We have a Little Free Library in our front yard that I received as a gift from my husband many years ago. We love it and our neighbors love it. But the library had fallen into disrepair, and I could not summon the energy to fix it. I felt unmotivated to check inside the library to make sure there were books of all types for all ages. In short, I just felt sort of . . . over it.
My daughter Katie, however, was not over it. When I announced I was going to take the Little Free Library down, she sprang into action and vowed to maintain it on her own. She organized our book collection into categories to replenish the library. She asked her dad to help her repair the roof, and set out to touch up the chipped paint. She made flyers to announce her Little Free Library revamp to the neighborhood. Katie was invested.
When my mom saw the newly repainted library, she gave me an arched eyebrow look that only a daughter could understand. Katie’s painting skills were not as impressive as her motivation. There were some drips. Some splotches. Some sections that were somehow completely missed.
My mom chastised me. “Dana. You need to tell her she needs to fix this. It needs a second coat. This whole front section of the roof is a mess.”
“It doesn’t matter, Mom,” I replied. What I meant, though, was that it doesn’t matter as much. What matters more is that Katie feels accomplished and confident. If I told her to fix it, I would be diminishing her accomplishment and denting her self-confidence. Yes, the appearance of the Little Free Library matters, but what matters more is Katie (who felt very proud of herself).
I started taking this “what matters more” filter into the classroom with me. As teachers, we are faced with many difficult decisions throughout the course of the day. We have to think on our feet and often decide how to handle a situation in just a few seconds. We use filters for our decision making, whether we realize it or not. Some of the filters I have used in the past I am not so proud of.
For example, I worked for a principal who wanted all students to have a specific number of minutes on our computerized reading program. When a student reached the end of the week without the suggested number of minutes, I used the “what does my principal want” filter to decide to keep that student in from recess. Another time I had a student who was constantly moving and talking. Constantly. I noticed him doodling an elaborate sketch on the back of his math paper rather than working through the assigned math exercises, and I used the “what will keep this student quiet” filter to let him continue.
The experience with my daughter and our Little Free Library taught me that I also have a “what matters more” filter and that it is highly valuable. Something interesting happened when I started applying the “what matters more” filter to my literacy instruction. I noticed my instruction felt truer to my beliefs. I noticed kids were happier and there were fewer power struggles in our classroom. I noticed I felt proud of my literacy instruction in a way I hadn’t in years.
When I am torn between enforcing a rule or allowing a little bit of leeway, I ask myself, What matters more right now? The rule or the child? For example, I once worked at a school where students were allowed to check out three books each week from our media center, but one of those books had to be in a certain leveled band. The books were color-coded, and students knew which band they were assigned to. I am a rule follower at heart, so I tried to abide by it. But when a student discovered that their favorite author had just released a new series and wanted to check out all three books, I thought, What matters more? and the decision was easy.
Another time I sat down to confer with a student and wondered to myself if he had used voice-to-text to create his draft, because there wasn’t a piece of punctuation to be found in the entire essay. I read the essay (with some difficulty because of the lack of punctuation) and realized he had written a very vulnerable and personal story. Before I opened my mouth to give him a teaching point, I thought, What matters more? and I knew just what to say.
What matters more? A student’s reading life or a questionable school rule?
What matters more? Correct punctuation or having an identity as a writer?
What matters more?
I noticed when I started using this filter for decision making that it helped me clarify my own belief system. Sometimes I didn’t immediately know what mattered more, and I had to figure that out. Now I know. I know that stories matter more and kids matter more and our hearts matter more than anything else.
If you pass by our house, you will see our revamped Little Free Library standing proudly in the middle of our front yard. Don’t mind the paint job. Just grab yourself a book, and if you see Katie, please tell her she did a good job. That’s what matters most.