As you start the school year considering how your classroom may change to accommodate the Common Core, we suggest you start by stepping back to think about the big picture. There are two common challenges that can compromise learning in your classroom, and both can be addressed with one, simple strategy.
The first challenge is that of scheduling. Most educators have asked at one point or another: How do I fit it all in? Well, you can’t, as you are already aware, at least on some level. But each morning we begin the day and we try again to fit all the pieces into that six hours with students. Inevitably, when our time is crunched, we have to cut the same things. This means that our instruction is incomplete. For example, if your literacy block is 90 minutes and you want to have guided reading, independent reading, shared reading, and read aloud, you just can’t teach it all. More than likely, guided reading is the least likely instructional context cut and independent reading will take the biggest hit. Over time, this can form a pattern that undermines your efforts with students.
The second challenge is the temptation to search for a silver bullet or to put all your eggs in one basket; choose your cliche. We are referring to the tendency to favor an instructional context. For example, usually when you ask someone who teaches guided reading how they teach reading, they respond by saying that they teach guided reading. The problem with such a response is that it shows an imbalance in instruction. Guided reading was never intended to be a program. It isn’t the core. Guided reading was designed as part of a larger context, which includes independent reading, shared reading, and read aloud. Guided reading is not more important than these other pieces. The tendency is to set up guided reading and let the other pieces fall into place as they do, if they do. This sets up an imbalance in the classroom.
Our simple solution to both problems of incompleteness and imbalance, which are really just two sides of the same coin, is to plan your instructional week rather than your instructional day. Practically speaking, we plan with sticky notes and we implement with an egg timer.
PLAN: Assign a sticky notes of a different color to each of the instructional contexts you want to include in your classroom. For example, shared reading may be represented by pink sticky notes, guided reading by yellow sticky notes, independent reading by green sticky notes, etc. Now do the math! Figure out a balance of instructional contexts that really works, in order to give your students a complete learning opportunity. You may only be able to teach guided reading three days a week in order to also read aloud three days a week and engage in shared reading three days a week.
While these kinds of trade-offs may seem scary, they can actually make you more efficient. Much of what you previously accomplished in guided reading may be more efficiently taught in shared. Or you may find that you were teaching every student guided reading when some don’t need that level of scaffolding. Once you have a week schedule arranged, look at it as a whole. How balanced are the colors? Of course, this isn’t a rigid strategy. The time doesn’t have to be divvied up into exactly equal portions. Things will vary based on the age of children, the point in the school year, etc. In general, however, does the schedule look relatively balanced and relatively complete?
IMPLEMENT: Once you have a plan, you face the challenge of implementation. Of course, your schedule will vary from day-to-day. Now really concentrate on working within the timeframes. Use an egg timer and stop when you had planned to. This is really challenging, but if you do it a few times you will begin to really think about instructional time. If you know that you can’t run over the allotted time for guided reading, you will find ways to stay on schedule. Also, planning to stop, even if you aren’t finished, means that read aloud, independent reading, etc. don’t get neglected.
Of course, we are not suggesting militaristic implementations. We are not recommending that you teach robotically or become a slave to the clock. We are suggesting that, if you want to fit everything in, you will have to do a bit less of some things and a bit more of others. These kinds of changes require paradigm shifts. Shifts which can begin with a few pads of sticky notes and an egg timer.