Appendix E – Deciding What (Not) to Teach

Photo Credit: Len Rosen

Photo Credit: Len Rosen

It happens all the time. The student workbook in math has 330 pages to complete in 180-day year. Or the district trainer promised that cursive instruction would only take ten minutes per day, but it takes twice that. Halfway through the year, you realize you have finished two of the seven writing units. You have cancelled science so often that the some students can’t remember what you were studying. Then your principal tells you to make hours available for a nutrition teacher, team builder, or fund raiser.

Or perhaps you work at a school that strictly follows pacing guides. If you are lucky, a colleague has given you her PowerPoints. You are on the same lesson every day as every other teacher at your grade level, but something feels very wrong. You are doing all of the talking, but the class doesn’t respond. You feel like you are slashing a trail through tall brush, but no one is following. You have to threaten kids with failure to get them to complete chapter reviews before the test. You threaten them because you have a sneaking suspicion that they would otherwise fail for real. You thought teaching would be better than this.

We have become so bound up with standards, tests, and scores that we have forgotten that we teach children, not performers preparing for grand feats on state exams. When you remember they are children, then you remember they have needs, then you can decide what to teach. Here are the steps I take.

Assess. If your district does not have online tests, you will have to get creative. Some districts have benchmark tests on paper. Or you can use textbook middle or end of year tests. You can even use end of chapter tests. For reading, you can use DRA’s, IRI’s, lists of sight words, and even phonics tests pulled from workbooks. Decide on the one test that will tell you the most about each child in each of the major subject areas. Don’t pick a whole list; you won’t have time to administer them unless you have help.

Sometimes you will be lucky enough to find a test that will give you a full-year, full-scale view of a student, for example, a math test that covers every skill to be learned that year or a writing test that covers every grammar structure and a couple of genres Other times, you will only be able to work a few weeks ahead, for example, a math test that only covers geometry or a writing test that emphasizes dialogue and personal narrative. In any case, once you get a test packet together, keep extra sets for new students.

Analyze. Grade the tests looking not for an overall score, but for missing skills. Make a list of the skills and put the name of each child who needs to learn that skill under it. Some skills, like math, cursive and spelling, are fairly easy to define, but reading and writing skills can be harder to tease out. If you struggle, either get together with a literacy coach or use a language-literacy rubric like that found in the appendices of Apprenticeship in Literacy: Transitions Across Reading and Writing, K-4 by Linda J. Dorn and Tammy Jones.

Once you have filled in the skills list, look for skills where one-third to one-half of your students need help. When I hit the one-third mark, I usually notice that one-third got it wrong, one-third got it right but didn’t know why, and one-third got it right but couldn’t explain why. These are the skills that require instruction. One note, don’t panic and teach to the weakest in your class. Pull them out into a separate group and find time during independent work, free reading, the lunch line, or specials (especially if there is a sub). Otherwise, everyone else will get bored and misbehave. And don’t forget that their previous teacher tried to teach them these skills as well so it may take some creativity.

For the few students who have most of the skills nailed, say 85% correct or above, you might want to make some accommodation. They don’t need to sit through all of your lessons if they already know the material. If at all possible, give them the next grade’s work. Year after year, I have had fantastic results giving advanced students harder work at a slower speed.  If that’s not an option, offer them a chance to do independent study, particularly if you can get an adult to check in on them. I had one student investigate all sorts of math topics that I never imagined, including pykrete. If that’s not possible, most teacher’s guides come with enrichment materials. The one year I used them for math, my advanced students didn’t advance much. Enrichment materials seem to lack the cohesive structure needed for progress in mathematics. Hopefully, yours will be better.

Compare. Now compare the skills list to the textbooks. Hopefully, they line up. If your students are ahead, great, you get to skip lessons. Maybe you’ll finish on time or even get to do those fun projects we all dream about. If your students are behind, you’ll have to hunt for materials to catch them up, either in the readiness chapters of your teacher’s guides or in the previous grade’s materials. And you’ll have to work double-time or extra time to get them caught up to grade level. Another note, I do tell my students when we aren’t at grade level yet. I don’t really announce it, but I also don’t keep it a secret. I frame it by saying that we have a lot of work to do because I don’t expect them to just catch up, I expect everyone to be well ahead of grade level by the end of the year, and this is our plan…

Execute. I put the lesson plan on my calendar and go for it. I keep track of how many days ahead or behind I am in case I have a chance to catch up or take advantage of a surprise opportunity like a cool project. I really push. Even 2nd graders who are absent have to make up missed work. Boy, has that been an unpleasant surprise. But I know that if I haven’t kept to my plan, I will have done them a serious disservice by the end of the year. Not only do I worry that there will be a state test question that I haven’t taught them yet, I feel terrible sending an unprepared child on to the next grade. I feel much better saying, “We did too learn that. Remember when…?” and hearing a child say, “Oh, yeah!”

Evaluate. At the end of, and sometimes in the middle of, a set of lessons, re-test. Did they learn what they were supposed to? Did they at least improve? What is having the most impact? The least? Do I need to make the work more engaging? Do I need to draw pictures or even get out the manipulatives? Do I need to keep the classroom quieter? Do I need to get to the students who aren’t asking for help? Adjust, and continue.



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