Teaching is so different now than it was when I was teaching in the classroom (I feel like I am 145 after saying a comment like that.) When I taught, there were no district curriculum calendars, no scripted lessons, no unit plans laid out for me. Rather, I had to watch my kids and carefully execute lessons based upon what I saw, and then assess the effectiveness of those lessons by once again watching my kids and seeing what lessons to do next. I wish that when I was teaching I had the wonderful resources that many teachers have now. There is a downside to these resources, though. If teachers are not careful they can use these materials and assume that because they taught the lesson, students have learned and that is not always the case.
When I wasn’t trapped at home this week because of the snow, I had the pleasure of demonstrating Writing Workshop in a few different classrooms. These teachers were lucky enough to have a district that supplied them with wonderful teaching materials. Writing Workshop will only be effective if teachers use these effective teaching materials in conjunction with keeping a close eye on their students’ learning. When I go into classrooms I focus not only on how to use the teaching materials, but also how to ensure that powerful learning occurs. Throughout all of my conversations this week, a quote by Thomas Gordon kept running through my mind. He states that, “Teaching is a process that is carried out by one person, while the process of learning goes on inside another.” This quote and my classroom work this week led me to re-explore the question: What do effective teachers do regardless of their teaching materials to turn good teaching into powerful learning?
1. Effective teachers care about their students. This week I was working in Danbury, CT. I had been there about 6 weeks earlier so I had a chance to get to know some of the kids. When I got to work with Mason, a Kindergarten student, for a second time, I let him know that I remembered the story he wrote about his Dad being late for work. Mason listened differently and learned more in our writing conference and I attribute that to our conversation about his previous story. The little things do matter! Remembering a story, being excited about a new achievement, being strict but kind when you know a student isn’t living up to his/her potential—all of those things show that you care and aren’t simply going through the motions of your day. All of these things contribute to whether or not kids will learn in your classroom.
2. Effective teachers question everything and assume nothing. This week, I was working with a kindergarten student who was writing a book about going to a dog show. At first glance, it looked as though her story had a great beginning and a great middle but didn’t really have much closure. I was just about to teach her about endings when it hit me that maybe the reason why her story didn’t go anywhere was that the paper choice that we had given her limited her to 3 pages. I took another booklet and held it next to her original one and asked her a question: If I stapled this booklet to your book what would you put on these pages? After I asked that question and listened to her answer there was no doubt that the paper choice was in fact getting in her way of writing an effective story. We showed Lauren how she could either take blank pieces of paper and then staple it together once she knew how much longer her story was going to be or she could put a few booklets together. My questioning in this instance ensured that I didn’t teach her something that she already knew. We were also surprised that Lauren didn’t realize that she could simply get another booklet or pages if she discovered the story in her head was longer than the amount of pages that she had. Marie Clay, before she passed away, used to always say how important it was to put yourselves in the shoes of the students that you work with and think about things the way that they would, rather than the way that you would. Effective teachers always try to put themselves in the minds of the students that are learning from them. As an adult, we get that if your story is longer you get more paper, but when you are 5 and all of this is new to you you don’t always know that.
3. Effective teachers don’t overwhelm their students. Rocco was another student I had the pleasure of working with this week. Rocco had certainly grown as a writer since I had seen him last. He was now comfortably attempting to write by writing the sight words he knew, as well as stretching the sounds out in words and putting down the initial letters. He was ready to be pushed a bit to listen and record end sounds as well. Rather than working with him on this across his entire 5-page story, we went back to two places and tried to together listen and record the end sounds. After we did this together, I asked him to continue working on end sounds on his own. He eagerly agreed and away he went. I have sometimes watched teachers, in an effort to be thorough, overwhelm a child by having him practice the new concept for too long or in too complicated of a way. This can shut a student down and make further learning difficult. Although Rocco has to practice a lot more before he masters end sounds, he won’t learn it by practicing it all in one day. He’ll learn it by practicing it in small ways over time.
4. Effective teachers are flexible. In my stormiest of teaching moments, when I notice that something isn’t working with a child, I keep teaching the same concept hoping that if I repeat myself one more time, the student will get it. I’ll never forget once watching a teacher do a guided reading lesson. After 2 minutes into the lesson, it was clear from the kids that they weren’t learning. She took the books from them and said, “You know what, I want to think more about this before I do it with you. I’m going to talk to my teaching friends and see what ideas they have about this book.” We then met and together we came up with some ideas. I was impressed with her willingness to abandon a teaching moment when she saw it wasn’t going well and to rethink it so it would go well. I’m not suggesting that we take books away from kids every time a lesson isn’t going perfectly, but I do suggest that while we’re teaching we pay attention to whether our students are learning and if find they are not, we are flexible enough to either change our teaching point or alter our method of delivering it.
Many of you are like the teachers that I worked with this week. You have great materials to use to support your Writing Workshop. I hope that as you use those materials that you remember that these materials are resources but they don’t guarantee that your students learn. You do that!!! If you’re a teacher, I hope that you’ll bring these thoughts with you as you teach your students. If you’re a principal literacy coach or reading specialist, I hope that you’ll coach, model and provide feedback to teachers with these in mind.
I know there are many more aspects of effective teaching and I look forward to hearing what you would add to this list.