My Goal This Year

My last post on how to cultivate student writing identities was maybe closer to a novella than a blogpost, so this week I am striving to keep it shorter and simpler.

In keeping with the theme of brevity, I want to talk about the ways that I plan to keep the work monster at bay during a year where I know that it will be lurking behind every door. Working 70 hours a week was once a part of my early teaching life, but through reading, learning from others, and experimenting in my own classroom, I eventually got it down to 40 hours a week. An admission though: Since March of 2020, I have definitively not been a 40 hour teacher.

Some of those increased hours came from the additional needs of students during a pandemic and the increased work that came from a new online learning management system (which remained even when we returned). Other hours arose out of my diminished ability to focus and increased distractibility. Add these things together and last year schoolwork found its way back into far too many of my nights and weekends.

That is why one of my main goals this year is to banish work from personal time once again. I want to banish it for my health, for the betterment of my students (I’m a better teacher when balanced), for this blog and my writing (it is not an accident that I started my blog the same summer that I finally got to 40 hours and that my posts got more intermittent as I started to work more), and most of all for my family. Here are the big pieces in my plan for doing that:

Leaning Into Reading and Writing During Class

It is a cliche in teaching circles to say “the best teacher of reading/writing/fill-in-the-blank is doing reading/writing/fill-in-the-blank.” Even still, while not exactly original, this notion remains important.

After my last post, I got an email from a reader named Catherine Crenshaw from Beaverton, Oregon that said the following:

“This year I was more successful than any other year simply because I created and strictly adhered to a daily writing time of 10-20 minutes every day [beyond the district required writing] where students chose what to write. I provided a prompt, but they had the option to write whatever they wanted if the prompt didn’t move them. These pieces were turned in digitally, and I read them, but they were not scored.”

-Catherine Crenshaw

In this Catherine voices what many teachers experience once they began to carve out more time for reading and writing. Research has long shown that students need to be writing 30-60 minutes every. single. day. to maximize writing growth, meaning that the best choice for a writing (or reading) lesson is often to get students writing (or reading) and get out of the way.

Most teachers I talk to know this, but where we get into trouble is that a mini craft lecture, interesting group discussion, or a busy hive of group work often feels far more productive than students quietly reading and writing, so it is easy to unconsciously lean towards these practices. Those things obviously have more flash, but it is important to not lose sight of the fact that the quiet moments where a student writes or reads, like a piano player practicing scales or a basketball player shooting around until the gym goes dark, are where so much of the growth happens.

Further, when we do most of that reading or writing in class (instead of at homework), we can better ensure it is being done with fidelity and better identify students who are struggling and troubleshoot those struggles. It is also worth noting that, from a time standpoint, when students read and write during class, teachers can use that time to give flash feedback to students, hold micro conferences with them, or do other teaching tasks that would otherwise need to be done at home.

Being a Broken Record

As a newer teacher, I put a lot of time and effort towards bringing something new to class every day. Much like a vibrant discussion feels more dynamic than students quietly reading, keeping it fresh felt more interesting for me and my students. And in a sense, the students did find it interesting; they never knew what was coming next. But from a teaching perspective I now know that repetition is how we learn. Generally, we must return to something between 3-5 separate times before it sticks (see the Forgetting Curve post for more on this).

Today I am actively working towards a class that is full of repetition, and like with doing lots of reading/writing in class, looping back to earlier content is a win/win for students and teachers. From the student point of view, they get the opportunity to truly learn our content and as teachers, we don’t have to constantly design something shiny and new every day. Plus, repetition, if well-designed, doesn’t have to be boring. Here are some specific ways I plan to be a broken record this year for my students and for myself:

  • Doing lots of spaced retrieval practice. When students have to recall what they’ve learned, they strengthen those connections in the brain, increasing retention and deepening understanding. Plus retrieval is great for games, which can add a layer of joy to your classes. See here for a post on this.
  • Using saved comments and links. I talk about this a lot in Flash Feedback, but saved comments and links to mentor texts and short instructional videos can cut down how long it takes to give comments. The key to doing this without the feedback feeling canned and detached (which is a common issue with saved comments/link) is to always stay in an interested reader stance and to customize the comments to meet the needs of that student in that moment. Much like adapting a lesson can take less time while yielding a more refined lesson than always creating a new one, adapting old comments can help us to leave better, stronger comments in less time.
  • Getting visual. One of my teaching mentors Linda Christensen used to cover her classroom walls with information from class. Or put more accurately, she had the students cover the classroom walls with key information. If they were talking about parallel structure, the students found examples and put them on a poster and up it went on the wall. If they were talking about The Bluest Eye, she had a student take notes on themes that arose during conversations and then that went up on a wall. These posters gave students the ability to revisit key ideas at will (and even as they spaced out) and eliminated the need for her to make study guides or put together lists of potential topics for papers because these things were already on the walls!

