Schools are unique places to work. Twice a year they kick off a New Year…one in the fall as the school year begins and one that starts with the calendar year as winter break ends. Both times students come back excited and rested, anxious to be with their friends again – and hopefully ready and eager to learn. They also may come back needing a bit of adjustment and transition from vacation – but at least for the New Year in January, they know the routines and cast of characters that make up their school days. For the most part, they are able to pick up where they left off before their vacation.
Teachers come back in January, looking toward the second half of the school year and for all intents and purposes, feeling the most productive instructional time of the year is upon them. There are predictable annual cycles in schools, periods of higher workloads for teachers to accommodate. One teacher I have worked with stated that, “In September you jump off a cliff and hope that you land standing.” I believe that sentiment would be shared by many teachers at the beginning of the year. The first part of the school year is one wrought with schedule making, relationship building with students and other teachers, and forging an understanding of the students that they serve. Assessments and conferences are upon teachers early in the fall, and then making meaning of the assessment data and how to use it brings us into December. Of course this is an oversimplification of the cycle, but the point being the fall is a high work time of getting to know one another and the students better. Teachers are establishing a culture and finding a groove so they can run with it for the remainder of the school year. High school teachers will have a workload cycle that aligns with their class and schedule changes annually (e.g. semester, trimester, quarters), but for them too, January is typically the start of an optimal instructional time of the year.
So, when January comes around, and a break has been had by the adults and students, the next three months are the prime piece of instructional real estate. This is the part of the year that teachers can shine, be their best, and do what they love – and students can reap the benefits. It is also the time where, before the April through June push comes, new and intentional ways of teacher behavior and thinking about their practice can be emphasized.
It is with this in mind that I offer some instructional strategy action steps for educators. These are things individual teachers can do immediately that will affect student achievement, knowing that the impact of decisions made by individual teachers is far greater than the impact of decisions made at the school level. The books written by Robert J. Marzano do an excellent job of detailing the research that exists about schools and translating that into classrooms. I strongly encourage you to take a look at his work. I have adapted some of his work for the following steps:
Protect your instructional time! Classroom time available for actual instruction has been shown to range from 21% to 69% of the total time available in schools! Think about the ways you can hold your instructional time sacred and decrease unnecessary interruptions, knowing that there will be many occasions for necessary interruptions, or things you can’t control.
- Keep “housekeeping” tasks limited and only during certain parts of the day.
- Come up with various ways of communicating with students, parents and other teachers that capitalizes on instructional time (this is especially great when different learning needs of students is incorporated!! Get creative! Can there be a calling tree about homework? A blog that the students write? How can the classroom website look to capitalize on your instructional time?).
- Refer to specific parts of your instructional time as “academic learning time” or something similar. This creates a way for the students to recognize the boundaries and expectations around their increased attention that you have for specific assignments or instruction. It also encourages you to plan your lessons accordingly – streamlined, and specific to the time you have available (could you hang a sign on your door during these times, so that additional interruptions are not an issue?).
Think of your instruction in terms of units! Instead of thinking of individual lesson design, use instructional frameworks that consider units of learning for students. This shift of thinking allows teachers to not be constrained by day to day lesson design, but rather pick and choose the most appropriate strategies to use over the course of a semester or even a year to reach the goals for students in their class. Additionally, teachers can and will have variations in their approach from other teachers within the school, and can share their experiences with colleagues as a form of staff development.
- Have clear goals at the beginning of each unit, also ask students to identify their own learning for each unit of content.
- Balance the individual and group work as well as grouping students based on their knowledge, interest and skills specific to each unit. This can be extremely creative in the way it looks, and a great way to differentiate for learners!
- Monitor student progress and celebrate their successes. Allow students to evaluate and monitor themselves and compare their learning goals and evaluations with yours.
Provide students opportunities for input regarding your unit’s content! Although many teachers believe student input in a unit’s content design is one of the most basic and critical teacher responsibilities, too often this does not happen in practice. The following strategies can solicit student input:
- Prepare students for a learning experience by asking questions about what they know already or would like to know. Link their understanding between old and new content and provide strategies for them to organize their thinking.
- Provide students ways to synthesize their knowledge about content during and after new learning has occurred. This can be in linguistic ways such as note taking or summarizing in writing, or in nonlinguistic ways of drawing, models, pictures or dramatic enactments – just to name a few.
- Give students an opportunity to review, apply and practice their new learning in various ways. Ask them to go back and change notes, pictures, or physical models based on what they know now versus what they knew then…allow them to test hypothesis in various ways and share their understanding with others.
Those are examples of action steps that I would suggest that would make a difference in how your instruction looks this New Year. There are thousands more we could think about together. What are some that you employ that work for you? How do ensure you make the most of the next three months of your practice – with student achievement at the center of your thinking?
This is a great post. I especially like the idea of looking at January as a prime piece of instructional real estate. That is a great phrase and a wonderfully positive way of looking at the darkest days of the year (on my side of the world). Thanks for changing my perspective.
In Minnesota it is much like Boston, dark and cold! Great time to be inside teaching! Thanks for the read and the comments! Jen
I couldn’t agree more regarding the ‘prime instructional real estate’. This is the crunch window for moving students along the developmental continuum. I also believe that this window is greater for some teachers, those who quickly embed rituals and routines into their classroom community, paving the way and increased student accountability to the learning process. And… let’s sing the praises of those teachers who teach until the last the week of school with vigor. By expanding our instructional mindset, refining our practice and engaging our students the possibilities grow and expand. Happy New Year to all in the field of education.
Karen, I couldn’t agree more with your comments! The steps I listed hopefully keep teachers mindful of what they can do even within their practice that is already running like a fine-oiled machine in the ways you describe. Being mindful of the natural stops and starts of the school year, and the high versus low workload periods — and taking advantage of the cycles that exist, is one way for even the most finely tuned teacher to enhance what they are doing from day to day.
What other ways are you seeing teachers refine their practice during this time of the year?