Let’s Save Space for Messy Teaching

Sometimes, our very best teaching and learning ideas are born out of chaos.

I was at a professional learning event in Winnipeg last week, and my middle school colleague and I were tasked with building a learning progression for teachers around assessment.

The end goal for our learning community was this statement:

“Students help design rubrics to measure growth, identify where they are in relation to the target, and set goals for reaching it. They do multiple revisions of work to reach mastery.”

Isn’t that just the dream right there?

So our task was to map out a learning progression for teachers: a set of steps that we and our professional teammates might follow to reach that goal.

From 0 to 60.

Here’s what we came up with:

  • Step 1 (baseline): Learning activities are assigned to students with no criteria, rubrics, or learning targets. Students complete one edition of the activity in isolation (no follow-up).
  • Step 2: Teacher discusses and explains the assessment criteria to students before the learning activity begins. There may be opportunities given for revision and reiteration (or a self-reflection by students).
  • Step 3: The teacher invites input after discussing the assessment criteria with the class. The learning target is clearly identified. Students are given opportunity to reflect on their growth from start to finish of an activity. Second iterations are required.
  • Step 4: Students co-create rubrics and assessment criteria to measure growth, identify where they are in their learning, and set goals for reaching the learning target. They use peer feedback to complete multiple revisions of work in order to demonstrate mastery. They reflect on their learning throughout the creative process and identify goals for further growth.

The arrows in the progression are hard to see, but if you look closely you can track the growth in the middle row from left to right.

The post-its are bits of warm and cold feedback offered by other educators from around the country.

It’s a thing of beauty.

But, wait a second.

The dream lesson plan

Yes, the ideal lesson plans come with learning targets, success criteria, and assessment rubrics (co-created with students) in place.

They activate prior knowledge, help students acquire and apply concepts, include adaptations that include all learners, provide means of formative assessment to inform teacher instructional decisions, and use anticipatory activities to set the stage for the next steps of learning.

Wouldn’t that be wonderful if we could do that every class?

Unfortunately, we can’t. Not every single time.

And when we burden teachers with this list of ideals at every turn, I think we actually run the risk of limiting student learning.

Sometimes, transformative learning appears in unexpected places.

If you’ve been in the classroom for long, you know that some of your best ideas were born out of sheer impulse.

That day that you slept in and walked into a class completely unprepared? Turns out you had an incredible epiphany that led to one of the best student-led learning activities that you ever came up with.

Aiming for ideals but saving room for messy beginnings

No, we don’t want last minute planning to be our standard operating procedure. But I believe we have to save space and give grace for messy beginnings.

Because sometimes, that’s where our very best teaching and learning is born.

Good Teachers Take Risks

“Successful teachers endure the vulnerability of being a learner and take risks to provide the most effective instruction to their students.”  —  @torreytrust

Photo by @AlexRadelich

I was doing some research this summer and came across an article written by Dr. Torrey Trust titled Professional Learning Networks Designed for Teacher Learning.

The headline seemed simple enough. There’s nothing particularly revelatory about the power of solid PLNs (even though there’s still an absurdly high number of teachers who aren’t connected anywhere outside their own school, but that’s a post for another time).

But then, near the end of the article, came the quote. Here it is again:

“Successful teachers endure the vulnerability of being a learner and take risks to provide the most effective instruction to their students.”

Yes and YES.

Think about what we want to see in our learners. Curiosity. Hunger for improvement. Grit in the face of difficulty. Tolerance for ambiguity. Imaginative design. Creative innovation. Problem-solving. Growth mindset.

Too often, though, teachers don’t do the hard work of modeling this for our students. We settle for staying sane. Running a tight ship. Checking all the boxes. Getting the job done.

And we mean well. I mean, we’re all in this because we care about kids, right? But comfort creeps in. We fall in love with our pet systems. And the Mr. Cavey of 2019 starts to look, sound, and act an awful lot like the Mr. Cavey of 2018.

What we pride as consistency actually makes us grow stale. We stagnate.

Learning involves risk.

Is learning actually risky behavior? Of course it is. Whether it’s serving a volleyball, dancing the tango, or writing a blog post, the process of learning risks discomfort, fallibility, and public failure.

We’ve all seen (or been) people who make the choice for safety. People who absolutely refuse to play volleyball, step out on a dance floor, or publish their thoughts. People who refuse to try a new application, or travel somewhere unfamiliar, or ask their crush out on a date.

I’ve had students like that.

And I’ve been like that.

Safety. It’s a slow death.

This year, let’s commit to being vulnerable. Let’s commit to taking risks in front of our students. Let’s reject the safety of the known for the vulnerability of learning.

Because in the end, we can’t expect from our students what we aren’t prepared to do ourselves.