Intentions can be funny, fleeting things, as anyone who has ever made a New Year’s resolution knows. Daily, messy, unpredictable life and the additive nature of to-do lists are great distractors. Throw in readily available entertainment (for instance 87 episodes of This is Us, a show I’d heard about but never tuned into, but available on demand!) and it’s easy to sink into a stupor at the end of the day. What’s going to happen with Kate and Toby? How could Rebecca have not told Randall about his father?
I digress. See how easy it is?
Classroom life can also be messy and unpredictable, and the to-do list items of teaching are equally apt to accumulate. It can be hard to keep what really matters front and center. A few weeks ago, Sara wrote in her blog that October was a time in her teaching life when she stopped to take a breath and reflect, and so this morning, as I sat down to write, I looked through all the notes I’ve jotted in my planner over the first 5 weeks of school and then re-read a blog post I wrote early in August. “Mark my words,” I announced at one point. Such confidence as I quietly sipped on iced coffee.
I wrote about three intentions I had for the coming year with my students. The intentions were: 1) to more frequently start with an intriguing question or with students’ interests 2) to speak less and have my students speak more, and 3) to not work harder than my students are working.
Turns out, none of these is easy.
I’ve made more progress on intentions two and three (which feel quite interrelated) than I have on intention one. I’ve gotten much better at noticing when I am the one doing all the thinking, talking, and writing. I’m spending less time making full homework corrections and more time identifying the trends I’m seeing and finding the thorny problems for students to talk about. I’m working hard to change “Do you have any questions?” to “What questions do you have?” and then being comfortable with much longer pauses and wait times. And when students have questions, I’m more apt to let another student take a stab at answering even though it takes longer. Sometimes, much, much longer. But in those moments, when students are grappling for the words, I know they are the ones doing the thinking.
We’ve had some lively, interesting lessons with lots of partner talk, enthusiasm, and hands in the air. And we’d had a few like the one where we were learning to compare fractions using logic and number sense. After that class, the note I wrote to myself said “Uggh. Stop talking.” There’s work left to do.
But I’m finding intention number one the trickiest. I am definitely running the show in terms of what topics we pursue, and while I have lots of engaging warm-ups (e.g. Which One Doesn’t Belong, Between 2 Numbers, Estimation 180) that have led to great conversations, most often neither the warm-up nor the main lesson have been generated from student ideas and interests. This is an intention I may have to refine, and it may be the one I succeed at most incrementally. Unit by unit, could I build in time for students to ask and investigate their own questions?
One of the things I may be most pleased about is a new intention that I’ve only just begun. Recently at Target, my eye was drawn to a set of two hundred colored note cards and envelopes. My plan is to write a personal note to three or four students each week. My first two notes went to two fifth graders who had been struggling with powers of ten but kept asking questions and didn’t give up. One of them was working with me when the other approached. “I don’t get this either,” she said. “Can I be here too?” After class, I wrote them both notes, telling them à la Jo Boaler that their brains were growing as they worked on the challenge. The next day, one of them popped his head into the classroom when he saw me before school. “I got your note!” he said with a big grin.
Just having the note cards on my desk has made me more mindful of each of my students. I want to be able to write something authentic, positive, and sincere when I do it, and so I find myself paying closer attention. This intention is similar to one described by Todd Finley in an Edutopia article we highlighted back in August. His intention was to regularly set aside twenty-five minutes to think deeply about five students at a time, giving each a full five minutes of his thoughtful consideration. He listed five questions that he asks himself as he thinks about each student:
What have I noticed about the student recently?
What behavior patterns have I observed?
What outside affinities, struggles, values, and goals have been revealed?
What part of the student’s life am I most curious about? What question might spark an answer to help me satisfy that curiosity?
I love his questions and I think they will help me with my observations and hand-written notes.
My final activity this morning was to write each of my four intentions on a note card so that I can refer to them readily. Stay tuned.