Through the years, one of the most consistently popular topics I’ve addressed in presentations and in publications is time. As educators’ list of must-dos grows, their time to do what they signed on to do—teach effectively—diminishes.
We’ve explored the topic of time in past issues, and March certainly is an appropriate month to remind ourselves that in the face of looming assessments and end-of-year preparations, we must keep our focus on meeting the needs of students while finding time to meet our needs as well. But how?
Let’s revisit some of the time-tested time-saving strategies.
Time to Meet Students’ Learning Needs
So much goes unlearned because we adhered to conventional notions of time for learning! If we’re going to really teach students, we have to go beyond accepted classroom boundaries. Here are some ways to extend students’ learning beyond the classroom experience:
Lunch Period. It’s important for teachers to get together at lunch to socialize or connect for academic discussions, but we can give up one period a week to eat and work with students as necessary. If students need several lunch work periods, we can rotate monitoring those sessions among the team or department.
Audio and Video Podcasting of Daily Lessons. With today’s technology and most students’ access to technology , this is easier than ever and very helpful. Usually 5–20 minutes long, posted podcasts can be reviewed by parents trying to help their children with homework or by students reviewing the algorithm, content, and skills for themselves. As a student, I appreciate being able to go through a lesson a second time when I struggle with content.
One Assignment for Two Classes. Sometimes a student has such a huge snowball of content to learn and work to do, it’s overwhelming—they give up. In these cases, let’s combine efforts by letting a student incorporate content and skills from one subject into the work of another subject. This often results in surprisingly creative and substantive projects that increase student engagement. For example, students might:
- Weave evidence of skills in probability and statistics into an expository essay about a casino coming to the state.
- Incorporate graphic design skills into lab drawings.
- Create a musical parody (with proper music terms and dynamics) of math properties.
- Interdisciplinary techniques work well.
Peer Tutoring Programs. Start one if your school doesn’t have one. Struggling students who need more time with specific subjects can sign up for peer assistance. Be sure to train peer tutors how to help their peers, not do the work for them.
Online Tutorials. This field has exploded in the past few years and is worth investigating. It includes all forms of distance learning, including Skype. Many websites are already set up with explanations of content we teach, such as Schooltube.com, Teachertube.com, Teachingchannel.org, and Khanacademy.org.
Of course, each online explanation must be vetted for accuracy and appropriateness before we promote them to students, but using such sites creates flexibility because students can refer to them 24/7.
Volunteer Adults in the Classroom. Some parents and retirees like to stay active in local schools and this can be a meaningful experience for them and for students. Every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, for example, Mr. Hooper can sit next to David from 10:45 a.m. to 11:55 a.m. to answer his questions, keep him focused, and provide descriptive feedback on his work. Not only does this help David’s new learning, it keeps him from falling behind.
Alternative Assignments/Assessments. We can shorten a lot of our assignments. Consider asking students to do one page of excellent writing on a topic rather than three pages of throwing everything into the mix, hoping something will stick with the teacher.
Consider “banking” portions of tests when asking students to re-do tests and assessments. If a test is compartmentalized into sub-sections, students need only re-do the portions they struggled with, not all of them. If the test is large and interwoven, of course, they do the entire test again.
Finding Time for Planning and Preparation
Most of us want to differentiate instruction, incorporate the latest teaching techniques and tools, order supplies, return parent phone calls, sponsor afterschool clubs/sports/arts, unpack standards, catch up on professional reading, participate in PLCs, keep up with the pacing guide, grade papers, get some exercise, and create wonderful multimedia presentations to engage students every day. Then reality interrupts, and we spend our time lowering our expectations, wondering if airline ticket agents at Chicago O’Hare have easier jobs.
Here are some ways to find time to plan and do more of the things we’d like to do in teaching:
Divide and Conquer. We can divide the units of study for the year among our subject-like colleagues. Each one of us designs multiple instructional and assessment options for the unit plus a list of great online resources so we all don’t have to reinvent the wheel.
Prioritize Standards as “Power” or Primary Standards. We have curriculum overload and we can’t do justice to all our standards, so let’s decide which ones create the most leverage in students’ lives—the power standards. Then, we can place these large “boulders” into our schedule and spend our time and students’ efforts primarily on those concepts, weaving the other standards in and around them as we can. Some will read this and say, “But they’re all important,” and my response is, “No, they’re not.”
Conduct Instructional Roundtables. Someone posts a topic for discussion as well as a time and a date for the meeting a week to 10 days in advance, usually before or after school. The topic is usually specific and practical such as, “Setting up Formative/Summative Gradebooks,” “Dealing with Chronic Disruptors,” “Yoga for Busy Teachers,” and “Efficient Ways to Deal with all the Paperwork.” These roundtables are voluntary; participants attend the topics that interest them.
Roundtables last one hour or less. Everyone brings their own snack and strategy. All are invited, but as their ticket to enter the roundtable, each participant must have in hand, at least one idea to share (photocopied at least 15 times). And here’s the cool part: For every idea shared by a participant, the larger group must add to it, improve it, or come up with a spin-off idea that also works. If seven people show up, each one will walk out with 14 practical ideas.
Participate in Online Communities. Post the question, “I need 5 creative vocabulary ideas for my force and motion unit. Any ideas?” or, “Does anyone know a good source for science probes?” and you’ll get multiple suggestions within hours. Read about one teacher’s use of six-word memoirs to get amazing insights from students about historical figures, musical composers, or math symbols, and you have your summarization method for tomorrow’s class. Join a 50-minute Webinar on how to increase text complexity for the Common Core, or how to create a Prezi for your unit on Machu Picchu. These are intensely useful professional development vehicles for busy teachers.
Establish a Faculty Portfolio of Ideas. Every time we photocopy something for classroom or professional use, we can make one extra copy and insert it into the appropriate hanging file in the plastic crate next to the photocopier. When others are looking for ideas for their own lessons, they can look through these files, pullout and photocopy what they want, and replace it for the next person.
At the end of the year, these readings, worksheets, tests, puzzles, project directions, assignments, etc. can be placed into a binder and accessed in the professional library of the school for years to come. Of course, we can also provide space on the school’s Intranet for teachers to post articles, reflections, and teaching tips that can be accessed from classrooms or home while planning.
Cultivate Personal/Professional Creativity. I can’t emphasize this enough. Many times one or more doors are closed to us as we work with students or try to find time to get tasks done, and because we’re not practiced in thinking divergently, we see only a tedious plow through hardened muck as our only way forward. Take a few moments to build personal creativity, combining and re-combining tasks and ideas, to see if there is a more efficient, time-saving route.
President Kennedy once said that we must use time as a tool, not a crutch. I would add, “…or an excuse.” Time is the rarest mineral ore to teachers: so appreciated when given or discovered. Let’s get good at its mining. This means we open possibilities heretofore untouched. We can turn schools into places of real learning and teaching—it’s time we did.
Published in AMLE Magazine, March 2015.