Updated: Jan 10, 2022
How Teachers and Leaders Can Respond Right Now to Students' Needs
Every now and again, I make a list in my notebook(s) and I brainstorm all of the new ideas, big dreams, and daily practices that I want to work towards. Sometimes my lists are a hodgepodge of any/all topics--like how to improve my physical health, create routines for our family, and maybe also sign another book deal. There are times when my lists are hyper-focused on one aspect of my life and times when they're simply meant to be a free-flowing brain dump. What I do know is that if I can dream it, write it, see it--I can work towards making space for that change and improvement in my life.
And it turns out that it's the making space that makes all the difference.
Because transformation is a process, we often like to start the journey on a date that feels starty, like January 1 (my birthday!) or the beginning of the school year, or a Monday. But the truth is that change happens whenever we decide to change. It's honestly that simple. We can start right now. Not when we have all the pieces, nor created all the plans, nor read all the books, nor analyzed all the various forms of data.
Change happens when we decide to do something about whatever "it" we are wanting to improve.
Over the past three years, I have learned some big, tough lessons about the power of making space for opportunity, connection, and creativity. From co-creating a podcast out of thin air, to co-writing our first book in less than six months, to creating my own company--creative changes have transformed my life. And none of these experiences could have happened if I had not first named my dreams, recorded them (in my journals) and then made space for connection, creativity, and purpose.
In classrooms around the world, we are desperately trying to respond to students' needs by analyzing pieces of data that tell us (we hope) which direction to head next. Which arrow to follow, so-to-speak. We are in a data rich, understanding poor conundrum. We have lists and lists of skills to potentially focus on, but we are often stopped dead in our tracks when we try to answer, "What will we do when they don't get it?" Because the truth is: often we have already tried our best. We don't know what to do. And we don't know when to do it. Or how.
When I work with teams, one of the very first steps is taking a look at their listed, paced out curriculums. Most teams fall on a spectrum between no maps at all to no room to respond to student needs because the maps are so tight. Somehow, someway, we need to strike a healthy balance of having a plan--having a goal in sight--and also having the space built in to our plan to connect to what our students need.
Learning, like life, requires space, connection, creativity and purpose. We may not know who will need a different strategy or support tool, but we know someone will. What if the secret to responding to data is to save ourselves space in our plans to actually respond? Right away. Like, that day (or maybe tomorrow).
What if we aren't supposed to wait until the next unit or quarter or year to reach and reteach a skill with a student? What if...waiting until the proverbial "Monday" to start the change is part of what's driving us insane and keeping us stuck?
Responding to data is tricky. If we only look at benchmark formative pieces (often given in standardized settings) it's like only checking the savings account or stepping on the scale every four months. We get this formative data that feels so disconnected from our immediate lessons that we aren't quite sure how to use it (if we use it at all). We tell ourselves, "During the next unit we can cover this again" or "After Thanksgiving I'll cut back on sugar and sweets." The change waits for another season, and we keep on carryin' on.
Instead of checking student progress through data every several months, and then scheduling data meetings every several months, why not create space in our team and PLC meetings to discuss data every week? And, rather than only looking at big data points like standardized tests and NWEA, let's work together to determine standards-based, classroom measurements that will help us know what our students need.
I don't need to wait until Monday or January 1st to change my health habits. I can drink more water and eat more vegetables today, and I don't even need to add meals to my diet. I simply need to make space for those healthy habits by swapping them with unhealthy ones. Water for soda (or honestly, wine). Vegetables added to every existing meal. I don't need a start date, and I don't need more time. I just need to put the short list of changes in place today. Now.
In my previous post, "Just-in-Time Responses to Real-Time Data," I share a simple process of:
The idea is that we can, at any point, respond to a student's misunderstanding by following this pattern with our questioning. Rather than throwing out an entire lesson (or waiting to add vegetables until tomorrow) we can respond, right away, with scaffolding techniques. The key here is that WE KNOW about this! Listen, when we sit together and say the words, "We'll reteach this" I don't know any of us really know exactly what that means or how to do it. I know I didn't know. And depending on the skill or standard, oh boy, I still don't always know how to help explain or connect information differently. But this structure helps.
It's not a new lesson plan; it's a respond I can use when I make space for it in my plan.
Another way we can proactively plan to respond to student needs, right now, is to leave space in our daily or weekly plans for small group instruction. I may not know who needs what, but I can know when we'll work on it. I can swap bell ringers and warm-ups for extra practice or revision time for students who need it. I can monitor my own pacing of my lesson design to ensure gradual release is occurring regarding reading and writing practices. I can design stations with 15-20 minutes of direct instruction that is tailored to needs of students.
And I can do all of this tomorrow, or today, in my own classroom. Not in an intervention. Not after school. Not next year. Right now, with me, with my students--responding to their needs.
Sometimes the hardest part of growth is actually allowing the room in our lives for the change to occur. We can't wish our way to improvement. Transformation doesn't happen tomorrow. It only ever happens today.
If we want to respond to our students' needs, we need to leave space and time in our plans for purpose, connection, and creativity. We need to leave open time for opportunity to connect with our students differently or to hear their rationale behind why they did what they did.
It is possible to have a plan that is open to opportunity. We simply need to build in time and space for the needs to be met as soon as we identify them. Then, we need to keep our response simple and connected to our students. The more daily growth we see, the more efficacy we build in ourselves and our students. The snowballing effect of, "This is working," takes hold, and new habits replace old ones.
We can respond to our students' needs any time of the year, any day of the week. Because the honest truth is, there's really nothing magical about Mondays.