Something I am continually working on as a teacher is saying less. This became even more important last year, when, after teaching 4th grade for many years, I became a 2nd grade teacher. The attention span of the 7 year old is pret-ty short. And I quickly learned that they have little to no interest in long, thoughtful lesson introductions that connect what we’re going to study today to the previous day’s work. I wish I could illustrate for you the bored stares, the poking of the person in front of them, the taking books out of the classroom library baskets next to the rug and thumbing through them, the vehement “can I go to the bathroom?!” crossed-finger silent gesture that my sweet 7 year olds were throwing me last year as I fumbled my way through learning that I needed to get. to. the. point. Fast. With 2nd graders, it’s all about shock and awe. You have to jump right into it.
I’ve been thinking about this a lot, this “say less” thing, as I move into the new school year. The first few days of the year in my classroom have been filled with wordy explanations of classroom routines and procedures. Are you yawning yet? I am. As critical as I know it is to teach my students how to properly unpack and pack their backpacks, it’s extremely uninteresting to me, and to them. I spent the first few days of school feeling a bit uninspired by all of this procedure-teaching. The best moments of each day, I noticed, were when we were DOING: singing the Shark Attack song together, playing hospital tag during outdoor play, building patterns with unifix cubes.
I started thinking about math teaching. When I teach math, I want my kids to DO — I want them to discover the way our number system works, explore the properties of operations, engage with each other, and wrestle with mathematical ideas. It’s quite active. It does not look like me telling them, “Here’s how you solve the problem.” But when it comes to teaching classroom routines, I’m doing the opposite. I’m telling them, “If we all go to the closet at the same time, we’re going to have a problem. Here’s how we’re going to solve that problem…” In my deep boredom with the teaching and practicing of classroom routines, I started wondering about what it would be like to let my students DO more, right from the get go, instead of teaching them how I want them to do it preemptively.
I realize this is classroom management 101 anathema. Anyone who read The First Days of School by Wong and Wong (shudder) is thinking, “Disaster!” But I honestly wonder. Just as in math, I don’t teach my kids procedures because I want them to think about what makes sense, maybe when it comes to classroom routines and procedures, I could let them DO first and discuss what made sense and didn’t make sense later.
Taking an approach like this would definitely involve a higher tolerance for classroom chaos than I presently have. But even that element is not that different from math teaching. Over the years, I’ve developed a high tolerance for messiness when it comes to math teaching and learning. I know I used to feel anxious when it seemed like kids weren’t “getting” what I wanted them to see in the math, but over time I’ve been able to develop the part of my teacher self that sees kids’ struggles as part of the road to making sense, and to not get freaked out by the chaos that sometimes ensues on that road.
I know that content-wise, classroom routines and procedures are not the same as math. If kids don’t know how to move around the room or get their materials quickly, learning time is wasted. Maybe it does make sense to teach classroom routines explicitly. But I think doing so this year has brought out for me the tension around my desire for control versus my desire for exploration and sense making in my classroom. So this is an important thing that I’m going to keep thinking about: How can I continue to create a classroom where doing comes first, and saying comes later?