The Re-Write Blog

Why May is the Cruelest Month for Teachers (And What We Can Do About It)

Several years ago I wrote the the following about the month of May:

“T.S. Eliot states in The Wasteland that “April is the cruelest month.” He is close, but he misses the mark by a month, at least in my opinion…May [is] the cruelest month…at least when it comes to my teaching life. The problem is that after a long Michigan winter, the extra summer sunlight of the north makes everything lush and leafy, seemingly overnight. This might not seem like a bad thing, but the appearance of summer is a serious problem when it comes to my students, as en masse and like clockwork they begin to checkout in uncharacteristic ways once the trees suddenly burst with leaves, despite the fact that over a month of school remains.

A lot has changed in the two years since I wrote that, but something that hasn’t changed is the cruelty of May from the standpoint of planning lessons and running a classroom. I have found this cruelty to be especially true this year, where after a school year set against a backdrop masks and variants and societal discord, my students are more ready than I’ve ever seen to reenact that scene in Dazed and Confused where they sprint through the school doors, as papers (and in this case masks too) explode into the sky and flutter like giant snowflakes to the ground.

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An Argument for Elevating Joy Right Now

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A couple weeks ago, a colleague of mine asked us a simple question at a department meeting: What are you doing to make learning fun right now? The fifteen or so of us in the room furrowed our brows and lowered our eyes until he bailed us out by admitting that he asked the question because he was struggling to find an example from his classes too. He then offered an optional challenge for each of us: think about the ways we could bring some fun into our classes in the last quarter of the year.

I couldn’t stop thinking about this challenge that evening, and it reminded me of the last pre-pandemic post I wrote, which was about fun’s close cousin joy* and how we can inspire joy and use joy to inspire in the classroom. I was ready to hit send on the post in early March of 2020, but then for reasons that likely don’t take any elaboration, it suddenly became a less than ideal moment for a post on joy, and so I shelved it for a later date.

I think what made my colleague’s comments stick was that it brought to the front of my mind both that post and some worries that had been quietly gnawing at the back of my mind for some time. I have these pre-pandemic memories of the joy that I used to regularly encounter within school, and when I think about my classes and the classes of those around me now, I fear that much of the joy that once existed got lost over the past two years.

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Learning to Transfer: A Discussion with Trevor Aleo

For my post today, I interview Trevor Aleo, a middle school English teacher and curriculum designer from Wilton, Connecticut, and a co-author of the wonderful book Learning that Transfers. Trevor is the English lead for Team LTT and an expert in all things transfer–an area of study that has helped my teaching greatly, especially in these pandemic years. Below is my interview with Trevor, which has been lightly edited for clarity and concision.

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How I’m Trying to Do More With Less Part 3: Finding Places to Let the Students Lead

Early in his book Writing Unbound, Thomas Newkirk implores his readers to “[Not] Talk So Much” by saying the following:

“Deep in our DNA there must be some image of teaching where we are talking–instructing, giving directions, up front. Just walk past about any class. Studies of teacher lessons affirm that there is a deeply ingrained recitation script where the teacher takes two out of every three turns (Mehan 1979). Teacher asks question-student answers-teacher responds to answer.”

From Thomas Newkirk’s Writing Unbound, pg. 10.

This 2:1 ratio of teacher talk to student talk is something I know well. As I’ve discussed before, it can be second nature for me to settle into that recitation script time and again in my own classes, which can be a problem for the following reasons:

  • Like a thumb being pressed to an already unequal scale, when teachers talk first, it weights conversations heavily towards the teacher perspective–an action that when revisited enough times can neutralize any talk of partnership and agency.
  • When teachers always talk first, students can grow too dependent on teachers to solve all of their problems and chart the courses they should follow. To understand why this can be a major issue, see “The Curse of Helicopter Teaching” by Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher. 
  • Whoever leads is the one doing the preparation. Thus, if teachers are always leading, they will always be the ones doing the majority of the work–a dynamic that is not ideal in the best of times and is even less ideal in times where too much is already being asked of teachers.
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4 Essential Studies: An Interview with Penny Kittle

Given how overwhelmed and overloaded many educators are right now, my posts since the new year have focused on teaching practices and pedagogical approaches that allow us to maintain or even improve the quality of our teaching while also trimming down the time we are spending on it. 

