During my first year of staff development, I worked in a classroom in East Harlem. It was a tough school. I was fresh out of the classroom at that point and so still had some of my management mojo, but there was an 8th grade classroom where I consistently failed to work any magic. I couldn’t seem to inspire or convince the kids to listen to me for more than a minute, tops. The teacher, Andrew, and I talked at length about how to help his kids engage more with literacy and school.
One morning when I walked into the classroom Andrew was excited. He outlined a unit he wrote where his goals were clear, and within the kids’ reach. He had very few goals, one or two things that he wanted his kids to truly embrace. He decided to devote himself to those one or two things.
He said, “I just want to keep it simple – and get it right.” Andrew realized he had to narrow his focus and be super clear with his class. He needed to be more straightforward about what it was he hoped they would learn and why it was important.
As I return to staff development full time this year, I keep thinking of Andrew and his mantra. Keep it simple, and get it right. Walking in and out of schools across the country, I see teachers overwhelmed and students unsure of what is expected of them, regardless of the location of the school or the engagement of the kids. I find myself channeling Andrew’s question – what do we want kids to truly learn in this reading or writing unit?
In other words, I am thinking about the difference between what we teach and what we cover.
I’m back in East Harlem this year at a new school. There is a dedicated teacher working beautifully hard there. The kids are in a solid unit – learning to write literary essays. The lessons are well crafted and the teaching is tight. I watched them move from one lesson (or part of the essay) to the next – collecting ideas for thesis statements, into developing essay structure, into crafting introductions, then body paragraphs, then conclusions.
After moving through this process of constructing an essay, the final pieces of writing are good, solid literary essays. But each day the big writing skill required to make each part of the essay happen changes. And I’m left wondering: what did the kids just learn about essay writing?
To learn something new, we need support, immersion, repetition and response. Instead, we often fall into the rhythm of moving through a sequence of lessons. This sequence of lessons often results in good work product. But does this movement – this steady march towards publication – really give kids a chance to deeply explore one or two skills in writing or reading?
It can. What if we thought about units of study as having two layers – the stuff we are going to cover, and the stuff we are going to teach. What we cover is one day’s lesson, or a task we need them to complete, or an activity meant to enhance the work. We present it to kids and they try it out – writing strong thesis statements, writing clear introductions. What we teach – one or two larger goals – is what we keep coming back to teach again and again, giving kids lots of opportunities to try with new lessons, scaffolds, and models. What we teach will become the spine of what we do. We will keep it simple, and get it right.
Let’s think about that unit on literary essays. Traditionally, the unit might look like this:
…and so on….
Alternatively, we could approach this unit by thinking about what bigger work, broader goals, do most of our kids need help with during this unit? How can this unit move kids along in big ways as writers or readers? It helps to have a framework in mind for naming these bigger goals. One favorite is Carl Anderson’s work on the qualities of strong writing: meaning, structure, detail, voice, conventions. Or the Reading and Writing Project’s latest writing assessment tools include structure, development, and language conventions. By naming a bigger goal for our writers and readers, we create a backboard to hit against as we consider the lessons we teach.
We can now angle our teaching, our lessons and small groups and conferences to address these larger goals. Take the above literary essay example. Perhaps we assess the kids and see that most kids need help elaborating, – saying more – when writing essays. The same unit could look like this:
When we take a moment to back away from fast pace of lesson planning, it helps us see the forest for the trees. When we tether lessons to the big, goal-centered momentum of the class, we keep it simple and get it right.
That way, we can tell kids exactly what we’d like them to learn, and can offer multiple opportunities and supports to get here. Kids can self assess more surgically, thinking, “how am I doing in elaborating here” rather than, “how am I doing with essay writing?”
If we want to keep it simple and get it right, we will need to:
Assess our kids quickly – and usefully. Much has been said about assessing our kids ahead of time, before a unit starts, to find out what they know. But of course this assessment is only as useful as we are able to use it. Often we see teachers giving grand assessments that they then cannot really digest or use to craft a purposeful, simple, unit. Instead of asking students to write entire essays on demand, for example, see how they do if you break down those assessments into separate, smaller skills. For instance, have students craft a thesis off of a read aloud. They can write these down on post its with their name on them for easy sorting. Or assess their sense of essay structure by asking them to plan an essay for a particular claim off of a read aloud. Then they could write one body paragraph off of that structure to get a sense of how well they know how to select, angle, and analyze evidence.
Find places to repeat strategies and lessons. If we introduce a strategy – say growing our ideas by using thought prompts – we can help students to truly learn to use it only in as much as we allow them to try it again and again. Look across your unit and pull out the key strategies, lessons or tools you think will be most helpful to your kids and then find places to give kids repeated practice and access to those (as Mary Ehrenworth calls them) high-leverage strategies. One easy way in writing workshop is to use the writing process, to look for a place in each stage of the process that kids can use the strategy to help them. In the case of using thought prompts to grow ideas, we could teach kids to try them while collecting ideas, and then in drafting and revision kids could lean on them as transitional phrases and as ways to elaborate
Create tools to support rigor and independence. In our upcoming book (title forthcoming… also, YAY!), we suggest that the tools we introduce in our classrooms are best used when we have a sense of some of the root issues getting in the way of student achievement and engagement. In other words, yes, I can hang a chart, but that chart is going to be so much more effective if I have a sense of what work I need it to do. If I feel like my kids are not working as hard as they can for example, then I can use my chart to push them to do their best work, perhaps by creating a continuum of skills to help students assess their progress and take next steps. If, on the other hand I sense that my kids are just not working independently, if they need constant reminders of what work to try next, I can use the tools I create to help them hold onto my teaching, perhaps by using a repertoire chart (as referenced in Marjorie Martinelli and Kristi Mraz’s Smarter Charts For Math, Science, and Social Studies).
Over and over again, I am hearing teachers say that they feel overwhelmed with the amount they are trying to teach. The truth is, if we are that overwhelmed with the sheer number of skills, lessons, and tasks that we are trying to teach our kids, then the kids are too. We can give ourselves permission to step away, take a deep breath, and know that trying to do too much will result in too little. We can reflect on what we are covering versus what we are teaching. Because we know that when learning something new, especially something challenging, it helps to surround ourselves with practice, support and response.
When we keep it simple, get it right and see our kids’ accomplishments, that’s the feeling of a unit well taught.
Kate and Maggie
Big Idea = Curriculum and Planning Tiny Detail = Strategic Goal Setting (and keeping it simple!)