A Slight Change in Focus Makes a World of Difference

It is astounding to me how quickly and dramatically my free time goes away as soon as the school year begins. All of a sudden those extra hours in the day are no longer available. These first days of school require a different kind of lesson planning as I try to figure out who my students are and what they need from me.  And so, I am living pretty much day by day in the classroom and in the evenings there seems to be an endless list of tasks to be accomplished for the next day.

All of this is to say, it’s been a while. It’s been a while since I carved out enough space for myself to sit and think and reflect on this blog.  I have missed it and I have needed it.

So here I am.

This school year has brought so many new things to me and to my students. Some of them have been huge, like blogging and using our class Twitter account. Those are the obvious changes. The things that visitors notice right away.

But then there are other things, less obvious things. The subtle changes that are actually the ones that make the most difference. These are the changes that are not observed right away by others. These are not the changes that I am getting emails about or hearing students get excited about. These are the changes in my focus. These are the changes in my ways of thinking. These are the slight changes that are making a world of difference.

The biggest small change for me has been my change in focus when thinking about how I am teaching my students. I have changed from thinking of content as a checklist of items that I need to deliver to my students, to instead thinking about what purpose that same content can have in my students’ lives and looking for ways to use our required content to teach them the things that they will need to be better human beings in the world outside of my classroom.

One of the places where this change in focus is making a huge impact is in our writing workshop.  Usually I begin the year with the kids by working on writing personal narratives and memoirs. These are genres that are assigned to fifth grade in my district, so I teach them. Because I am supposed to. And I have done a fairly decent job of that in the past. We have looked at loads of mentor texts, talked about slowing down moments, including snapshots and thought shots (thank you Barry Lane), writing so that our readers feel the emotions present in these moments of our lives, etc. And the kids do a wonderful job and I start to see them becoming increasingly proud of their writing.  And all of that has been wonderful.

But then this year, I stopped to ask myself, “What purpose does this kind of writing have in their lives?” It is a question that has become the starting point to all planning that I have done this year. This question has taken center stage as the most important question in helping me to decide how to teach my students. “What purpose will this have in their lives?” And no longer will I be satisfied with the answer, “It will help them to do things later in their school lives.” That is not enough for me anymore and it is certainly not enough for them. Our students deserve more. They deserve to learn things that will have true meaning and true purpose in their lives.

So I was struggling over the summer with this notion of what purpose memoirs really serve to my students. And then one day the answer came to me in a most unexpected way (as it usually does). My mother had been cleaning out the basement of her house, which also was my childhood home.  One day I brought my daughter over to visit my mom and my mom told me that she had found a true gem that she wanted me to look at.  And then she pulled out a yellowed bunch of papers that had been clumsily stapled together. The papers were filled with photographs and writing. As I sat down to investigate the papers further, I saw that the handwriting was my own. I had written this book. I quickly realized that I had written this book for my mother as a Mother’s Day gift and she had kept it all these years because it held so much meaning for her.

Bingo.

Our writing can be a gift that we give to other people to show those people what they mean to us. And those stories, those personal narratives, those memoirs, can be some of the most meaningful and powerful writing that we can do and some of the most meaningful and powerful gifts that we can give.

So this year, my first writing unit is not on personal narratives and memoirs, but instead it is on how we can use our writing to give stories as gifts to the people who matter to us in our lives. And all of a sudden our work feels more meaningful and more purposeful. And even within these first few days, the work that we are doing feels more exciting and more urgent and I haven’t even had to remind my students that we should think about our audience when we write because they have been thinking about their audience from the very beginning. Because with this simple shift in focus, they are no longer writing for me, they are writing for the people in their lives who mean something to them. And it is amazing. Because, so far, I have not heard one child say, “I don’t know what to write about.”

I feel as if I am constantly struggling between wanting my students’ learning to be self-directed while also feeling like I have a responsibility to meet standards set for me and for my students by the district and beyond. So sometimes it becomes simply a matter of finding the right way to use the standards set for me in a way that will serve real purpose and meaning in the lives of my students.

And it isn’t perfect, but it is so much better than what it was.

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4 thoughts on “A Slight Change in Focus Makes a World of Difference

  1. Pingback: Sunday Salon: A Round-Up of Online Reading 9/7/14 | the dirigible plum

  2. Hi Jessica – I’m loving your thinking here. I struggle with the same things in my fourth grade classroom, and this year it has really centered around writing. For me it always comes down to ‘what’s best for my students?’ and ‘what do they really need?’. I haven’t found all the answers yet (we are only three weeks in!) but I know stopping to reflect and write about our struggles is always a good thing. It makes my thinking clearer every time. THank you for sharing 🙂
    Annabel

  3. Pingback: That One Student | Crawling Out of the Classroom

  4. this is one of my favorite sentiments from all time – – “Our writing can be a gift that we give to other people to show those people what they mean to us.”

    you completely nailed it.

    . it’s why blogging exists, i think. those who have realized this truth. keep doing what you are doing; your students are incredibly lucky to have you

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