Part 2 Of A 5 Part Series

As a first year teacher, because I wasn’t part of a quality mentor program, I assumed…a lot.  When we assume our students already know “stuff” or that they automatically comprehend what we are instructing them on, we are not only impeding their learning process, we are missing awesome opportunities to pass on life long skills.

This past weekend was the final dance competition of the 2016-2017 season for my daughter’s high school dance team.  In my personal opinion, it was the most competitive event to date.  The dancers who participated really danced well, and my daughter danced beautifully.  But that’s not really why we’re here.  I want to go over a major observation.

When I’m out and about in the world, I make it a point to constantly learn.  And any time an event or situation occurs that I can relate to my personal life or my work life, I try to walk away with something that will make my life/work better.  Well…this weekend I witnessed quite a few things that I think relate to the learning environment, and I walked away with a major call to action.  We teachers need to make sure our learning environments have their norms and routines. There needs to be a consistent structure.  Students need to know what to expect with reference to what happens next, amount of time per project, and whether or not they are going to have all of the materials they need to complete any and all classroom tasks.

After my “Dance Competition Observations” this weekend, I noted 3 problem areas that the promoters of the competition did not deal well with that caused quite a bit of chaos behind the scenes.  I saw similarities in certain issues that tend to arise in our classrooms more often than we’d like to admit  Each one needs to be addressed ASAP if our learning environments are going to be “life changing” for our students. The areas of concern I want to spotlight in this section are Assumptions , Sticking To Set Schedules, and Available Resources, and how poor management of each can have major negative impacts on our classroom structure.

Don’t Assume Your Students Are Prepared (Make Sure They Are)

In every dance competition that we’ve been to in the last 15 years or so, every time a dance is about to begin the announcer says, “Dancers, your music is on.”  It is a simple statement that lets the dancer(s) know that hey…you’re about to dance.  It is a statement of preparation that gives the dancer comfort in knowing what is about to happen.  It is a consistent structure that all dance competitions have, and that all dancers are used to.

The competition our dancers performed in this past weekend did not make that a part of their routine.  They would announce the dancer or dance team.  The dancers would march into position, and the music would start.  Sometime it would start quickly after the dancers were in position, and sometimes it would start 5, 10, even 15 seconds after the dancers were in starting positions.  They never knew when the music would start, so they were very anxious and nervous and this had an impact on their performance.  They never knew what to expect.  The competition promoters assumed that the dancers would be ready.

In the classroom, we all too often do the same thing.  We assume that because we’ve spent hours creating a lesson or writing curriculum, that everything will be awesome.  We have great ideas in our heads and we want to share it with our students, but we never really prepare our kids for the experience.  We assume they will “pick it up.”  In reality, when we throw a new curriculum or classroom concept at students, they get anxious.  They’ve been doing things a certain way for quite a while, and now we want to change it. 

Case in point.  One year I wanted my Science class to create an animation of the moon’s orbit around the Earth.  This animation needed to include position labels as the moon orbited the Earth (Waxing Crescent, Waning Crescent, New Moon…etc.) and it needed to be somewhat scaled.  I was also the Design/Technology teacher so I had access to the computer lab and the software needed to make animation.  It was a great PBL and it turned out great…but not before some major chaos.

You see, I had taught animation in my Design/Technology class, so those students knew what to expect with reference to animation.  I handed out the rubric, discussed the parameters of the project and turned them loose.  I assumed everyone was going to able to handle the animation portion of the project.  Huge Mistake.  I had about 5 students in the class who had not taken any of my D/T classes and who were totally lost.  Bless their hearts.  In less than a I realized what a huge mistake by assuming all students were prepared and ready to go.  One student was almost in tears.  They were not expecting that kind of assignment.  My assumptions were wrong and because of that, these students were not properly prepared to gain any knowledge from my lesson.

The project went longer than expected because I had to differentiate a bit and give a crash course on animation to a handful of students.  Eventually those students were able to turn in animations, but I don’t think they were as good as they would have been if instead of assuming everyone had the needed skills to complete the project, I’d checked to make sure everyone had the needed skills to complete the project.  That was my bad, and it was a huge lesson for me.  Letting students know what to expect is a crucial part of the classroom experience.  We all know the old saying, “You know what assume does…it makes an ASS out of U and ME.”  That was the truth.  Those few students lost all trust in me for a while.  They did not know what to expect going forward. In their mind, I was an @$$ for making assumptions.

I left them hanging, and I’ve been conscious of my assumptions ever since. Assumptions have their place, but in a classroom…not so much.  Effective classroom structure is based on what we know…not what we assume.

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Don’t Assume Your Students Will All Finish At The Same Time (Know That They Won’t)

Another issue that our dancers experienced this past weekend was the fact that the competition promoters did not stick to the schedule they sent out weeks in advance.  In fact, my daughter was almost on the receiving end of a poor scheduling decision.  Schedules go out weeks in advance to the competing schools so that they will know how best to prepare for the competition.  These schedules help the directors and students know when and where their girls (and boys) need to be at any given time during throughout the weekend. 