In that spirit, getting weekly or even bi-weekly posts out has proven difficult for me in the face of everything, especially since either our son’s daycare, our daughter’s school, or both have been shut for Covid-related reasons 16 of the 25 school days in 2022. So, in an effort to keep up continuity for the newsletter while also not overloading myself, I will be weaving in some interviews with authors of wonderful new books between my posts throughout these last weeks of winter and the early days of spring. These interviews will be wide-ranging, but they will share a focus on how we can potentially do more without adding more while also sharing practical tools, approaches, and tricks that you can use in the classroom tomorrow, if you wish.

First up, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, is Penny Kittle. If you don’t know who Penny Kittle is, she is a legendary teacher and author of such books as Write Beside Them, Book Love, and 180 Days. She is also the founder and president of the Book Love Foundation, which has raised over a million dollars for classroom libraries for teachers, and the co-author of the incredible new book 4 Essential Studies–a book that is so captivating and lively that it is one of only four pedagogical books that I have ever read in one sitting. Below is my interview with Penny, which has been shortened and lightly edited for clarity and concision:

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How I’m Trying to Do More With Less Part 2: The New Pyramid of Writing Priorities

In my last post I explained that to start this new year, I will be writing about how I’m trying to maintain some semblance of balance–even as each week seemingly demands more–by looking for places where I can cut what I’m doing without negatively impacting (and sometimes improving) my instruction. If there is something you are doing, please share with me, as I’d love to pass it along to my readers!

This week, I want to rethink a topic that I explore a great deal in Flash Feedback: The Pyramid of Writing Priorities. The Pyramid is something I adapted from Dave Stuart Jr., who adapted it from The Core Six,  and over the years it has helped me to save hundreds of hours when providing feedback by acting as a guide for when and how to respond to student work. For those who don’t know it, here is what it looks like:

From Flash Feedback, adapted from Dave Stuart Jr. and The Core Six by Silver, Dewing, and Perini

The idea behind the pyramid is pretty simple: We do different types of writing in our classes, and so we should respond to each different type of writing in a different way. Practice Writing, or writing where students practice with new skills or ideas, should likely be mostly ungraded and probably unread; Targeted Writing, or writing that is focused on assessing or refining students’ understanding of a specific skill, should likely get a quick Targeted Response that focuses only on that skill; and Polished Writing, or larger writing that undergoes multiple rounds of revision, should get a greater, more comprehensive response. (This is a quick overview. For more on this pyramid, here is my original post discussing it).

While the idea of the pyramid is simple, using it isn’t always as straightforward because each rung holds a hidden potential pitfall that teachers often fall into, to the detriment of both students and the teacher.  Further, I’ve felt for some time that it needs another rung, something between practice and targeted writing, for reasons I’ll touch upon in a moment. With that in mind, today I want to unveil my new, updated pyramid of writing priorities, complete with annotations about the potential pitfalls that can lead us astray and how we can avoid them. Here it is:

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How I’m Trying to Do More With Less in 2022: Part I

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A RAND study from this last year confirmed what many teachers already know: that teacher workload spiked in the spring of 2020 and for many hasn’t stopped spiking since. Specifically, the study found that teachers have settled into working 6 hours more per week on average since the spring of 2020 and nearly 25% of teachers now work 56 hours or more a week, up from only 5% pre-pandemic who worked that much.

Accompanying this additional workload, the researchers also reported what others studies have consistently found, that we are facing a crisis of teacher morale and mental health, and with it a potential crisis of teachers leaving when the profession is already stretched too thin and facing critical shortages.

As fellow educators, I likely don’t have to tell you this, as many of you live the extra workload and burnout and worries about the future every day or know plenty of others who do. But I wanted to lead with it because, even when we know something is rotten in the state of Denmark, it is still useful at times to get confirmation. Further, like Marcellus in Hamlet after he offers that famous line about Denmark, once we acknowledge the larger systemic problems out loud, it can be easier to take action about what we can control.*

Specifically, while we can’t do much about staff shortages or contact tracing protocols or new time-intensive learning management systems, we can take action in regards to how we run our classes. That is why my first posts of this new year will all be focused on what I am doing to cut down my workload to maintain my sanity and some semblance of balance while also striving to maintain (or maybe even improving through working smarter instead of harder) the quality of my classes.

