Making Science Homework Work: The Perspectives of Exemplary African American Science Teachers
by Jianzhong Xu, Linda T. Coats & Mary L. Davidson - 2012
Background/Context: Despite the best intentions to close the achievement gap, the underachievement of African American students in science is a persistent problem. It is surprising to note, however, that research on science education has often failed to consider students’ cultural diversity as it relates to science education. On the few occasions when efforts were made to link science disciplines and students’ cultural backgrounds, these studies were largely limited to classroom learning environments.
Purpose/Research Question: This study examines the perspectives of exemplary African American teachers toward science homework. Specifically, we address two research questions: What does science homework mean to exemplary African American science teachers? How do they approach science homework?
Research Design: A qualitative study was conducted, with data obtained from the following sources: (a) three open-ended, in-depth interviews with each exemplary teacher during the first year of the study, and (b) two focus group interviews with these teachers during the second year of the study. The participants were 8 exemplary African American science teachers in Grades 3–6 in the southeastern United States.
Findings/Results: Data revealed that these teachers shared a strong sense of urgency to use homework as an important vehicle in science learning. To help their students be successful with their homework, these teachers often provided additional provisions and used a variety of strategies to promote students’ interest in their homework. In addition, the teachers adapted an approach comparable to both Boykin’s Afrocultural ethos (e.g., concerned with affect, expressive individualism, and verve) and “being a warm demander” (i.e., setting high expectations and insisting firmly yet respectfully that students meet those expectations).
Conclusions: These findings suggest that there is merit in integrating these two frameworks to better understand the perspectives of exemplary African American teachers toward science homework. These findings highlight the need to examine the perspectives of exemplary African American teachers toward secondary school science homework given that the poor achievement of African American students becomes more pronounced as they progress through school, and homework is found to be more strongly associated with secondary school students than elementary school students.
Despite the best intentions to close the achievement gap, the underachievement of African American students in science is a persistent problem (Parsons, 2008a; Seiler & Elmesky, 2007; Seiler, Tobin, & Sokolic, 2001; Simpson & Parsons, 2009). For example, although the science achievement gap by race and ethnicity, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, is narrowing, the scores of African American students remain well below those of White students across the three age levels: 9, 13, and 17 years (Lee, 2005; Parsons, 2008a). Given that science courses often serve as gatekeepers of the status quo, this achievement gap has dire consequences for African American students in school and in life (Seiler & Elmesky).
Science homework has been shown to be positively related to science achievement (Cooper, Robinson, & Patall, 2006; Mau & Lynn, 2000; Singh, Granville, & Dika, 2002; Van Voorhis, 2003). Indeed, using a nationally representative sample of eighth graders drawn from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, Singh et al. found that science homework is the best predictor of science achievement.
Recently, research on exemplary African American teachers has received some attention as scholars have begun to fill in a void in the research on teaching that previously excluded African American teachers (Delpit, 1986; Stanford, 1997; Ware, 2006). However, most of these studies focus on African American pedagogy in general, and with reading and writing in particular (Beauboeuf-Lafontant, 2002; Howard, 2001; Ladson-Billings, 1995; Stanford, 1998; Ware). Consequently, it would be important to examine the perspectives of exemplary African American science teachers toward science homework because of the lack of research programs focused on African Americans in the science education literature (Parsons, 2008b), and as such, an examination may provide new insights regarding how to use science homework as an important vehicle to promote student engagement and learning in science.
In the present study, we address two research questions: What does science homework mean to exemplary African American science teachers? How do they approach science homework? These questions were informed by two lines of literature: (a) previous research on science homework and (b) theoretical positioning pertaining to science learning.
RESEARCH ON SCIENCE HOMEWORK
Science homework has been found to have a powerful influence on science achievement (Brookhart, 1997; Cooper et al., 2006; Lau & Roeser, 2002; Mau & Lynn, 2000; Singh et al., 2002; Van Voorhis, 2003). Singh et al., for example, examined the effects of three school-related constructsmotivation, interest, and academic engagementon science achievement, based on the nationally representative sample of eighth graders from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988. Data were analyzed through the use of structural equation models to test the hypothesized relationships of motivation, science attitude, academic engagement, and science achievement. The latent construct of academic engagement was measured by time spent on science homework and by time spent watching TV on weekdays (which was reverse coded). Meanwhile, the latent variable of science achievement was measured by grades earned in science and by scores on standardized science tests. The results revealed a positive effect of motivation, attitude, and academic engagement on science achievement. The results further revealed that the strongest effect on science learning was that of the academic time (β = .61), which meant that students who spent more time on science homework had higher achievement in science” (pp. 329–330). In addition, students who were motivated and who had a positive attitude toward science (e.g., science utility and interest) were more likely to spend more time on science homework.
Similarly, based on the nationally representative sample of 10th and 12th graders from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, Mau and Lynn (2000) examined the relationship between science homework and science achievement. The results from multiple regression analysis revealed that, after controlling students gender, the amount of science homework was positively associated with science test scores in both the 10th and 12th grades.
In another study, Van Voorhis (2003) examined the effects of interactive science homework on family involvement in homework, student achievement, and homework attitudes. The participants were 253 sixth- and eighth-grade science students in 10 classrooms with four teachers in a middle school. In the 18-week study, students in six classes received weekly science activities with specific guidelines for interacting with family members on science experiments and activities. Students in the remaining four classes received the same homework but without these guidelines for family involvement. Data revealed that students in the interactive group earned significantly higher grades than did students in the noninteractive group, after accounting for their prior science abilities, parent education, and the amount of homework completed. In addition, more parents in the interactive group than parents in the noninteractive group reported that their children worked as hard as they could in science. Finally, interactive or noninteractive, students who reported liking the science assignments returned more assignments, and students who completed more of the science assignments earned higher science grades.
