By Christopher Lehman
The Educator Collaborative was delighted to be invited to share posts for the International Literacy Association’s Leaders for Literacy Day. We’ll be posting all day long! And follow #AgeOfLiteracy to read updates from others throughout the day!
In this post, The Educator Collaborative Founding Director, Christopher Lehman, writes about doing less in order to do more.
We often become Alice’s White Rabbit in education. Always very late, for a very important date, no time to say hello or bye. So much too do and so little time to do it.
In the pursuit of doing more and more we can find ourselves falling deeper down rabbit holes. We pursue, under pressure from above and pressure from within our own ideals, the idea that if we just got more done this year our students would excel. If we just covered a bit more, they would master all of the standards, pass all of the tests, do all of the things we want for them.
This frenetic pace means that we often run our, and often our students’, nerves thin and stress high.
Michael Fullan suggests that when organizations fail to reach their goals it often times is because they attempt to take on too many initiatives all at the same time with no hope of having the time or energy to do any of them well. Instead, he argues, we need to focus on a few strengths and make them better. New initiatives, then, tend to have a higher chance of paying off if they can line-up nicely next to those already kind of good things.
To be a leader in literacy—whether that be leading a classroom or leading a school—often takes the courage to say, “wait just a minute.”
Less Goals, More Practice
This initiative overload is true not just for educators, but also true for our students. Hour after hour, day after day, our students are given strategy after strategy. Not just in literacy, but across multiple subjects areas. It is no wonder they sometimes struggle to apply skills even from subject to subject in the same day!
The question is, then, where do we cut back?
There is likely an argument to be made for having far less lessons during a unit. I do worry that often we have so many steps that our teaching becomes less “how-to” and more “because I said so.” That said, the arch of lessons across a unit, say collecting to drafting to revising, provide a vision for students of what is possible.
A good place to start scaling back, instead, is in conferring and small group work with students. It is the most personalized, differentiated time in our classrooms. The time when we get to work more closely with students. It is also the hardest time and the time where we are most prone to see too many issues, have too many suggestions, and feel overwhelmed.
Forming Groups Around Fewer Goals
Recently, I have been working with schools on narrowing the amount of goals teachers and students are trying to juggle during these conversations with students.
.Here is an example of a Google spreadsheet I made with a High School English team for a Humanities course. Students were working on creating documentaries and, predictably, there were mountains of great things happening and issues that concerned us.
Instead of attempting to address every writing challenge under the sun, and then ultimately barely addressing any of them, we narrowed our focus. Here is how:
- First, looked at recent student writing and listed strengths and needs.
- Next, took that (very, very, very long list) and compared it to the state standards and the English department expectations to prioritize the list.
- We then only chose four goals from that list. Just four! On purpose! There is a lot that could be done, but a narrower focus meant just that… focus.
- Lastly, we created this spreadsheet, below, to track observed areas for next steps. The far left column (removed in this image) listed student names for each row, then the four goals columns follow, and then an “other notes” column is on the far right (also removed for privacy).
With this record sheet in hand, and these very few but important goals in mind. We talked to students or looked back at their work again.
All of the “X”s you see were then added when we felt a student would benefit from additional conversations.
Stopping To Breathe
First, it is important to note that the feeling of looking at student work and talking with students while having a fewer, more specific goals in mind is so freeing. Many of the teachers felt the same, being able to look more carefully and feel like you had a real plan going into conversations.
Then the real pay off can come for you and your students.
If you look across one of those rows, you can see current areas you were working on with any given student. You conferring conversations can continue to revisit areas not just until the student tries it out once, but until they really are feeling confident.
If you look down a column, you can see students that you could pull together into a small group. Instead of having similar conversations seven times, you could pull a large group or two smaller ones and in both instances you get to run around the room less and spend time thinking about essential goals more.
Then, just as with conferring, plan to meet with the same group of students for the same goal several times. Once per week or three days out of this week or whatever makes sense in your classroom.
The repeated conversations, with clear goals, are huge for students. They are also clarifying and freeing for us.
Other Ways for Doing Less
As you think about other ways to narrow your focus on what is important, here are a few professional books to help:
- DIY Literacy:Teaching Tools for Differentiation, Rigor, and Independence, Kate Roberts & Maggie Beattie Roberts
- Purposeful Play: A Teacher’s Guide to Igniting Deep and Joyful Learning Across the Day, Kristi Mraz, Alison Porcelli and Cheryl Tyler
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