“What are your burning questions right now?”
The first time someone asked me this, I was a fifth year teacher at a group interview in a coffee shop in West Michigan. We were all there interviewing for the Lake Michigan Writing Project's annual summer institute — four weeks of intensive professional learning with a group of sharp colleagues.
This kind of thing — extended PD, during the summer — wasn't really my kind of thing back then. But Crystal and I only had Haddie at the time, and she was a baby. There was a small stipend for the LMWP experience, and some of my colleagues just raved about the learning that takes place — colleagues that I really respected.
So I went for it.
That LMWP experience proved seminal for me. It was the first time, for example, that I was ever required to lead a professional development session — I've done 100+ since then — and it was the first time that I'd been encouraged to write as a means to develop myself professionally.
But my point isn't to laud LMWP's summer program today — it's to ask you what your burning questions are.
You see, I think that question — What are your burning questions right now? — has proven to be the seminal question of my career. Looking back, I see that the trajectory shifted right there.
“Oh,” I remember thinking. “That's interesting. What are my burning questions? I should probably have some.”
I didn't need to look. There were things that I was wondering about and wrestling with, things that I wanted answered.
Burning questions drive our learning. In the summer of 2012, when this blog was about the Common Core, I started thinking, “Geez, this is a lot of standards. How in the world can I organize these things in my brain? What can they be reduced down to so that I can actually do them?”
Six years later, that burning question has evolved — “What does impactful teaching boil down to — all across the content areas?” The burning question ended with a book-length answer: It seems to boil down to These 6 Things.
This isn't to say, of course, that our burning questions need to end with us writing books — but they all ought to end with change and with growth and with more questions.
What are your burning questions right now? The first step is defining them. Do that in the comments. And if you're feeling generous, interact. Comment on your colleagues' questions.
(I'll be down there, too.)
One thing that is really starting to take shape for me is how rich and deep the inner lives of my students are. The behavior (both academic and social) that I and my colleagues see from them does not truly reveal what is going on internally. I get glimpses of from what I read in their Writer’s Notebooks, and there is real struggle down below the surface, productive struggle. More and more I find myself of the mind that it would be really beneficial for students and teachers if that struggle was made more visible (or audible). Take it out, unpack it, undress it (sorry of that’s crude), and get to the bottom of the struggle, perhaps helping young people to reframe their hang ups, barriers, and obstacles in more productive ways.
Here’s my burning question: how do I create an environment in my classroom (or how does a school create an environment) where young people feel comfortable enough to engage in productive metacognitive struggle through both speaking and writing? How do I get my students to see value in bringing out their uncertainties, their unfinished thoughts, their rough draft ideas to talk and write about them? And in the talking and writing, in the exploration, they grow more confident in their learning, though not necessarily their certainty?
(This question, as I am framing it, is still unpolished and unfinished, but I relish the opportunity to bring my thinking out. Thanks, Dave!)
J, this is awesome. My guess is that the belonging belief (which you are so capably working on with your homemade attributional retraining intervention) will be a key foundation for these kinds of conversations. Powerful stuff. Thank you.
I love that you said in your book that any of the 6 could be a long term study area (but I don’t think I said that in the blog about our #G2Great chat here – http://literacylenses.com/2018/10/these-6-things-how-to-focus-your-teaching-on-what-matters-most/).
So my burning question is: What advice would you give elementary teachers (say 4th grade teaches all content areas) to get started? Teacher has Mt. Everest statement.
Now what: Pick something that needs strengthened? (shorter study – already some success)
OR Pick something totally different than what currently doing? (room for huge growth)?
Fran, I wrote an epic response here and then the commenting featured wigged out on me. Ergh!
First, folks should check out Fran’s blog post because it’s thorough and thoughtful and helpful. What a great synthesis of an encouraging, thought-provoking #g2great chat. (http://literacylenses.com/2018/10/these-6-things-how-to-focus-your-teaching-on-what-matters-most/)
Now, my take on your question is this: Because we’re in the thick of fall, I’d probably recommend that that 4th grade group of teachers focus on something that can be strengthened. Then, perhaps going into the New Year, perhaps pick something that can be added on. As you know, this time of year can feel really overwhelming — I know it often does for me.
Ica Rewitz says
My burning question is what are the most effective ways to intervene with students who struggle in reading and writing? I know that part of the answer is to increase the amount of reading and writing that they do. My school has an intervention period 2 days each week, and I’m wondering how I can best work with the kids who I know struggle with their reading and writing skills?
What a wonderful burning question. Here are my two cents as you continue this great pursuit, Ica:
We want those kids to experience success with reading and writing during those intervention periods so that we can start cultivating the key beliefs for them around those two important kinds of work. Often my struggling readers and writers have spent so much time not succeeding at reading and writing that they are convinced that they won’t succeed on whatever today’s assignment is. We need to get them thinking smaller scale, one task at a time, and working to strategically attack the work at hand.
Because your students are adolescents, be wary too of making these intervention tasks too easy — that can be offputting and actually undermine the five key beliefs.
