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.
Young children are often fascinated by comparing and ordering the sizes of things. Perhaps it appeals to their innate sense of justice to determine whose apple is bigger and their equally well developed competitiveness to see who is taller. Early Years teachers build on this by providing lots of opportunities to compare and order things and begin to use non-standard measures to quantify. How many grapes balance an apple? How many cubes high is the toy garage? How many cups of tea can be poured from the teapot? At this stage, it’s important too to give children lots of opportunity to experience and use the language associated with comparison: more, less, fewer, higher, lower, taller, shorter, heavier, lighter etc. I’ve put together a few ideas for activities which support developing comparison language and you can download the document from the link at the bottom of this post.
As children move on in their understanding of measures, we move to using standard units of measure. Children often struggle with estimating length, mass or capacity using standard units and they need lots of practical opportunities to measure familiar things using these units. Wherever possible, opportunities should be found outside of the maths lesson for these activities, perhaps as part of topic work, for instance, to give them a meaningful context. Children can weigh out ingredients for their chocolate snack in technology or find the capacity of a liquid before an evaporation experiment in science, or measure how far they can jump in P.E. Another activity that can support children in becoming more familiar with units of measure is to give regular opportunities for estimating, and use these as opportunities to develop the skill of working out an unknown measure by comparing it with a known one. Estimation 180 is a great source of visuals to support this (I blogged about this site here.)
Another common difficulty for children is remembering just how many grams in a kilogram, centimetres in a metre, millilitres in a litre etc. One activity that can support this is by including counting in measures in daily counting activities, alongside counting in whole numbers, decimals and fractions etc. So, for instance, when children are counting in hundreds, also count in steps of 100 grams. I find a counting stick useful for this. Develop skills progressively. So for instance, you might count up first of all from 0 to 1 kg in steps of 100g, moving backwards and forwards along the counting stick. As children become more familiar with this, use different starting points so that they become familiar with what happens after 1 kg. At this point you have a choice of ways to count: 1100g, 1kg and 100g, 1.1 kg or 11/10 kg, and I’d suggest you use all of these ways alongside each other so that children start to also understand the equivalence of these. Doing this will also help enormously when children begin to convert units of measure.
Children often find reading scales challenging too. Again, there is no substitute for practical experience, and if you are able to have analogue scales, measuring jugs, tape measures etc. continually available in your classroom, this can be helpful in making it easier to pick up on opportunities for measurement that arise in other subject areas – a trip to hunt through the maths cupboard will probably make you less likely to do this! The Measuring Scales ITP and Measuring Cylinder ITP can also both be helpful for focused opportunities to practise measuring scales skills. Again, counting can also be useful in supporting reading scales. Most scales are in intervals of 1, 2, 5, 10, 20, 50, 100, 200, 1000 etc. so regular opportunities to practise counting in these steps will help children to use these skills when reading scales.
One of the main problems with children working with measures, I suspect, is that we move far too quickly to working with abstract measures or with diagrams rather than working practically. I’ve been guilty of this myself – practical work involves finding equipment, it can be messy (particularly when working on capacity). But practical work can also be lots of fun and really help children connect their learning to real life situations, so I’d encourage you to do as much as possible.
There are other ideas and resources for teaching measures on my Measures Pinterest board.
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.