I guess the term these days would be lab rats. Maybe Guinea pigs were too cute. Seventh graders make for good experimental subjects too.

Kids think we do the exact same thing every year. And being seventh graders, they are of several minds. They think that would make things so easy for us (which is a huge plus), but also be “boring” (which is practically a cuss word for them). But when former students come back to visit, and ask what we’re doing, and I tell them about something new, I get the inevitable,

“That’s not fair. We never _______.” (Insert: made web pages, read The Giver, had open mouth quizzes, used clickers, had discussion boards on Moodle, saw that video, made wikis, used the laptops, had homework be optional, etc. )

Open mouth quizzing is a regular feature in my class now, but just a couple of years ago, it was a fairly radical experiment for me. I even told them at the time that it was an experiment, and they were the Guinea pigs for future classes.

“Can we vote on it?”

“This is not a democracy. It is a benevolent dictatorship.”

That experiment has worked out beautifully. A recent experiment that I’ve tried a couple of times, and am still undecided about, is the optional homework concept.

The first time, I told them I was thinking about eliminating almost all written homework (not including essays and end of novel projects). I told them I would still assign it and we would discuss/correct it in class, but I wouldn’t check to see if they did it, and it wouldn’t count in the grade. If they wanted to, they could live a life free of Pink Sheets (the from-the-textbook grammar sheets we do weekly), vocabulary definitions/exercises, and novel responding/study questions. We would still correct and discuss everything, for those students who wanted to do the work and maybe learn from it, but I wouldn’t care if they did the work or not. The exceptions would be their sentences using the academic word lists, and as I said, essays and the like.

The other side of that freedom, however, would be the fact that the material still had to be learned, and so I would have to test them a bit more and make those tests worth more in the grade. Since there wouldn’t be any grades in there from homework, their entire class grade would depend on the scores they got on the grammar, vocabulary, and reading check tests (along with the writing portion).

At first there was universal jubilation. Then I explained how, for most of them, the homework part of the grade was the only thing keeping them afloat. That if their whole grade were based on test performance, most of the class would have a significantly lower grade. Some of the joy wore off. And then in some classes, the truth came out: they admitted that without the requirement, they wouldn’t do it, that they needed someone (me) hounding them, requiring them, to do the work, or they wouldn’t learn. And then they’d regret it. By the end of the discussion, they were begging me not to do it.

Of course, I tried it anyway. And I was right. Grades went down almost universally among those who chose not to do the homework. The first time I tried this, I had to call it off after two weeks due to the dip in grades. The second time lasted three. I don’t think this year’s bunch is quite ready for this one yet.

But this week I will be trying out one of my bigger experiments. And I have high hopes.

More tomorrow.