Let’s do what works, not what’s easy

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This week, I posted a new article to my blog at NeverBore.org about why critics denounce interactive teaching — and why they are wrong.

I’ll be posting there once a month on topics related to my book, Beat Boredom, my curriculum products, and the topic of interactive teaching.

I’ll continue to use this MarthaRush.org blog for my thoughts on a wide range of educational topics, including homework, proficiency-based grading, cold-calling (coming next week!), and the day-to-day life of a classroom teacher. I’d love it if you’d check out both sites!

In other news, this week I put the finishing touches on No Easy Answers, a personal finance curriculum featuring 10 highly engaging case studies for high school students. I’ll be presenting it at the CEE National Conference in Atlanta in two weeks. Hope to see you there! More information about purchasing the lessons coming soon.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom


Have you done your homework on homework?

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Take this quick True/False quiz:

  1. T/F Homework in high school should be limited to 10 minutes per night, per class.
  2. T/F Most high school students do about two hours of homework per night.
  3. T/F Research has found no correlation between homework and achievement.
  4. T/F Homework is always beneficial to students.
  5. T/F Homework is never beneficial to students.
  6. T/F Interactive online homework is more effective than paper-and-pencil homework.

. . . . .

This will be easy to grade. These statements are all false. But I’ve heard every one of them asserted by some “expert” with an agenda.

I’ve only spent a few hours this week diving into the murky world of homework research — mostly peer-reviewed studies by educational psychologists and economists — but I can report a few findings.

First of all, the “10-minute rule” is often misapplied or misinterpreted. It’s 10 minutes x the student’s grade level = total nightly homework, and even that is a rough estimate.

Harris Cooper, a neuroscientist at Duke who has spent a lot more time studying homework than you or me, explains in this New York Times column that diminishing returns (i.e. wasted time) sets in after about 2.5 hours/night for high school kids.

That’s a lot more homework than most students do.

In fact, one study (Kalenkoski and Pabilonia, 2017) reports that on average, American high school students do 6.4 hours of homework per week, including time when they are “multi-tasking” (i.e. distracted). Girls do more than boys, by the way.

What about the correlation between homework and achievement? Is there one? 

Cooper’s 2006 meta-analysis of hundreds of research studies says this: “With only rare exceptions, the relationship between the amount of homework students do and their achievement outcomes was found to be positive and statistically significant.”

These studies weren’t perfect — we know that. The ones that attempted to find (and found) causation had all sorts of flaws. And it’s likely that already-motivated students both do homework and achieve at higher levels.

But here’s what we do know: Students who do more homework tend to perform better on learning tasks, and students who perform better on learning tasks tend to do more homework. My intuition (and 25 years of experience) says that more time working on something probably contributes to that better understanding.

These studies also raise important questions, like:

  • If homework is beneficial, what kind of homework is most beneficial?
  • Do some kinds of homework have negative effects?
  • Is interactive online homework better?

Clearly, not all homework is created equal. Homework that requires rote application of basic tasks is boring, and it can turn students off to school more than it helps reinforce concepts. It’s also easy to mindlessly copy. This is why students and parents are always bashing homework.

Overly difficult homework (especially if it’s graded) is similarly ineffective and can diminish student motivation. Search “homework” on Twitter, and you’ll find hundreds of frustrated students venting their anger about today’s assignments.

But homework that prepares students for class in a non-threatening way (like a video or accessible reading) and homework that challenges students to think creatively about what they are learning are both effective at building student understanding. This is important stuff.

One study (Lipowsky et al, 2004) found that students show greater achievement gains than their peers in other classes when the teacher assigns cognitively demanding homework — for example, “homework tasks that make us think about new things.”

What does that look like?

Last week, my econ students had an online discussion about whether “scarcity” is real or just a convenient lie to keep capitalism in place. My psych students watched a video that explained stages in classical conditioning to help them prepare for their own at-home conditioning experiments.

These were not the only pieces of homework I assigned, but they are examples of the kind of “thinking” homework that seems to work best and keep students engaged.

By the way, the research into online homework — like quizzes or problems with the instant feedback so many experts say homework needs — found little to no gain over traditional types of homework.

Homework seems to support learning even if students have to wait for the feedback, if only because it prompts kids to spend a little more time thinking about what they’re learning, rather than buried in social media or video games.

My take-away: Don’t dump homework just because some self-proclaimed expert tells you to, but don’t cling to rote assignments or torment students with work that is too difficult to do without scaffolding.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom

Will later start times = more sleep? We’re going to find out.

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Will a later start time help our high school students get more sleep, foster better academic performance and reduce rates of anxiety and depression?