Uncovering the Goal to Find New Options

In Fewer Things, Better, Angela Watson says, “If you can uncover the real goal behind the requirement and find a more efficient, effective way to get that outcome, you may be able to create change.” (pg.70)

So often we do things a certain way in the classroom because, well, we do things a certain way in the classroom. We are creatures of habit, but sometimes those habits aren’t the most efficient way to do things, and once we get too close to something, it can be hard to see the inefficiencies.

Watson here offers us a tool to help with uncovering those inefficiencies: By thinking about our goal whenever we do something, we can see our habits and routines from a different angle and potentially see their flaws more clearly. For example, in Dylan Wiliam’s Embedded Formative Assessment, he offers a different way to look at practice tests:

Consider an advanced placement (AP) calculus teacher who is getting her students ready to take their examination. Like many teachers, she has her students take a practice examination under formal test conditions. Most teachers would then collect the papers, score them, write comments for the students, and return the papers to the students so that they could see where they went wrong. However, this calculus teacher does something slightly different. She collects the papers at the end of the examination, but she does not score them. Instead, during her next period with the class, each group of four students receives its unscored papers and one blank examination paper, and has to compile the best composite examination paper response that it can. Within each group, the students review their responses, comparing their answers to each question and discussing what the best answer would be. Toward the end of the period, the teacher reviews the activity with the whole class, asking each group to share its agreed-on answers with the rest of the class.”

Dylan Wiliam in Embedded Formative Assessment

By figuring out the point of the practice test (for students to get better at understanding the test), Wiliam is able to come up with a way to approach the test that is better for students (they have to do the work and it is more metacognitive) and better for teachers (they have one fewer stack of papers to read and respond to).

Using Student Self-Assessment

I have a whole post on this, so I won’t go too deeply into it, but here are some reasons why having students self-assess is a win for them and us:

  • In John Hattie’s list of teaching moves that impact student learning, having students self-assess sits at the very top because when we assess our work, we must engage in metacognitive reflection, and doing that is like a cheat code for improving one’s skills.
  • When teachers lead an assessment, they often feel compelled to justify their scores. This means that they spend hours crafting justification on final papers and projects–justification that does little to improve student learning.
  • Well-trained students are incredibly effective at accurately self-assessing. This means that they can get the learning bump from self-assessment while freeing teachers from the time required to justify their grades (because students do the justification for them, with the teachers just having to sign-off on their justifications in most situations).
  • Seeing student assessments first helps teachers to avoid grade/assessment harm where a student gets wounded by our scores because the teacher can see their feelings and calibrate the response accordingly.

Asking Is It Worth the Time?

I love a good slide deck. Heck, I even have a go-to lesson that I do every year on how to make a stylish deck. Even still, I plan to be more mindful of potentially accepting slightly less perfect slide decks this year because I’m not sure that they are worth the time investment. As teachers, we encounter regular pressure to work to the point of perfection/martyrdom. This can manifest itself in us doing everything from spending hours picking the right slide deck theme to commenting on every word our students write (I have done both of these things more times than I can count). By routinely asking whether something is worth the time, we can put up a firewall to these internal and external perfectionist pressures, and even if we only cut the small, seemingly superfluous things, those can quickly add up to hours when taken at the scale of all of our duties.


I mentioned a few weeks ago that we don’t know what challenges are coming this year, but we do know that they will probably be significant. Making a plan now for keeping the work monster at bay, even if we know that no teaching plan survives contact with the school year, can help to make sure we have the bandwidth and energy to face those challenges and also be there for all the things outside the classroom that matter.

If you have anything you are doing to help protect your nights and weekends, let me know and I’ll share with readers in my next post. Until then, I’ve already gone longer than I expected, so I am going to wrap it up by saying thanks for reading, and have a great first week of August!

Yours in Teaching,

Matt

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One thought on “How I Plan to Regain My Nights and Weekends in the Upcoming School Year

  1. Thank you for this. It comes at a precise time when I am ready to step into a new school year feeling anxious about the whittling away of time to read, write, and connect with friends and family. I value your thinking as it keeps authentic teaching at the forefront while also exploring ways for us to pave a path for personal time. In the words of Simon and Garfunkel: “Time, time, time see what’s become of me…as I look around for my possibilities.” Thanks for getting me thinking about possibilities!

    Liked by 1 person

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