What’s Saving My Life: Slow September

snail-1844618_960_720.jpgSomething that saved my life this summer vacation was Slow Mondays, a day I instituted as a solution to my massive FOKMO–Fear of (My) Kids Missing Out–problem. Every Monday our huge summer bucket list mocked me from the playroom walls as I stood at the sink, my hands swishing around in the soapy water. “How many activities are you going to cross off this week? Are you giving them enough time outside? So and so took her kids to the animal farm yesterday…why haven’t you been yet? Don’t forget to add peach-picking to the list–they’re in season now, and you wouldn’t want your kids to miss out…” the poster sneered.

In an attempt to quiet my inner mom critic, I decided to institute Slow Mondays in our house: A day for staying at home. For chilling out and digging in. For leisurely and intentional preparation for the week ahead.

On Slow Mondays we… made soup in the slow cooker. We watched the laundry go round and round and felt the dryer heat up with each cycle. We studied ants carrying breadcrumbs from our back porch to the grass line. We dragged the art easel up the basement stairs and filled the plastic containers with red, green, blue, and yellow paint. We made messes, and then we took a long time to clean them up. We strolled around the neighborhood and counted cats in the window. We did puzzles, over and over again. We left the car parked in the driveway, the bucket list glued on the wall, my phone in the kitchen.

My friends thought I was crazy–staying at home with a 7 month old and a 3 year old all day?!?– but honestly, it was heavenly. On Slow Mondays I felt more connected to my kids than on any other day of the week. At the end of the day when I wrote in my gratitude journal I could actually remember sound bytes of darling or hilarious things they had said; though our day had been incredibly simple, I was filling pages with memorable moments I wanted to look back on.

As the summer went on, I began to think about how the practice of “slow living” might apply to teaching. As teachers we experience FOKMO all the time: we want to teach all the things, all the books, all the writing, so our kids don’t miss a thing. The pacing guides mock us. The standards ask us to cover more. When school kicks off, we move as quickly as possible in an effort to cancel out the inevitable “falling behind” that often happens once we actually start teaching real kids. We sprint because we know if we don’t, we won’t make it to the finish line in June.

Enter Slow September, something that might save your life this year: A slow and intentional way of moving into the school year with the purpose of creating time and space for the important work we are going to do as writers. Slow September gives us permission to:

  • Make really intentional decisions about what to include and what to leave out of our curriculum
  • Teach less: fewer concepts, texts, assignments, etc.
  • Teach more deeply and expansively since we’re not “covering” so much
  • Focus on building relationships and a tight knit writing community
  • Create an atmosphere of learning that is calm, kind, humane, intentional, focused, balanced, and reflective.

Really, these are principles that should shape our teaching throughout the year, but particularly in September when the tendency is to dash. It’s called slow teaching.

Here are ten ideas for implementing a Slow (Writing) September of your own:

  1. Think small. A tendency in writing workshop is to cram as many genre studies into the year as possible, so we want to hit the ground running with our first study. Instead of beginning the year with a big, heavy, multi-week genre study, consider a few smaller studies or micro units to ease your students into the process. Check out this post and this one and this one and  this one for ideas.
  2. Find a rhythm. Enlist your students in helping you create a gentle rhythm to begin class every day, something that will create an atmosphere of productive calm. I’ve written before about soft starts, a gentle way of opening class that invites students to begin working as soon as they are ready. Perhaps you’ll have music playing or coffee brewing (for your upperclassmen) or students will take turns reading a poem each day…whatever it is, create a series of small, intentional steps that you’ll repeat every day to signal the beginning of workshop in a way that feels a little bit special.
  3. Set writing intentions. At the beginning of our yoga class my instructor invites us to set a (silent) intention–something we can come back to when our breath gets away from us or negative thoughts invade our minds. Consider the impact of asking your students to set a daily writing intention–something they can come back to when they experience a block, or become distracted, or feel otherwise lost in workshop that day. You might even invite students to share their intensions via a Google Form and project them on the board so everyone can reflect.
  4. Keep minilessons mini. And keep them focused. A minilesson by definition is a 5-10 minute burst of instruction that teaches students how to do one thing. I often find myself wanting to share multiple techniques or approaches to doing something in a minilesson, and suddenly the ML is running 15 to 20 minutes long. Save those scaffolds and extensions for conference work when they’ll be more effective anyway.
  5. Drop the homework. Or at least keep it simple and authentic–like, “write or read for 30 minutes.” Our writers need time to rest their creative minds, mull over thoughts, chew on leads.
  6. One goal. Spend all of September just working towards one goal. For Rebekah and me, that’s reading like a writer, perhaps the most important skill we teach our writers all year, the one we practice and use every single day of our writing lives. Here are some ideas for digging into this skill and giving your writers copious opportunities to practice.
  7. Make your class like a story. Let each class period have a beginning, middle, and end. This might look like: some free time for writing/exploring ideas or invitations in a notebook (beginning); a minilesson with time to reflect and writing (middle); sharing some favorite lines written that day (the end). It’s not always easy incorporating an ending–kids fly out the door as the bell rings and you can’t believe time passed so quickly. Perhaps you’ll set a (quiet) timer to signal five minutes left, and you’ll develop another rhythm for bringing writing time to a proper close.
  8. Do less. Do you really need to do all that stuff at the beginning of the year–all those forms and index cards and rules and Don’ts and Dos.  Consider letting students just experience your class instead of telling them about it…Share rules or guidelines for workshop gradually, as they become applicable, and use transition time rather than devoting an entire class period to going over All Things Logistical.
  9. The writing is the activity. Way back when I was first starting writing workshop I wondered/worried how I would fit it all in: a bell ringer, minilesson, activity, writing time, conferences, wrap-up etc. Then Rebekah shared a secret that lifted my anxiety: The writing is the activity. After you teach a minilesson, you move directly into writing. No more activities. No more “write a script explaining what you learned” or “create an image summarizing today’s lesson.” The lesson, then the writing. That’s it. In slow teaching we have to cut back on all the filler to make time and space for the most important work we do: the writing itself.
  10. Build slow relationships. I used to waste a lot of time in the past asking students to fill out Getting To Know You questionnaires I only gave a cursory glance to during the back-to-school overwhelm. Then one year I shifted my approach entirely: I decided to act like a real person and get to know my students through conversation as I would any other person I was meeting for the first time. Instead of reading questionnaires deskside while inhaling lunch, I invited my students to join me for lunch for the first month–a few students a day–and we talked about our summers: day trips, vacations, jobs, books, what we did to beat the heat. It was wonderful, and it was real.

For those of you who started school a few weeks ago and are already melting under the heat and stress of September, where can you linger? What can you say no to? How might you change course if it’s already feeling like too much?

For those of you starting this week, how will you begin? What might “slow” look like? Where can you give yourself and your students a little bit of grace?

 

 

 

 

 

6 Comments

  1. There is really so much to unpack in this post!
    I love the idea of SLOW days. Intention is a word that keeps coming up for me, esp. at school.

    The other line that really resonated with me was “THE WRITING IS THE ACTIVITY” We always try to pack so much in, but you are so right. Sometimes the simplest idea is the best! Occam’s Razor at its best!

    AND Make the class like a story! This phrase is perfect!

    Thank you

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