December 20, 2016

Weekly Homework: Digging Deeper

Note: this is a follow up to yesterday's post that I wrote back at the end of October.

In the weeks since I wrote that last post I have given a few more substantial weekly homework assignments. One was on cell phone plans, another on credit card payments and a third on bias in jury selection. I didn't love the credit card assignment, mostly because we haven't studied exponential functions yet so the calculations were tedious and the meaning got lost (low payments might seem good but you get killed with interest if that's all you can afford).

It was interesting that despite how "real world" cell phones are to kids, they didn't know the vocabulary of how a payment plan works. Some students argued that an option was good because it had more installments - turns out they thought that meant how many things they could install on their phone! After clarifying vocabulary we were able to have a conversation about how Option D is the cheapest if you have $225 to spare but that's often not the case so people who have less cash on hand end up spending more in the end.

Then over Thanksgiving break I finally found a good introductory assignment to racial bias when listening to Radiolab. This assignment looked a little different than the others because on the front I had to start with an explanation of how jury selection works. Then I pulled a short quote where I wanted students to focus their calculations. But to write the paragraph, and really to make their claim, I felt that students should have more context. So on the back (so it wouldn't distract them during their calculations) I pulled some quotes from a NYTimes article and suggested they listen to the podcast that got me interested in the topic in the first place. The assignment

I pulled these student quotes for a few reasons. They provided a chance to talk about all vs. on average in a few contexts (all lawyers are racist, all blacks sympathize with the defendant). A few people asked about when and where this was (60's in the south vs. 2016 in the north?) and it gave students the opportunity to rebut - there's still racism today, even in Massachusetts. Finally, two quotes reference different sections of the article and one references the podcast. I wanted to clarify the information that students read and heard as the vocabulary isn't the most student friendly (many of my ninth graders had a first language that was not English and several of them have language based learning disabilities). I'm considering switching my routine to going over the previous week's assignment the first class of the week and then immediately handing out this week's assignment so students can ask clarifying questions. But I really want them to try reading on their own. Maybe sticking with going over the previous week's assignment at the end of the week and then specifically asking students if they have clarifying questions about the current assignment is the better way to go. 

This week I had more students ask "Is there a right answer?" than any other week. I chose to interpret that as a sensitivity to the gravity of the choice while being overwhelmed with the information. I reminded them that there is never a correct choice to weekly homeworks as long as they provide reasons to support their claim. I also reassured them that this is complicated, which is exactly why people are researching it!

I would love suggestions for more articles similar to this one that would help facilitate discussions around similarly important topics. This week is about the (slightly less serious but still important to me) effects of spaying and neutering your pets - the kittens are reproducing at alarming rates on a farm! I'm feeling thankful that I teach where I do so I'm allowed to give assignments that support my crazy liberal viewpoints, and am also working to be mindful of the amount of bias I have. It's so important to me that students think for themselves and I do really mean it when I tell students that there is no right answer. But I recognize that there's inherent bias in the topics I choose and the data that I present. 

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