Embracing a New School Year

When I last wrote on this blog, over a year ago, I didn’t anticipate taking an extended time off. But life conspired against me, and last fall it became clear that I needed to let some things go for my own sanity. But everything ebbs and flows, and my goal is to get back in the writing groove this school year. Reflecting on a professional book that I read this summer seems like a good way to come back.

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I was initially intrigued to read We Got This. by Cornelius Minor because it was featured in the Book Love Foundation’s summer book club this year. I intended to borrow it from the public library, but was surprised to discover that there were only 3 libraries in the entire metro-Denver area that carried it. All of them university libraries, but not the university in my own hometown that has a teacher education program. At the Scholastic Reading Summit in Denver a week or so later, I learned that Donalyn Miller, an educator whose ideas and writing I highly value, considered him an up-and-coming thought leader in the field. Hmmm. I really need to read this, I thought, so I purchased my own copy.

One of Minor’s prime points was the importance of listening to students and deeply observing them to discern their needs. Then once you identify needs, modify curriculum using Universal Design for Learning tenets. Make your changes and reflect on the outcomes. On the surface it’s “simple,” but in practice, it’s an enormous undertaking!

Minor adds a lot of structure and scaffolding to these broad ideas to make them workable. First of all, choose a few key students to observe rather than trying to observe every student. Who’s not engaged in your classroom? Who is at risk for being bored because of their high intellectual potential or achievement? Who is at risk of being lost because of their learning needs? Who brings a different set of cultural norms or family experiences that may set them apart from other students? These may be key students who need adaptations to the curriculum. He provides great guiding questions and even a chart to help in this step of the process.

Don’t try to overhaul the entire curriculum at once! What seems most problematic? Where have you seen less success in the past? What overall challenges do you sense from this class of kids? Choose a lesson or unit to start. He also has clear time guidelines knowing that teachers can get caught up in curriculum modification and research. His message is to not forget your needs as a human being.

Once you’ve tried the changes, what happens? Again, look at the key students whose needs started this journey. How are they faring? Are they more engaged? More successful? Collaborating with peers in a different way? If so, what comes next? If there’s a desire to change things at a higher level (department, school, district), he also offers concrete steps that can help teachers respectfully make their case and hopefully bring about change. Throughout the book, he continues to provide guiding questions and charts to help in planning and reflecting.

I love that he encourages risk-taking that is rooted in our students’ needs. Connecting with kids is so important, because relationships must come before deep learning can occur. What one class of students needs may be quite different from another class, and this reminds me to be vigilant in kid-watching. To not make assumptions about a particular student because she or he reminds me of a similar student from my past. Each of my students is unique, and it’s important that I see them that way and get to know them individually. I appreciate his suggestion at the end to reach out to trusted colleagues, let them know what changes you’re trying to make, and engage their support to help you stay committed and accountable to these changes. Changes that will ultimately lead to stronger teaching.

I have enjoyed my summer of rejuvenation and recharging. I work hard during the school year to give all that I can to my students, and I’m fortunate that I have flexibility in how I spend my summer. I’m privileged to work for a school that supports and encourages the type of risk-taking that Minor advocates for in this book. I’m looking forward to a new school year that is fast approaching, and I can’t wait to share this book with colleagues. Thank you, Cornelius Minor, for an outstanding professional read that helps put me in the right mindset for doing my best to bring to my students what THEY need from me.