This particular weekend, at this particular dance competition, my daughter was scheduled to dance her solo at 10:52am.  The competition was running 10 minutes ahead of schedule so that would have put my daughter dancing at 10:42.  The problem was this…my daughter’s dance director had her scheduled to run through her dance backstage at 10:42(ish).  If she’d gone onstage at 10:42, she would not have had time to mentally prepare for the dance.  When one of the event coordinators came backstage to tell my daughter to go on, my daughter’s dance instructor said, “Nope!  She goes on at 10:52 per the schedule.”  The event coordinator, not wanting to mess with out director, suggested a 10 minute break.  This allowed time for my daughter to prepare, and it got the competition back on schedule so all the teams were happy and not worried about schedule shifts.  It is one thing to make a slight schedule change the day the schedule goes out…it is a total other thing to make changes to schedules that have been set in stone for weeks.  Dance coordinators look at these schedules and line our very detailed routines that have to happen at very detailed times so that everyone is prepared.  It sets the structure for the weekend activities and when you’ve expected things to go one way for weeks, and suddenly they change…that is a disadvantage to the dancer(s).

Poor time management has the potential to mess up our classroom structure more often than we think.  We set a time of 2 days or 2 weeks for a lesson objective or project and suddenly, students are finishing before we had anticipated.  Two-thirds of our class is still working on their tasks, and one-third is finishing up.  We begin to panic.  Some of us even start trying to rush the students still working.  Why?  They were given a deadline, and that deadline is not yet here.

Before we know it, all but one student is finished and the others are done.  But, the assignment due date is still a day or two away.  We’ve totally underestimated our students potential, the time frame we created is out the window, and now we’re scrambling for “busy work” for them to do while the remainder of the students complete the lesson.

Students work at different paces.    We need to understand that and prepare something for them to do while the other students are finishing their work.We need to stand by our schedule and honor what we’ve told our students.  We should never rush a student or change our due date.  We have to make sure that all students have the same opportunity to turn in quality work. 

Don’t get me wrong, if all of the students have finished their assignments and you still have days before the end of the project/lesson/assignment, then by all means…change your schedule.  That is totally fine…and should be done.

We need to allow all students time to finish, then we need to re-evaluate the project.  Maybe next year we need to shorten the amount of time we give for the assignment.  Maybe next year this becomes a group project instead of an individual project…or vice versa.  Never punish students for sticking to your original schedule.   

Don’t Assume You Have All The Resources You Need (Make Sure You Do)

OK…this one maybe a little selfish because I like pizza.  Let me explain.  The coordinators of this event started announcing that they would have pizza slices ready for purchase in the cafeteria (we were at a school) at 11:00am.  My daughter’s team had a dance at 11:30, so I just figured we’d go and get pizza after their dance and enjoy a nice lunch break.  Big Mistake!

When we finally got to the cafeteria, they were sold out of pizza and offering nachos instead.  And poor nachos at that.  I was crushed.  There was an announcement stating that they had run out of pizza but that more was on the way.  We had a limited window for lunch, and it did not seem that we’d be getting pizza, even if the stock was replenished. 

I’ve seen it in my classroom, and I’ve seen it in the classroom of others.  We get a great idea for a project or “super lesson” and we distribute all of the needed resources only to discover we either don’t have enough initially OR students run out of much needed supplies during the most integral part of the project.  Totally uncool!

What do we do?

Simple.  We need to make sure that the students have all of the resources and materials they need to be successful.  And as sad as it is to say, we can’t always count on parent to get the needed resources for our students.  Time and cost constraints often times don’t allow parents the opportunity to get the items students need.  So as much as possible, I try to keep the resource/material collection in house. 

Don’t let pride stand in the way.  Sometimes we need to be resourceful to get resources.  Shoot an email out to the entire campus asking for materials.  I’ve had teachers and administrators bring in hundreds of plastic soda bottles before.  When I have students design Rube Goldberg Machines, I ask staff members to bring all plastic bottles, yarn, scrap wood, etc. that they can find laying around the house.

The bottom line is, we need to look at what is needed to make the project/lesson successful and then make sure we have MORE THAN ENOUGH. 

How many times did I run off papers to pass out to students during my first year (ok…fist 3 years) of teaching only to find our around 5th period that I did not have enough for each student?  What I should have done was make sure I knew how many students I had in class, and run off 10 extra…just in case.  That especially goes for papers that we send home that need to be signed.  Expect 10% of the class to lose theirs and need another copy to take to their parents.

Take Away

If only the even coordinators putting on the dance competition this past weekend would have known what was needed and not assumed.  MAN…The experience would have been a whole lot better.

Don’t be like them.  At the end of the day, we need to know what is going on at all times…not assume we know what is gong on in our classrooms.  We need to make sure every student has the same opportunity to succeed and that they have every resource they need to be successful. Know! Know! Know!  Never assume!

~Mitch

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