Currently a department co-chair and co-director with the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project, Brian Kelley has taught 6th, 7th, and 8th grade for over twenty years.

When Planning, Leave Room...

When Planning, Leave Room...

Taking driving lessons at fifteen, the merge into early morning traffic on I-95 got the blood flowing. I remember my step-father encouraging me from the passenger seat of my mother's Ford Escort, "Give it gas! Go! Go!" I can't imagine how slow we must have been moving, but I remember him giggling as the car accelerated and I (quickly) asked, "Ok, should I get off at the next exit or should I stay on?"

Keeping up with traffic on a crowded highway was not only thrilling, but also stressful. A lot can change (quickly) on a four-lane highway and I wasn't necessarily prepared to adjust to unexpected shifts. So, I took the next exit, descended the off ramp, and cruised the one way, single lane streets of Philadelphia. I knew a stop sign would be waiting at each intersection. Even numbered streets ran South. Odd numbered streets ran North.

There is comfort and value in predictability.

And while mapping the upcoming school year, it can be tempting to over-plan in order to create a predictable environment for us. We back map so that we know where we are going and how we want to get there. So, starting with curriculum, standards, and benchmarks--in addition to collective input from colleagues--we lay a foundation on paper for the year ahead. Add to this scope and sequence of ideas, topics, and concepts the new knowledge picked up through workshops, conferences, and professional reading, and The Plan looks pretty, pretty good on paper. Pretty, pretty good.

However, while planning is imperative, honoring who each student is today has never been needed more. We need to leave room for that while planning--as the individual students can be easily minimized. We tend to think in terms of what the collective ("average") student will need...in order to be successful next year. We prepare lessons for kids who test out and need a challenge. We set aside remediation for kids who need extra support. All in the name of keeping everyone on pace with...The Plan.

And this is where teaching gets tricky.

On the one hand, our intentions can absolutely be to meet each student where they are as learners today while still maintaining an adequate pace to cover curriculum (in time for the mandated tests (there, I said it)). We want the kids to do well...for them and for us. We accommodate and differentiate and collaborate. We work hard to keep everyone caught up, successful, and "proficient" (there, I said that, too).

On the other hand, the reality is that one master plan or master course (or one pace) does not serve all students. No matter how good we are, no matter how we slice it, one plan just does not accommodate every adolescent. 

Yet, our end-of-summer planning can look more like narrow one way streets rather than expansive four-lane highways. 

No matter how thoughtful The Plan, we still need to feel comfortable making (many) new decisions and adjustments every day--sometimes mid-lesson. We need to allow for that space to afford ourselves the comfort to change a lesson or to differentiate on the fly according to the students in front of us. 

We are more willing to adjust than we give ourselves (credit) and room for! It isn't that we don't want to do what is best for each and every kid, it is that, well, the unspoken mantra driving public school education is there are more skills and content to cover than days in a school year. 

And this is true and intentional.

For example, in Pennsylvania there are 63 items of Eligible Content and roughly 30 weeks to "cover it all" before the state assessments. By comparison, there are 59 items of EC in 7th grade and 57 items in 6th grade.

It is very easy to over-plan at a pace for what we deem as the average student's pace.

When we over-plan in an effort to cover curriculum and content we risk sacrificing not only the vision of knowing what each child needs today but the confidence that we have the time to offer what each student needs today.  We can become so paralyzed by over-planning that unexpected change (from student confusion to late-notice of assemblies) freaks us out. I admit it; I've been on the freak out carousel. Last year, I even started a file of time lost to fire drills, assemblies, et al. by period. I was so cranky that the same group of kids missed class repeatedly. Eventually, I came to my senses and instead of burning my energy on what I perceived as wrong, I took a breath and refocused on what I could control.  I realized that it is easy for me to backslide into the bad habits (and attitudes) of an over-planner. 

One clue to my backsliding into over-planning is when I obsess over the littlest details in lessons, or I constantly think about the future (what do I have to cover next?). I am more focused on The Plan than on the child. This is hard to avoid. I have to literally remind myself to refocus, and I set The Plan aside and I make a conscious decision to confer more with the kids. When I am between classes, I read old notes about the students or listen to previous recordings of conferences. I immerse myself with kids, put myself more in contact with kids--what they are saying and doing--and detach myself from The Plan. When I remind myself that they are adolescents (and not content consumers) I am better able to help my students grow.

Additionally, when my organization skills fail (I can't keep up), I know I have been victimized by my own over-planning--the first clues are that my desk, book bag, grade book, and computer desktop are all a complete and utter mess. Don Graves believed good writing teachers were organized. For me, I have learned that organization comes more naturally when I am focused on the kids. When I am teaching the writers and not the writing (who and where the writers are today), I tend to slow down. My eyes, no longer on what has to happen next, are on the young writers in front of me. I am able to listen, observe, and record notes. I grow more willing to allow the students to tell me what they need and where they want to go next. I value what they say and create so much more than anything I produce from The Plan that I take better care of everything--if that makes sense. I organize better. And the organization is more effective and efficient in the long run.

When I spend more time with the students and less time perseverating over The Plan, I find the student's plan (aka desire or goal)...may not perfectly align with The Plan I cobbled together in August. In fact, it often is not perfectly aligned.

We can still plan (by that I mean ensure we cover curriculum, address Eligible Content, and meet the benchmarks) while also recognizing that each student has a right to take ownership of his or her own path through that learning process. While some kids need the trolley tracks we lay into the road, and some kids play the game of school and learn to comply and follow our directions turn for turn, we find more kids who thrive independently as soon as they realize that their voices and decisions matter. This is tricky to plan for because the kids who cant stay with our plan--the kids who walk rather than take a car, or those who travel without directions, or those who drive ahead at their own pace and take "wrong turns" (or blow through stop signs!) are the kids who traditionally frustrate us.

Why? Often, it is because they are not following our plan

And so often our plan is based on our watch. But here's the funny thing about time and learning, learning doesn't always happen on our watch, does it? So, as I start to piece a plan together for the upcoming year, I wanted to share why I am leaving more room in The Plan...more room for me, and more room (especially) for the students.

Flooding Desks & End Tables with Books

Flooding Desks & End Tables with Books

To Think as a Writer

To Think as a Writer