Taken together, research on science homework suggests that (a) science homework is positively related to science achievement, (b) student attitude toward science and science homework (e.g., science interest) plays a significant role in homework completion and science achievement, and (c) science teachers may use science homework as an important vehicle to promote science learning (e.g., by providing positive experiences in science and by making science homework more interesting). However, this line of research is largely based on quantitative data at the secondary level and did not take into account other important factors that may mediate the effectiveness of science homework on science achievement, such as specific context and cultural background (Brookhart, 1997). The need to pay attention to the role of sociocultural influences on science homework is further illustrated by the finding from one recent study that, for 10th graders, time on science homework had a significant relationship with science achievement in all groups [i.e., Caucasian, Hispanic, and Asian] except in the African American group (Chang, Singh, & Mo, 2007, p. 364).
Cultural practices (e.g., values, experiences, and dispositions) that are socially acquired in fields outside school can mediate student engagement and learning in science (Fusco, 2001; Lee & Luykx, 2005; Upadhyay, 2006). Many marginalized students or students from oppressed groups tend not to identify with school science that is typically expressed in an authoritative, technical, and depersonalized form (Elmesky & Seiler, 2007; Lemke, 1990; Roth & Barton, 2004). They often view it as distant, inaccessible, boring, irrelevant, and alienating (Basu & Barton, 2007; Fusco; Lee & Luykx) because their cultural practices are different from those of Western modern science (e.g., the dichotomy between scientific and rational modes of thought, as opposed to everyday and expressive modes; Lee & Luykx; Moje, Collazo, Carillo, & Marx, 2001). Thus, it is crucial to examine the ways in which cultural practices contribute to student learning in science (Elmesky & Seiler; Seiler & Elmesky, 2007).
One conceptual framework that bears direct relevance to the present study is Boykins Afrocultural ethos (Boykin, 1983, 1986, 1994; Boykin, Tyler, & Miller, 2005; Gay, 2000; Simpson & Parsons, 2009; Tyler, Boykin, Miller, & Hurley, 2006; Tyler et al., 2008). Boykin (1986) conceptualized Afrocultural ethos as consisting of nine dimensions, to capture what he considered the common cultural experience of African Americans: (a) spirituality (emphasizing the spiritual world instead of the physical world), (b) harmony (emphasizing the whole rather than the parts that constitute the whole), (c) movement (valuing physical motion that is distinguished by a noticeable rhythm), (d) verve (valuing variability and intensity in activities), (e) affect (e.g., valuing interest and emotion), (f) expressive individualism (valuing a persons uniqueness and creativity), (g) communalism (valuing the importance of the group over the significance of the individual), (h) orality (valuing oral and aural communication), and (i) social perspective of time (valuing social interaction and the building of relationships). These dimensions are assumed to be passed on to young African American children through day-to-day interactions with the significant others with whom they have close contact in their lives, such as parents and extended family members (Boykin & Allen, 2000; Boykin & Toms, 1985).
Several studies with African American children and parents provide empirical support to Boykins Afrocultural ethos (Boykin et al., 2005; Boykin, Tyler, Watkins-Lewis, & Kizzie, 2006; Tyler et al., 2006). For example, Tyler et al. (2006) examined the presence of specific cultural values within preferred classroom and home activities, as reported by 81 fourth-grade African American students. Their study found that these students had significantly stronger preferences for communal and vervistic activities at home and at school than for individualistic and competitive activities. Teachers, however, were viewed as having significantly higher preferences for individualistic and competitive behaviors than communally or vervistic behaviors. In addition, students reported that they got into more trouble with their teachers and less trouble with their parents by employing communal and vervistic behaviors as compared with individualistic and competitive behaviors.
Although no study has investigated African American perspectives toward science homework, Simpson and Parsons (2009) examined the perspectives of 11 African American parents or guardians who enrolled their children in an informal science program. Their study found that what these parents wanted for their children was in line with seven of the nine dimensions of Boykins Afrocultural ethos: harmony, communalism, orality, movement, verve, affect, and expressive individualism. For example, relating to verve and affect, Parents iterated that students should do hands-on work. It seemed important to parents that students are engaged and interactive with science; they believed that this would increase student interest and excitement for the subject (p. 307).
Other studies specifically focus on several dimensions of Boykins Afrocultural ethos in science learning, including verve and social perspective of time (Parsons, 2008a), movement (Elmesky & Seiler, 2007; Parsons, 2008a), and communalism (Seiler & Elmesky, 2007). For example, Seiler and Elmesky examined the nature of communalism to understand how the social and cultural experiences of two African American students affected what happened in science classrooms. Data revealed that these two students frequently shared collective goals and valued joint purposes over individual goals of garnering respect or props, and they used their resources to strengthen the bond between them and to learn science.
Recently, a growing number of researchers have characterized effective teachers of African American students as warm demanders who are personable, caring, and responsive while simultaneously holding students accountable for meeting high and rigorous academic standards (Bondy & Ross, 2008; Bondy, Ross, Gallingane, & Hambacher, 2007; Brown, 2004; Delpit, 1995; Hartwick & Johnson, 2008; Irvine, 2003; Ladson-Billings, 2009; Ross, Bondy, Gallingane, & Hambacher, 2008; Ware, 2006).
Ware (2006) conducted a comparative case study to examine the pedagogy of two African American teachers (one with 30 years of service and another with 6 years of service). Descriptive data were collected through interviews and classroom observations. The study found that both teachers were warm demanders and that they interacted with African American students as authority figures, yet also caregivers who held high standards and expectations. For example, during one classroom observation, one teacher expressed her expectations concerning the importance of doing homework in a loud and clear voice:
I had about half of the class that turned in their homework. I do not give you homework everyday, but when I do its a practice skill that needs to be done. Its something that you need: its not just something for you to do. . . . And I expect you to do it. Now from now on, if you cannot do it, then you need to write me a note of explanation. And the only reason Ill tell you that you cannot do your homework is that you are deadand you wont be here then. . . . We are not here to play, Im getting you ready for middle school. . . . . I am thoroughly disappointed with you. . . . excuse me for hollering. (p. 436)
While maintaining high expectations, these teachers cultivated caring relationships with students and their families, and they moved beyond a broad-based care for everyone to [a] care that related to the needs the teacher identified in each student (p. 444).
