When my youngest daughter participated in competitive gymnastics a few years ago, her favorite event was the beam. I would sit in the bleachers, perched above the practice floor, and watch her every move with both awe and horror as she would leap into the air and then land on a 4-inch-wide surface, narrowly escaping death or dismemberment, as my motherly brain would perceive it. Her coaches would often call her the “Beam Queen,” and Sophie delighted herself in her ability to balance her body four feet above the ground while performing numerous tricks and adding even more skills into her beam repertoire each week.
This is a skill my young, athletic child did not get from her mother.
I have found that balance is not only a problem with my clumsy body, but it’s also a problem in my life and in my classroom.
If you know much about me, you know I like to try new things. I’m not afraid to be the first one to try something new in the classroom. And, to be honest, I’m not even afraid of failing when I try something new. I like to experiment. In eighteen years of teaching, I haven’t found the magic formula that makes all of my students motivated and successful, but I refuse to give up on the quest.
With every magical quest comes a set of obstacles and challenges, right? Well, this quest we call education is no different. And it’s very difficult to keep following the treasure map when there are so many distractions along the way. These “distractions” often come in the form of schedules that have to be followed, paperwork that has to be completed, or behaviors that have to be addressed. There is data to analyze, assessments to create, and units to plan, meetings to attend, grades to enter, state tests to take. It’s easy to find ourselves lost and confused and floundering to find our way and to remember what exactly we started chasing in the first place.
So I search for balance. Balance between what I have to do and what I need to do. Balance between what I already know and what I don’t know yet. Balance between preparing my students for the next grade and preparing them for life.
And it’s hard.
This year my balancing act is a little different from the years before. One thing that has thrown off my equilibrium a bit is a book we are reading in our collaborative planning time. Over the past couple of years, I have focused on innovation. What can I do differently to help my students achieve? To help them be better prepared for the world? To give them the education I wish I had? To inspire them, to help them discover their creative selves, to nurture a love of writing in them? I’ve also been piloting standards-based grading, which has taken up a great deal of my brain space and has challenged me to assess and plan differently by focusing on a set number of priority standards in an attempt to get students to truly master the standards they need to know before moving on to tenth grade. We have focused our curriculum on the skills in the standards, as most of the ELA standards are skills-based. The curriculum our Pre-AP teachers use focuses on poems, short stories, and excerpts of stories with only two full novels over the course of the ninth grade. I believe the number for tenth grade is three.
Then I was presented with a book that is all about going back to basics. Simplifying. Doing what you’ve always known to do. And it does not paint standards, especially the focus on individual skills-based standards, in a very positive light. How many full-length books should we be reading? 8-10.
If you have been teaching for very long, you know the struggle. The magic pill one year is poison the next. Then a few years down the road it’s magic again. Please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not complaining. Not in the least. As a matter of fact, the longer I’m in education (and in the world), the more I understand cycles and the more I understand why we can’t put our finger on the cure for education. We’re dealing with moving parts. At a conference I attended recently, Rick Wormeli said that students can hit a target as long as they know what it is and it doesn’t move. And he’s right. But as teachers, our targets are constantly moving. Yes, we come back to what we used to think was right before we thought it was wrong. Yes, we will possibly go back to what we now think is wrong and believe it to be the best idea ever. And we will keep doing this because we want our students to succeed. So if these ideas, old and new, all have merit, at least in their intent, the answer must be to find balance.
In my search for this elusive balance, I try to remember that no one book has it right. No one speaker has it right. No one Twitter post has it right. And no teacher, especially this one, has it all figured out either.
So I write this post to throw some questions at you, questions that I have asked myself again and again over my career, and, depending on the latest educational trend, have been met with different answers. Please offer your wisdom, your advice, your own challenges to the conversation as we all search for balance. We are on a quest, a challenging quest that seems like it will take a hearty dose of magic to complete. But we are not on this quest alone. I’m far from being a beam queen, but I’m four feet in the air trying to avoid landing on my face once again. Join me?
I’m going to set this up like a Twitter chat. Whether you choose to tweet your answer or answer in the comments, just begin your answer with A and the number of the question you are answering (ex. A1:). Then end your answer with #2ndarySBG. Answer as few or as many as you’d like. I’m looking forward to reading what you have to say!
Q1: How many full-length novels should a secondary Pre-AP (honors) class read over the course of a year? Should that number be the same for standard classes?
Q2: How much reading should students be doing at home vs. in class?
Q3: What should grammar study look like?
Q4: What is the best way to increase a student’s vocabulary?
Q5: Content vs. skills? Which one is more important? What should our focus be?
Q6: What is an instructional trend you wish would go away? What is one you wish would come back?
Q7: How much writing should secondary students do in a semester? What kinds of writing?
Q8: How do you find balance between “old school” and “innovation”?