I have mixed feelings about homework in primary school. As a teacher, setting, collecting, chasing up, marking and returning homework took up a lot of valuable time, and I wasn’t always sure it was entirely worth the time expended. However, most schools have a homework policy that stipulates setting at least one maths homework a week, so over the years I developed some ideas to make it as painless and productive as possible for me and the children.
Using online games
I’m always very keen for children to learn their number bonds and tables. The underlying conceptual understanding of these is vital, but at some stage sustained practice is needed. There are lots of online games that can help children to do this, not to mention apps that can be downloaded onto tablets and smart phones. Some schools buy into subscription sites like mathletics, but there are some very good free alternatives too like tutpup and sumdog. It’s possible to set up accounts on these sites as a teacher and track children’s progress so that if you set a homework of spending time on one of the sites, you can check it’s been done, or it may be sufficient to ask parents to sign a homework diary to confirm their child has done this. Of course, there will still be some children who don’t have ready access to the internet or access to tablets, but these days that’s often very few and it may be possible to accommodate these with a weekly homework club where they can use school devices, or give them an alternative homework.
Adopt a Shape
This was an idea I used when we were just about to embark on looking at 2D and 3D shapes. I gave each child a shape to ‘adopt’ – this gave me a chance to differentiate fairly easily by giving more familiar shapes to some of my less able children and challenging my higher ability children with less familiar shapes like icosahedrons. They were given the task of finding out as much as they could about the shape and presenting the information in any way they chose. I gave some suggested starting points, like finding the number of sides and corners etc. or finding the number of diagonals. The children really engaged with this idea and came up with some fantastic presentations, including 3D models in some cases. It made a fantastic starting point to our unit of work (not to mention filling up the working wall nicely!)
Write a worksheet
This was a task I used quite often when we’d spent some time looking at particular calculation methods. I would ask each child to write a worksheet for another child in their group. They had to include at least one worked example with an explanation of the ‘steps to success’. They also had to include some word problems and if possible give the worksheet a theme, possibly linked to our current class topic. Again, this was something the children usually responded well to. I would often give small prizes or stickers for the best ones and display these on the working wall and this appealed to the competitive streak in many children. Some would hand in beautifully illustrated sheets. Writing word problems to go with particular calculations really tests children’s understanding of that operation. A variation on this theme at the end of less calculation based units was to ask the children to make a poster to display their learning and be a learning resource for others. Again, this often produced some beautifully presented responses.
When beginning a unit of work on handling data, I would often start by recapping all the different ways the children already knew of presenting data. Depending on the age of the children, this might include tally charts, pictograms, bar charts, bar line graphs, line graphs, venn diagrams, carroll diagrams or pie charts. I might then ask them to collect as many examples as they could from newspapers, magazines or the internet and make a poster which they would annotate with explanations of what type of representation it was. For older children, I might also ask them to comment on whether that was a good representation and why that particular representation of the data had been used. This encouraged the children to notice how often data was presented in different ways in real life and start engaging with this.
Another data handling homework I would sometimes set in Years 5 or 6 was to give the children an opportunity to investigate something themselves. They were given a free choice of what to investigate and how they would collect the information. We spent some time discussing possibilities in class beforehand. They then had to collect the data and decide which was the best way of presenting the information. They also had to draw some conclusion from their data and lastly to reflect on their project and decide whether it was a true picture or whether their were factors which might have affected their results. This was a homework I set over 2 or 3 weeks, often over a half term holiday to give them time to plan and carry out their projects. I gave some helpful hints and prompt questions at the outset. This led to some really good work and some good discussion afterwards when the children shared their projects. One particularly memorable one was the boy who patiently recorded each visit to the toilet by each member of his family over a few days. Some definite trends emerged and the conclusions he drew were very entertaining!
Particularly when using measures, it can be good to set a homework which gets children using their newly learned skills in a practical context. So, for instance, homework could be to follow a recipe using metric units and record the result in some way (ideally be bringing in a sample of any particularly delicious results for the teacher to critique!) Or it might be to measure up a bedroom and plan an ideal lay out using furniture of given dimensions.
I hope this has given some new ideas to try. The beauty of many of these ideas is that they often take very little marking or can be used to stimulate discussion or as a learning resource in future lessons. They also tend to engage children much more than a traditional worksheet, and often get parents involved as well. Some can take a little planning to set – a bit more than photocopying a worksheet maybe, but I always make a point of keeping the prompt sheets etc and they can often be quickly adapted for a different age group or mathematical area.
My blog this week is not specifically mathematical. Instead, I’d like to share some of the tools I’ve found useful in the classroom. We probably all have our favourites and these are mine. I’d love to hear other people’s favourites too.
