”We don’t have enough time to teach everything!” It’s a common complaint, and I don’t think a single teacher would disagree with it. Let’s take a look at areas we may be able to adjust so we can teach more efficiently and utilize each and every minute purposefully. Teaching, like the game of football, requires precision, constant adjustment, and knowing your game plan.
First, let’s dig into the standards and ask ourselves a few questions. Not every standard needs to be a main focus. Many districts have organized their learning standards into categories, such as Focus Standards and Supporting Standards.
- What are the Focus Standards for your grade level?
- What does each standard look like in the grade levels below and above you?
- What other standards are natural pairs with that one?
Organizing your planning and instruction around these ideas can streamline what you teach, when, and to what degree. Know the content limit of the standards for your grade.
I have walked classrooms and seen the same standard being taught in several consecutive grade levels, but instead of spiraling upward, nearly the same lesson was being taught, and sometimes using the same text. That’s not a great use of any teacher’s instructional time.
Here we are in the bleachers on Friday night. The Coach is biting his nails and checking his watch. It’s game time. Everyone in the stands is counting on his team to pull off a big win. Coach knows his players and has his first and second strings ready to go. Each player brings something different to the team and will support the team in different ways. Some are key players and some are not, but they’re all still important to the team because together they make the team stronger and better. Coach chooses how to pair players based on how well they compliment each other and play together.
Using Short-Cycle Data to Make Decisions
Does every school year need to start with two weeks of review from the previous year? Does every lesson or unit need to begin with reminding the kids of things they already know?
Often, teachers assume that students need more formal prerequisite instruction than the available data can help them provide. Tapping into background knowledge doesn’t mean repeating a lesson or rereading a book that was taught last year. Use short-cycle data (including quick responses to questions that students process through together while you listen for key ideas and vocabulary) to drive your starting point for instruction on a standard.
We are constantly assessing students, formally and informally. That data should be useful in determining a starting point of instruction. Whether it is within a bell-ringer activity, part of an exit ticket response, during a pre-test, or through questioning and task evidence, using data to determine where you begin, how you continue, and when you move forward can save you precious time. Listen to your students. They will tell you if they already did this last year.
The coin toss is over and the defensive line takes the field. The coach has strategically placed players on the field based on data. Practice time, number of successful plays run, ability to perform in current conditions, last year’s and last game’s stats, and information known about the opposing team. There is no time to try this person or that person. Coach needs to come out with the best plan, as there’s no turning back the clock and each misstep can impact the end result. He checks in with his defensive coach and together, they confirm their starting line.
Mini-Lesson Structures Help You Monitor Learning Immediately
If you’re familiar with the LSI Marzano Canter Essentials for Achieving Rigor, you know that chunking learning into a mini-lesson structure is critical for ensuring that students can process information after each teaching point. It gives you intentional, actionable information about where to go next in your instruction and, if you monitor as you go, you’ll avoid being surprised by a lack of understanding at the end of full lesson (or, dreadfully, at the end of the week).
A Mini-Lesson Structure looks like this:
- Teach a chunk
- Use a processing activity to assess
- Respond to the results right away
When you continue through each lesson in this manner, there’s never a question about where to go next and who got it—and there’s definitely no need to take tomorrow’s class period to reteach the whole lesson. Take those standards and break them down into teachable chunks. Then have a plan for adjusting as you go.
The first few plays have gone well, but Coach is ready to make some adjustments. The opposing players are faster and lighter on their feet than anticipated, so although the team is hanging in there, it’s time to change the lineup before the home team falls behind. Coach is not going to wait until points are missed when he can pause and make changes now.
Ask Questions Strategically; Don’t Require Completion of an Activity More than Once
To guide instruction efficiently, you need to know what your kids know, so find out while they are working through questions or tasks… the first time. How many times have you asked a student or group of students to repeat their conversation or tell you again what they just shared with their partner because you weren’t there to hear it the first time? Is that an efficient use of time?
Rather than have students repeat their activity just so you can check on their progress, intentionally plan who you’ll listen to, what you’ll listen for, and how or when you will do so. Even better, what questions or follow-up activities can they engage in to simultaneously deepen their understanding and give you the information you need?
When you pull students together and have several of them share out what they just did or the answers they came up with, does the whole group need to hear it, or just you? Can you work the room to find this out as they work? Can you give them a way to produce the evidence you need so 10 minutes of instructional time isn’t used up by them telling you what they know?
Coach’s heart is racing as his eyes scan the crowd and glance at the clock. He can tell by the roars that the crowd approves of the 21-7 lead that the home team has at half-time. He does not spend his time in the locker room reviewing the plays that went well and led the team to that lead though. Instead, he focuses on the plan for the second half. How does the team clinch the win? Not by doing the same thing again—that will only assure that players can repeat what they already showed him they can do. Time to dig deeper.
Be Ready to Respond to Whatever is Thrown at You
We have all had that moment in the classroom when you hope your poker face is as perfected as you think it is. That unexpected comment from a student, a mispronounced vocabulary word, or the blurted out joke that would be totally inappropriate for you to laugh at. Responding to student needs should be the same.
What will you do if students show that they already know the content? What if they’re not getting it, even after you performed the perfect song and dance? Don’t stand there like a deer in the headlights; plan for these scenarios and welcome the fact that you’re catching it now, in the moment, and have a plan for responding to it right away.
Don’t waste another minute looking at the 25 blank stares you are getting, convincing yourself that you should keep going just because Sally Smarty-Pants is nodding and gets it. Be ready to adjust on the spot. Just in case the kids are prepared to move on, have the materials ready for the lesson you didn’t plan on teaching until tomorrow. Taking the time to plan for the expected AND THE UNEXPECTED will save lots of time during instruction.
Of course the coach started the game with a plan. And the team knows the plan. But that has not prevented him from adjusting his strategy to respond to the plays that have been thrown at his team. He is not waiting until halftime or the next game; he is responding now, because every SECOND on the clock counts. He isn’t worried about the team not being ready to adjust. He isn’t worried that they can’t handle it or that he needs to get them ready first. This is the game they have trained for since they started playing football at the age of six. They can handle it, and you know he holds them to a high standard.
Two Minutes NOW Will Save 45 Minutes Later
It happened. You need to switch gears part way through your lesson because it’s just not going as planned. You freeze for a moment while you decide on your next move. Take the two minutes you need to regroup. Don’t keep pushing forward if the time is not being used well. Remember, we are talking about efficiency. Take the two or three or five minutes you need to adjust your lesson now, so you can save the 45 minutes that will be wasted if you continue moving forward as is.
Reorganize groups. Gather new texts and resources. Pull back to provide another teaching point first. Whatever pause you need to take will be worth the time you will save putting out fires for the rest of the lesson.
We are halfway through the fourth quarter and the game is quickly turning into a nail biter. The coach decides to call a timeout. He uses the time to regroup with his team and change their next play. Based on performance at the moment, he can see that the scheduled play will not work. He can also see that what he had planned will not support the team in the way they need at this exact moment. He chooses to pause, time take seconds to regroup, and then continue play again.
Efficient teaching takes careful planning and requires on-the-spot action, as well as continual analysis of how things are going. When they aren’t going well, efficient teachers have planned what to do about it and can adjust in the moment.