Ware (2006) stated that African American students respond to teachers as authority figures because they are likely to view teachers as weak if they do not respond with a level of power that indicates that they are in control. This is in line with related literature noting that African American teachers teach with authority (Irvine & Fraser, 1998), influenced by the life experiences that many African American children sense in their parents, who act as authority figures (Delpit, 1995), and that African American parents desire their children to respect adults and follow the directives of strong teachers who show that they are in control of the classroom (Ladson-Billings, 2009). Indeed, Fosters (1991) research with exemplary African American teachers found that students were proud of their teachers meanness (p. 56) and viewed it as an effort to push them to meet high academic expectations.
THE PRESENT STUDY
While one line of literature examined the role of science homework in science learning, Boykins Afrocultural ethos and related empirical studies suggest that African American students share some cultural dispositions (e.g., communal and vervistic activities). However, no study has linked Boykins Afrocultural ethos to science homework. Although the study by Ware (2006) included anecdotes about homework, research and theorizing on warm demanders has not focused on homework, nor science homework in particular.
Consequently, there is a critical need to examine the perspectives of exemplary African American science teachers toward science homework. This line of research is important because research on science education has often failed to consider students cultural diversity as it relates to science instruction (Lee, 2005; Seiler & Elmesky, 2007). On the few occasions when efforts were made to link science disciplines and students cultural backgrounds, the studies were largely limited to classroom learning environments (Lee, Deaktor, Hart, Cuevas, & Enders, 2005; Luykx, Cuevas, Lambert, & Lee, 2005; Moje et al., 2001). Therefore, a study such as this, with an emphasis on elementary science homework, may provide new insights regarding how to articulate science disciplines and students cultural diversity early in the schooling. This is particularly important because the effectiveness of science homework may be influenced by cultural knowledge and experience. For example, as one recent study revealed, unlike other ethnic groups (i.e., Caucasian, Hispanic, and Asian), science homework as currently practiced was not related to science achievement for African American students (Chang et al., 2007). Thus, the concreteness of this line of research is especially valuable given that many elementary schools across the country are struggling to find ways to provide high-quality instructional science activities to an increasingly diverse body of students, and science homework has the potential to become an important vehicle for addressing the science achievement gap.
The participants were 8 exemplary African American elementary science teachers in the southeastern United States. The identification of these exemplary teachers was facilitated by the fact that one of the researchers was an exemplary African American high school science teacher (a recipient of the National Presidential Award for Excellence in Science Teaching and the Milken Family Foundation National Teacher Award) who had known these participants for many years. We identified an initial list of 12 teachers, based on the following criteria: (a) award-winning teachers (e.g., recipients of the Milken Family Foundation National Teacher Award), (b) nomination by administrators, colleagues, and former students, (c) National Board Certified teachers, and (d) teachers who made a difference in the science achievement of African American students (e.g., whose students participated in state science fairs and performed in the upper percentile on state and national assessment).
We ended up with 8 participants for two reasons. First, in two school districts, the superintendents preferred that their teachers not participate in this study because they were concerned that it may have taken time from instructional activities. Second, at the end of the first year, 2 teachers moved to different school districts. As a result, they were unable to continue to participate in the study.
Of 8 participants, 6 were female and 2 were male. Among them, 5 had received a masters degree, 2 had received a bachelors degree, and 1 had received a doctoral degree. Their teaching experience varied between 6 years and 35 years (with a mean of 14 years). Half of these teachers taught fifth grade, 2 of them taught sixth grade, and the remaining 2 taught third grade and fourth grade, respectively. Two of the 8 participants had previously taught science classes at the secondary school level.
These 8 teachers were from eight different schools located in predominantly lower income African American communities. Student enrollment in these schools ranged from 289 to 688 students (with a mean of 542 students). The percentage of African American students in these schools ranged from 45.3% to 97.9% (with a mean of 80.3%). In addition, the percentage of students qualifying for federal free lunch programs in these schools ranged from 42.9% to 90.1% (with a mean of 74.4%).
The eight schools in which these teachers worked had limited science funding, materials, and supplies. For example, only 2 out of 8 teachers had a science lab in their schools. Consequently, they tried to reach out to their communities by asking for donations from big companies, seeking donations of science materials from local stores, writing grants to pay for tickets to science museums, and enlisting community members to pay for science field trips.
These teachers typically assigned science homework about two to three times a week, each time requiring approximately 2030 minutes to complete. For example, one teacher stated that she would assign science homework whenever they finished a lesson. Because a science lesson usually took 2 days to finish, she would then assign science homework maybe 2 days out of the week, but no more than 3.
A range of science homework assignment included (a) reviewing science concepts or completing end-of-chapter questions (e.g., distinguishing between animal and plant cells); (b) allowing students to choose their own means of showing that they understood basic science concepts (e.g., by writing, drawing, or completing a concept map); (c) involving hands-on homework or outside assignments (e.g., constructing ones own ecosystem or collection of different kinds of leaves); and (d) interviewing family members or relatives about certain diseases in the community.
The findings reported in this article are part of a larger data set collected during a 3-year research project of exemplary African American elementary science teachers. The primary aim of the project was to examine how these exemplary science teachers articulated students culture as related to the science disciplines. This article focuses on findings related to the science homework.
Data for this article were primarily based on two sources: (a) three open-ended, in-depth interviews with each exemplary teacher (each about 120 minutes in duration) during the first year of the study and (b) two focus group interviews with these teachers (each about 90 minutes in duration) in one location convenient to them during the second year of the study.
Informed by previous homework studies (Brock, Lapp, Flood, Fisher, & Han, 2007; Xu, 2005, 2010; Xu & Corno, 1998, 2003; Xu & Yuan, 2003; Van Voorhis, 2003), the first round of interviews focused on the perceived purpose of science homework, types of science assignments, expectations for students and their families in the homework process, and homework feedback. Examples of questions are: What are the purposes of assigning science homework in your classes? What is your expectation of students in the homework process? What do you do once you get science homework back?
