The hard part of teaching is coming to grips with this: There is never enough. There is never enough time. There are never enough resources. There is never enough you.
Any teacher can certainly attest to this heavy truth. It seems that every year the belts of school districts get tighter, the resources are scarcer, and time is more limited, all while expectations for student achievement increase.
This year a schoolwide schedule change led to the literacy blocks in my fourth-grade classroom being reduced from 80 to 65 minutes. Within this short period I must teach reading and writing. No, this is not enough time, but it is what I have. I had to figure out how to make the most of my precious minutes. It is far from perfect, but I have found a few ways to get organized, combine lessons, and steal some time.
I team-teach, so my students travel between two classes. To save time, students need to transition from one class to another and settle in quickly. We have it down to a couple of minutes for the students to enter the room and have the necessary notebooks and papers distributed. The students needed some practice with being prepared and to get used to how they are expected to settle in at first. A sign by each door reminds them what they need to bring to each class to reduce the number of trips back to their desks for materials during class time. We use the first three minutes of class to get settled with items being handed out and having students take a “break” if needed. Using a visual timer for a short amount of time at the beginning of the year also helped and became almost like a game. Our transitions started going smoothly a few weeks into the year, and we were able to stop using the timer.
Have Your “Stuff” Ready
Distributing all handouts, mini whiteboards, and notebooks that will be used during the class at the beginning helps to eliminate transition time from one activity to the next. The students have a pencil pouch filled with supplies that travels with them to each class. Part of their morning work is to make sure they have what they need in their pouch.
This limits pencil sharpening and time spent looking for supplies during class. We have created cubbies in each classroom to house the notebooks of the opposite homeroom so that they do not have to be carried back and forth.
It sounds simple, but part of my morning preparation is to make sure I have all of the websites open that we may use in different tabs on my computer. My document camera is always attached and ready so I don’t need to hook it up during instruction. I have all anchor charts and other visuals ready as well as my status sheets and conferring notes. This eliminates transition time between activities during class, which also helps to keep students from losing focus.
I am always on the lookout for ways to “double-dip.” Combining minilessons helps me touch upon different skills and concepts in a short amount of time. For example when using a picture book as a mentor text for writing, I take a different look at the book to see which strategy or skill can be naturally integrated. Recently we have done several minilessons that combine summarizing short pieces of fiction and prewriting activities for stories using picture books such as I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen and The Cat, the Dog, Little Red, the Exploding Eggs, the Wolf, and Grandma by Diane Fox. Other times we may be using a book as a mentor text for writing, but find it also lends itself nicely to a discussion about cause and effect or character analysis.
Use Your Read-Aloud to Teach Skills and Concepts
Thankfully my schedule allows for a 25-minute read-aloud just before lunch. This is a nice chunk of time compared with what I typically have. Some days we just enjoy the story, and some days we use our read-aloud time to reinforce key skills and concepts. We keep track of many things while reading a longer novel, such as interesting vocabulary, the story plot, and character analysis. Keeping a Google Doc allows both my partner teacher and me to have access to our “story poster,” which can change based on the story or skills we want to reinforce.
School schedules are seldom ideal, but with some extra preparation and smart planning, we can make the most of the valuable time we have.