In my first year teaching, I was quite possibly even more anal retentive than I am now. In fact, right before I moved to California, I pulled out my old plan books, simply to reminisce on my first four years as a teacher. I wanted to see what I was like just four years prior, so I could reflect on what I’d learned over the course of those four years. It’s funny — we don’t always realize how much we’ve grown until we give ourselves the opportunity to actually see ourselves from the past. I can even see it in pictures from just a year ago. Many times, the differences are startling.
I sat in my old classroom alone and pulled out my plan book, a flimsy square of paper with a thin spring for binding, tearing apart at its extremities from all the stress, wear, and tear from my first year of teaching. The first page screamed an eagerness for perfection, an unwillingness to release any of responsibility. Instead, the meticulous plans, so beautifully crafted in cursive, filled every line on the page (And there were a lot of lines!) and represented my methodical need to plan each of the stimuli and the subsequent lessons that would follow. But I soon realized, as many teachers do, that my methodical planning would not do me justice.
Sure, it helped me plan. But it wouldn’t help me teach.
Of course, there’s a balance in everything. I’d never recommend going into the classroom wholly unplanned. I’ve done it before, and while on the rare occasion, it might work out, on many occasions, it doesn’t work out at all. Even an experience that is student-driven requires knowledge of the resources, knowledge of pedagogy, and some sort of end goal to show student growth, no matter how flexible or subjective it may be. But what I’ve learned through four years of teaching and through a fifth year in an experimental model is that nothing can ever go entirely the way you plan it, and it’s very likely that the trajectory you predict on Monday could rapidly change by Wednesday. It happened today, actually, and with only one question.
“Wait, Paul,” she said. “What’s the difference between fiction and non-fiction?”
Maybe it’s the repetitive nature of those words now in my vocabulary, or the fact that I came from a place with such avid readers, but that was never something I had to go over so explicitly. And I wasn’t expecting it with this group. Call me naive, call me stupid; call me anything you want. But I straight-up was not expecting it.
I quickly ran to the board and explained the difference between the words. But I’d soon find out that wouldn’t be enough.
“But how do you know it’s fiction or non-fiction?” she asked.
Clearly, she was understanding the difference, but she was asking a bigger question. My mind raced. I had intended to have them break out into groups, read some more non-fiction texts at their level, and complete activities commensurate with their needs, as determined by the lovely rubric I’d laid out. But I wanted to respond. I wanted to let her know that sometimes the lines were blurred, and that sometimes it was really hard to tell if something was real or not. I wanted to talk about the idea of truth, the idea of primary sources, and fact versus opinion, but that would be too much. What’s more, she’d asked such a great question, not only showing she was thinking, but showing that she cared about what we were learning. I just couldn’t ignore it. I just couldn’t stick to my plans.
“Alright,” I said. “I want you to grab a pencil and a stack of Post-it notes, and meet me back here in two minutes.”
I quickly grabbed about seven books, each of different genres, some fiction, some non-fiction, and some blurring the lines between the two. I placed them in a circle around the room, and I asked each of the students to go around to the books, classifying each story and writing on their stickies why they classified each text in the manner they did. Check out some of the responses:
While it might feel great to plan a week out meticulously (and believe me, I had something planned), it sometimes feels even better to let go, to give the kids control, and to jump on the teachable moments. What’s ironic about the whole thing is that, maybe if I didn’t have a plan, if I had not planned to introduce my lesson in the way the I introduced it, it’s highly possible this question never would have surfaced. It’s possible that this student never would have asked what she did.
Let’s be honest, I’m probably not going to plan any less for next week. But I am going to be ready for questions, and I am going to be ready to let the students drive the lesson.