Mark is a Year Five teacher who also has experience in secondary - a rare breed. He is the author of Unhomework, one of the many ways he helps teachers rethink why and what they do.
Using Unhomework to Supercharge Lockdown Learning - Part Two
Part two of a two-part blog by Associate and primary teacher Mark Creasy on how to improve motivation and develop independent learning through supercharging homework during lockdown.
Establishing the Project
Now, I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit here that I was slightly worried.
At this stage, as you have seen in part one of this blog, I had set up a remote learning lockdown Unhomework challenge that gave my new-to-me class of year fives complete freedom not only on what they did their project on but also how they presented it.
Would I simply receive 30 projects all about celebrities I had never heard of and football ? And a great deal of Wikipedia cut and pasting? Or something that had clearly been done by the sort of parent who you know is just off camera during an online lesson, whispering the answers to their child?
I genuinely wanted the class to take ownership and regain some control in their lives but I also wanted them to challenge themselves and not just take the cop-out option.
I set out my stall in the opening line of he project brief to them:
Think about something you are personally interested in
or something that you know you need to know more about
Remember, I had only known the class for one term before lockdown. I wondered where would they take it?
I’m proud (and, yes, slightly embarrassed) to say I needn’t have worried.
Pretty soon, the range of topics being put forward was beginning to blow my mind. In fact, I now had a new worry - how on earth was I going to support them when there was so many topics that I didn’t know anything about?
Of course, a few suspected a trap and were still intent on checking with me if they really could do exactly what they wanted. Fortunately, all my classes learn quickly my response to such a question. I hold up four fingers to highlight the four words I drill into them from day one:“Whose work is it?”
It’s an approach that never fails to pay dividends and, even from a distance, they got it and then got on.
To this sense of freedom and choice I would also highlight four other factors that you need to consider carefully when working in this Unhomework style:
I was clear with the children what I was looking for, but without directing them to complete some pre-determined idea I had. In fact, I laid it out for the class as:
I will be focusing on:
- The level of detail you have included.
- The quality of your presentation (this includes SPaG).
- Your level of effort – I know what you’re capable of!
- How interesting I find the work.
- Individuality - I do not expect a cut and paste job!
This meant the expectations were clear, simple and explicit – plus it gave me a framework to be able to respond to their work.
2. Making it explicit that I wanted a ‘Year 5 project’.
I kept reiterating that the project was theirs (not mine, or their parents and certainly not the Internet’s), something that was also supported in the websites that I recommended early on. This went to the heart of the final bullet-point of my feedback criteria, but also looked to avoid trying to craft a university piece at the age of nine. For example Britannica Kids is far better than a random Google Search.
I also repeated that to avoid this, they would be best served by focussing on a passion they already had – something they either knew a lot about or wanted to know a lot about. Selecting a random esoteric topic that they felt they had to complete to keep me off their back would come across in their work.
3. Providing ongoing support.
Throughout the project’s four weeks, the children could speak to me for any advice, pointers or to check out where they were going with their project. Many made good use of that opportunity. That said (and given the four-finger rule) I was mindful to only make suggestions with phrases like:
- “Have you considered….?”
- “What about….?”
- “Could you express…?”
- "Where do you see XXX going?”
- “Have you thought how you will present…?”
4. Parental understanding
As with so much, it was important that parents were both on board and able to support their child. I needed parents to understand both that it wasn’t just about ‘doing a project’ and also to ‘get’ the purpose behind it.
To this end, I reiterated this message in my weekly email to parents and in our live lessons when I spoke to the children (and knew parents would be listening in). I was also always available to answer the parents’ questions, including how they could support their child, especially as some parents had the same panic as I did when their child chose a topic the parent didn’t fully grasp either!
However, many told me that having the project was a lifesaver as, on the occasions the children found their lockdown learning tough going, it gave them an outlet. Simple suggestions of working on the project, or even taking time out to discuss it with their child and them explaining it to the parents was invaluable and allowed for a ‘little and often’ approach across the four weeks.
Throughout the project, every week I put on our Google Classroom the week’s suggested step for the plan, and always accompanied by a simple question:
Does this show x weeks of effort for a Year 5?
And, as is so often the case when you actually trust children, I can confidently say that the class far exceeded my expectations!
The range of topics was as unexpected as it was huge. Here is a sample:
- Figure skating – “I don’t skate but would like to.”
- Fashion – “I would like to be a fashion designer.”
- Crawley Town FC – “I support this team.”
- Malaysia Airline Flight MH370 – “I like mysteries and planes.”
- The Tudors – “I enjoyed doing this in class.”
- Dick Turpin – “I found him interesting.”
- Gastro Reflux – “I suffered it a few years ago and wanted to learn more.”
- Woodland Animals – “I think they’re amazing, but I didn’t realise there were so many!”
- Hillsborough – “I’m a Liverpool fan and this is an important day in our history.”
- ‘Save the rhino” – “They’re my favourite animal and we need to protect them or they’ll be gone soon!”
In terms of just how they went about presenting their project, the range was equally impressive too. Along with the usual (but high quality) PowerPoints and slide shows, there were also:
- Fortune tellers (as a way of doing the quiz for the extension).
- Personal memorabilia.
- Models the children had made – for example, Tudor houses!
- Creative presentations – for example, the figure skating was presented on cut-out figure skates.
- Voice recordings.
- Songs – not just the lyrics, but also played on the piano.
- Videos – children not only shared their projects, but also talked about them like museum experts, taking us through their work.
Beyond this, what I cannot convey here is the outcome for those children who find learning challenging for a range of reasons. All of the projects showed me something about the children that I didn’t know before, either through their interests or the way in which they created their work and especially in the pride they had when I discussed it with them.
As we look pretty certain to return to school on March 8th, it is now my challenge to ensure that I utilise the skills the children developed through completing these projects back in class.
Clearly, I’ll be initiating Genius Hour and more Unhomework opportunities for the children and I know now I can challenge any of them who display any signs of lacking self-belief - they have all shown just what they can do.
So, I ask you:
- What could your class do?
- When will you give them the chance?
- Are you prepared to ‘give up’ control to get so much more back – I promise you it’s worth it!
PS What is really annoying me at the moment? All this talk of ‘catching up’. Catch up to what? My class have shown that it’s possible to even get ahead, it just depends on what you want from learning and children – and if you’re prepared not to draw some arbitrary line for them to reach. [ITL]
To enquire about booking Mark for CPD, either online or in the flesh, please get in touch. Details below.
In the meantime, you can also hear more from Mark about how he set about lockdown learning and creating independent learners in this discussion with Jonathan Lear and Ian Gilbert, one of over twenty recordings from our WhatNowWeek webinars from May 2020.
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