I think so. But a few weeks ago, I was championing our school’s new start times — the first bell now rings at 8:35 a.m. instead of 7:25 a.m. — and an anonymous (but local) Twitter follower challenged me.

S/he responded: I’m highly skeptical: A) that the majority get more sleep, B) that its enough to make a difference. c) prepares students for College/real-world expectations.

Also: How about as a class project this year you have students track the times they go to bed and wake up. I’m more than confident that the results will show a net-gain of ZERO additional sleep time.

I responded with a few comments about the research and my sons getting more sleep in college, and s/he responded with concerns about laziness and divisive change before we agreed to disagree.

But the good news from this story is that I already have such a project — and two years of baseline data.

In AP Psychology, my students track their bedtime, total night’s sleep, caffeine use, and sleepiness ratings for 11 days, starting on a Thursday in January. They submit their averages to a Google form, so I have the numbers on 110 students from 2017 and 2018.

And here’s what the data says:

  • My students’ average bedtime was 11:22 p.m., with 7 reporting an average bedtime before 10 p.m. and 40 after midnight.
  • My students’ average night’s sleep was 7 hours, and this included two weekends.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, teenagers need 8-10 hours of sleep per night. Nationwide Children’s Hospital says exactly 9-¼ hours is best. While 36 of my students reported an average of 8 hours or more (again, including four weekend days), only 11 reached an average of 9 hours during the sample period.

In short: Only 10 percent of students were getting the recommended average amount of sleep over an 11-day period. That’s horrible. It sure explains the glazed-over eyes in first hour.

Does the new start time mean anything will change? That’s the million dollar question.

It’s possible, of course, that students will just stay up later, as my detractor argued. But let’s consider what we were asking of them, under the old start time.

Last year, buses picked high school kids up at 6:30 a.m., so most were getting up around 6 a.m. to shower, dress and grab a bite.

Do the math. To get 9-¼ hours of sleep on a school night, they would have had to go to bed at 8:45 p.m. Say what you will about how late teens stay up, but that’s laughable. High school sporting events on weeknights seldom end before 9 p.m. And we know adolescent bodies aren’t ready to fall asleep that early.

We were setting them up for failure.

I hope this year’s students realize what a gift they’ve been given — and don’t take it for granted. I hope they are willing to turn off their devices and sleep the extra hour, so they reap the benefits in focus, mental health, physical health and academics.

If not, at least we know it will be their choice now, rather than the inevitable consequence of our policies.

I’ll share the results in January, when we finish this year’s Teens & Sleep lesson. It’s a small sample size, but it’s a start.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom

Time to assess this new grading system

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At my high school, we’ve changed our grading practices at least six times in recent memory.

It all started with requiring common assessments and grading scales for each course. Then came a school-wide grading scale, with 93% for an A.

Then we removed behavioral and other non-academic considerations from grades. That meant even truant (or cheating) students could make up a test for full credit.

Five years ago, we adopted an 80/20 system, so only 20% of a student’s grade could be based on daily homework, quizzes and other formative tasks.

Then came the mandate to offer retakes on each major assessment.

Last year (I think) we eliminated Fs and replaced them with Incompletes.

Whew. But we’re not done yet. Next up is moving to Proficiency-Based Grading.

I’ll be honest. I’m a skeptic.

I’m not convinced this will improve student achievement or lead to deeper learning. I’m frustrated that we keep re-examining grading without ever re-examining teaching.  I’m worried that the latest new system will only cause more stress for students, who will now pursue the elusive “4” instead of the 93%. I’m worried also that it will suck away time that I need for lesson planning and working one-on-one with kids.

But I’m not a cynic; I’m keeping an open mind.

I get that our old systems needed to change. I don’t love every fix, but I’m glad we no longer have random variability in what a grade means from one room to the next. I think retakes have helped a lot of students persist. I like the idea of clarifying what we expect from students.

The good news is that administrators have assured us we don’t need to rush forward on this one. We can take time to really think about what “proficiency” means in our courses, gather student feedback on the goals and rubrics, and make revisions before we overhaul our grade books.

So I’m going to do my best to make sense of this system — I even signed on to be an official “Phase 2” implementer this year — and I’ll share my experiences along the way.

Hopefully, my experience will help other teachers who are in this process (or about to be). I welcome feedback and insights (and cautionary tales) from those of you already on the other side.

