At the risk of sounding like Dear Abby, the only authentic way to start this post is by saying I received a really moving and motivating comment from a teacher named Becky, who wrote on behalf of herself and some of her colleagues in Washington DC.
Becky echoed roughly a million teachers (myself included) when she asked: how do you do it all? We feel pulled in twenty different directions and feel like we can’t do one thing well.
This is a problem.
This is a problem for me, this is likely a problem for many of you.
I don’t have an answer, but I do have some lines in the metaphorical sand that I try to keep myself crossing, despite the temptations all around me.
And because more brains only make things smarter, my colleague and planner-in-crime, Valerie Geschwind is answering the same question in her own way on her very amazing new blog: kiddriven.wordpress.com.
But first, a secret… I am going to whisper it so lean in close here:
no one fits it all in.
(Glances up and looks furtively from side to side)
There is always one something I feel I could do better on, something I have to cut out, something that bombs, and something that is nagging me and I don’t have an answer for, so of all the lines I have drawn for myself, perhaps the most important one of all is: be kind to yourself.
I have other guiding principles, and below are a few.
First Things First: Have a Schedule, But More Importantly, Have an Agenda
I post a daily schedule in my room. It looks like many daily schedules in the world. Our day usually progresses along thusly:
8:45 Morning Meeting
8:55 Word Study: phonemic awareness, phonics, handwriting in Stations (kids rotate)
9:25 Writing Workshop
10:00 Shared Reading
10:15 Reading Workshop
10:45 Read Aloud (Sometimes in a content area, sometimes not)
11:00 Afternoon Meeting (usually around social growth)
12:15 Inquiry: Social Studies/Science
1:15: Choice Time
2:00: Special Class: Gym, Music, Etc
2:55: Pack and Snack
NOTEWORTHY COMMENT 1: If we as a class are “on” about something, then we steal minutes from something else. Sometimes afternoon meeting gets cut, sometimes word study is done whole group in 10 minutes, sometimes, choice time and inquiry blend together. I don’t get caught up in specific minutes, because I know we will get the time back another day. You don’t have one day to teach kids, you have a year.
NOTEWORTHY COMMENT 2: We have, in fact, lost entire afternoons when the class gets caught up in something. More on that later- remember you have an entire year to teach, not one day.
So what does this schedule have to do with my agenda? Well, I am glad you asked. This year has been a watershed year for my thinking as a teacher. This year I am seeing content as a byproduct (an important one) of learning how to learn. For me, its like I have finally started to see the matrix. When you look at your curriculum and think OH MY I HAVE 183 DAYS OF LESSONS WHAT IF THERE IS A SNOW DAY MY LIFE IS OVER, every day and every minute becomes fearfully guarded for your agenda.
But if your agenda is: I have 183 days to help these munchkins become persistent and active problem solvers, flexible thinkers, and resilient and kind people, you change from watching your curriculum to watching your class, I did at least.
You don’t really have 183 of anything to teach. You have, at best, ten. Now they are not easy, but all the little things you teach are often part of a bigger thing. And sometimes it is just the little thing taught in lots of different ways. It becomes easier to be flexible to keep the big things in mind.
So you saw my schedule, this is my actual agenda:
8:45: Develop persistence and flexibility around the work we do in the classroom, practice kindness and resilience. Be active in each job you take on. Be brave
3:05 Pack and Snack
To do this, there are a few other things I have to believe
Trust that Play is Work
When my colleagues and I plan, we think about our children, the standards, the big goals of the unit. We think about assessments, we think about all the things we need to think about to build a thoughtful well-planned unit.
Then we think about the delivery.
In my last post about being playful, I emphasized that you need to know your customer to effectively teach. Before every unit, I try to think about the role or situation I can create that will build an energy of play around the work we will do. Last year it was Star Wars and becoming Yodas of reading, this year it is Spider-Man and building a repertoire of Spidey-Powers to save the world from tricky books. But on a smaller level, in writing we are sitting around a fake campfire telling stories, and using our writing time to craft campfire stories to share with other.
I don’t make time for play, the whole day is play. I still have the same goals and objectives that others might have- I just change the packaging. A surprising amount of my brain power is spent re-packaging my teaching so it fits in the world of my class.
Play is my top priority and when lessons bomb (and they do) I think- was there another way to engage the class in this work?
Workshop Teaching is The Way to Go
I don’t think I could do any of this without teaching everything within a balanced literacy framework and workshop structures. (For this I owe a debt of gratitude to TCRWP for setting me on this path). Essentially every subject starts with a focus lesson that is 5-7 minutes in length. Kids go off to pursue independent projects or independently chosen books, and I hustle around pulling small groups and teaching 1-1.
I try to choose 3 to 4 big ideas to tackle across a unit. In writing stories (the unit we are in now) it may be: structuring a story so it is a sequence of events, elaborating pictures (And words for those that are ready), and writing lots and lots of books so each one gets better than the next. A month is a reasonable amount of time to accomplish these things as along as I remember, it is not always what’s next, but how can this child do this “thing” better or more independently? Workshop teaching allows me to work with children in a way that values their personal goals and projects, and also support them as they move to do this “thing” better and more independently (whatever the “thing” might be: sequencing, adding more thoughtful detail into pictures, writing words with the aid of tools, etc).
So Let’s Get Real for A Minute
I would be a horrible liar if I did not say that I have doubts all the time. Or that there are days when a structured math lesson never happens. Or that sometimes I just don’t feel like playing. Everybody does.
I have to believe, and I do believe, that if I teach children to learn and engage them in playful learning, teach them to pursue passions and ditch the schedule every once in a while because everyone wants to build an excavator, that they will meet the standards of the grade, but also become the type of citizens that I want in the world.
You will never fit it all in, unless you consider the all to be: joy, engagement, persistence, agency, and kindness.
Thank you Becky and colleagues for your passion and joy, and to everyone out there in the teaching world for letting me rant on a Sunday morning.
Let me know what you think in the comments below.