Based on what we learned from the first round of interviews, the follow-up interviews asked the participants to elaborate on their previous responses (e.g., How would you compare the purposes of science homework with homework assignments in other subject areas, say, mathematics and English? Suppose a first-year science teacher comes to ask your advice about science homework, what would you tell him or her?). They were further asked about relevant strategies and successful examples (e.g., What strategies do you use to make sure that students do their homework properly? Can you give some successful examples of science homework over the last several years?). In addition, they were asked about challenges associated with designing and monitoring science homework (e.g., What do you see some of the challenges being that are related to science homework? What specific strategies, if any, do you use to deal with these challenges?).
Finally, focus group interviews asked these participants, as a group, to reflect on their homework practices. Examples of questions are: What is the role of homework in science learning, as you see it? And for African American students in particular? What are your expectations for students? What are your expectations for parents? How do you follow up with your science homework?
Audiotaped interviews were transcribed, and the transcriptions were checked for accuracy against original recordings. Data analysis followed established forms of qualitative inquiry, with both inductive and deductive components (Erickson, 1986; Graue, Hatch, Rao, & Oen, 2007; Graue & Walsh, 1997). With the support of the qualitative research software NVivo 8, we analyzed our data using the constant comparative method (Charmaz, 2005; Glaser & Strauss, 1967). For example, we examined several excerpts that were similar in language before labeling a category (e.g., promoting students interest in science homework). We then examined whether the inclusion of other related excerpts would change its meaning. In addition, we stayed close to participants own language in our descriptions and interpretations (e.g., changing from the initial category of promoting students interest in science homework, to one participants own words: Get them interested in moving even farther than they have already gone).
Other initial codes used in NVivo 8 were informed by relevant empirical studies discussed earlier (e.g., homework interest) as well as relevant dimensions noted in Boykins (1983, 1986, 1994) Afrocultural ethos (e.g., affect and communalism) and warm demander pedagogy (e.g., Bondy & Ross, 2008; Ware, 2006). Because some questions (e.g., Suppose a first-year science teacher comes to ask your advice about science homework, what would you tell him or her?) elicited a response that tapped into several constructs (e.g., homework expectation, homework interest, homework challenge, homework feedback, and dimensions in Boykins Afrocultural ethos), they often required multiple codes. These codes continued to be revised and expanded during our interaction with data (Coffey & Atkinson, 1996; Miles & Huberman, 1994). For example, within the category of homework interest (i.e., Get them interested in moving even farther than they have already gone), we further classified four subcategories (i.e., relevance, hands-on homework, student choice, and sharing)four strategies that these teachers used to promote student interest in science homework.
NVivo 8 allowed us to create and maintain an audit traila detailed record of how and when data are collected, and comments made during each step of the data analysis. For the present study, this trail included coded interview transcripts, memos, links, and annotations made during coding, and data matrices and queries. This digital system helped to make the process of data analysis more transparent, thereby engendering confidence that the findings were warranted.
Relevant findings were shared with the participants to solicit their responses during the course of the study (e.g., in the follow-up and focus group interviews). For example, feedback from the participants during two subsequent focus group interviews was used to revise the text in instances where they wanted to clarify, elaborate, and expand information they shared during the initial interview (e.g., additional strategies they used to promote student interest in science homework) and where they wanted to offer rival explanations (e.g., the linkage among homework purpose, their own backgrounds as African American science educators, and the No Child Left Behind Act). This strategy, member check (Lather, 1986; Lincoln & Guba, 1985), serves to better represent the participants voices (Lincoln, 1995; Merriam, 1998) and to better capture the voices and perspectives of these exemplary African American science teachers.
SCIENCE HOMEWORK IS A MUST; IT IS NOT A CHOICE THAT YOU HAVE
These exemplary teachers shared a strong sense of urgency toward students doing science homework (e.g., Science homework is a must; it is not a choice that you have; Homework in my opinion is very important. It is a must; we have to preach that it is a must and make the kids understand why it is a must). The sense of urgency (e.g., Black students are going to have to turn off the TV, step up the pace, and try to do better), to a large extent, has to do with their personal responsibility as African American science educators. One teacher framed his sense of urgency this way:
As an African American teacher we are dealing basically with race. With a lot of our kids, their parents are either divorced or deceased or whatever. They are living with grandparents who are old and really cant take care of them like they should. A lot of times, we are the only parents that these kids see. So we are not just dealing with our own biological children but were dealing with race. . . . They would have to come along and because if you look at it, theyve fallen far behind, and they need to catch up, in order to be competent. Times are changing, and science plays a big part in this world that were living in.
Another teacher elaborated:
Our focus needs to be on where we really want to be. There is something in our culture that we need to hold onto, that we need to pass on to those who are coming along after, so that they understand their roots, so that they can understand where theyve come from. But they dont need to hold onto those things as excuses. The past is the past; the present is all we have now. We can sit here and stay grounded in the past, we can stay angry about the past, or we can use the opportunities that we have right now to move forward not to forget the past, but to use it as motivation to show that we can do better, that the world can be better than it is right now.
The sense of urgency was further heightened in the context of the No Child Left Behind Act, as one teacher noted that homework is the second phase of trying to make sure that they advance as far as that law intends for them to advance.
Given this urgency, one purpose for doing science homework was to review and digest what students learned in class. One teacher said, I see the purpose of science homework as a means to see and review the important concepts in ones mind. Students need time to digest their learning, and homework can be a way to do this. Another teacher stated,
I usually try to assign homework that is based on the concepts we have discussed in class. I have maybe 40 or 50 different books, anything that relates to what we are covering in class, that provides something they can do at home, something they can get parents to help them with. . . . We do ecosystem in a bottle, ecosystem in a jar, and ecosystem in a box, whichever appeals to each student, so that they can extend their understanding of what were covering in class.
In addition, these teachers noted that homework needs to be something that makes students stretch (e.g., making them think about the assignment before they actually get started, then taking them beyond where they already are), something that helps them think critically about the contents that they are being asked about and apply the concepts that we are learning in class. One teacher elaborated:
What do you think about robots? How can they help make our lives easier? After weve talked about how they can help make our lives easier, they would explain how a robot that they [already] use, like some type of electronic device that they use on a daily basis, that makes their life easier.
