Gripping a cardboard cup of tea with icy fingers in one hand and a pen in the other, my fellow classmates and I (urging caffeine into our veins on another rainy Irish Wednesday morning) sat down to lay out plans for our “ideal” versions of the homework clubs we have now been working in for five weeks. Armed with evidence from various scholarly articles, ideas of what “works” and what doesn’t in all we’ve experienced in our own education and in at Scoil Bhride, and our optimistic imaginations, we got to work filling blank pages.
In my Utopian homework club (without the constraints of budget or the barrier-causing hierarchy of questioning authority that often comes with education) this is what I came up with:
My homework club is one that provides a safe environment that is focused on collaboration for students and staff alike. IT allows children to receive one on one attention and to express themselves through their work (and play.) It is a source of support for children who might not usually have it, but it is open to children who want to participate as well. This way, the students who stay after school for homework club don’t have to feel like they have been singled out because they are not as “advanced” or privileged as others (something that is problematic with “advanced track” or “lower track” isolation.)
This homework club centers on scaffolding and encouragement. It provides nourishment f for both mind and body, and it aims to help students become as well-rounded as possible. It offers ways for students to see progress and to develop goals with guidance. A long term goal of the club involves including the other aspects of a student’s life in the club–bringing in parental participation and creating projects and work that allow direct involvement of the student in his or her community. In this sense, the club takes a holistic approach to education, and combines a Montessori method of learning with traditional styles.
Finally, the homework club caters to as many learning styles as possible–utilizing communication between club leaders and classroom teachers in order to develop the most effective (and enjoyable) homework possible. The overarching purpose of the club is to give students a personal stake in their education–making meaning out of their work and breaking barriers between the “real” world and the academic.
Organization of the Club
My ideal club is organized in the form of “stations.” Set up in a large classroom, gymnasium, or other open space, these stations cater to different subject groups. For example, there may be a station for science in one corner, maths in another, spelling, english etc. Each station has a helper who is comfortable with the subject of study and has experience in it. (From my perspective as an American student helping in an Irish school, this is of particular importance. Because I am unable to help students with their Gailege [Irish] studies, it would be wonderful to have an “expert” at a station centered on this topic. This is extremely reassuring for children–especially if they do not have a parent who is literate in Irish at home.)
At the beginning of each session of homework club, children are able to pick a station–likely the station for the subject they know they have the most difficulty with. This gives them a sense of autonomy. Every 20 minutes or so, the stations switch. This cuts down on chaos, but keeps the children moving (both sides of the brain engaged.) At each station, homework club staff is trained to help students in ways that best cater to individual learning styles.
This skill comes with careful staff training and development–a process that includes ongoing meetings and assessments of what is “working” in the club. Staff includes local high school and university students in addition to student teachers and classroom teachers (who are expected to spend 2-4 paid hours a week working at the club.) All staff go through brief training and collaborate to make sure the students receive work and help that is the most effective and beneficial for their progress.
Halfway through the time set aside for homework club, a “snack break” will occur. This is a time for students to eat a healthy snack (i.e. bananas, grapes, crackers, cheese) and socialization. The children have a reasonable amount of time to eat and do not feel rushed. They are not expected to work while eating.
For children who are acting up or having trouble focusing, there is an area reserved for “time out.” This is not necessarily a punishment, but an area to work (or relax) in silence. For some children, this might be the ideal place to do homework. This is true for students who are good at playing the traditional “game” of education and do not need extra help. They are motivated to sit and study and are frustrated by distractions. This area might even take place in another room to cut down on distractions from the larger group.
At the end of homework club all students (even those in the “time out” area) are brought together to work on an ongoing collaborative project. This project ideally involves the community. For example, the students might work on a performance to be presented at the end of the semester or a mural for a local venue. They might conduct interviews with local citizens to produce a documentary or agree together to tackle a community issue. This project is interdisciplinary and helps students to work together and develop valuable problem solving skills. The project is one that helps to prepare for the modern world of employment. On this note, technology is also integrated into several of the club’s stations–giving students the chance to use computers and video equipment and helping to decrease the “digital divide” between those who have access to technology outside of school and those who do not.
Ideally, this club is funded by the government. It may also draw on private funding.
Challenges: It is inevitable that an idealistic club like this will face challenges. First, motivation and focus of students is unpredictable. There will never be a day where everyone cooperates. Nor is it realistic to expect that this model will work for every student. Furthermore, support and funding for this model of homework club will be hard to come by. It does not follow traditional methods of education, and it calls for a shift in the way classrooms are run during the school day. It requires a reassessment of homework (and, consequently, of assessment itself.) This is a club that questions standardized testing and works toward more holistic understandings of “success.” It is a piece of a paradigm shift in educational theory–something that is always hard to get off the ground in its initial steps.
(For further thoughts on “Utopian” education, click here. The link is to the introduction of a 5 part series outlining my ideal education system.)