My favourite timer is the Classtools countdown timer. This allows you to choose from a great selection of tunes (including the Dr Who theme and the Mission Impossible theme) and timers from 30 seconds up to over 7 minutes. There’s also the option to upload your own tune in MP3 format. Children are often very motivated to tidy up, move to groups, line up in order etc. before the music stops. A large countdown can be displayed on your IWB which adds to the sense of urgency.
My class last year loved this behaviour management system. You can upload your class names fairly quickly and each child will be given an avatar. Later, you can give them the option of choosing a different avatar. Then you can use the system to award both positive and negative points to children or groups of children. You can choose the categories you can award or deduct points for, so for instance you could award points for helping others or good team work, or deduct them for failing to do homework or shouting out. The system keeps track of how many points each child has earned. There is also the option to allow parents access to the site so they can track their child’s behaviour.
Word cloud generators create attractive word clouds from text you input. They can be useful for creating a visual of key words for different topics. Two good ones are Wordle and Tagxedo. Primary English wrote a great blog about different ways to use word clouds in the classroom. For merging together photos or other pictures with a collage effect, Autocollage works very well. Or for displaying pictures on a big scale Block Posters will create large size pictures which you can print off in pieces to put together.
Random Name Generators
Again I like the Classtools version. In this version, you can copy in the names from your class and it acts like a fruit machine and picks one randomly. Class Dojo also has a random name picker option. Of course, there’s always the low-tech standby version of names on lolly sticks too. I’ve also used these in starter activities by eg. listing ways to improve a sentence and then using it to choose one at a time.
There are a number of tools that can be used to create slideshows from your own photos fairly easily, perhaps for a presentation in assembly or an end of topic celebration of learning. I’ve quite often used the Microsoft Live Movie Maker, but Animoto and Photo Peach are also well worth exploring. Some of these have their own bank of music that you can use to accompany the presentations and there is usually the option of importing your own too. One of the best ones I made was a simple but very effective idea for a leaving assembly. I took photos of classes and groups of children, teachers and other staff, governers etc. all waving and then made a slideshow accompanied by Andrea Bocelli’s ‘Time to Say Goodbye’. Although suitable music can usually be bought from itunes fairly cheaply, Youtube have also recently launched a free library of tunes that can be used in this way. You can search these by their mood, genre or duration which could be useful.
Padlet is probably the best known of these. You can quickly create a virtual pinboard and share the link. This can be used, for instance, at the start of a topic to find out what the children already know about it, or for creating a bank of questions to explore. It could also be used for sharing word problems created by children or responses to a challenge. One of my classes used it to share memories at the end of our year together.
There are so many online tools that can be used to enhance our lessons. All of these are very easy to use (believe me, I’m no ICT expert!). I come across new ideas all the time, so I’ve created a Pinterest board which I’m sure I’ll keep adding too. All the ideas I’ve shared on here are on it, together with a few more.
Have you ever had the experience of looking for a household object, knowing you’ve seen it somewhere but unable to remember where, then finding it in a place that you walk past several times a day? If things are there long enough and we don’t make use of them, they become ‘wallpaper’ and we often stop noticing them altogether.
Unfortunately classroom displays can suffer from the same fate. We can spend hours in the Summer holidays putting up impressive displays, but if we don’t ever refer to them, sooner or later our children will stop noticing they’re there, let alone making use of them. This is where working walls should come into their own. The idea of a working wall is that it should be full of things that will support children’s learning and help them to learn more independently. They should be constantly changing to match our current topic. I appreciate this can be difficult to achieve in the life of a busy teacher and so my top tips for saving time would be:
- Keep things simple – there’s no need for triple mounting and laminating (unless it’s a resource you will use again and again), as long as it’s legible and clear.
- Keep everything – devise a system for filing away your resources so you can dig them out next time you teach this topic. I usually keep things in folders labelled by topic.
- Make use of printable resources – lots are available from sites like Teacher’s Pet and Communication4All.
- Get the children to help – independent or homework tasks could include making posters about your current topic, showing how to use a method or illustrating some new vocabulary.
What should be included on a working wall? This might vary according to the age of your children, but might include:
- Vocabulary related to your current topic (the very useful Cheney Agility Toolkit has this editable word wall which you could use)
- Relevant models and images
- Worked examples of methods – these can be screen shots from your whiteboard or photocopies of children’s work
- Problems and challenges – make these interactive if possible, perhaps by children responding on sticky notes (Nrich have some good posters that could be used for this)
- Number lines or washing lines related to your current learning (eg. lines counting in hundreds or in decimals or in multiples of 2)
- Examples of children’s work (What A Good One Looks Like)
- Real life examples of your current topic (again this is a good task to give for homework – ask children to look for eg. examples of circles, or bar charts or timetables and bring them in)
- Photos of children working on practical tasks
- Practical resources that children can use (eg. mirrors, hundred squares, number lines etc.)
- Success criteria
Whatever you include, make sure you refer to it often and wherever possible refer children to it when they need help.