Welcome to the Eleventh Month of School: September

My friend Kristi Mraz has a great way of talking about the start of the year, she says “we have to think of September not as the start of this year, but as the eleventh month of the school year before.”   In other words: our kids know stuff when they come to us.  Yet, there is a way we can fall into a simple trap, one born of deep love for our students and our routines, where we “break things down” into über-clear points to make sure they absolutely get it:

“This! This is a reading log. I will now show you precisely how to fill it out.”

“This! This is writing an essay.  It is a waaaaay different kind of writing.  Here is how informational writing is different.”

“Good group work sounds liiiiiiiiike….  it looks liiiiiike…”

Of course these are obtuse generalizations, but not so far from reality. Frankly, this happens with us as adults as well.  How many PD sessions or meetings do you walk into (or have you lead) where you feel the person presenting – though with earnestness and care for you – is talking beneath what you already know?  I sheepishly raise my hand because I know I’ve been that presenter sometimes.  Look, a common language is important to establish and I want to make sure we are all really clear with one another… but I do know that not starting from what you know — or at least acknowledging what you know and keeping the rehash short — can lift or crush enthusiasm. More over, it’s starting from the womb, not starting from the know.

Help Students Do Last Year’s Best Work Now

Everything that happens in our classrooms starts with us. Or using the words my wife sometimes has to remind me of when it’s 7:30 and the kids should have already been in bed but one is screaming and the other has gone about throwing their toys all over the floor and I haven’t even eaten yet and… …you are the adult.  You can only control you and your actions. 

Here are some tips for actions you can take to support students in remembering they already have a lot of “best work” inside of them.  I and other readers would also love to hear more of your tips, please post in the comments.

What Are They Already Doing–What Did They Forgot They Can Do?  

(This would make for a great PLC meeting I think:)

    1. Make a list, just a quick jotting, of all the major stuff your students learned last year related to your particular content area – the things you know they learned or can assume they learned (or do this cross grades and then you can actually ask last year’s teacher).
    2. Gather a few students’ notebooks or jottings or other artifacts from this year. Compare the list of “last year stuff” to the current student work (yes, even if this is only Day 5 for them, today).
    3. Grab that list and proudly check off everything you see some evidence of. Circle everything you don’t.
    4. Start with the CHECKS, NOT the circles! Build upon the strengths you see first – even if they don’t appear to fit in this unit, even if you much rather do the circles.  Strength builds strength.

Open up portfolios with students.

I don’t know about you, but I usually let handed-up-from-the-grade-before-me portfolios just sit and collect dust. For shame, I know. But several schools I work with do this very easy, and very smart, trick.  Now that you are a bit into the school year, hand back last year’s notebook (or final pieces or science lab reports or whatever) RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE of students working:

“Could everyone pause just a minute? I don’t know about you, but I am very hard on myself sometimes.  Like, if I feel really overwhelmed, like there is too much to do and I’m losing track of things, I can feel really badly, like I’m just letting myself and others down.  But do you know what gets me out of that, what picks me up?  I remind myself of all the great things I have done. I stop to admire myself for a minute. It sounds funny, but it helps a lot.  

So, I’d like to surprise you, I want to hand back your [insert whatever that thing is here] from last year and I’d like you to compare what you are doing right now to what you did then.  Remind yourself of any terrific stuff you may have forgotten you are able to do. We’re going to pause in our work to do this a bit, then you will tell a partner all the great stuff you did last year, and then we’ll get back to work and I want to walk around and find out what you are adding into your work today.”

Invite other eyes to help you see.  

When I am in role as a Staff Developer with the Reading and Writing Project, I am in schools and classrooms nearly every single day – teaching in front of, alongside, or coaching teams of teachers. I had the pleasure of visiting a school I absolutely love and have worked many years in with two of my colleagues this week, Janet Steinberg and Audra Robb.   It was, and always is, so eye opening to share a place you know so well with others.  Laura Kotch, a former NYC superintendent often says, “When company is coming, you see things differently in your house.”  Big ah-has hit me through our conversations–things I think I knew, somewhere in my head, but were so crystalized for me as we spoke together:

    • I know: We have to teach the kids, not the curriculum. What I realized: this means our room environment should echo that.  Yes, charting – for example (shout out to chartchums) – can and should reflect current studies. But I realized that often I am making charts mostly just FOR THE CURRICULUM, but not always making additional charts FOR THE STUDENTS.  For instance, you are leading a unit on “reading fantasy with energy and insight;” then super, include charts about that genre and strategies to help students analyze the text carefully.  However, your room may not only need fantasy charts up.  What if you have a bunch of students who are also trying to not just “cite” evidence, but use evidence to have new interpretations?  Boom. New Chart. Some students working on fluency (which, as Tim Rasinski points out over and over, every grade needs fluency support)? Then, have some charts with tips about phrases, inflection, and rereading.

Remind YOURSELF of Your Gifts, Too.

The other big ah-ha was exactly what this post is about – that we need to continually invite students to use what they know… we need to invite, support, praise, insist, and value those things.  Janet, for example, had beautiful questions she would ask kids she was talking with.  And the key was her tone, it wasn’t the “I’m doing a walkthrough – TELL ME WHAT YOU ARE LEARNING!” tone, it was the fellow-learner, talking together about things we all find challenging and things we are proud of.  I’ve riffed on her questions in this little graphic, which I think sums up my new goal for my work.

Try this with me, thinking about your professional or even personal life:

I’m thinking about how I think I’m a good cook and preparing dinner makes me happy… I am just now remember that I can bake a mean fish and need to do that again soon.  I am thinking about how when teaching reading, I’ve learned and studied a lot about leading great interactive read alouds… I am realizing that I do pretty well supporting kids conversations during book clubs, but need to bring more of that into read aloud conversations.

I would love to hear more tips about how you are helping students (and you) draw on more of “last year,” even early in the school year. That now – whenever now is for you – is the next link in the chain of a child’s entire life, we help them see that chain.

4 thoughts on “Welcome to the Eleventh Month of School: September

  1. Your approach to portfolio sharing is genius! So simple, and so right. I know many student portfolios have languished in my classroom over the years just for lack of knowing exactly what to do with them, and then forgetting about them as the year moves on. At the same time, I always had the best intentions of acknowledging the student work in those portfolios. Your suggestion makes students’ past work meaningful to them as they move forward as learners. I will be sharing this with others!

  2. You take big ideas and make them feel so workable. Great reminders in this post! I love the idea of passing back work out of the blue- another great way to celebrate success and remind students of potential. I love the 11th month- refreshing, new, energizing and exciting. Thanks again!!

  3. There are so many take aways in this post! I love the idea of PLC work starting with checks. I also have highlighted teaching the kids and not the curriculum. I’ll be returning to this one and sharing it as well. Thanks.


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