At this point, I have more questions than answers. Mostly practical ones, like:

  • Do we have to give only scores of 4, 3, 2, 1? Can we give a 3.5? A 1.5? A 0?
  • What is the letter grade equivalent of each number? I know we’re supposed to mentally break from the A, B, C system — it’s about “proficiency” — but what’s going to happen when those scores are transformed into a report card?
  • Will we ever be at a point where we stop putting letter grades on report cards? And how will parents respond?
  • Is this system going to add to grade inflation? If not, and more students are achieving 3s than 4s, is it going to cause more anxiety for “straight-A” students?
  • Do we have to create rubrics for every test, or can we set “cut” scores like they do on AP tests?

I’ll let you know when I have some more answers. Fingers crossed I can figure this out.

Have a great start to the school year!

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom


‘I don’t know this word’… Why student knowledge and context matter

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My friend Mary, a bookseller in Chicago, told me I need to read Educated, a memoir by Tara Westover.

Westover was was raised by American survivalists, and her story explains how she broke with her family’s extremist ideology and left home to seek her education, culminating in a Ph.D. from Cambridge.

The part that stuck with Mary was a scene where Westover raised her hand in class at BYU to ask a question about the course reading.

“I don’t know this word… what does it mean?”

The lecture hall went silent.

The professor responded: “Thanks for that.”

Other students stared at her like she was a freak, and one warned her not to joke about such a sensitive subject.

The word? Holocaust.

This is a chilling story about how deeply isolated some segments of American society are.

It’s also a strong reminder that we as teachers never truly know what any of our students know before they enter our classrooms — and we need to continually build their context and background knowledge if we want them to flourish and not be ashamed.

Knowledge Matters

Shortly after hearing this story, I read a preview copy of Dave Stuart Jr.’s new book, These 6 Things (Corwin 2018). Dave’s book focuses on how key beliefs, literacy skills and knowledge are critical to students’ and teachers’ long-term flourishing.

His goal is to help teachers learn to focus on what matters most, so we and our students can be successful without working ourselves to death.

The book is both inspiring and practical — and he makes a compelling point about exactly the issues raised in Educated.

In Ch. 3, Dave tackles the myth that reading is a “transferable skill”, and that base knowledge is irrelevant in the age of Google. He kicks off the chapter with pointed examples of bright individuals struggling to read passages on topics they know nothing about.

“So what gives in these three scenarios? Knowledge.

In short, knowledge must be a part of our bull’s eye because it is integral to high levels of thinking, reading, writing, speaking and listening. … It’s pretty cool that I can ask my smartphone to define a new word or show me the news, but it’s the data that I’ve accumulated in my head over several decades of my life that makes any new information interesting and more likely to stick.”

An excellent point.

Dave goes on to explore how we, as teachers, should discern what’s critical for our students to know — and what’s merely trivia — as well as how to get kids hooked on learning seemingly mundane facts.

Argument is Essential

If you’ve read my book, Beat Boredom: Engaging Tuned-Out Teenagers, you already know I’m a big promoter of storytelling and debate/discussion in the high school classroom.

Dave’s book explores these topics in depth as well. In Ch. 4, he explains why argument — civil debate — is an essential skill for all of our students.

“The ability to argue makes one able to read critically, to write logically and compellingly, to listen at a level beyond compliance, and to carry on complex conversations aimed at solving problems or settling disputes.”

Argument is, in fact, the heart of critical thinking — and it can’t be learned by merely talking about it.

Tara Westover’s book and Dave Stuart Jr.’s book kind of sum up my summer reading.

One book to fill me with stories, ideas, and questions from the larger world — stories I hope will enhance my teaching and make my classes more engaging to students.

One book to help me reflect directly on my teaching practices — and think about ways to sharpen my focus and avoid wasting time.

Now I just need to put it all together into a solid lesson plan.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom

Grit offers good – but not great – insights

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I just finished reading Grit, and I have to say I’m disappointed.

I know Angela Duckworth’s argument that passion and perseverance can overcome obstacles and lead to success has met with mixed reviews — especially from those who believe the focus on grit discounts the impact of poverty — and I have to say I side with the critics.

First of all, I was surprised by how little she addressed the problems faced by disadvantaged youth. “Grit” has been championed by so many people in education the past two years that I expected the book was going to be all about that.

Instead, it was mostly about talking to champions — like world-class spellers and swimmers — and figuring out their strategies for success. Unfortunately, that means it suffered from a lot of hindsight bias. I kept wondering as I read: How many people worked just as hard with just as much passion as these champions but didn’t achieve success?

Duckworth does make some good points, though, so I’ll share a few of my a-ha moments.

