Creative Scheduling in Middle School
“What we do with time is what we do with our lives. When we are ‘unable’ to spend time on what we most value, it is because we have not found a clarity of purpose. We have lost our maps, lost our rudder, and we drift aimlessly, as if time were not passing, as if this teaching life were not ours to live.” ~Randy Bomer, Time for Meaning
The one question that comes up again and again, no matter what part of the country I happen to visiting, is TIME.
Notice that I didn’t even have to type it out as a full sentence? No question mark needed. Just the word on its own, and every teacher knows exactly what it means. Time. Time? Yes, time.
How do you find time for writing workshop? Especially in those upper elementary grades and middle school where teachers are often departmentalized and given only a certain number of minutes per day to teach writing, and sometimes those minutes are ELA all-included. Sometimes it’s only every two days, or there days on three days off, or some other arrangement.
A FEW BOTTOM LINES REGARDING SCHEDULING
1. You want to have as much time for actual writing as possible. If you have limited time, than it becomes crucial that minilessons are TRULY mini. See this post here on how minilessons turn into maxilessons for more on that.
2.You want to be able to have as few days in between each day of writing as possible. Sometimes teachers I work with have tried having writing one day, then reading the next, then back to writing the day after that. Now imagine that kind of planning on an every other day type of schedule. Ack. I’ve found that that the alternating-by-day plan is less effective than just having a whole writing unit, then having a whole reading unit. Divide the time equally, but divide it by whole units if you must, rather than day by day.
3. Ideally, you want to finish a unit of study inside of 5-6 weeks. Generally, by the fifth week the level engagement is beginning to dwindle. By six weeks you and the kids are ready to move on. Enter the seventh week at your own risk! Keeping to a five or six week deadline if you only see your kids 2-3 times per week means you may need to adapt your resources, whether you’re using Units of Study for Teaching Opinion, Information, and Narrative Writing by Lucy Calkins and Colleagues, or if you’re using something else. Use your pre-assessments to determine which lessons you really need to teach, and which lessons you might leave out.
SOME MORE IDEAS
1. Major and minors. If you teach writing alongside something another subject, say reading, or social studies, try to divide your year into major units. Each unit will have a major emphasis and a minor. Let’s say Unit 1 is going to be a major writing unit (with maybe some minor reading work going a few minutes a day, or at home). Then let Unit 2 be a major reading unit, and Unit 3 can be a major social studies unit, pulling from all that kids have learned so far about writing and reading. You might take a few days in between units to do something interdisciplinary like a short shared research project, or a performance task, or a creative project, and then dive into the next major unit.
2. Transitions. If you coteach, minimize transition times as much as possible. It may seem like a great idea for kids to divide up multiple times a day for various groupings and parnterships, leveled in various ways. But each time kids move to a new classroom, there are minutes spent getting ready to go, going, arriving, settling in, and getting back on task (there is a social aspect here too, but that is for another post). Be honest with yourself about the time that is lost in these transitions. Personally, I avoid moving kids from room to room at all costs, though I realize sometimes it’s just not an option. I once visited a school and was stunned at how long it was taking for kids to divide up into reading groups. They were spread across two classrooms, divided by levels. It took kids at least 2-3 minutes to gather up their books and materials, another 2-3 minutes to walk next door to their respective rooms, and then another minute or two to settle business with the other teacher, and finally get going on a minilesson before they ever even cracked a book open. Ten totally unnecessary minutes were spent transitioning, and that was on a good day. Once teachers decided to just keep their kids for reading and work with the range within their class, instead of trying to divide by levels, kids were getting much more reading done during reading time, and said they enjoyed reading more now that they didn’t have to divide up by level.
2. Prioritize and focus. You can’t teach all things all the time. Sometimes it’s tempting to get into the “kill two birds with one stone” mentality and try and teach everything as a multidisciplinary, integrated unit. Sometimes those units can be lovely, rich, challenging, thought provoking experiences. I especially love an integrated unit that allows kids to pull from what they have already learned in separate units all together into one big project. When I was a new teacher, interdisciplinary teaching and inquiry were all the rage and I fully embraced it. I tried to make EVERYTHING connected. Fairy tales to fit with our science unit? No problem. However, I’ve come a long way since then, and so have most experts on the topic. Most people now probably don’t think it’s a good idea to try to bend and twist your writing workshop to fit into social studies all the time nor vice versa. Writing is a content area in its own right, with its own standards and vocabulary and skills that need to be taught, and it’s important to always ask yourself, “What is the best way to teach this type of writing to this group of kids right now?” Often the answer is to go ahead and teach an incredible in-depth writing unit separately from your totally amazing social studies unit.
Author and teacher extraordinaire, Randy Bomer, is often quoted from his book Time for Meaning:Crafting Literate Lives in Middle and High School saying, “We make time for what we value.” I heard him say those words in person a few years ago at one of our think tanks at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. He also says that all we have is time. Time is your life. How you spend your time is how you spend your life. Lucy Calkins also has said these words or similar to me so often at the Reading and Writing Project that it has become a mantra for my teaching, my parenting, and my life. And I always think of these words whenever teachers ask me that number one question. Time.