Yeah, But Are They Learning?

This week marked our one month anniversary.  We've been back in school since August 16th.  The whirlwind of learning names, settling students into a routine, and figuring out my various classes' personalities is slowing.  Instead of slowing down, this week, my busy is shifting - it's a conscious choice -  purposeful and necessary.

In the very beginning of the school year, our busy is wide.  We have to get to know the students in our classes.  For me, this means knowing who they are, what they like, and looking deeply at temperament.  I have to read them carefully to see what interests they have, what home and family might be like, what they are passionate about, and, maybe most importantly, what calms and reassures each student and what sets them off.  This kid excavation is necessary and all-consuming at the beginning of every year.  I can't help kids read and write their best if I don't know them.

The other part of the all-consuming busy at the beginning of the year is establishing routines, the "this is how we do it in this classroom."  These are the materials we bring.  Every.  Day.  This is how we start class.  Every. Day.  This is what reading time feels like in this room.  This is what writing in our Writer's Notebook looks like.  Small groups.  Conferencing. Whole Class Discussion.  Technology.  This stuff takes some teacher grit.  You have to repeat yourself like 9,000 times a day.  In a kind voice.  With a smile.  But, like getting to know my students, it is essential that my classroom become the kind of place that hums.   I need my kids to rehearse these structures, to feel comfortable and easy in these structures so that when I ask them to task risks, try new things, push their thinking, they do it from a safe place.

And that brings us to now:  the new busy.

This week, busy is shifting to an intense, laser-like focus on learning, growing and moving each student forward.  The lessons I teach at the beginning of the year follow a predictable pattern.  With small tweaks, I use many of the same processes from year to year to get our classroom moving.   But when we start our first unit of study (which for my reading classes is a unit on strategic reading), I can't rely on previously planned lessons; I have to become a researcher every day, watching, interacting, noticing and thinking about these kids in this room at this moment.  My lessons spring from my research notes. What happens in the next class must be based on what happened today, while keeping the end goal clearly in my head.  What moves must I make? What will help students understand this concept?  What texts will I use?  This busy is deep busy, careful busy, thoughtful busy.

As teachers, we have to be mindful not to let the busy activity planning part of teaching hijack our thinking and our focus.  You've probably had conversations about what you're doing in your classroom with other teachers.  We're reading this book.  We're writing this paper.  We're doing Socratic Seminars.  We've created a blog.  But, teacher friends, we have to remember:  the activities are not the THING.  The learning is the THING.  Activities are vehicles.  Learning is the goal.

The unit I'm teaching now progresses from noticing the thinking we do as readers (the reading voice and the thinking voice) to specific kinds of thinking to choosing which thinking will help us understand best and process information best.  If I'm not careful, activities can start driving my class instead of learning.  If I'm not careful, I'll be thinking about which texts to use and which activity I want to try instead of thinking about what my students need in order to grow.  My questions needs to be, "How well are students understanding this learning target?" and "What will move us forward in our thinking?"

This week the goal was to get kids to hear their thinking voice, which often whispers quietly in the background behind their reading voice which is loudly saying the words. I decide to model and have the kids stop and share with a shoulder partner what they were thinking.  I chose Deborah Wiles' picture book Freedom Summer as our vehicle.  By the end of the book, students were not only sharing with their shoulder partners - a whole class discussion, full of emotional reactions and questions had erupted.

I could have sat back and congratulated myself:  Yay!  Look at that great discussion! Only one lesson, and they get it!  Their thinking voices are ON.  But this would have been a mistake.  I'm not telling you not to celebrate (I was pretty happy about the discussion); I'm telling you to be a real researcher. In discussions we often hear the loudest voices, the ones who get it and want to share.  What we need to do is research all our students.  Is every student in this room learning?  How do I know?

I asked the kids to grab their own books, and gave them two sticky notes. "Jot down 2 thoughts you have while you're reading today," I said.  And then I grabbed my notes and started the real work of teaching:  I observed every individual and what was happening.  Now, remember, we've been reading for three weeks.  Their independent books are not new.  Students picked up their books and began reading.  I watched, scanning the room.  They kept reading. I kept looking. And looking. Why wasn't anyone writing anything down?

I started to check in, whispering quietly, "How's it going?" and "What are you thinking about?" to
students around the room.  Their pauses, hesitations and, with prompting, eventual responses were so telling.  While it seemed originally that the class was with me in that discussion, independently in their books, they were not.  They needed more than one quick lesson.

Without conferring with students, I might have moved on too quickly.  Instead, I was armed with great information for another lesson. The next class, students walked in to an Entrance Ticket asking them to tell me about the reading voice and the thinking voice in their heads.  Then we jumped into more guided practice.  I chose several articles from a Newsela text set on education, taped them to chart paper and divided the kids into groups.  This time, groups read the text together, stopping frequently to talk and jot down their thinking on the chart paper.  I observed, prompted, questioned, encouraged and praised the thinking I heard, all the while keeping my questions, "What are they learning?"  and "What is the next step?" in the front of my mind.

To be effective in our classrooms, we must be deeply engaged in what our students are learning. When we become researchers, observing and collecting meaningful data (like conference conversations, sticky notes, entrance and exit tickets), our students benefit tremendously.  They feel supported, and they feel successful. They are not just going through the motions of doing activities; they are becoming stronger and more independent.

I've given in to the idea that teaching is always going to be busy.  No matter what, there is always work to do.  But, I do have a choice about what that busy is:  is it activity-focused, or are we diving into the rich, deep work of being learning-focused?  To me, that is where the busy of our work pays off and means something.


  1. WOW. I'm pretty sure I get caught up in the lure of activities far too often. This is a powerful reminder to focus on what is actually important. (But I can't help from noticing that I love the activities you did too!)


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