The Assignment Check

My collection of multi-sided die, ready for any situation.

What does it mean to be random?  I have been “randomly” searched in the airport.  When this happens, because I am a white 50-something female mathematician, I have the nerve to ask the TSA exactly how they determined it would be me that they would search.  Was is a random number table?  A random number generator?  A rolling of the die?  A flipping of the coin?  Of course they can’t answer me.  They pretend it’s a big secret, but really the reason is that there’s no randomness in their selection of me at all.

In my classroom I have always struggled with how to make students accountable for practicing the material on their own.  In the old days I called it “homework” because that’s what my teachers called it.  Even when I attended boarding school, it was called homework, not dormwork.  Teachers would teach the lesson, students would go “home” and ostensibly practice the lesson by doing the homework, and then they would return to school the next day, ask questions about the homework, and then the teacher would teach the next lesson.  I actually liked doing my math homework and had a nice quiet place to work, so I completed it daily 95% of the time.  (Can’t say the same for my history reading…)

It didn’t take me long as a teacher to realize this model DOESN’T WORK.  Some students did the homework, but the vast majority of my students either did it poorly by just copying the odd answers out of the back and making up answers for the evens, or simply transcribing someone else’s work.  I couldn’t grade this garbage.  Worse was all of the precious instructional time wasted on a conversation between the two kids who did it and me, the teacher who already knows how to do it.  Class time was where everyone should be engaged in learning all the time, not just a select few.

So, I decided to do what one of my most memorable high school teachers did — collect homework sporadically.  This teacher checked homework less frequently the more advanced the class and, since I had him for precalculus, he “pop”-checked it about once a month.  But that still wasn’t truly random; it was based on his whim.  I decided to one-up this strategy and announce when I would check homework (always on quiz days, about once per week) and then roll a die in front of the class to determine which homework assignment I would collect.  So, it was different for each class and kids couldn’t ask each other in the halls, “Which homework did she take up?”

I also changed the name from “homework” to “assignment”.  Comments like, “I couldn’t do my HOMEwork because I didn’t get HOME from my varsity basketball game until midnight,” aren’t uttered as excuses in my classroom.  Assignments are often started in class and hopefully completed somewhere else.  [Thus there is no “class work” any more either.]  I try to help my students visualize when they will continue to work on their assignments — At lunch?  In Japanese class because you have a sub and you just told me you aren’t doing anything in that class today?  On the bus?  At your mom’s work after school?  Assignments are always posted (and emailed) about a week in advance and on quiz day I roll an n-sided die to take up an assignment.  Sometimes I have five assignments I want them responsible for and so I roll a 6-sided die and then if it lands on “6” I will roll again until we have a number that corresponds with the assignment.  Ideally I have four assignments in a week and then I just roll my 4-sided die.  While the students are working diligently on their quizzes, I quickly peruse the assignments and enter the scores.  Students pick up their graded assignment as they submit their quiz.  A student might get a comment of “resubmit” if the assignment is not up to par, and I allow them to resubmit for a 70 in the grade book.

Finally, I grade each student’s entire notebook  during major tests.  This makes the students responsible for all of their assignments (in addition to warm ups, notes, etc.).  In this way, hopefully many of them continue to work on assignments even if they got lucky because the one assignment they completed that week happened to be the one I collected.

It’s not a perfect situation since high school students are still human and, like the rest of humanity, often times try to achieve maximum results with minimal effort.  (Witness the *loose weight fast* and *get rich quick* schemes that tempt us to part with our money.)  However, it’s the best system I have found to make as many students as possible practice as much as possible.

Final Note:  Each week when I put the assignment check in our online grade book I want to abbreviate it “ASS CHECK” but I stop myself.  Then one time I did it just to see if any administrators, students, or parents would notice.  (I am a rebel at heart.)  The only comment I got was from a  coach who closely monitors her athletes’ progress…  “I think you’ll want to change your heading there,” she emailed.  LOL!