Author's Note: May the 4th be with you. How'd I do on the title? It was between that and These 6 Things Strikes Back. (These 6 Things: A New Hope seemed a little much.)
I was talking with my friend Dr. T a couple weeks back, and he said this line that had immediate resonance: “We're just trying to finish the year like we'd like to start.”
That's just right.
So what if I did that? What if I attempted to teach the final six weeks of the school year like I'd like to start this coming August?
These 6 Things — end of 2020-2021 school year edition
For those new to the blog, These 6 Things: How to Focus Your Teaching on What Matters Most is the most recent book I've published. It took five years of research and development and hundreds of conversations with thousands of teachers of all content areas. Below, I'll work through each of the six things in the book and apply them to the remaining month or so of school.
Before I start, two cool developments about the book:
- It's now on Audible — read by a professional! (If you sign up for a free Audible trial, you can listen for free!)
- It's now got a distance learning addendum when you purchase through Corwin. (And this bundle costs the same as the regular book did — sweet!)
Might I suggest a solid departmental investment into T6T copies for…everyone? I mean, c'mon — think of all the money we saved this year on paper. And whiteboard markers. And pants.
“What are the six things?”
⬆⬆⬆ This question is why I don't recommend titling a book These 6 Things. It's a really hard question to answer without boring someone (e.g., your grandmother, your neighbor, your yawning colleague).
The whole idea behind These 6 Things is that human beings can't become experts at everything. I'd like to, but I can't. I'm finite. So are you.
Because of this, the only sensible thing to do in a profession where minutiae multiplies and focus blurs is to be clear on what levers work the best for advancing student mastery for all learners and thereby equitably improving long-flourishing outcomes.
I count six levers with relevance across the subject areas. Some of these sound super boring and normal (that's actually a good sign), and a few sound unfamiliar to most folks. All of them require intelligent application. Ain't no silver bullets, but I'll be darned if these aren't swords.
- 1) Heart-level motivation: Students have to care about the work of learning, and care cannot be coerced. This is the heart of what I call the five key beliefs methodology.
- Because the five key beliefs language is not well-known, here are a few past posts that'll get you up to speed a bit:
- 2) Knowledge-rich curricula and learning experiences: Students of all ages want to have a chance to learn about lots of things, and background knowledge underlies just about all of the holy grails of education.
- 3) Argument-rich curricula: There are so many interesting things to think about and so many interesting angles through which to think about them. In a safe and properly knowledge-rich environment, students enjoy arguing. (And they pride themselves on learning to do it in a more humane and thoughtful manner than too many of us adults.)
- An abundance of mastery-targeted, literacy-based learning experiences where we:
Ta-daaaa! Six things. Master the interweaving of these parts into your practice — all aimed at deepening mastery for all the youngsters on your roster.
A quick disclaimer
You can't focus on six things at a time — that's a recipe for crazy. Any writer who tells you otherwise has a cold relationship with their editing scissors.
Instead, the idea is that as a professional you aim at mastering the use of these six elements. Your goal at all times is to simplify your planning and instruction — you want just the fundamental work that produces student growth. This buys you time and energy to grow in one or two of the T6T areas while keeping stable the remaining four or five.
You push in one to two areas per year and maintain the rest. (I describe this thinking in the book's conclusion. It's really important.)
So what's the plan in my classroom for the rest of this school year?
That last section promised to be my plan but ended up just being premise. This section actually will be my plan. This is the stuff I want to focus on during the remaining weeks of the year because these are the things I'd like to do when next year starts. “Finish like we want to start” — I got you, Dr. T.
Thing 1. Attempt a single intervention with each child for each of the five key beliefs before the end of the year.
This actually isn't as time-consuming as it sounds because I'm going to use the same exact intervention for every child, and all but one intervention will be administered with the entire class simultaneously. This is pretty cool because it works — there's a huge consistency throughout the literature on how the beliefs can be influenced at scale given the proper intervention (e.g., this study in Nature).