Finally, these teachers viewed science homework as an important vehicle for involving families and informing them about what their children were learning and for fostering communication between children and their families (e.g., Homework teaches the parents and helps them understand what is going on in the classroom). One teacher commented,
Ive had some parents come, and I gave them a lesson after school because they did not understand some things. They were trying to show their children what to do but couldnt. But when I showed them what to do, theyd say, I dont understand why they dont understand? Thats easy. I then say, Go home and help them understand, so that when they come to school tomorrow theyll know what to do.
Another teacher noted,
I always invite the parents to come to my classroom so they can sit in on a lesson. Or if they just come to school with questions about science homework, I take time to explain to them what were doing in class and give them some tips they can use at home to help their child do the science homework. I also try to connect science with some of the jobs they do to assist them to become teachers at home while Im the teacher in the classroom.
As a result, the teacher observed, Ive had some students come back and tell me that when they do their homework, their parent is learning right along with them. So its a win-win for both of them.
BEING A WARM DEMANDER
These exemplary African American teachers identified themselves as being warm demanders (e.g., I can talk to them just like their moms, but when it comes time for their academics, Im firm enough to tell them what they need to do; Im just tough in content areas as I am warm and cordial to talk to). One teacher explained the importance of being both warm and demanding:
My expectations are quite high. I tell my kids all the time, You can do the work; its just a matter of you putting forth the effort. . . . . Like I said, Obama becoming president has made some change, but a lot of African Americans have been oppressed for so long, its like a lot of times they feel like they just dont want to try. Ive even heard some students say, Nobody is going to do anything for me, nobody is going to help me with anything, so why should I even try? Thats a big problem. So I try to steer them in a better direction than the one that they allow themselves to go in. I let them know theyre my children. I talk to them like a parent, father to son, father to daughter. . . . The majority of them, they listen to me. . . . I think that when kids see that the teacher is genuinely concerned about them, that makes a real difference, I really do.
Similarly, another teacher noted,
It takes a village to raise a child. So from an African American standpoint, when I have students come to my classroom, I assume a certain level of responsibility for them. I become a positive father figure for some of them who do not have fathers at home. I try to go the extra mile to help them to understand they have a wonderful opportunity in front of them, and that is to get an education. If they have an education, they can improve the quality of their life a whole lot more than if they did not have an education. This affects the way that I teach science, and everything else in between, because when I have a majority of African American students in my classroom, like Ive had for the past few years that Ive been teaching, I try to make sure that I try to go the extra mile and do everything that I can to let them know that their getting an education is important and that they have to take what they are learning seriously. They have to be the first ones to get excited about what they are doing, because they will face some challenges in their lives just by virtue of the way they look, the way they talk, and the way they dress. I want them to be prepared for all these things.
In line with their perceived purposes of science homework, these teachers set high expectations and held students responsible for timely homework completion, along with ongoing support. One teacher noted,
I expect my students to perform at the level that I believe they can. Sometimes I have to dismiss what their previous test scores were and what previous teachers have said about them. I expect them to come to my class, follow instructions, pay attention, and learn how to do the work, and then I assist them in helping get to where I think they should be. For the most part, they rise to the occasion.
Similarly, another teacher stated,
I try to explain to them as much as I can so that when they do get home they will understand how to do their homework and they can even teach their parents how to do it. I review the information in class so that they understand what they are required to do. We also have a system of accountability. I let them know that they are not doing this just to feel good, but it will be for a gradeand theyll be responsible for learning it.
Addressing homework challenges. One major challenge with science homework is how to address the issue of reading comprehension and background knowledge. One teacher noted, Sometimes students dont understand the information that theyre reading. Sometimes they lack the background knowledge thats necessary for them to understand. So while were in the classroom, I try to provide them with as many examples as I can.
In addition, these teachers tried to make assignments relevant to the students lives, so they can use prior experience and knowledge when explaining science concepts. They also paid special attention to helping students understand the science assignments in class (e.g., asking them to write notes or providing them with sticky notes) so that students could refer back to these when they had questions at home doing their homework.
Another challenge relates to resources that the students can access for help when they get home, something that youve always got to take into consideration when youre making homework assignments. For example, Sometimes you assign something when you know they are not going to have access to a computer at home or printed materials or other resources that they may need to complete their assignment at home. To address this challenge, several teachers tried to offer useful accommodations:
If I know that they dont have access to a computer at home and we have extra time in the classroom, Ill allow them to use computers in the classroom or to go and sit in the school library and work on the assignment there, to get a jumpstart. I may even allow them extra time to complete the assignment if they have no one at home to work with them or they dont have access to a computer or other things of that nature that would help them with the assignment.
Other teachers tried to be extra supportive to students who lack the resources at home that are needed to perform adequately on homework assignments.
Sometimes you have to provide extra resources that they can use at home. It can take a lot of time to get these extra materials, even if its just scissors and crayons or arranging part of the time so a certain portion of the homework can be done there in the classroom, in the computer lab, or in the school library, where they can access the things that they need.
Homework feedback. When students brought in their homework assignments, these teachers went over it in class to make sure that students grasped the basic concepts in their assignments. One teacher stated, I tell them I read every sentence you put down because I really need to know how much you understand. This lets me know whether I need to go over a topic again, whether we need to do another assignment, or whether its OK to move on.
Another teacher explained,
Sometimes questions come up where students want to learn more about what weve been talking about, so I encourage them to do a Google search, or go to the local library and find a book or encyclopedia about that particular topic . . . . [Later] I give them an opportunity to share that information with the class so that we all can learn and get interested in.
In addition, some teachers checked homework assignments by allowing students to present their homework in class or by going over any questions that they had on something that was difficult or confusing for them. In other cases, it also meant providing extra support for some students. One teacher explained, Sometimes Ill go over a homework assignment and say, You just dont really understand this. So I may not grade it, but go over the material again with them, and let them do the work again, before I actually assign a grade.
In some cases, students would be asked to redo their assignments to make sure they understand science concepts. At the same time, having them redo homework sent an important message that assigned work should be taken seriously and you have to be accountable. In either case, as one teacher noted,
My expectations are high for all my students. But in reality I know if I want all of them to meet those expectations, then I have to do more for some than others. Some students dont have the support they need at home, or they lack the necessary skills. So I have to find other ways to help them. My expectations for them in the end are not lower, but I have to find ways to assist them so that they can meet our goals. Sometimes I have to be harsh with my students in the process, so they learn that when something is due, it is due.
