A Routine Engagement: Three Small Moves for Success
I came to education “later” in life and was 30 years old when I began student teaching. I knew the kind of teacher I didn’t want to be: boring, uncool, and “old” (remember, to a group of 15-year-olds, 30 is old). I wanted to be the most awesome, coolest English teacher with exciting and entertaining lessons. I desperately wanted my students to like me.
I wanted the students to be my friends, so I created a “community,” not necessarily realizing that I needed to implement structure and procedure before I could establish a community. I tried so hard to be the teacher I thought they wanted, but one afternoon I knew we had lost any semblance of learning. I was teaching a vocabulary lesson while my cooperating teacher was in her office next door grading papers. She must have heard the noise. Several students were eating, a couple of paper airplanes were flying over my head, and a few students were wandering aimlessly around the room. At that moment, the door opened and my cooperating teacher walked in. She took one look and, in an extremely controlled tone, said, “Mrs. Grafwallner, I will take over. You may leave.” I sheepishly walked out of the room, wanting to hide in shame and embarrassment.
Many years later, I taught literacy skills classes at a suburban high school. I taught five classes, and, due to the complexity of the support needed for each student, classes were small (only 15 students in a class). One of the first things I did was invest in a series of systems. I knew that with a procedure, I could achieve engagement and, ultimately, community with my students.
First, each student had a three-ring binder that was purchased by the school. All binders had a series of tabs. Each tab had a label on it: “Annotation,” “Main Idea and Detail,” “Summary,” “Compare/Contrast,” “Cause-Effect,” “Vocabulary,” and so on. Behind each tab were a few sheets of loose leaf paper. This way, students would not need to go to their lockers to get their materials. On the first day of school, I modeled their entry into class: grab your binder, take your seat, and open to the lesson based on the day.
Second, I fashioned a mini-library of young adult literature in my classroom. I scoured rummage sales, going-out-of-business bookstores, and library sales. In addition, I made an advantageous friendship with the library media specialist who, when she had extra funds, would purchase books for my students. No need to meander through the library searching for books.
Third, I created a two-week calendar highlighting each day’s purpose. Students knew the topic and their expectations for that day. Every other Monday, I would teach five vocabulary words found on high-stakes testing. We would use the Frayer model to practice the words and discuss how we would use the words in our daily life. On Tuesday of the first week, I would introduce a specific cross-curricular skill that we would practice for two weeks, giving students the opportunity to apply it to their homework assignments. On Thursday—Application Day—students brought their homework to me or a resource teacher to get assistance. Finally, I incorporated a highly structured Sustained Silent Reading program that set aside time for reading, writing, and talking. This two-week calendar was repeated all year with new vocabulary words, new skills, and new books. There were no surprises and no prospect of regression due to specific scaffolding of lessons. Students were never just memorizing; they were learning and doing.
These systems were introduced on the first day of school, and students quickly came to understand their value. Because students were organized, they understood their role throughout the day’s lesson. Because students were engaged, they knew they would not be graded without sufficient practice and discussion. Finally, because students had time, they knew that the opportunities built into their day were what they needed—not necessarily what their schedule mandated.
In closing, we became a community because we began with a routine that necessitated engagement. My students respected their learning and knew that with systems in place, they could and would be successful.
Peg Grafwallner is an instructional coach and reading specialist at a large urban high school where she assists teachers in developing literacy opportunities to motivate, engage, and advance student learning. She is also a blogger, author, and national presenter.