Thursday, August 26, 2010

Spinning Plates, or How Do I Get All the Instructional Blocks Going at Once?

I admit it--I've been avoiding this one. It feels so big (because it is!) and I am having trouble wrapping my mind around how to explain succinctly how I get everything started all at once in my classroom. Aside from the procedures and getting to know you stuff lies the task of getting the instructional pieces up and going. And these days there is lots of pressure to do so quickly in order to get to "real instruction". I think the trick is not to rush things too much, but to carefully put into place things that will be the basis for what you'll do over the course of the year.

This year I was handed a schedule that was pretty much set, but most years I have had to create my own. When doing that, I always start by blocking of the stuff over which I have no control--like lunch, specials (music, etc), and arrival/dismissal. Then I look for large chunks of time that become reading, writing and math workshops. Things from my language block, such as word study, shared reading, and interactive writing, can be broken up to fit into some of the smaller time slots in the schedule. If I'm really lucky, I get a separate time for science and social studies, though I often integrate those subjects into reading/writing/math workshop time.  I work really hard to make the schedule the same each day--it provides a consistent frame into which everything fits and in which there can be a lot of variety. What I have read and heard and experienced first hand tells me that having a consistent schedule frees up kids' minds so they can focus on the content instead of wondering when they are going to get to right or when there might be a read aloud.

On paper, it always looks good...or at least doable. Then the kids come.

The first few days, it seems really hard to get things done in the shorter blocks, and the longer ones go on forever.  A unexpected new student threw our morning into a huge delay the 3rd day of school. And I could never seem to remember what came next. It was hard not to give up and join the teacher down the hall in showing a movie just so I could catch my breath...don't worry; I didn't do it.

It has taken me a number of years, but I finally realized how helpful it is to start with the schedule blocks from the first day. I know--we actually spend a lot of time on things like learning names and practicing fire drills and lots and lots of teaching of routines and procedures. But you know, I've found that if I sit down with my schedule and begin thinking, I can more easily identify which procedures we're going to need right away. For example, first up after announcements is morning meeting and the read aloud/shared reading parts of my language block. To do that means that we have to have the stuff like attendance and lunch count done. We also need to learn how to get from our desks to the carpet. So once I get everyone in the room (this is probably a post all its own!) I teach those things. Then we have our first meeting and read aloud. This also allows me to start reading aloud to the kids right away. I pick something I know they can't resist and something I love. It's almost like magic how this routine begins pulling us together within the first 30 minutes of a new year.

From there it grows. Within each instructional block, I teach the necessary routines--like how writing workshop looks in our room and where the supplies are--and just...well, start. I know that the kids probably won't be able to remain engaged the whole time, especially in reading workshop, but we stick to the format of the workshop as long as they are able. We gather on the rug and talk about what writers will do during the workshop in our room or where they can find what they need. The kids write and I confer. Then, as soon as I see that engagement is starting to lesson, we stop and we share. Then I slip in an extra read aloud or shared reading and if there is time, we do another cycle of that workshop. The key is to stick to the format of the instructional block so the routines become, well, routine.

Let me see if I can explain this better. In first grade reading workshop, I start with a read aloud and usually have a brief minilesson. This is followed by managed independent learning (aka centers, stations) and small group instruction. We end with a debriefing time much like the end of writing workshop. Because I know that I will need to be able to pull small guided reading groups during this time, I know that I must teach the kids routines and expectations for engaged, meaningful, independent work that will support them in literacy learning. So for now, my read alouds are heavy on repetitive texts and information books on hot topics so that they will have lots and lots of books they want to read during independent reading center or buddy reading center. I follow with a minilesson teaching the procedures for a center. Then we all have work time to practice. I do not call groups. I do not check email. I circulate, reteaching as needed, acknowledging specific actions often, and watching very carefully. As soon as more than 2 kids seem to be off-task or if things are not going the way I want them to, I give the signal to clean up and come together--remember to teach this one too! We debrief--what went well? Did we remember to _____? Is there something we need to practice some more? I also let them know exactly what I'm looking and listening for.  Whew--first reading workshop--done! Of course, it only lasted 15 of the 75 minutes I have set aside for this part of the day. So after the debrief, I started over. Read aloud (stick in one you already read and one new one), teach a routine or center (or reteach the first one!), practice it, debrief.

Doing this is way more effective than coming up with "filler" activities or using a temporary schedule. My kids were familiar with the rhythms of our days by the end of the 4th day. On day 5, they were commenting that "it's time for writing next" or "after this, it's lunch, right?".  And yes, much of what we do takes longer than it should. For example, my word study time is still going longer than I have scheduled. We are beginning to put words on the word wall, building words with magnetic letters and are also learning routines for sorting. The routines the kids are learning for this are ones we will use the rest of the year and are also things I will want them to do while at the ABC center. While I only teach (and then reteach) one of these things each day, we also spend a few minutes practicing the routines for the others. Today we revisited how to practice word wall words using magnetic letters. Getting the materials out to everyone, building 2 or 3 words and then putting everything away is not yet fast for my 6 year olds. But it will be. Then we came together and sorted some pictures by initial sounds before moving on to reading workshop time. Even though I borrowed some extra time for word study,  I keep the order of the instructional blocks intact, and am gradually getting us to follow the times set in my actual schedule.

For right now, I am letting some things go in order to create the kind of environment I need for instruction to take place. That means that I am holding as tightly as possible to the scheduled instructional blocks and am working to fit procedural lessons, getting to know you activities, and everything else in where they seem to make the most sense. I am also reteaching, practicing, and debriefing alongside my kids to create in them the habits I know they will need as learners this year. The key is to keep firmly in mind how you want it to look and sound and make sure that you teach kids that as many times as it takes. Also important is the careful noticing of levels of engagement. As soon as engagement starts to fall during workshop time, pull back together. It is very important that the kids learn how it feels to work in an engaged manner and not become habituated to unproductive behaviors or time off task. And yes, this is as hard as it sounds.

And guess what? There is actually quite a lot of "real instruction" going on too--doing things this way forces me to really consider carefully which activities I do or do not do and why. I did not take an extra recess the first week of school. That would have been math time. Yes, the kids were tired, and so was I.  But I stuck to the math block and used that time to pull out some of the math tools we'll use this year and teach some simple math games that are the basis for our unit on greater than/less than. The oral language we used set us up beautifully for those first lessons, and since we were up and moving, we managed to stay pretty engaged. 

So now it's the end of the second week, and we haven't even missed that extra recess. All my instructional blocks have been up and going since day one (some are certainly going better than others). I am not "waiting" to introduce any part of our instructional day until another part is "learned". My kids know the frame for the day and are settling into the routine enough that they are beginning to spend much more mental energy on the content than the procedures.

It feels pretty good...and I know I need to keep the plates spinning so that nothing falls off.

1 comment:

  1. This line: "I think the trick is not to rush things too much, but to carefully put into place things that will be the basis for what you'll do over the course of the year." is the idea that has been spinning around and around in my head, but I wasn't able to make sense of it until I read it here.

    There is so much truth to this post. :)