In my work, I am blessed to be in and out of Catholic schools and classrooms all across this country where teachers and students are engaged in the work of teaching and learning. It is true that there are many things on a teacher’s to-do list and, truthfully, that list often feels bottomless. It is also true that the very best teachers I have known attend to a few things exceptionally well. Below is a list of three instructional ideas for more powerful and engaging classroom work:
1. Motivate your students with authentic texts and tasks: It is true that students are more motivated to learn when we, as teachers, have set before them a powerful, authentic task or purpose for their learning. Often this comes in the form of a high-quality mentor text (Patricia Polacco’s “Pink and Say,” Eve Bunting’s “Fly Away Home”) or a shared experience such as watching a piece of a documentary (Paperclips). The important thing is that we use ‘texts’ beyond the typical read-aloud fiction or informational textbook genres. We can and should push our students to ‘read’ and respond to a variety of texts in ways that readers and citizens respond in the world. Our learning has a purpose beyond the classroom setting.
2. Build learning routines: Many teachers spend lots of time perfecting classroom management routines (how to enter the classroom, how to sharpen pencils, etc.). But the best teachers I know spend just as much time building learning routines. These routines give students an important role to play in classroom learning lives. For example, in Jacksonville, middle school math students build and use interactive notebooks as a place to build and organize thinking for future study. In Washington, D.C., freshman English students work in cooperative learning groups to discuss character motivation, and second graders in Chicago busily work independently to keep a record of their own thinking in response to books they are reading. All of these are examples of how learning routines both cue and facilitate student learning.
3. Strive to build a culture for learning: Do not underestimate teaching students the value of effort and hard work. Be clear that this classroom is a place where thinking happens and work is accomplished. Build time to model and teach students that learning happens when we work with a sense of:
1) Urgency: We get right to work!
2) Independence: I always give it a try!
3) Agency: I have the tools and dignity to be a capable thinker and member of this learning community.
Every time I am in classrooms, I am thankful for the good and dedicated work of experienced teachers and mentors who go above and beyond for students and for new teachers who meet every dawning day with the energy and grace befitting a beginner. At this time of year, it is easy to lift up a prayer of thanksgiving for all those who teach—those who wake up every day with the goal of opening students’ minds and hearts to something larger than themselves, larger than all of us. What a blessing, indeed!