Scheduling and the game of Jenga have a lot in common . . .
This is something my building principal says when launching a scheduling meeting with classroom and support teachers before the start of a school year. In addition to resetting classroom furniture, organizing the classroom library, and the million other things we do before the first day of school, teachers in my building attend a scheduling meeting to receive an update on the required push-in or pull-out services eligible students will receive in the coming school year. I usually hold my breath and dread this yearly August gathering. So short and powerful, this meeting uncovers our team’s Jenga-like support service schedule that will rule all classrooms, a reality that can quickly turn a carefully constructed workshop schedule on its head.
Last year, because of reading support times, ELL support services, speech groups, and other scheduling restrictions, my students and I would be required to launch reading workshop at 9:00 a.m. and wrap up our work at 10:10 in time for our related arts classes.
On paper, starting the day with reading workshop was possible. But could I really fit all three vital reading workshop routines inside a 70-minute time block that also included students arriving, some kids eating breakfast, lunch count and attendance, morning announcements, and unraveling the unexpected twists that often appear when the morning bell rings? Could I build a productive, effective, and engaging workshop with my students that included morning arrival and all the other morning distractions?
Rather than leaving the meeting dejected, I let the Jenga-block pictures I doodled on the meeting’s agenda page give me hope. Would it be necessary or even possible for me to arrange my reading workshop in the expected, tidy configuration as mapped out by literacy experts and classroom practices? Being a nonconformist who always likes a challenge, I sat down with my teaching partner, a cup of good coffee, and a pack of sticky notes. The expected routines of reading workshop were written on different-colored sticky notes and mapped out, placed in the “expected” or “typical” order:
Minilesson and practice
Independent reading and conferences
My teaching partner, always a good listener, knew it was important for me to have plenty of time to ramble and vent before saying a word. So she asked, “What are you worried about?”
If I stuck to this flow of workshop routines in this expected order, I would be starting a lesson during a staggered arrival of kids. Twenty-six kids do not file into the room in one large group when the morning bell rings. After the bell, I would be trying to host a morning meeting and complete lunch count and attendance while allowing kids to eat and clean up their breakfast, and of course we would need to pause for morning announcements and the pledge.
No. This would not work. This would not work. This would not work. No.
I could only envision wiggling, distracted students attempting to pay attention while my minilesson was interrupted and delayed by morning clerical duties, bus-ride dramas that needed to be resolved, phone calls home for forgotten lunch boxes, and then the blaring interruption of morning announcements. And of course a collection of kids would be eating breakfast and spilling something while I tried to engage all of them in a lesson. I voiced the prediction that as the lesson was delayed and stretched by multiple interruptions, independent reading and conferences would be cut short. Running out of time might meant shortening or skipping the sharing element.
“So what are you going to do?” my partner asked quietly.
I flipped the agenda over to reconfirm that I was landlocked into a 9:00-10:10 reading workshop time, and of course that had not changed. My rebel brain kicked in. Just like Jenga blocks, the major workshop routines needed to be present . . . but did they need to be restricted to the usual configuration of first, second, and third?
I moved sticky notes around on the paper before us. If I rearranged the reading workshop routines and created a new configuration, the structure of reading workshop would still stand. Was it set in stone that the routines had to occur in only one universal configuration? Didn’t the art of teaching rely on flexibility and creativity and solutions based on kids’ needs rather than adults’ expectations? What if I started the day with independent reading and conferences and then hosted my minilesson and intentional practice time? We could then wrap up our workshop with partner sharing that focused on either the minilesson’s work or our independent reading lives. My brain started buzzing with possibilities.
My teaching partner prompted me, “Tell me how starting the day and your workshop with independent reading would maximize your time with kids.”
Students never arrive all at once. If they had a simple routine to check in for lunch and attendance, they could then settle in for independent reading time. I could circulate, saying good morning while doing informal check-ins on readers, helping kids find books or resources, and dealing with any arrival worries or bus conflicts. When the blare of announcements began, I could quickly take care of attendance and lunch count. Right after announcements I could begin my daily reading conferences posted on my community board. Kids could be eating breakfast while reading—I do that all the time myself at home. I knew the calmness of independent reading would weave its magic and students would all have time to read; during this calm arrival, not only could I meet with students to resolve any morning conflicts or worries, but I was confident that I could still host my goal of three reading conferences while touching base with multiple kids during independent reading time.
“What you are saying is that not only will you allow for the staggered arrival and all of the mess that often arrives with the first bell, but you will ensure that kids have a protected 30 minutes of independent reading, you’ll have time for conferences, and everyone who needs to finish breakfast will not be rushed?” my partner asked.
“Yes. I predict that if we begin our lesson at 9:40, I will still have plenty of time for our lesson, practice, and sharing before related arts at 10:10. I also predict that kids will be in a more focused state of mind when I begin my lesson around 9:40 and that our lesson will be more effective.”
“What you are really saying is that you could structure a morning that is best for kids, a routine that allows you to focus your work with kids, while maintaining the integrity of reading workshop?” my partner asked.
I nodded vigorously while sipping now-cooled-off coffee.
“Then I think you have your solution.”
What would I do without a teaching partner to help me see the possibilities that come from challenges? The new routine worked beautifully. Now I’m preparing for a new group of students, and I look forward to seeing how their and this year’s scheduling Jenga will upend all my careful plans.