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Running out of time (or, how I’m dealing with snow day #7!)

February 8, 2015

You would think that, after 10 years teaching, I would have my timing perfectly planned out everyday. However, the truth is I always run out of time. No matter what unit I have planned I always end up with a one-day lesson that really needs two, or a surprise assembly that throws me off. Right now I’m watching another foot of snow get dumped on the ground and wondering how in the heck my students are going to get through Night before the MCAS comes along in March now that we have lost more than a week to snow days. However, one of the benefits to teaching for 10 years is that I’ve got some strategies for mitigating it. I know I can’t plan perfectly and I will run out of time. I accept that something is going to make the unit longer than I anticipated, and plan for that contingency.

So, here are my five tips for dealing with not enough time in teaching!

1. Prioritize

Whenever I plan my units I have just 2-3 key objectives. The projects/writings/readings best correlated with those objectives are my priorities. For example, in my current unit where we read Night one of these objectives is for my students to improve their reasoning, where they have to explain how their evidence supports there claim in a variety of writing pieces. Sure, we will do other things along the way, like mini-lessons on in-text citations, learning background information about the Holocaust, and learning more vocabulary. However, since my priority is for students to work on their reasoning in writing, I’m willing to condense or even drop some of those other pieces to make room for it. Ideal? No. But I’d rather get rid of a lower-priority lesson than gloss over the lessons that will help my students meet the main objectives.

2. Make the students do it, even it if takes longer 

Whenever I start to run out of time in a unit, I’m lured to the dark side . . . lectures. Don’t get me wrong; I think lectures have their place, and I do mini-lectures occasionally. However, the truth is the longer I talk at my students, the less learning happens for most of them. Even though I know this, when I am running out of time, lectures lure me with their promise of covering more content in less time. The interactive gallery walk and jigsaw activity will take two days, but I can “cover” the same amount of context with a 30 minute lecture. . . and I’m tempted. Now though, after too many failures, I’ve learned to resist this model and instead often choose to scale back the amount of content my students learn in favor of them learning it well through interactive activities.

3. Consider your final assessments

When faced with the need to trim the material in a unit, I not only look at my key objectives, but also at the final assessment. Of course, this also means I have the final assessment made at the start of the unit. If I know what I’m going to require my students to do at the end, I can readjust more effectively when I realize I’m running out of time. When faced with eliminating or shifting around lessons, I like to think about what type of essay, project, etc. my students are going to complete at the end. This helps me think strategically about how to change lessons that might take less time, but still move students towards the same final goal. 

4. Know what you are not willing to sacrifice

Of course, when you are running out of time in a unit, it is usually at the end of the unit. That is when things start to get rushed. Too often that has led to me cutting out content or rushing through lessons that were actually the most important and valuable, but happened to fall at the end of the unit, and therefore got the shaft. Now, when I plan out a unit, I put the top three lessons/activities/projects in bold in my planning sheet. It’s not much, but it is enough of a reminder to my future harried self that those are the pieces I want to preserve no matter what. It reminds me that, when things start to take longer than I anticipated at the beginning, or when I have to re-plan because of snow days, that I should plan adjustments earlier to preserve the lessons I value most. Now, this doesn’t mean I don’t adjust things as we go, especially considering how I use my students’ work to inform the next things I teach. I have no problem changing or cutting something, even in bold, so long as it’s based on my formative assessment of students and not just on the fact that Friday was a snow day.

5. Don’t be afraid to give up on something you love . . . or already copied

This has been a hard one for me, but I’ve learned to live with it. Once I have planned something out, made the slide-show for it, copied the handouts for it on my precious , rationed paper, it is painful to let it go. But sometimes you have to. Last term I worked really hard writing mentor texts and making graphic organizers and copying all manner of materials in preparation for teaching literary commentary. And I had to let it all go as it took longer to make it through my key objective with Othello: analysis of figurative language and dramatic irony. It was hard, but in the end I knew it was absolutely the right thing to do, especially since I saw lots of growth in my students analysis paragraphs over that term.

Whether you also are facing a fifth foot of snow this week, or just found that you latest writing unit needed more time than you gave it, take some time to reflect and think strategically through the adjustments you make in your unit planning. Your students and your future self will thank you.

And now I’m off to shovel, and start praying to the gods of sunshine. Wish me well.

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