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Tricks for Surviving the Mid-Winter Teaching Blues

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It’s January, and pretty much everyone in my school building has been battling an endless cold. Just when it seems things are about to settle down after the holidays, grades are due, then benchmark testing, and then there's the middle school town hall and any number of other events that require an additional exertion of energy.

Next up … flu season.

It truly can be a difficult time to power through, especially when teaching is demanding of us on so many levels—physically, intellectually, socially, emotionally, even spiritually—and the cold, short winter days (here in the northeast, at least) have us feeling depleted. On the other hand, this is a time of year that can also provide unexpected moments of joy that buoy us along toward spring. Here are two mental shifts that can help us through.

1. Look out for big leaps in learning.

Culturally, schools have us attuned to expect incremental growth from our students—daily, weekly, monthly. With some students, we feel we can see the small steps they make with each of our carefully crafted lessons and assessments. There is something extremely gratifying about that. Yet other times, with other students, we really can’t see this progress. It’s easy to conclude that such a student isn’t learning in our class, and that can be quite a downer, especially when we’re low on energy ourselves. That conclusion, however, is often false. And one day, any day, you may see a tremendous leap.

This past week, one of my students, C, whose attention seemed to be all over the place at the beginning of the year, who had struggled with reading for years, and who was brutally honest about not enjoying it at all, read through the assigned 300-page book by herself—two weeks ahead of the pacing calendar. I know this growth didn’t happen all in one week, and I can now think back to some signs that something was shifting for her. However, I had no idea she would blaze forward like this … until she did.

It feels like a small miracle. But it’s not so different from how a lot of learning looks. When my daughter was learning to crawl, she spent weeks rocking back and forth on her forearms and knees. And then one day, she went from rocking to crawling! In an instant, she was mobile. Sometimes that moment of mobility is all we’ll see.

A big leap can be a loud moment. Or it can be a quiet one, like when my student H recently went from writing mostly literal, underwhelming responses to his reading to offering critical analyses. He didn’t announce it, and it would have been easy to miss if I weren’t paying attention.

My point is that your garden is growing, and not always in predictable ways. But January is often when we start to see these big leaps in learning that have been incubating. Don’t miss them when they happen. Students need our positive attention; and equally so, these gifts can lift us out of the winter doldrums.

2. Adapt to your changing students.

Around this time of year, it’s common for certain routines or strategies for leading the class that had previously worked well to break down.

For years, when this happened, I assumed the problem was with me—I blamed my lack of consistency in maintaining the routine or in giving enough written feedback to students. But the other side to it is that the students are growing physically, cognitively, and socially. Their relationships with one another are changing. Their relationships to the content of the class are changing. And their relationships to me are not the same as they were in September. It is no wonder then, that students respond differently to certain things than they did in the fall.

How we adapt to the changing group dynamics will look differently in each classroom, and the cues will come mostly from the students themselves. It’s the concept that the students may need us to change along with them that’s most important and, frankly, liberating. Rather than banging our heads against the wall to uphold a practice that isn’t working, it’s a good time to try something different.

Here are a few examples of shifts I’ve made mid-year to respond to the changing needs of students.

Who does the work? It was the start of the third marking period. My students were expecting new assigned seats. I hadn’t gotten around to making them, and many students were craving a change. When a student asked if he could create a seating chart, I said yes, if he worked with a few other classmates. I sent the group of three into the hallway with a class list and a blank seating chart. They took it seriously, and came back with a plan. I sent them back once to make a few minor adjustments, and when they did, we implemented it right away. The implicit message was that students can identify some of their own needs, and are often able to create solutions as well as or better than me.

Seating difficulties: I have a permanent U-shaped meeting area in my classroom composed of three large benches, which I use regularly for whole class mini-lessons and discussions. I assign seats for students in the meeting area that correspond to the location of their table spots in the classroom. As the year progresses, a problem arises when my students grow physically, and don’t fit as well onto the benches. I see this when some students resist coming to their spots in the meeting; some students have issues sitting so close to others, while others have no problem with it. In the past I saw this as a behavior issue, and felt obligated to apply expectations uniformly to all students. Now I’ve started to let students adjust where they sit for themselves—staying at their chairs, moving to a chair closer to the circle, moving to a bench, or sitting on the floor. As long as there is some semblance of a circle and all students can see and be heard as they participate in the activity, I’m satisfied. Battle not necessary.

Sticky note requirements: I have students annotate the text during whole-novel studies with sticky notes. The main purpose is to get them to pay attention to and practice articulating their own thoughts as they read. (I don’t ask that they respond to specific questions.) A secondary purpose is for me to be able to assess their comprehension and respond along the way. Some students find the process helpful; others find it annoying; some would rather not do it, but concede there are some benefits. I encourage students to develop their own style and approach to the task, but after a while, it does seem especially tedious for some.

One year, I asked myself, what do I absolutely need from students out of this activity? I realized that I did see value in every student learning the process of free-form annotation I’d been teaching. However, once they demonstrated a level of mastery of it, and had shown in our choice-reading cycles that they could read through books without written accountability measures, I didn’t need to keep requiring these notes.

I changed the policy: Students who demonstrated mastery in annotations in the last novel study would have this assignment greatly reduced. At that point, the purpose of any notes was simply for them to collect some of their thoughts—either as they read or afterward—to share with their classmates in discussions. About half of my current class has now moved on from the heavy annotation requirement. I get zero complaints now about the sticky notes. A lot of the students who are still doing it find it helpful as a tool to mark their understanding. The grading load for me is also reduced.

January might be the pit of the school year in some ways, but it’s also a turning point. It’s reinvigorating to pay closer attention to the growth our students show, and to break out of stale cycles and better meet students’ needs.

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