  • She tells a good story about a chronically tardy teenager who got a job at American Eagle. The boss told her, “Oh by the way, the first time you’re late, you’re fired.” The girl’s behavior changed overnight. As Duckworth observed (albeit anecdotally): “Lectures don’t have half the effect of consequences.” As a teacher in a school with very few consequences for behavior, I wonder how great a disservice we are doing.
  • She weighs in on the debate over telling kids to “follow their passion” v. telling kids to “be practical” and focus on getting a decent job. The larger issue, she argues, is that most kids don’t even have a passion to follow. So true. We need to help our students develop a sense of purpose — to counter their growing feelings of anxiety and despair and to give them a reason for wanting to learn.
  • She explains how often we see the final performance — a TED Talk, an Olympic race, an A on a test — and do not see the hours upon hours of effort that went into it. This is especially problematic for teenagers, who assume successful peers are “naturals” and they are just failures. We need to peel back the curtain… somehow.
  • She writes about one experiment conducted with seventh-graders, where half received essays back with Post-it notes saying, “I’m giving you these comments because I have very high expectations and I know you can reach them,” while others received a placebo note: “I’m giving you these comments so that you’ll have feedback on your paper.” Twice as many students (80% compared to 40%) with the high expectations note revised their essays. A good reminder of the simple strategies we can use to build our students’ motivation and self-confidence.

Grit is a fine response to our over-emphasis on IQ — especially with a president who taunts people by alleging they have low IQ scores — but it didn’t break much new ground for me. Mindset (Dweck) is a more thorough and compelling analysis of many of the same issues.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom


Relationships: Necessary but NOT sufficient for student learning

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“They don’t care what you know until they know you care.”

“No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”

“Great teachers focus not on compliance but on connections and relationships.”

“Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like.”

It’s that time of year when the teacher-web is heating up with inspirational reminders that we have to build relationships with the kids we teach.

Well, duh.

But what does that mean, exactly?

It’s easy to define the opposite — a lack of relationship. Here are a few illustrative examples of what NOT to do:

  • Don’t bother to learn kids’ names, or mispronounce them
  • Ignore children in distress
  • Never allow students to question you or your methods
  • Tease and belittle kids who don’t meet your standards

You get the gist. If you behave like this, you shouldn’t set foot in a 21st Century classroom. Find another career.

But knowing what not to do doesn’t mean we therefore know what to do.

Building authentic, supportive and (to quote Zaretta Hammond) “warmly demanding” relationships with our students is hard work. Just like building real adult relationships. It takes time to build trust, establish clear channels of communication, clarify expectations and learn from one another.

Unfortunately, many teachers — feeling pressured by calls to simply “build relationship first” — slip into “get students to like me” mode. After all, they’ll learn from me if they like me, right? (Again, the transitive property doesn’t apply here.)

Here’s what we do in a misguided attempt to build relationships by currying favor:

  • Neglect to hold students accountable for behavior or learning
  • Spend class time chatting and socializing rather than fostering learning
  • Offer too-easy, feel-good assignments to inflate student grades
  • “Friend” students on social media

These teacher behaviors can make you popular with students, and they do build a kind of relationship, but they are not what our students need from us.

Our students need us to model curiosity and enthusiasm about learning. They need us to challenge them to take on increasingly difficult tasks, so they will build important skills like writing, calculating, reasoning and public speaking. They need us to unlock access to future careers, by helping them set goals and work toward them. They need us to hold them accountable.

When we forget our critical role and become our students’ friends instead of their teachers, we miss the opportunity to expand their knowledge, ignite their passions, build their resilience and create more opportunities for themselves in the future.

I know many of us become teachers because we like kids. That’s good. But our job is so much bigger than getting them to like us in return.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush #beatboredom

Let’s stop emphasizing ‘nice’ for girls

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What is your first response when someone makes an unreasonable request of you?

  • Hell no!
  • With all due respect, a firm no
  • No, but… (feeling guilty)
  • OK, I guess I’ll do it

Be honest. Is it easy to stand up for yourself, or do you hem and haw and feel guilty later?

This might surprise people who know me, but I’m in the “No, but…” camp. I’ll say no, but I’ll stew about it and question myself and wish that I could somehow find a way to appease the person. I think this is part of growing up female in this culture.

To be clear, I’m not talking about #metoo situations or anything that rises to the level of harassment. Just irritating requests, like, “I can’t come to parent night Thursday, so can I just meet with you Wednesday at 6 instead?”

My ambivalence annoys me — why would I feel bad about saying no to this? — and it worries me when I think about young women in our culture.

Objectively, I can look at these situations — a parent demands that I make a ridiculous exception for her son, a company offers me unacceptably low pay for contract work, a family member asks for a truly inconvenient favor — and see that the only rational response is “no”.

But like many women, I grew up wanting to be “nice”, wanting to please people — so voicing my refusal causes agony. I don’t remember my mom or dad ever telling me to be this way, but I also never saw my mom confront anyone or assert herself.

