Happy school year to some and almost new school year to others!
Over the past few years, I’ve been thinking a lot about the relationship between two vital parts of teaching:
1. Creating thoughtful plans for a year, a month and a day of teaching
2. Conducting daily assessments of your kids and then using these assessments to teach in a more organic/less planned out way.
What have I learned? In a nutshell, it’s hard to find the right balance between these two vital parts of being a good teacher.
Planning for a reading and writing workshop is essential. I find that when teachers don’t do any long term planning they have a difficult time knowing where they are going and/or reaching any sort of agreed upon outcomes. Planning is especially important now for many of my schools because they are trying to align their unit plans with the Common Core Standards. On the other hand, even when you have a cohesive plan you don’t really (or you shouldn’t) know what you’ll be teaching in reading and writing workshop on any given day because what kids say or do in your classroom will reveal understandings and confusions that may not be included in your already existing plan.
I have found that when teachers teach from a plan that is too scripted they often forget to watch their kids and they are less aware of what their students are learning or not learning. Even if they do notice confusions or understandings, at times they’re more focused on ‘getting through the planned lessons’ than addressing what they see.
It really is so hard to find the right balance!
I learned firsthand how difficult finding this was a few years while I was working with Millie’s first grade classroom. Millie and I had carefully created a plan for her small moment unit of study. We had not only planned out every lesson for every day, but we had also planned our exact methods for how we would teach each lesson. On that particular day I had done a lesson off our plan on how good writers think about what part of the story is important and add more to that page. Even though the lesson was very clear, many kids still seemed confused and didn’t know what else to say about the important part. When I conferred with Angus things got even more frustrating. Angus told me that the most important part of his story was when he collected shells on the beach with his mom. When I tried to get Angus to add more to that important page, he point blank told me no. I kept repeating the teaching point from the lesson over and over again and he kept telling me I was wrong. Finally, when I stopped trying to keep to my plan and listened to him he told me that he didn’t need to add more to the ‘collecting shells’ page. Rather, he needed to add another page to the end of his story because at the end of the day he took all of the shells he had found on the beach home with him. What I realized from listening to him was that he was right. He didn’t need to add more to the shell page. He could show that collecting the shells was important by ending his book with taking the shells home.
I realized from our interaction that adding more about the important part was more complicated than my writing lesson had suggested. I couldn’t have planned for that. I could only figure that out by working with students and listening to what they said.
Thankfully, I took a detour from the carefully laid out plan and did a few more days on how to add more to the important parts of your story—one of those lessons being that you can circle back to the important part at the end and I used Angus’s small moment story to teach that.
There you see it…the tension between planning and listening. I had a plan for my small moment unit that looked good on paper but that plan was not enough to grow my students as writers. I had to listen to my students and realize that what I had planned was inappropriate and not enough for many of them and certainly much more complicated than I had originally thought.
As we enter into another exciting school year, I want to offer four tips on how to create unit plans and organize your class for writing and reading, while at the same time watching and listening to your students.
1. Plan some teaching ideas, but don’t over plan
When I conduct planning sessions with teachers I do not suggest a day-by-day plan nor do I suggest that you plan 28 minilessons for 28 days. Why? When planning, you might think that it will take just one day to address a particular concept. You might end up being right, but there is just as good of a chance that once you watch your kids interacting with the concept you’ll realize that they need more instruction. You’ll want your plan to easily accommodate for that.
Also, just as you saw with Angus sometimes you come up with lessons that weren’t part of your original plan based upon listening to your students.
2. In your planning sessions, anticipate problems that might arise
I think it’s helpful to not just plan your minilessons, but to also think about possible pitfalls and problems. Once you’ve considered what problems might come up, you can then try to be proactive and imagine possible conferences and small group work that you could do during the study that might address these issues.
Will those problems definitely occur? Of course not, but if they do you have come up with ways to differentiate throughout the unit.
3. Plan collaboratively
Four heads is better than one head. One of the things that has improved my teaching the most is the realization that everybody’s brain thinks differently and that everyone in a planning session has something interesting to offer. For example, I’m a very big idea person so in a planning session I can often help with that. My mind doesn’t however naturally consider details so it’s always great for me to be in a planning session with someone who does because they remind me of some of the details that I would have forgotten if I were planning on my own.
I also suggest that you plan reading and writing units with people that you might not typically work with. When I worked with Lucy Calkins at the Reading and Writing Project, she always suggested that we plan and teach with unexpected people. It’s easy to plan with only like-minded people. It’s more challenging (and usually worthwhile) to plan with people who go about things in a slightly different manner. I live by the mantra that most teachers want to do what’s right for kids even if we disagree with what that actually is.
Just like it’s important to listen and learn from our students, I find that when I listen closely to people who think differently from me I usually learn something as well and it definitely enhances my unit plans
4. Observe your class at the start and end of Writing/Reading Workshop
Don’t forget to plan for time to watch your kids throughout the unit. I suggest that teachers begin and end their writing and reading workshop with a few minutes of just watching the kids. I let the kids know that I am not talking to them during this time but just watching how they work and how they solve their problems on their own. This careful listening and watching gives me lots of food for thought because I can see what they mastered and what confusions I still need to untangle.
I would love to hear from you. What types of planning do you find helpful? How do you ensure that you plan in a way that allows for flexibility and assessment?