Long-term instructional planning has always been a strong point in my teaching. The execution of that planning has been the area I’ve grown in the most, but I came into teaching with the skills in place to set long-term goals, and then decide on measurable action steps that would get my students there. If I could just do planning and have someone else do all the grading in my teaching, I would gladly do so. Planning the year, units, and even the day-to-day lessons is the place where I truly enter a state of flow. Time seems to stand still as I immerse myself in thinking critically about objectives, consider the reading, writing, and metacognitive skills necessary to meet those objectives, and plan the lessons and experiences that will lead my students to that learning.
I was recently reminded of the joy I find in this state of mind when I had two hours on a Wednesday just to sit and plan. I set my own schedule and timelines. I could follow new ideas or insights without worrying about the bell ringing and students flooding into my room. I emerged with a solid curriculum plan, but also a refreshed mind and a feeling of accomplishment and strength.
I know many of them experience this feeling of flow when playing sports, or creating art. Some feel it when playing video games, or writing their fan fiction.
I don’t know how many of them, if any, experience this feeling in school.
When I set up work time in my classroom, my goal is for each student to work at their own pace, in a way that works for them. Of course, part of this learning means they must figure out what actually works for them: when listening to music will help, and when it won’t, how to make to-do lists for themselves to maintain productivity, how to choose pre-writing options instead of simply filling out the worksheet that a teacher gives them, etc. Ultimately, through all the lessons, what I hope is that students achieve a sense of flow when reading and writing. I want them to get lost in a book and be shocked when the bell rings and independent reading time is over, instead of sighing with relief. I want them to get immersed in their writing and not realize that thirty minutes has flown by. I want them to do these things not just because I think it will make them a better reader or writer (since, frankly, for most of my students, simply more time spent reading and writing is likely to make them a better reader and writer) but also because I want them to experience the joy of “flow” with these academic tasks as much as with the other joyous activities they engage in their everyday lives.
Last week, during the end of a “work” day I announced it was time to wrap things up. One girl, for whom the writing assignment had finally clicked, had been hard at work. She lifted her head up and said “really? How is class over? That went by so fast.” Right then and there I wished to have double-blocks again (although my past-self was screaming “NO!! Remember what those were really like??”) Just so this student could have stayed lost in her writing. What I want to move towards is figuring out ways to give students more of this time, but not lose the time for the instruction that they need. This is harder to do without the conferencing options I had in my smaller classes but I want to move towards it, because, even in our imperfect school system with its arbitrary deadlines, bell ringing, and 20 minute lunches, students still deserve a chance to get lost in words and ideas.
When I first started teaching I taught five classes in a six period day. My class sized ranged from 25 to 40, and I would often have 40 kids on my roster, but no more than 35 show up on any given day (which made for problematic seat shuffling when I had less than 40 chairs). At first these classes felt packed to the gills. Kids had little personal space and it usually was a work of extreme yogic twisting to squeeze my way through desks to check work or help kids. But like most things, even difficult or borderline reprehensible things, I got used to it. The kids were used to it since their schooling had been like this for years. For me, became a way to “humble brag” to other teachers about your caseload of 160 students, or your class of 40 with children sitting on the widow sills.
Because I was new to teaching, I really didn’t know any better.
Fast forward a few years and I’m teaching in a small school in Boston. When I started at the school, one of its points of pride was the small class sizes. My first two classes that I taught there were one of 15 kids and one of 8. It was amazing. Liberating. Sure, it took me a solid three months to adjust my teaching for it. The thing about big classes is that my tendency is to overscaffold the work since there are kids in the room who need the extra scaffold, and with 30+ kids I didn’t develop any good systems for making sure each kid was assessed properly and got the right scaffold for them for each assignment. So I used to scaffold the whole thing, often to the detriment of the kids who needed to be pushed in their reading and writing instead of needed another graphic organizer.
I adapted to my smaller classes sizes, and in the process I’ve seen kids grow so much with that “Right In Time” instruction, where my conference with them happens once the ideas for writing have started to bloom,or just when the real confusion with the text has started. I watch the magic of providing the right tool or right modeling to the kid at the right time and having their writing blossom into something magnificent. I have no doubt that this magic can and will still happen in my classes of 31 this year. But I suspect it won’t happen as much considering there is literally less time to conference with each student. With more classroom management tools need to keep the volume level down during mini-lessons, I will need to turn to some scaffolds that I would not otherwise use for all the kids.
