By now, you have gotten to know your students pretty well. You know when they are sick, when they are happy or sad, when they have mastered a skill, and certainly, when they are struggling. By now, you should know their areas of strength and their areas of weakness. You are also probably looking at your own instruction and comparing the predicted success of this year’s class with that of your last year’s class. Ok, well…maybe that’s just me, but it seems to never fail. I always seem to compare my current practice and outcomes with past practice and outcomes.
You may be looking at this side-eyed, thinking this isn’t you at all. You might be thinking that there is no need to compare because you are doing what you have always done and, well…that is precisely my point. I know you have heard the saying, “you need to work smarter, not harder” at some point during your training. Don’t you remember the half-day teacher in-service you attended to help you put together your instructional strategy “tool box”? Or the professional development suggesting that you refrain from “reinventing the wheel” because “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” I have heard them more often than not! I have always interpreted these phrases to mean, do nothing more and do nothing less. Use what you already have and don’t tarry too long on any one skill. How incredibly insane is that thinking?
For the life of me, I cannot see how any of that makes any sense. I’d like to think it was the many opportunities I had to obtain an array of practical, constructivist approaches and experiences that helped me to realize how truly insane those phrases were. In the end, I learned that there is no growth, personal or professional, in this complacent way of thinking. Every year, we receive a new group of students. They look different. They act different. They learn and process differently. Yet, we reach into our bag of “tricks” and teach these different students the SAME WAY we always do, expecting different learning outcomes. This IS the definition of insanity as defined by Albert Einstein. If our students continuously change, why wouldn’t we change our instructional practices right along with them? We think it is because using what we already have and what we already know makes what we do easier, don’t we? But, how easy is this really?
When I think about “easy” and not “reinventing the wheel”, two skills come to mind that my students seem to struggle with every year and the tools I use every year to address them. The first skill that comes to mind is making an inference. When practicing inference, I have always used a set of inference cards I obtained from my time working in my previous district. The cards provide a short scenario and then a few guiding questions which allow students to infer (guess or draw a conclusion) what the scenario is really about. For example, a card may describe a scenario similar to the following:
Three brothers lived in the same town not far from each other, each with their own residence. They each built their own homes, but they each had different tastes in design and only one built his home with the best of the best materials. The brothers worked hard every day to outsmart the town bully who would never leave them alone. The bully always followed them around trying to ransack their homes.
Now, you may recognize this short piece as a rendition of the fairy tale, “Three Little Pigs”, but I found out quite quickly that when students have not been exposed to these early literature pieces (and there are many that have not…you would be surprised!), my inference cards are no longer useful. Yet and still, these cards make the list of activities to do every year! Why is that? If kids are unfamiliar with the literature and the cards bring confusion, why do they continue to make the list? That’s insane, right? Using the same strategy, with a different group of students; using the same instruction, with different learning styles and experiences; expecting a different outcome from the lesson when it is clear that following through with the lesson in this manner does nothing but further cloud students’ understanding. It is, by all appearances, a never-ending and all too familiar cycle.
The second skill that comes to mind is teaching fractions. During this unit, I generally have each of my students color and cut out fraction bars to use as a resource. I use them to teach equivalency and comparing fractions. It has proven to be an excellent resource for students to have. Well, that is…when students cut them out accurately and are able to keep up with them in their desks. Yet, every year, I have those few students who lose their fraction bars or cut them out inaccurately. And, every year, this fraction bar activity makes the list of things to do for the fraction unit. Even though it causes me unnecessary stress and tends to be more of a waste of time, I continue to use this activity thinking it will be better this time around. When really, it is just…insane!!
Here is another example of insanity. Every year, prior to state testing, teachers in the testing grades practiced test-taking strategies by teaching to the test. It is, again, what we have always done. Many of you have probably done something similar. For my school though, lack of supplemental funding to pay teachers stifled any hope of an after school program. Therefore, it was necessary to use the time provided during school in an attempt to close the achievement gap that inherently existed in our school. The teachers practiced with their individual classes and the principal practiced with entire grade levels. Now, don’t get me wrong, this strategy has been successful in the past, but more recently, not so much. Even with the effort we put towards preparing our students for the state assessment, our scores have not met adequate yearly progress and as a result, we have been at the “Academic Watch” designation level for years. Placed on a school improvement plan, the approach to close our achievement gap has not deviated very far from what has typically been done, until this current school year. Year after year, state assessment practice and preparation has looked the same…teaching to the test. Well, it turns out that this process, for us…drove us insane! We were doing the same thing, every year, but still were not able to get ourselves out of Academic Watch! Have we made some progress? Well, yes, I acknowledge that we have. But, not enough to be recognized by the state, let alone our own district.
So, how do you avoid going insane? You commit to making a conscious change. We often complain that change is so difficult, but I submit to you that this is only the case when we are not committed to the change. When you get tired of wearing your hair a certain way, you change it and wear it differently. When you get tired of eating hamburgers, you eat something different. When you get tired of watching television, you turn it off and do something different! When your workout becomes too normal and monotonous, you change it up and do something different! When it is something that matters to you, you change for your own benefit. We have committed ourselves to the lives of children and to the field of education. When we took those classes, completed our student teaching, and passed that test, we vowed that educating children was our passion. Why, then, have we fallen prey to the stagnated mindset of “why reinvent the wheel”? Metaphorically speaking, we “reinvent the wheel” in order to acknowledge and accept students’ differences and to meet them where they are when they come to us. Therefore, we are essentially making changes in order to refine our wheel, making it better and more suitable for our current needs, rather than reinventing it.
The fact of the matter is, the state of education is constantly changing. We see this with the transition from state benchmarks and indicators to the new Common Core State Standards Initiative. We see this in the shift from the two-year field experience/student teaching of old to the 3-year Resident Educator and Mentoring program requirements of new. Even the teacher evaluation process has changed. There are always changes. Difficult or not, we have chosen this field of education and committed to educating all children. So let us get recommitted. Let us take a closer look at our “tool boxes”. Are the contents of your box providing rigorous learning opportunities for ALL students? Is it really preparing our students for college? Are the skills meaningful and necessary for life? If the answer is no, then it is our job to change what we are doing! Change your instruction. Change your approach. Educators…commit to a change. Anything else is simply INSANE!