I recently finished the book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. To understand the premise of the book, I couldn't explain it better than the author. Here is a snippet of Gladwell's summary, but you can read it in its entirety at http://www.gladwell.com/blink/ .
"It's a book about rapid cognition, about the kind of thinking that happens in a blink of an eye. When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions. Well, "Blink" is a book about those two seconds, because I think those instant conclusions that we reach are really powerful and really important and, occasionally, really good."
From this book I took two lessons that apply to my teaching.
1. When I come to a conclusion that resonates as illogical or untrue, I need to step back and reflect if I reached this conclusion due to biases or my own preconceptions.
I have gotten frustrated and impatient with students who are distracting in the classroom. However, there isn't a single Kindergartner who simply lives to make my job difficult. I have found the kids who are distracting in the classroom to either: crave attention, have a hearing deficit, unable to control their own impulses, or just want to make friends. This is something it has taken 6 years as a teacher to learn. By finally realizing it isn't the students are against me, I have been able to deal with the distracting students much more effectively. This preconception of naughty kids was impeding my classroom management.
2. In order to make better decisions, it isn't necessary to weigh ALL the variables, but only the ones that are key. Relatedly, to make better decisions it is important to cut out the extraneous distractions and focus on what is truly making the difference. The bare objective is the hinge on which differentiation hangs.
In the classroom I translate this into what are the objectives. It is very easy as teachers to get wrapped up in the end product, or the project, or additional skills, when for many students these are distracting or too difficult. When students aren't meeting standards or expectations I have to do less, not more. I have to resurface the objective is and determine if the child understands what is being taught, and what skill is this child lacking.
I have found that many of the kinder students who don't always look very successful on paper are quite bright. In my memory I was one of these students: young with a summer birthday. I could imagine my drawings but they came out looking like I had sausage links for curls on my self-portraits. People laughed, I withdrew.
I have one little student who cannot write. Simply grabbing the pencil and forming letters or numbers is too hard for him. He doesn't have the strength in his hands yet, but cognitively he is extremely bright. For math, the spaces that are in the math book to write the numbers are too small. Already he is embarrassed and feels incapable. What do I do? I have sent him to make a big copy of the page. I let him work with a partner who invariably takes over and does it for him (I really need to train those Kinders better to be helpful, but not OVERLY so). Unfortunately with the insistence on testing and uniformity, we are cajoled into using the math program as it was written. This little boy looks at those math pages and recoils.
There is a lot of print on the pages in the math book. To some of the children it looks intimidating and "noisy." I would like to boil it down to the objectives, and make accessing those objectives engaging and appealing. Can he add blocks? Can he add matchbox cars to his parking garage? Yes.
The other side of this coin is that students need to understand what the objective is and what information is extra. My students are beginning to understand that, as evidenced in the following conversation,
Student - "Ms. Broo-ooo-wwwwn, he didn't finish writing his story."
Me - "Oh? Did he tell you what his story is about?"
Student - "Yes, he is just coloring his picture."
Me - "Pictures are important parts of stories. I'm glad he is working hard on it and that he has a good story that he shared with you."
Student walks away satisfied with response and leaves the other student to draw.
Here the objective is whether students students can represent a personal narrative in age-appropriate writing. For this student, writing is centered around his picture. His ability to write words is still in a very early stage of development, but age appropriate.
I have found that in cutting out what isn't necessary I have become much more focused, goal-oriented, and less stressed out. Even physically, I have emptied storage and filing cabinets of materials that are obsolete, and in turn have made much more room for my students and their need to move. To do more with my students I am doing less with them. Fewer lessons, but more meaningful. Fewer topics, but more deeply.