GET THEM INTERESTED IN MOVING EVEN FARTHER THAN THEY HAVE ALREADY GONE
It is one thing to externally set high expectations; it is quite another to get students internally interested in doing the science homework assignments. In line with previous findings that students often considered homework routine and mundane (holding a little interest), particularly when compared with other after-school activities (e.g., Xu & Corno, 1998; Xu & Yuan, 2003), these exemplary teachers observed that a lot of students wanted to go home and play video games or talk on the cell phone and that many times, they were not interested in what teachers were trying to teach them or in learning what they needed to know. Thus, a big issue is to make science homework more interesting and to help students get motivated during the homework process.
Relevance. Instead of just giving busy work, these teachers stated the importance of making science homework more meaningful and relevant to a student, so that it will further engage the child. One teacher noted that science homework needed to help students put science in the context of their everyday lives. He explained,
The robot in the science textbook is called a labor saving device, but the students may not know what that means. After I clarified what a labor saving device was, I asked, So what devices do you and your parents use at home that makes your lives a lot easier? From there, they were able to identify a whole list of devices that they use, like the microwave, dishwasher, washing machine, and cell phones. These are some examples of labor-saving devices that they can look for and find in the real world.
Likewise, to help students see the relevance of an assignment and how it affects them on a personal level, another teacher asked students to conduct interviews with relatives about diseases known among family members or to learn about the students daily caloric intake and the Recommended Daily Allowances for carbohydrates, proteins, fats, and specific vitamins.
Hands-on homework. As opposed to just sitting there and looking at a book and answering questions, hands-on homework is often an extension of what students have learned in the classroom, something that students can do at home (e.g., constructing their own ecosystem, collecting different kinds of leaves and insects, making a solar system model, or recording the weather for a week). Another teacher recalled,
At the beginning of the year we talked a lot about decomposers. I told them to get some soil, put some food in it, like lettuce or other small items, then put it in the ground. After 35 days, they then dug up the dirt and found that there were earthworms there, earthworms that helped decompose those materials. That was a lesson that we used to show how earthworms, no matter how small they are, are significant to the environment, because they return nutrients back into the environment. So they all play a role in the food chain.
These teachers observed that students wanted to do hands-on homework, which tended to elicit more excitement and stimulated them to do a better job (e.g., When they have a chance to experience the hands-on part of it, the written homework really turns out to be a lot better). Indeed, they noted that hands-on is a very explicit key to African American children to learn science. As one teacher explained,
From the way that we grew up, we basically had to learn about life and how life operatesand as I said before, science is life. It exposes you to everything thats in life. Growing up and being outdoors most of the time having to work for everything that you have, experiencing the outdoorsall of that becomes a part of you. A big part of science is being exposed to the outdoors and seeing nature as it really is, looking for patterns and looking for ways to make things better. All of that is what science is grounded and rooted in.
Student choice. Another approach to get students interested in science homework is to provide them with choices and a sense of ownership related to what they are studying. One teacher noted,
If its a project that I can give them some leeway on, to choose what they want to do, Ill try to encourage them to pick an areanot something that they already know a lot about, but one they would want to know more about. I give them the opportunity to try to pick a project or a topic of interest to them, if they can decide something that would make them work through the scientific methods. In the meantime, I also develop a list of topics that they can easily pick from, they can take some variation and still give them some input in what they select, so that they learn some extra things outside of what were doing in class.
Likewise, another teacher stated,
I find if students are interested in the topic, they will do their homework and they may go above and beyond what is asked of them to do. For example, when we discussed the unit on life sciences and talked about crustaceans and mammals and different types of living organisms, I had a couple of students bring in their pets. One brought in a hermit crab, and another an ant . . . . They brought those for a show and tell.
Sharing. These teachers further observed that African American students tended to do their best when they can interact with someone . . . . or when they can ask questions. They tried to engage students in the homework process by promoting sharing and discussion among students in class. For example, one teacher noted,
Some of the shows on TV, like CSI, sometimes have things in them that you can have them watch and incorporate questions. That can be a homework assignment. Kids can learn a lot from watching a TV show with relevant information that you can question them and ask them to think about. So the homework assignment now is not paper and pencil, its a class discussion.
Other teachers tried to make science homework more interesting by encouraging students to share with their families what they have learned in class, because many science concepts can foster great discussions among family members. In doing so, this further helps students to link important science concepts to their everyday lives. One teacher explained,
I try to emphasize that a lot of times, they [their families] know a lot more than you might think they know about things. The more they work with you on an assignment, the more theyre able not only to help you but others who come along in your family.
Teachers also encouraged students to take the initiative to share with siblings and parents what we are doing. One teacher elaborated,
I try to get them to make it a kind of family affair and not just something, OK, Ive done my homework. . . . . [Instead] talk to somebody at home about it, even if its with a younger brother and sister. We just covered flowers in class, and I went to Krogers and bought some flowers. Each one actually had his or her own flowers that he or she dissected. So the next time that you and your family are talking about flowers, or you have flowers out in the yard, stop and point out some of the things youve learned. The more you can use what youre learning, the better you will know it.
THEMES RELATING TO BOYKINS AFROCULTURAL ETHOS
This section highlights the studys findings and examines them with respect to Boykins nine dimensions. Data revealed that the majority of the values highlighted in Boykins dimensions were reflected in the findings: expressive individualism, affect, verve, harmony, communalism, and orality.
Expressive individualism places value on developing a distinctive style or unique way of being (Boykin, 1986; Simpson & Parsons, 2009), including students freedom to determine and implement ways to demonstrate their understanding of content. In the case of science homework, these exemplary teachers valued personal autonomy, uniqueness, and creativity by giving students the freedom and opportunity to either choose a topic or have input into choosing a topic that they liked and wanted to know more about (to motivate them to learn more, outside of what they were learning in class).