Julie H. says
I’ll be brutally honest. My burning question for this school year is: How do I keep four preps going, two of them new and three of them honors, without losing my mind? How do I write 20 lesson plans per week, four semester exams, four final exams? How do I keep up with the copying, the posting to Google Classroom, the grading, my god, the grading? How do I form meaningful relationships with my kids when I can barely keep track of what period I have them and what class that is (because of course, none of the same preps are back-to-back). How do I establish routines in classes I’ve never taught before and how do I keep track of what I’m doing in each prep long-term, because I teach in a small school and I will potentially (and probably) have some of my freshmen in some capacity for their sophomore and junior years as well? I am not a new teacher. I am a 22-year vet who still loves the content (English) and the kids (90% of the time). But I feel like my brain is too old to keep all these balls in the air. I currently write my lesson plans in a lesson plan book (very briefly, for example, “Discuss chpt 1 Gatsby, draw first 3 paragraphs of chpt 2”, not in great detail). Then I post them on a website; each of my preps has their own page, and I start off each class period by projecting that weekly plan, and reminding them (and me!) of what we’ve done this week and where we are going next). I check my lps for every class each night before I leave and each morning when I get here, to double-check that I have everything posted and copied and ready to go…and yet every day at some point in some class, there is a screwup…I didn’t copy the backside of a paper, or I posted the wrong thing on Google Classroom, or I posted it in the wrong class. I HATE looking like I don’t have my act together (and feeling that way). I have 15 years left before retirement, so maybe my real burning question is: How can I keep this up for 15 years?
As a small-school veteran of a several different brutal years of 4+ preps, I feel your pain. I’ve had to learn to fight off my guilt over not having everything customized, diversified, and perfected, as some rock-star teacher authors and PD presenters would have me do. (In contrast, I so appreciate Dave’s realism and practicality!) In my 25th year as a high school ELA teacher, I look back and wish that long ago I’d have known more of Dave’s “satisficing” strategies for the avalanche of stuff we face. My wife also teaches here at our high school, and she could vividly portray some of my seasons of nothing-is-ever-good-enough-despair. Julie, I hope you have–or can gather with–a few allies to help you process the overload. Online and/or locally, those allies are big part of what make me think I can survive this for another 5 to 10 years (with good behavior?). Maybe that’s the next online course or community for Dave or another colleague to develop: Teacher Overload Recovery Group?
Julie, do yourself and your students a favor, and grade a lot less (Dave has great advice for better, saner grade practices). And, really, getting the students to talk it out among themselves saves you so much work and prep. Take the time to listen to my friend Marisa Thompson talk with Jennifer Gonzalez on the podcast Cult of Pedagogy. When it comes to novels, she has cut her grading down to nearly nothing, while her checking for understanding has gone through the roof: https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/tqe-method/
Very soon, I will be talking with Jennifer Gonzalez about how to get students to hold “Ongoing Conversations” where they drive most of the inquiry and help one another to close the gap. It really brings the grading down a ton, and listening to the students really helps breath life into the practice. Ahead of my talk on Cult of Pedagogy, you can see my post about this here: https://makethemmasterit.com/2018/07/14/think-pair-share-is-overrated/
I feel like I just gave you homework, but trust me, if you work this into your practice, you will find yourself looking forward to all the wonderful conversations you will be having with your students. And they will too!
Julie — thank you.
I don’t see a way that you *can* keep this kind of complexity up for 15 years unless you are made of much hardier stuff than me. With that many preps, I’d take that brutal honesty and apply it to all of those things. Posting on Classroom and doing what you’re doing there is a good thing — but is it necessary? Do you have to do it? If not, I’d stop doing all of that and start expecting students to write down what they need to do. Not because I want to be a jerk or unprofessional or anything like that, but because there are just way to many moving parts for me to stay sane in the system you’re describing.
Julie H. says
Thank you both for your validation that what I’m dealing with is complex. I was worried it would come across as whiny! Fortunately, I do work with talented colleagues who are supportive (although they do not have four preps so I sometimes wonder if they truly “get it”; they are also Type B personalities. Side note: I think ONLY Type B personalities should be assigned four preps! Lol.
What I post on Google Classroom is assignments that they will complete online, or links to the Google Slideshows or Prezis I present in class so they can review later (and also so absent kids have access to them). I think if I ditch anything, it will be the writing down of lps in the book. This year I am keeping the lps for each week posted on the weebly website until the end of the quarter and then I am copying and pasting those into a doc for me to review next year when the circus starts all over. Part of the problem is that due to College Credit Plus, two of the courses I teach are courses I have taught for years but now have been cut to a semester instead of a year. It’s so hard (although maybe good for me) to really narrow down what texts and lessons are the most important to teach. Those honors courses lose out on some meaningful but time-consuming activities, though, since I have to fly through stuff to get even the most important content covered in just one semester.
I agree with jnolds, Dave…your practical and realistic approach is so refreshing and I am always grateful for it! I’ll be coming to OCTELA in March and am looking forward to hearing you speak!
My burning question: How can I encourage leaders and coworkers to focus on enduring and effective approaches to teaching our students? The challenge seems to involve very different views of what’s best for students (often very different views of what constitutes long-term flourishing). As the economy recovers, more ideas for how to “fix” school are popping up. It’s a challenge to be amicable in all this in the face of the steady and predictable flow of “new” things and cure-alls that blow through and then burn out so quickly.
Angela Keller says
I so love what you do! It is a blessing to follow you and your blog. So many times you have spoken right to my heart!
Here are my questions:
How can I assure my students are being accommodated when I cannot be there every moment? How can I assist my teachers in accomdating and modifying assignments without expect way too little? How can I do all my paperwork needed and still be present at both home and school?
I am a 7-12 SpEd teacher (the only one in the building) and I am trying my best to mentor our k-6 teacher plus be the coordinator of SpEd. I love what I do but I need more balance of things. Too much Martha and I need to be more Mary!
Thanks for all you do!