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Channeling Goldilocks: Trying to get it “just right”

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Voice of the Educator

SmartBlog on Education will highlight summer learning and enrichment for educators during June. In this blog post, educator Cheryl Mizerny shares insights from her quest to navigate all the professional development options available today.

As a naturally reflective person and educator, I am on a never-ending quest to design the “just right” English class experience for my students. Unfortunately, I am becoming convinced that no such animal exists, as I realize that it is the end of the school year, and I haven’t accomplished everything I had planned. Worse, I am growing weary of striving for perfection. I’ve been trying for several years and have not yet found the magic formula that will allow me to address everything. I wish to teach it in a mere 45 minutes per day. I have tried every new idea that sounds exciting to me, but it is always at the expense of something else I’ve loved teaching in the past. Is the “just right” class a reality or a fairy tale?

Here’s my problem: I am addicted to professional literature and development. I want my students to love literature like Penny Kittle’s do, to write as much as Kelly Gallagher’s, become life-long pleasure readers like Donalyn Miller’s, and to enjoy active engagement strategies from Dave Burgess and Jeff Wilhelm. I have read all of their work and had the pleasure of meeting most in person. I am simultaneously inspired by their ideas and insecure that I will never be able to measure up.

I also attempt to go to at least one national literacy conference per year. I consider these endeavors successful if I can gather one new strategy, concept, or resource from each session. This doesn’t even include the fantastic ideas I get from weekly Twitter chats. Trouble is, these add up. Every single experience yields at least one great technique I want to implement the very next day. At this point, I have an extensive list of approaches I’ve tried — all of which produced great results. The problem is that I struggle to incorporate all of them in one school year, and have never once done so.

Here are some of the things I learned from the greats and loved doing with my students:

  • Genius Hour
  • PBL
  • Reading/writing workshop
  • Book clubs
  • Article of the Week
  • Independent, choice reading
  • Whole-class novel study
  • Student blogging
  • Book talks
  • Read alouds
  • Debates
  • TED-style talks
  • Author visits
  • Community service
  • and many more

The difficulty is that I haven’t found a way to do everything in the short amount of time I am given, but I don’t know how to prioritize what to eliminate. I get frustrated because I know all of these add value, but whole-class novels (the foundation for my school’s curriculum), choice reading, and writing workshop are my non-negotiables, so I have to cut things that are not part of this trifecta such as read alouds. I know this is not good, especially when I hear experts I respect tell me how they could not imagine an English class without read alouds. I nod because I know the research backs up this practice, and I would love to share this experience with my students, so I try to find a way to put it back in the mix. Unfortunately, it means I must forgo something else. Thus begins the cycle of beating myself up for not being able to do everything I want and need to do in my class.

Whenever I get down on myself, I pull one of my favorite books out of my professional library and sit down hoping for some sort of magical inspiration. This never works. I usually end up becoming more discouraged because I want my class to look like that in the text — every single day. Yet, it doesn’t, and probably never will. I, like all teachers, have to function under the parameters of my current teaching situation. For me, my limitation is that I have 45 minutes per day with my students to teach them reading, writing, speaking and listening. No small feat, indeed.

In an effort to cheer myself up, I remind myself that we all have challenging teaching situations. Many middle-school teachers have much longer classes than mine — some are even double in length. True, they have their own constraints and obstacles, but I know that I could do so much more just going from 45 to just 60 minute class periods. I can’t foresee a time in the near future when I will miraculously have all the time in the world with my students, so I keep trying to get the porridge to just the right temperature.

Logic then enters and also helps ease my mind. I tell myself that most of the authors I read focus primarily on the topic in their writing and often don’t wish to include every other great idea out there because they have been incredibly successful with their own methods. They have one passion and they are great at it. Sure, I would love to be Penny Kittle and do equal justice to both reading and writing in my classroom, but I am not her, nor do I have her situation. The best I can do is to incorporate the portions of her brilliance that I can, and forgive myself for what I cannot. I guess that is the key. I have to be okay with being the best teacher possible within the parameters I am given. And I have a pretty fabulous teaching situation right now. The only thing that would allow me to make it “just right” would be having more time.

I eventually find solace in the fact that many of the other great teachers I know are in the same boat and also fret over not being able to squeeze in every great idea. Many of us communicate on Twitter and try to put our brains together and figure it out. We haven’t yet, but I am relieved that I am not the only teacher who loses sleep over trying to be better. So, while comforted, I remain frustrated searching for the perfect balance of activities. I may never achieve Goldilocks status in my classes, but I will continue to try. In the interim, I will keep utilizing the wisdom of others and refining my own practice. I may eventually get to the point where I have a structure with which I am completely satisfied — but I doubt it. It’s part of the quest for the classroom fairy tale.

Cheryl Mizerny is an Editor’s Choice Content Award winner. She is a veteran educator with over 20 years experience. She began her career in special education, became a teacher consultant and adjunct professor of educational psychology, and currently teaches sixth-grade English in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. She writes a blog about student motivation and engagement at The Accidental English Teacher.

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