In any case, I think this goes well beyond our individual parental role models. Even if my mom had encouraged me to take a stand, never undervalue myself, and refuse to feel guilty, I’m not sure her message could have overcome our societal preference for niceness in girls. Just last week, a colleague shared this article with me, revealing that likeability matters more than GPA or alma mater for women job-seekers. Argh.

Being a nice yes-person has its advantages, of course, especially in the education field. Teachers are not generally rewarded for being confrontational, and it’s not like we ever have to ask the boss for a raise or a promotion. Go along and get along, and you can survive a long time in public education.

But despite the research on new job seekers, an overwhelming desire to be nice doesn’t work very well in business (as I’m learning) or politics, and it’s not a great mindset to pass on to our daughters.

You don’t become a successful entrepreneur by letting people walk over you. You don’t become an effective lawyer by backing down in negotiations. You won’t make a medical breakthrough if you’re not willing to step on a few toes.

I don’t have a daughter, but if I did I would talk about this with her all the time.

Instead, I’ll keep working to instill in my female students the self-confidence that I don’t feel in myself. And I’ll hope that when some future boss, friend, or family member make ridiculous requests of them, they’ll be able to say “no” without feeling a twinge of guilt.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush


Is boredom good for us?

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I’ve been hearing a lot recently about the “benefits” of boredom.

One of the teachers honored by the Minnesota Council for the Social Studies said she tells her high school students they need to feel bored. They need to unplug, unwind, step back from the world of constant stimulation and just let themselves BE. Even if it’s hard.

Manoush Zomorodi, host of the @NotetoSelf podcast, wrote an entire book on this subject called Bored and Brilliant. She also argues that boredom holds the key to insight and creativity. We need to give ourselves time without stimulation, she argues so that we can truly think.

They are both right — to a point. Downtime without any scheduled activity, unplugged from our devices, is a good thing. But boredom is only valuable if we are in charge of what we do next.

You see, boredom is our brain’s signal to us that it’s time to stop what we’re doing and move on to something new. Boredom is great when we can take that message and run with it.

See the rest of this post at NeverBore.org.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush

Why a brand-new master schedule isn’t the solution

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Note to readers: I try to post every week, but a summer full of PD workshops has turned out to be busier than the school year! I hope you’re having a restful July. 

In the past few weeks leading AP summer institutes for Macro/Micro teachers, I’ve had a lot of discussions about the “school day.” Meaning: How long is your class period? How often does class meet each week? How long is your quarter/trimester/semester?

Nearly every one of the 30+ teachers I have met is on a different schedule.

Some schools have an eight-period day, with 42-minute periods.

Others (like me) have a six-period day, with 57- minute periods.

Others have seven 48-minute periods. Or block scheduling, with some 45-minute periods and other 85-minute periods. Or a modified block — I don’t even know what that means.

We have quarters, trimesters, semesters. I honestly think no two districts in the U.S. run on the same schedule. Why? What are we gaining with all of this local control and experimentation?

I can tell you what we’re losing — the ability to actually share lesson plans with teachers in other districts. The opportunity to develop best practices and collaborate, across districts, on implementation. I might have a fabulous, coherent, well-organized lesson, but no one else can pick it up and use it because they don’t have 57-minute periods.

I was curious whether all this experimenting has led to actual quantifiable gains, so I spent some time this week researching to find out if anyone knows what schedule is best for kids’ learning or mental health. The answer, sadly, is no.

Despite all of the time and money we’ve put into up-ending student schedules, it’s all moving chairs on the Titanic.

A number of doctoral candidates have actually done intensive research on this, believe it or not. Jay Roland Dostal, who got his Ed.D. from the University of Nebraska, wrote the best (most comprehensive) thesis I found.

His topic was “alternative scheduling and its effect on science achievement.” He compared disciplinary reports and science achievement at high schools with seven-period days and four-period block schedules — with extensive pre-testing, post-testing and statistical analysis.

His findings (in short): “The reality is, that changing the school scheduling vehicle in and of itself doesn’t have a direct impact on student achievement according to the results of this study.”

Well that’s disappointing.

In the long run, Dostal concludes, the quality of instruction matters more than than the format of the school day. Frustrating, isn’t it? We should be putting our time and money into improving instructional strategies, but instead many districts keep changing schedules, eager to jump on the next bandwagon.

My high school, for the record, hasn’t changed the basic makeup of our six-period day in the 21 years I’ve taught there. I guess they had the right idea all along.

Martha Rush is a teacher, blogger, author and speaker. Visit NeverBore.org or join the NeverBore LLC Facebook group for more information. @MarthaSRush