Building Focus through Reading, Writing, and Discussion

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This year I let go of trying to make my lessons “fun” and “engaging.” I’ve held off on the group work, project-based learning, and inquiry lessons. Instead I raised the bar for learning and went back to basics – reading high quality text, fronting the writing, and discussion. I’ve noticed I have spent considerably less time creating and planning actual lessons, and far more time spent honing my questioning, sequence, and delivery of content.  Along the way, I’ve also found my fear of “being boring” to students has all but disappeared. 

By refocusing on reading, writing, and discussing – skills that have and will always stand the test of time – we are also rebuilding something that will become ever more valuable in our ever-more distracted world – sustained attention. I was fortunate to have parents that gave me many opportunities to develop my focus throughout my formative years.

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– Doug Lemov, Teaching the art of listening in the age of me, me me

Every morning before elementary school, my three siblings and I all practiced our repetitive violin scales and Suzuki books for a minimum of 30 minutes (even if we missed the bus). I then went on to attend a boarding choir school from 5th to 8th grade where we rehearsed and took music theory classes four to six hours daily in addition to the regular school day. And although I never achieved my goal and made it to the NBA, I practiced about two hours every day throughout high school on free throws, repetitive shots, and dribbling.

In all these experiences, I noticed a pattern – in order to improve, I had to isolate a specific skill and deliberately practice it until it was automatic, especially under pressure. The deliberate practice was always rote and never very interesting – at first. But I always found ways to make it engaging and intrinsically enjoyable. I’d practice my scales faster and faster using a metronome. I’d use a timer to see how many jumpers I could sink in 5 minutes. In short, I found ways to transform what most considered “rote” and boring into engaging deliberate practice where I could notice my improvement.  This is directly applicable to teaching.

When students complain about lessons being boring or repetitive, I share my experiences with music and sports. I tell them, “not all learning is fun at first.” I trust that over time and with regular opportunities to celebrate achievement and growth through engaging routines like show callsthe learning itself will become enjoyable.

So, my takeaway: create and sustain routines and rituals around reading, writing, and discussion to give students opportunities to demonstrate mastery and sustain focus. Celebrate excellence, then raise the bar a little higher each day.  And if you are worried about demotivating students through “boring” lessons, I think Craig Barton has it right when he argues our motivation arises from achievement, not the other way around.

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