The students in my classes of 31 will learn, just like the students in my classes of 38 and 40 learned oh so many years ago. In fact, I suspect my current students will learn more both because of the effective structures of support in my school, and because I’m a more experienced and stronger teacher than I was ten years ago. But I’m afraid the struggling students won’t grow as much as my struggling students in my class of fifteen grew last year. I’m afraid the students who need to be pushed won’t be pushed as far as the students in my class of twenty were pushed last year. I’m afraid that it is easier for kids to hide out, to pretend they don’t need help when they do, or just for the loudest ones to get attention even more over the cacophony voices that happen in a class of 31, even when each child is talking at a reasonable level.
My co-teacher is a superhero, and she has figured out some ways to make sure we target the kids who need it the most with our conferences, and she is also doing a great job thinking ahead to about additional scaffolds our ELL students will need as the reading and writing becomes more complex. Having her plan some concrete strategies has helped mitigate my lamenting about how much more these kids could learn if they were in smaller classes. But I still feel some sadness when I don’t get around to conference with everyone in the span of a week, or I realize that a kid has been hiding to the side, being confused and unsure so, so quietly that it’s a day or two before I figure out that he needs me. I’ve read the studies that show that class size doesn’t matter much when measuring test scores. Maybe it doesn’t. But I can tell you it does affect my ability to connect to kids, to support individual growth, to give kids choice, to build confidence, and to do a host of other things that don’t always show up on these tests. And that makes me fee bad for my kids from ten years ago, and the kids in my classes of 31 now.
Social media has its problems. There is FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). There is the time-suck when a quick “check” turns into a 30 minute-long browse. There is the envy of seeing beautiful vacation pictures while you are buried in 5 feet of snow.
I’ve often thought about deleting my social media accounts, if only to keep me away from those toxins. But I can’t bring myself to in large part because of all the benefits of social media. Unlike what John Kasich would have you believe teachers don’t have a lot of time to sit around and chat in a teacher’s lounge. We teach full loads, grade papers, run in and out of meetings, and grab a bite to eat or get a chance to pee when we are lucky. Time for collaboration or collegial relationships are slim, especially when you have children of your own to get home to at the end of the day.
So I’m grateful to live in a time of social media when I can still get the benefits of working with other teachers, but virtually, and often my kids go to bed. Read more…
Remember June? Oh, it seems so long ago. You were comfortable enough with your students that you could let jokes (and maybe even a hint of sarcasm) sneak into your room. It was all about final units, final exams, end-of-the-year celebrations, etc. When June rolled to a close maybe you were focused intently on your summer travel plans, or packing up your room. Maybe you were thinking about ideas for September. Maybe you were thinking about the things you wanted to do differently next year, the lessons you learned, the ways you could improve this writing assignment, or that research project.
Well, it’s almost September again. Now it is time to make those plans a reality. Read more…
Teaching reading is one of the most interesting, and most complex parts of being an English teacher. In my Reading Modes Series I unpacked some of that complexity by discussing my use of three “Reading Modes” in my secondary English class. Here is my five-part series, all linked up in one convenient post!
Teaching writing is a complex task, rife with tension, nuance, and significant challenge. I have written quite extensively about teaching writing. I have shared my successes, as well as my struggles, and have found that the act of writing about writing has helped me develop my thinking. Today I’m going to share this all with you! Here are my top five posts all about teaching writing.
In this post I explore the tension between teaching the process of writing, as well as evaluating writing products. This is not a new tension, but I always realize something valuable when I explore it! And read all the way through for a bonus chili recipe!
Have you ever gotten close to the end of an essay assignment about a book, only to realize that most of your students are writing really poor essays? This is the post for you!
Teaching reading is a complex endeavor at any stage, but I love working with my emerging readers in high school. There truly is nothing better than watching a student enjoy a book for the first time, or figure out a complex passage all on their own. I’ve written tons about reading on this blog, so here is a collection of some of my best posts in three different categories, including my popular Teacher Tools!
Teacher Tools for Teaching Reading:
Using Commentary for Teaching Literature (Teacher Tools included!)
Literature Document-Based Questions (Teacher Tools included!)
Checklist for Reading Conferences (Teacher Tools included!)
What does it really mean to teach reading to high schoolers?