The first post is on a topic that I have written and thought about a fair amount recently, and yet, truth be told, I’m still not as good at it as I should be: Revisiting information multiple times to increase the likelihood it will get committed to longterm memory.

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The Power (and Fun) of Retrieval Practice Games

This is the third post in a short series on small but fierce tools that can boost your writing instruction without reshaping your whole curriculum. For the original entry, click here.

One of my favorite topics to teach my students about is the Ebbinghaus Forgetting Curve (for more on it, click here), which lays out a clear case that our brains are designed to forget, not remember, most things. This is the kind of foundational brain science that should come in a user’s manual for our brains that we receive at birth, but since such a thing doesn’t exist, I make it a point to discuss it in pretty much every class. I do this because once we understand why we forget (and how normal and natural it is), it becomes easier to devise strategies to remember the things that really matter.

The core strategy that Ebbinghaus gives us when it comes to improving our memory is strikingly easy: If we want to remember something, we should revisit it multiple times on multiple different days. This importance of revisiting topics when it comes to encoding something into long-term memory lies behind so many of the things I do. It is why my students use feedback cycles where they revisit feedback from me at least four or five times and why when we set student goals, we return to them weekly. It is also why in these newly cold, middle-of-the-semester weeks in early November that I turn over and over to one particular tool: Retrieval practice.

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Building Connections in a Disconnected Fall Through Micro-Sharing of Student Writing

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This is the second post in a short series on small but fierce tools that can boost your writing instruction in the matter of a few minutes. For the original entry, click here.

For me at least, the last 18 months haven’t exactly been the ideal in regards to professional development. I have read far fewer teaching books, written even fewer posts about teaching, and attended only one (online) teaching conference, instead spending the hours normally allocated to those things just making it through the day in a way that is reminiscent of my first years of teaching.

During many moments this lack of time and space to grow has been a source of frustration, but recently I’ve been thinking a lot about how the dark screens of Zoom, the divided focus of hybrid teaching, or the endless fire drills of this fall have brought their own meaningful lessons too.

And of those lessons, the one that I have been thinking about a lot recently is how absolutely crucial classroom community–which is so often cast as periphery, nice-if-you-can-do-it-but-not-essential topic–is to doing the work we do at a high level.

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A Little But Fierce Feedback Trick: Letting Students Start the Conversation

A Note from Matt: T.S. Eliot once said that April is the cruelest month. With respect to him, from a teaching perspective I find that this moniker likely belongs to October instead. What makes October a sometimes cruel month is in part its busyness, with its parent/teacher conferences, curriculum nights, and piles of letters of recommendation. The first major assignments also come home to roost in October, suddenly adding to our workload, and while the year is well underway, a major break still lies far beyond the calendar’s horizon.

But for me, what tips the scales for October is that it is when the lofty dreams of the summer run into the realities of the actual classroom. The result is that my once pristine plans from August, if they were a suit finely tailored on the first day, already have tears and stains from missteps, holes from days missed (especially when one has small children with eternally runny noses during a pandemic), and quickly crafted alterations whose seams show if one looks close enough. Of course, I don’t mean to imply that my classes are going poorly; they are actually going better than I could have hoped for coming off the online/hybrid format of last year. Even still though, they will never quite match the dreams of the summer.

This is all to say that October, at least for me, is an odd month. It is one of the times where I am the most hungry for new ideas, tricks, and tips to patch holes that have appeared in my plans and pedagogy, but it is also a hard time for things like prolonged attention and deep and lofty pedagogical debates due to my busy schedule. With this in mind, my posts over the next month are going to be a series of things that are, to paraphrase Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, little but fierce. These are some quick ideas and tricks that have made a meaningful impact on my classes and yet can be understood and implemented in just a few minutes. First up is probably my favorite right now: Letting the students lead when it comes to feedback.

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