Closely related to expressive individualism is affect, which is concerned with feelings, emotions, interests, and personal importance. Affect is considered as important as cognition, in content and context, because it is believed to connect thoughts and behaviors (Boykin, 1983; Boykin et al., 2005). The teachers held positive emotions toward their students (e.g., caring about their students and being responsive to their needs). Their emphasis on affect (e.g., personal importance and interests) is evident in terms of homework content, in their making homework assignments more interesting and relevant, and in their providing students with a sense of autonomy and choice. Teachers emphasis on affect is further evident in terms of the homework process through their incorporation of hands-on homework and their encouraging students to share their learning with their families or other students in class.
Verve refers to a special receptiveness to relatively high levels of physical or sensate simulation (Boykin, 1986; Boykin et al., 2005). Boykin (1979) observed that Black children are bored primarily because school is a relatively unstimulating, constraining, and monotonous place (p. 354). As captured in the findings from the present study, these teachers designed and implemented a variety of science homework assignments, including hands-on science homework (e.g., constructing ecosystem in a bottle), interviews with relatives about diseases seen among family members, sharing with peers and family members, and classroom discussions and presentations.
Harmony values the whole rather than the parts that constitute the whole. It is concerned with the development of the whole child and the real-life context of teaching and learning (Boykin, 1986; Simpson & Parsons, 2009). In the case of science homework, these teachers placed emphasis on the meaningful and real-world contexts for doing science homework (i.e., learning taking place in context within the childrens surroundings and their everyday lives) that help engage and motivate students in the learning process. This focus on harmony is further illustrated in the following comment:
As science educators, we are in a unique position not only to influence science learning but to influence learning in every other subject area based on how things are done in science. Communication is a big part of science. Most people would think, OK, communication is writing, its speaking so thats speech, thats language arts. But its just as important in science. Most people would say that being able to figure, to work with numbers, OK, thats math. But you have to do as much math in science as in math. So science educators are in a very unique position and they need to use every opportunity and every advantage they have to make sure that they are working to develop the whole child and to integrate what they teach with the other subject areas as much as they can.
Communalism is described as an emphasis on social connectedness, mutuality, and a sense of belonging in daily life; affiliation with a group is a significant part of individual identity, social bonds and responsibilities transcend individual privilege, and collective goals outweigh personal goals (Boykin et al., 2005; Seiler & Elmesky, 2007; Simpson & Parsons, 2009). With respect to science homework, these teachers attempted to promote and honor communalism by encouraging students to work with and learn from their peers and their families, by helping and encouraging parents to learn right along with their children, and by sharing their experiences with other students in their classes so that we can all learn and get interested in.
Closely associated with communalism is orality, which refers to a special receptiveness to the spoken word and a reliance on oral expression to carry meaning and feeling (Boykin et al., 2005). In terms of science homework, these exemplary teachers valued oral and aural modes of communication, whether they were urging students to talk to family members or to share with their peers what they were learning from their assignments.
The present study examined the perspectives of exemplary African American science teachers toward science homework. Data revealed that these teachers engaged in some typical homework practices, such as assigning homework to reinforce school learning (Brock et al., 2007; Xu & Corno, 1998; Xu & Yuan, 2003).
Data further revealed that these teachers felt a strong sense of urgency toward science homework (e.g., science homework is a must, not a choice), which was not evident in previous studies on homework. This sense of urgency may reflect an attitude among African American teachers that African American students need to be twice as prepared as the average European American students to achieve in school (Boykin et al., 2006, p. 170). This was heightened in the context of the No Child Left Behind Act (e.g., homework is viewed as the second phase of making sure that students advance as far as they can). In addition, in line with the sense of urgency, these exemplary teachers stressed the importance of using homework to help their students think critically about science content (e.g., to stretch the students thinking and help them go further than they already have).
In their study of homework practices for students from nondominant backgrounds, Brock et al. (2007) found it encouraging to learn that many teachers made provisions to help their students be successful with literacy-based homework (e.g., materials and assistance). It was equally encouraging to learn that the exemplary teachers in the present study made special provisions to help their students be successful with science homework (e.g., students who lacked science resources and had difficulty with reading comprehension). In addition, consistent with self-determination theory (Deci & Ryan, 2000; Deci, Vallerand, Pelletier, & Ryan, 1991), and research and theorizing on student engagement (Corno & Mandinach, 1983, 2004) and achievement motivation (Bempechat, 2004; Weiner, 1994), our findings revealed the importance of providing a sense of autonomy and affiliation, as well as guidance, feedback, and support, in making science homework work.
The present study extends previous research on science homework in several important ways. First, it is informative to learn that these exemplary African American teachers paid close attention to foster student interest in science homework by providing a sense of autonomy and choice, by incorporating hands-on homework, by placing science homework in the context of students everyday lives, and by encouraging them to share with their families what they were learning in class in order to promote great discussions among family members. These findings are important, given that student interest in science homework is positively related to science achievement (Singh et al., 2002; Van Voorhis, 2003). Yet, few studies have focused on what teachers do to make homework more interesting for their students (Brock et al., 2007; Xu & Yuan, 2003), despite increasing calls to reexamine the homework process in order to make homework more engaging and interesting (Corno, 2000; Corno & Xu, 2004; Epstein & Van Voorhis, 2001; Leone & Richards, 1989; Van Voorhis, 2001; Warton, 2001; Xu, 2004, 2008; Xu & Corno, 1998).
Second, data further revealed that science homework advocated by these exemplary teachers corresponded to six of nine dimensions in Boykins Afrocultural ethos: expressive individualism, affect, verve, harmony, communalism, and orality. These findings provide empirical support to the theoretical claim of the importance of student autonomy, interest, and motivation to African American students in science learning (Elmesky, Olitsky, & Tobin, 2006; Seiler, 2001, 2005), particularly given that school science tends to avoid references to figurative language, emotional expression, and human experience (e.g., desire, choice, and motivation; Lemke, 1990; Seiler, 2001). Given that previous empirical studies relating to Boykins Afrocultural ethos are either focused on classroom settings (e.g., Boykin et al., 2005; Tyler et al., 2006) or informal programs (e.g., Simpson & Parsons, 2009), the findings from present study further suggest Boykins Afrocultural ethos dimensions are relevant to homework situations as well.
