Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Simplicity in the School

I've returned to school from Christmas Break and this morning as I was drawing up a lesson plan I got to thinking again about simplicity. That shaped the lessons I prepared and might be the way to pull myself up and make myself a better teacher.

I teach English, as you may have guessed from all the writing I do, and the best part about teaching English is that it's pretty basic. My job is to get kids to write and read better. There is all sorts of other stuff that people are likely to throw in the mix, but really it's about writing and it's about reading. I don't know a parent who, sending their kid to an English teacher, wouldn't want them to be better writers and readers. Those sorts of skills pay off.

When I think of my job as being part of a school, it's complicated. Today, I thought of myself instead as a swimming instructor. I admire people who teach swimming. It's a tough skill to learn especially since I think most of us are born with a fear of drowning. Swim teachers have to get through all the screaming, fighting, and thrashing. The best swim teachers help us understand that, at least for the most part, we float. They teach us that we can master the water.

Both of my daughters have gone through swimming lessons and the object is simple: learn to swim. Or, put in a negative light, learn how to not drown. Along the way, and because they are in a class, they learn how to get along with others, how to respect a teacher, how to listen, how to be heard, and so on. But the only reason for the swim lesson is to get the kid to learn to swim. Then, as the swimming lessons progress, the goal is to learn to swim better.

So it is with English class.

I have, this year, gone down the road of some worksheets and other activities that have done alright in the class (which is to say that kids did them without too much complaint) but that haven't helped them be much better readers or writers. That's okay. I'm not looking to bat 1000 or anything. But I am looking to have them be better writers and readers. Simplicity can help with that.

Today's lesson plan was simple. We wrote for ten minutes. We read to ourselves the words that we had written. We chose a portion of the piece (or the whole thing) to read aloud. We listened until it was our turn and then we each read aloud. We talked about ideas for writing. And then we wrote some more. We wrote until the end of the period.


Swimmers need time in the pool with a good instructor. Writers need time with pen and paper (or computer) and a good instructor. Readers need time with books and a good instructor.

There's a pattern there. (Subtle, aren't I?)

My lesson plan can't simply be "have them write" every single day, but it can hew close to that idea. The closer I get to having them write more and me talk less, the better. No one has ever learned to write by listening to someone tell them how to write.

Simplicity isn't an excuse, however, for sloppiness or laziness. Each student today wrote to me and I will write to each of them. The writing that I do will be less along the lines of a lecture and more like a partnership. I'll tell them what I see in the writing and I will give some advice (lecture), but mostly I will model how writing works by writing back to them.

As an example, most of the people I teach have no conception of how paragraphs work. I write back to them in paragraphs. I sometimes mention that to them, but mostly I let them see it. Occasionally, before we write, I ask them to be sure to have at least three paragraphs by the end (beginning, middle, and ending). They learn it by doing.

I don't have all of this worked out and that pisses me off some. I've been doing this for seventeen years and I still don't really know how to do it. Sometimes things have worked very well. Each of those times I have kept my classroom simple and I have worked diligently to be sure that people are writing, writing, and writing when we are trying to learn how to write.

In other words, when I want students to learn to write, I simply need to help them write on.