- Credibility: A moment of genuine connection for each child.
- Time required: 1-2 minutes per student, typically before or after class or during an independent work portion of the lesson. For an in-depth discussion, see this interview with Jen Gonzalez.
- Value: UVA researcher Chris Hulleman's Build Connections intervention.
- Time required: 15 minutes. Doubles as a content review and discussion exercise.
- Belonging: I brainstormed a few clever ideas for this one, but then I realized that I haven't done the Values Affirmation intervention with this year's students. Check.
- Time required: 15 minutes. We'll use it as a warm-up.
- Effort: The best method for cultivating the effort belief (more popularly referred to as growth mindset) is explicitly teaching students the kind of effort that works best for a given endeavor. My high school students all have exams between now and the end of the year. I will explicitly show them how to study key terms and teach them why the method works so that they can experiment and modify. The goal is thoughtful effort, wisely selected, intentionally applied.
- Time required: 15-30 minutes. Basically a mini-lesson with during-class practice and feedback from me while I check for understanding.
- Efficacy: A big part of efficacy is defining success clearly and wisely. We'll do a WOOP. (I actually call it GOOP with my students, switching Goal in for Wish. Feel free to switch Purpose in if you'd like.)
- Time required: 15 minutes initially, 5 minutes or so each week for a check-in.
Things 2 & 3. Build knowledge toward two burning questions and conduct pop-up debates at the end of the knowledge-building sequences.
In my district, I have a curriculum that I'm expected to teach and shared assessments my students are expected to complete. Our PLCs developed these pieces over the years through the PLC process, and I'm content to be a team player in these regards.
BUT, through finding instructional efficiencies in the shared curriculum, I end up with about 20-30% of class time that I'm able to invest toward pursuits that aren't in it. This gives me time to do two things:
- Build deep knowledge on certain questions the curriculum presents.
- Build deep knowledge on questions not found in the curriculum.
I've found that the most fruitful way for doing this in my class is to frame knowledge-building projects around “burning questions” (a lot more on that here; please forgive the non-updated page). Between now and the end of the year, I want to pursue two extra-curricular burning questions:
- Should humans attempt to colonize Mars?
- What was the most significant event of the Cold War?
These'll require learning more than we have to in the standard curriculum. In the case of the first question, none of that's really in the curriculum, but it provides lots of opportunities for incidental knowledge acquisition. In the case of the second question, it requires much more extensive study than the curriculum calls for.
That's it. That's plenty. Re: reading, writing, and speaking/listening (Things 4, 5, and 6 in the book) I plan to simply track the texts that we read and write and use my clipboard to keep track of student speaking contributions to the class. This'll give me information to ponder at year's end.
The point of all of that
I've got a few purposes with today's article.
First, taking the time to write this out has given me a boost of motivation. It's bolstered my beliefs in the final weeks of school. I believe I can succeed at attempting the things on the list above. They're specific and measurable — at the end I'll know I succeed by asking for each item, “Did I attempt this with my students or not?” They're valuable — I know this from the literature and from classroom practice before COVID. Because of their value, I feel good about the inevitable conversations my students will start about whether we really need to be doing all this reading, writing, speaking, and UGH-THINKINGGGGG! (I might be picturing a specific student right now.) And because they're all either identical or congruent with work I've done in the past, I don't feel overwhelmed by them.
That last bit is massive. I'm returning myself to the work that matters most. I'm coming home in a year where home's felt far away.
In super-close second place, I also hope that this article adds some tinder to your own internal fire. I want you to focus, to reduce these last weeks to things that excite you, things that you know work.
Third, I want leaders and teachers to get a sense for how new isn't better by default. I do need to bring some nuance to what I just said, but I've not the time today so I'll end by saying this.
There are two MASSIVE temptations in both teaching and leading:
- To chase after NEW because it seems like what you've been trying hasn't been working.
- To resist what's new because you've been around enough to know that the pendulum's always swinging.
More on that next time.