Third, it is interesting to note that these exemplary teachers employed an approach corresponding to warm demander pedagogy (Bondy & Ross, 2008; Delpit, 1995; Hartwick & Johnson, 2008; Irvine, 2003; Ladson-Billings, 2009; Ross et al., 2008; Ware, 2006). This is evident in that (a) they set high expectations for students performance in science homework (e.g., expecting students to rise to the occasion, urging them go further than they had before); (b) they made personal connections to help students succeed (e.g., drawing on their experiences and interests); (c) they provided students with the necessary scaffolding to help them meet high expectations (e.g., giving extra individual support to improve reading comprehension and providing students with science resources); and (d) they insisted that students put forth efforts to perform at a high level (e.g., to take their homework seriously). Thus, the present study extends previous research on warm demander pedagogy in the classroom setting to homework. This is particularly revealing given that these 8 exemplary African American teachers were from eight different locations, and their teaching experience varied from 6 years to 35 yearsyet, their homework approach was remarkably similar.
When Seiler (2011) discussed the importance of science teaching for marginalized students, she argued that science has greater potential than other subjects for student engagement because the nature of science is built on curiosity about, and understanding of, the surrounding world. A related argument could be made here: Science homework, compared with homework in other subject areas, has greater potential for student engagement.
Closely grounded in the data, the present study showed how to capitalize on this potential from the perspectives of exemplary African American science teachers. Specifically, these teachers adopted a position comparable to both warm demander pedagogy and Boykins Afrocultural ethos. Whereas Boykins Afrocultural ethos focuses on some shared cultural dispositions of African Americans to make science homework more meaningful and interesting, warm demander pedagogy places emphasis on the role of teachers as authority figures who are both warm and demanding. It is one thing to pay attention to African American cultural dispositions when designing science assignments; it is quite another to expect students to realize that they will be held accountable for timely completion. While the exemplary teachers in the present study used an approach corresponding to Boykins Afrocultural ethos, they found it necessary to keep an eye on their students to help them follow through with their science assignments by being warm (e.g., making personal connections and being responsive to individual needs, such as reading comprehension and science materials) as well as demanding (e.g., sometimes being harsh and making sure that students have learned from their assignments). Consequently, there is a need to integrate both warm demander pedagogy and Boykins Afrocultural ethos to make science homework work for African American students, particularly given that students from oppressed groups tend not to identify with school science that is typically expressed in a rational, technical, distant, and depersonalized form (Basu & Barton, 2007; Elmesky & Seiler, 2007; Lee & Luykx, 2005; Roth & Barton, 2004).
Homework is found to be more strongly associated with achievement for secondary school students than for elementary school students (Cooper et al., 2006; Cooper & Valentine, 2001). Cooper et al. have provided four possible explanations for the weak relationship between homework and achievement in elementary grades: (a) younger students are less able to ignore irrelevant information in their environment, which makes homework less effective for them than for older students; (b) younger students have less effective study habits, which diminishes the amount of improvement in achievement that might be expected from their homework; (c) teachers in earlier grades assign homework more often to develop students management of time, a skill rarely measured on standardized achievement tests; and (d) younger students who are struggling with schoolwork take more time to complete homework assignments. Although these explanations are plausible, they are largely influenced by research in cognitive psychology relating to age differences (e.g., attention span and study habits). The present study raises an important question about whether the relationship between homework and achievement in elementary grades is more nuanced. For example, the typically solitary nature of the homework task and the separation of homework from social aspects of learning (Coutts, 2004) and social aspects of motivation (Wentzel & Wigfield, 2007, p. 262), as opposed to communalism advocated by these exemplary teachers, may further contribute to the weak relationship between homework and achievement in early grades, particularly given that younger students have less effective study habits.
The present study has important practical implications. First, it provides nuanced views and illustrative examples regarding how to make science homework work for African American students. It points the way to others who recognize such a need but are unsure how to make it happen. The systematic in-depth study of the perspectives of these African American exemplary teachers also has the potential to reframe the larger conversation about science homework, science learning, and the science achievement gap. In addition, it would be beneficial to incorporate relevant findings from the present study into preservice teacher education courses to better prepare preservice teachers to address the various challenges associated with science homework (e.g., homework interest, cultural values, and timely homework completion). Furthermore, because the knowledge base for science-related examples, analogies, beliefs, and practices from a range of cultures is limited (Lee & Buxton, 2008), a study such as this can provide a springboard for new ideas about how to promote science learning for students from diverse backgrounds by recognizing and incorporating culturally relevant ways of thinking, interacting, being, and knowing.
Given that the present study is the first to examine the perspectives of exemplary African American teachers related to elementary science homework, future research is needed on several fronts. Because no study has been conducted previously with exemplary science teachers regarding their views of homework, it would be important to examine to what extent and why the views of exemplary African American science teachers on homework differ from the views of exemplary science teachers in general. It is also important to examine the perspectives of exemplary African American science teachers toward secondary school science homework because (a) the poor achievement of African American students in science surfaces in the early grades and becomes more pronounced as they progress through school (Parsons, 2008a), and (b) homework is found to be more strongly associated with secondary school students than elementary school students (Cooper et al., 2006; Cooper & Valentine, 2001). Furthermore, because findings from the present study suggest that there is a need to integrate Boykins Afrocultural ethos and warm demander pedagogy, it would be important to examine how this might play out in the case of secondary school science homework. Finally, future research would benefit from more systematic theorizing about conditions that make science homework work for secondary school students (e.g., the role of personal autonomy, interest, and importance; social connectedness and a sense of belonging; family and community engagement; and teacher expectation, insistence, and collaboration).
We would like to dedicate this article to our colleague and coauthor, Dr. Mary L. Davidson, who lost her life to cancer in the summer of 2010. Dr. Davison dedicated her entire life to preparing her students for the future by teaching her students the principles of problem solving through scientific application and by encouraging them to apply this approach to their own lives.
This research was supported by a grant from National Science Foundation. The perspectives expressed here represent the authors views.
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