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How Homework Circles Got More of My Students Engaging

Guest Post wrote this on Mar 9, 2016

This guest post comes from Regan Galvan. Regan is an 8th and 9th grade teacher at Harvard-Westlake School, an independent day school in Los Angeles serving students grades 7 - 12.
You can follow her via her blog or via twitter @regangalvan.

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I stand at the door of my classroom, greeting my 6th period algebra students as they peel themselves from the herd of middle schoolers thundering down the hallway. As my last student makes his way to me and we exchange hellos, inside the classroom, students are already taking their binders from their enormous backpacks while continuing their conversations.

Without prompting, their conversations shift to discussing the homework. “Hey did you get number three?” asked one student to her seat partner. Before her partner can answer, another overhears and eagerly jumps in to point out what she did in order to get number three correct.

On the other side of the room another student, the appointed classroom manager, takes her completed homework to the front of the room where a document camera is on and ready to project.

Seeing her, students quiet. She asks, “Does anyone have any questions?” Hands shoot up and a student requests to see number three. The manager selects a student who has that question correct, who then comes to the document camera, displays the problem and explains how she solved it.

While this is occuring, I come into the classroom and circulate through the room. I pause at each table, looking at their work, quietly asking students questions and helping a few one on one.

After 7 - 10 minutes, the time for going over homework is over and we transition to a classroom discussion to introduce the objective for the class.

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In a 40 minute class session, the idea of spending up to 25% of class going over homework might seem excessive. Afterall, each homework set comes with an answer key, allowing them to check their own work. Perhaps class time would be better spent doing different problems in more engaging activities.

What a teacher chooses to spend time on in class is a statement of what he or she values.

Each day my students are assigned a problem set, 10 or so problems, 50% of which are designed to give them a chance to practice new material. The remaining half builds fluency with older material as these problems gradually increase in difficulty. The problem sets follow the learning targets for the course and require the habits of mind that I seek to cultivate in my students. If I didn’t take the time to facilitate feedback for homework, not only would students not get a chance to learn from their mistakes, the implied value of the homework would decrease.

If I didn’t take the time to facilitate feedback for homework, not only would students not get a chance to learn from their mistakes, the implied value of the homework would decrease.

These student-led review sessions give students a chance to get feedback on efficient methods. They will also see multiple ways of solving problems.

Because students take turns to explain problems, students own the process. They enjoy volunteering to go to the doc camera to act like the teacher. Mistakes are normalized and gaps in knowledge are filled. Moreover, this is an established procedure in my class - I could leave the room and the review would happen without me.

Homework Circles

But after years of having my students facilitate daily homework reviews, I have noticed that not all of the class in engaged in the review. I have also noticed that, often, about a third of my class volunteers to present daily. Another third volunteers 1 - 2 times a week and the last third volunteers rarely or not at all.

After closer inspection of the work of this last group, accuracy isn’t the problem. Rather, and not surprisingly, middle schoolers are sometimes reticent to speak in front of the class, even when they know have the problem correct.

Randomly, one day I had my students form groups of four. I instructed them to talk about mistakes and help each other without simply handing over their papers to their peer with the question. Homework circles were born.

Their reaction to this change surprised me. Most students made it quite clear that they prefer this method. While I like having moments in class where we come together as a whole group to acknowledge important realizations, I too have been swayed to prefer small group review sessions.

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More Talking By More Kids

First of all, in this model more than one student gets a chance to teach others how to approach a given problem, providing more opportunities for students to talk to each other. This makes the explanation less formal and more of a conversation. If a group doesn’t have someone to explain a problem, I stop by with a hint that often inspires a collaborative, group effort to tackle a tough problem. With more students discussing and sharing strategies, review time is more engaging.

Every Group Has Different Needs

Each circle has a captain who asks which problems everyone needs and decides which ones to focus on. In this way, groups focus on which ones were tough for that particular group.

The discussions are more active. More students are doing the talking.

Given that not all groups have the same needs, this model is not only more engaging, it is more efficient. Using a whole class review model, all students would have to patiently listen to all explanations, not just ones that they need. In homework circles, the discussions are more active. More students are doing the talking. Those same students would have been bored in the all group review model are now either doing the talking or not having to focus on an unneeded problem. The groups are not completely independent - I circle around the classroom, systematically checking in with each group to offer hints and informally assess their understanding.

Introverts Participate

Additionally, I have found this model more conducive to elicit participation from introverted students. Often, in the whole group setting, I would quietly encourage a shy kid to approach the document camera after seeing that he or she had an accurate homework response, only to see them not volunteer yet again. Even after private chats, in which I make it clear how much the class would benefit from their participation, year after year there are always a handful of students per class who won’t budge.

One goal of participation is to give students the chance to practice explaining his or reasoning. The same students who aren’t comfortable at the document camera are active explainers in HW circles, and are thus meeting that goal of participation.

 

Team Dynamic

I have also seen increased ownership of the learning process in homework circles. A value of homework circles is the idea of learning as a community. If one of their group members doesn’t understand a concept, they don’t move on. My students know that making mistakes is part of learning in mathematics. In the small group setting, there is less fear of failure and more helping and revision. Students see that others make mistakes in a smaller setting, perhaps reducing stresses that impede learning, like stereotype threat or self-doubt, via solving problems as a team.

In the small group setting, there is less fear of failure and more helping and revision.

 

More Effort

Lastly, students learn more in this setting because they take on more responsibility for making corrections.

It is too tempting for students to copy down work from the student at the camera. Another value of HW circles, is that for learning to occur, it can’t be passive. Learning and retention only happen if learning is effortful and active. Thus the duty of any group member in homework circles is to give just enough hints or corrective clues so that his classmate can figure out the problem independently. Students don’t simply hand over homework to copy. The explainer gives tips and looks for errors. The cognitive engagement is higher for the student receiving help in this model.

The largest hiccup to this method is that my desks are in rows, I share a classroom and can’t move them permanently, so we are moving desks daily. And we still have whole class moments - sometimes the most challenging homework problem is only mastered by one kid. If all the groups are stumped, to the document camera we go. Overall, homework circles create a class energy that facilitates learning and builds community.

 

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Topics: Student Engagement