of sleep for teens and 10 to 11 hours for younger kids, yet most kids do not get this amount.

While I can get behind a later start time for secondary schools for the sleep issue, I'm not in favor of a shortened school day. The average school day for an American student is 6 1/2 hours. This is not too long to cover all the different subjects and allow for breaks. Shortened class periods would mean less actual learning time because science labs, for example, still require set up and clean up, and some topics require review before moving on to the next topic. If class periods remained the same length, then classes such as music and art would likely be cut. This would be a tragedy. 

Shortening the school day would also make for a longer school year. State requirements for the number of hours in class would send many schools deep into summer to fulfill the required class time. This brings up what a shorter class day would be like for teachers. Less pay and/or teaching in July? No thanks. 

The students' education, of course if the number one consideration. The sleep issue is a real problem, but there must be other ways to solve it. Perhaps less homework or a later start with a later release time would be beneficial, but the current daily class time seems like the right balance to me. 

If you are interested in having your students take on this issue in a reading, writing, or debate assignment, I have a packet for grades 5 - 7 here. Kids have surprisingly strong opinions about this topic, and it's not always on the side of a shorter day!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Secondary ELA Seasonal Blog Hop: Composition Classroom Shares Halloween Activities

I like to bring in seasonal reading around Halloween more than any other time of year. Students are bombarded with the myths and traditions of Halloween, so I like to bring in some good non-fiction reading that helps them understand and think critically about some of these things. Where did candy corn come from? Are vampire bats really the scary, blood-sucking creatures portrayed in the movies? Here is my seasonal reading pack with four high-interest non-fiction passages, reading comprehension questions, vocabulary, and creative writing prompts. 
For my older students, I like an Edgar Allan Poe spooky story and an accompanying class discussion. To make it fun, I use a fast-paced activity based on the speed dating concept. You can use it for any short story. All you need are discussion questions and the instructions on my blog post here. Or you can get my questions and the story "The Black Cat" by clicking on the cover below.

What's a holiday without treats? I teach an evening class on Mondays, and this year, we'll be stuck there on Halloween, so I'll be making candied popcorn topped with these tags. Easy and cheap. Click here for a blog post with the recipe here, and click on the cover below to download the tags for free.

Happy, happy Halloween!

Friday, October 14, 2016

Short Story Speed Round Discussion Activity

Discussion questions are a great idea to kick off a short story unit, but the participation of my students has been lackluster with the traditional format. Enter a fast and fun discussion activity based on the speed dating concept. This will be my go-to activity on Halloween with a spooky Edgar Allan Poe story. 

Every student participates, and the stakes are low for exploring the answers to questions because they are working one-on-one with each other for short periods of time. It gets students up and moving, a rare thing when studying literature. Below are the rules of the activity. You'll have to make cards with discussion questions, or if you want to save time and check out mine for Poe's The Black Cat, click here.

1. Arrange students in one of the following ways:

A. Have students form two circles, one inside the other, with an equal number of students in each. Have students face each other.  
B. Have students stand in two equal lines, facing each other.

(If you have an odd number of students, you can participate or rotate one student out each round.)

2. Divide the cards evenly among one line or one circle of students.

3. Start a timer for two minutes. The student with the cards reads the question from the first card, and then the students facing each other discuss the question.

4. When two minutes are up, have the circle or line of students without cards rotate to the left (for a line, have the last person come to the front of a line).  The students with the cards will put the used question at the bottom of their pile.

5. Repeat process for about 10 rounds, or as time permits.

If a student gets asked a duplicate question, the student with the cards skips to a new question.

This activity is perfect for starting a unit, or as a stand-alone activity. I'll be using "The Black Cat" this year on Halloween, as Poe is the master of combining spooky and gruesome. The psychology of the narrator and the symbols throughout leave a lot of room for spirited discussion. Another favorite is "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge" by Ambrose Bierce. 

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Pay for Grades?

Should kids get paid for good grades? As a parent, I did not offer any incentive for good grades, other than a trip out for ice cream on report card day. It was part of an overall philosophy about kids learning to be responsible without a dangling carrot. Along the same line, I never paid for regular chores, either. Doing well in school and pushing back your fair share of the dirt was just a basic expectation. This seemed to work, and I patted myself on the parental back.

Then along came some life experiences where I realized that my kids were a certain personality type that worked well with this kind of parenting. They had internal motivation to excel. I never had to remind them to do their homework, let alone nag, or come to the point where I considered offering incentives. Enter the life experience. What to do with students who lack the internal motivation? What to do with students who can't be encouraged or cajoled into doing their homework? What to do with students who didn't even care if they graduated from high school?

I started to read and study about motivation and incentives. The research is all over the place, and sometimes contradictory. Consider the different studies over the years cited by the good folks at Freakonomics. One study showed a program administered by a school offering cash and incentives for improved grades at the end of each term was marginally successful, at best. With only external motivations, and lacking intristic motivation, the incentives mostly failed. Another study showed that immediate gratification improved test scores. Dangle a $20.00 bill for a good test score, and scores improve. Better yet, tell the students they have $20.00, which will be taken away if they don't score well, and the improvement is even better.

The question remains, then, whether these immediate incentives pay off in the long run, or whether they damage the internal motivation. Many studies I've read, not related to grades, show that generally, when people think they are doing something to help someone else they perform better and complete the task more often than if they are receiving a cash reward.  I believe this, and I tend to think cash motivation for grades do more harm than good, for most kids, including the risk of creating a feeling of entitlement. I have learned, however, that one philosophy does not fit all. For students who lack the internal motivation, it might serve them best to offer the carrots to make some progress.

This is an interesting discussion to have with your students. I'm always curious to know what other parents do, and to compare and contrast how my students are motivated. When I've used this topic in my classes, I'm always surprised how much self-knowledge even younger students have about what makes them successful (or not).  I'm curious to know what you think, too. Do you reward your own kids for good grades? How about the students in your classroom? What works?

I've put together a packet with a pro and con article on this topic at the fifth through seventh grade reading level (Lexile leveled) if you think this would be of interest to your students.  It has plenty of options for classwork, group work, and writing assignments.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Fall and Halloween Reading

Fall and Halloween are the perfect time to bring seasonal reading into the classroom. These packets contain high-interest reading topics relating to Fall and Halloween. They also have reading comprehension questions, vocabulary work, and a creative writing prompt. The reading level is in the Lexile stretch band for fifth grade through the basic level for eighth grade. These are zero-prep, so you will have more time to enjoy this spooky season!