This spring, I discovered a colossal flat tire on my bike. Not the kind that an air compressor will help, either—the tire, ripped and frayed, didn’t even adhere to the rim anymore. I had no idea how such a thing could happen; all I’d done was wheel it out from the garage. I grumped. It had been fine when I’d rolled it into the garage last November.
I told the bike shop technician as much.
“I don’t get you people,” he said, sighing and shaking his head. “No one expects their car, or their house, to perform perfectly without regular maintenance—replacing parts, getting tune-ups, that sort of stuff. But everyone expects it of bicycles. You people”—I was, apparently, now a “you people”—“you people just store them in the garage all winter long, then pull them out, year after year, expecting them to be as good as new.”
Duly chastised, I slunk away, leaving my bike for a head-to-toe tune-up.
Driving home, I thought about other things we assume will keep working without regular maintenance. I couldn’t help ruminating on what is easy to neglect at school.
School and classroom libraries. Right before I turned 40, I got my first new car. Not just new to me; no, no. New-new. New-car-smell-new. Ten-miles-on-the-odometer new. I felt like the sassiest and sportiest woman on the road—minivan and all. To get that kind of swagger in the steps of our student readers, we can update the resources they use. New books and materials inspire kids. That’s why we should allocate a portion of our budget and funds to keep modernizing our school and classroom libraries.
Assessment practices. Many, many things have been written about assessments—the value they bring to instructional practices, how they help us monitor student progress, their role in making decisions about support services. Assessment and data conversations can be a launching pad for fabulous collegial conversations—but not if we have the same conversation again and again. We’ve got to keep digging, keep looking, keep focusing on making sure our data actually tells us something about our students. When it gets stale or nonproductive, we can look at one of two things: the assessment we are using or how we are using it.
Parent-teacher conferences. Last year, a veteran teacher told me how much she was dreading parent-teacher conference night. “I’ve done four of these nights a year for 25 years,” she said. “You do the math.”
“How could you mix it up?” I asked her. “How could you make your conferences feel fresh, different, and innovative?” We talked about the need to reignite her energy for parent-teacher conferences. I was proud when she took a big leap and changed everything in her approach. She opened each conference with a digital movie (created by each student) in which they explained, on camera, what they loved about school. She used her students’ author notebooks to point out strengths and challenges in student writing. Using FlipGrid, she showed parents what each child was reading and what they had to say about it. She incorporated assessment data into natural conversations based on student work. “I was in such a rut,” she admitted afterward. “This time, our conversations felt perky and refreshed. It was a great reminder of how energy begets energy.”
Assignments. Many of us fall into the rut of teaching our “units” the same way, year after year. Our dusty old lesson plans feel familiar and predicatable; why change anything? Well, because they get flat, that’s why. The rubber separates from the rim with the passage of time and the onset of apathy. Is it more work to upend a unit of study and do it differently? Absolutely. But does it reinvigorate, inspire, and launch new ways of thinking and creating? Without a doubt.
When I went to gather my bike from the shop, the technician explained how he’d cleaned the chain, oiled the wires, changed a few cables, and—yes—replaced the tires. “Come see me a little sooner next time, will ya?” I promised I would. Riding away, I felt like I could go forever and ever—or at least until we needed another tune-up.