What is the purpose?

As teachers are preparing for midterms and my schedule as a literacy coach is emptier than normal, I decided to use the time to engage in some personal professional development and read Penny Kittle’s Write Beside Them. I have obviously been negligent in delving into this professional text for way too long, but as I poured over her words, what I uncovered was very different from what I was expecting.

As usual, Penny did not disappoint. I nodded through the parts about the importance of student choice, teacher-as-writer, and drooled over the length of her blocks of uninterrupted reading and writing time. I turned pages, highlighting, commenting, and tagging those to come back to. Her words filled me with and reinforced familiar ideas that are foundations of my own teaching, often times making me think more deeply or forcing me to look at an idea from a different angle.

But, what stuck with me most, in fact, the idea that kept emerging, was one of purpose and intention.

Penny shared the letter that she sends home to families at the beginning of every semester. Her expectations are clear. Her words are incredibly honest. Below, she outlines her expectations for reading:

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Quote from Kittle’s Write Beside Them, 2008

Aside from the fact that inherent in this honesty is a message that reading matters, she includes the Nancy Atwell quote to clearly demonstrate WHY it is important to read. Penny Kittle reinforces this with the fact that reading has purpose and is an activity, not an assignment, that she expects her students make time for. No excuses.

This is the first place where I started to think about how the purpose for Penny’s teaching is not so that her students will be strong readers and writers for school but that she shows them the value of reading and writing in their lives. Her purpose is intentional, and her students know this. It is not something that bounces around in her brain or lies stagnant in the lines of her plan book or even appears as one sentence on the whiteboard at the beginning of a class period. Penny’s purpose is clear to her students every day. It is with them in her classroom and remains with them when they unpack their bags at night and settle in with their chosen books.

The idea of setting purpose seems so obvious, but, for me, the timing for thinking more deeply about this concept is ripe.

Lately, Lauren, my co-blogger and social studies coordinator, and I have been talking about purpose in teaching. So many teachers get bogged down with the survival of every day lesson planning, that they don’t stop to think about the purpose for why they are teaching what they are. Why do these skills/content/ideas matter to them and, therefore, why should they matter to their students?

I see myself in these teachers. When I was concerned about my own classroom, making sure all of my papers were graded in a timely manner, that I knew exactly the content that I needed to deliver the next day, even days, and that my lessons were structured and materials prepared, I often neglected the bigger picture. It didn’t seem as relevant to the day-to-day functioning of my classroom.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

How could I have known how to best teach my students the skills and strategies they needed if I didn’t have an end point? A purpose for how these skills and strategies would become the road map to deeper understanding beyond my classroom? And, I was not the only one who needed to understand my purpose, my students needed to be clear not just where they were headed, but why.

Today I sat with a teacher who wanted to discuss lessons for both his upcoming observation and midterm exam. He is passionate about the reading his students are doing as they are having conversations about difficult topics such as race and income inequality. As we began to play with what he wanted to do in his observation to lead into his midterm exam, I asked him if his midterm was written.

His answer was not yet.

At this moment, the purpose for our meeting became crystal clear. How could we continue planning lessons to lead up to something that was not yet determined? We needed to decide the purpose for what students would be doing, based upon the skills and strategies they had been learning all semester, in order to prepare them for the final display of their learning.

If I had been thinking about this more in September, I would have advocated for the midterm to be determined then, so that the students had an endpoint that they were working toward the whole semester. Both students and teacher should know why they are learning and using these skills and strategies. What is the purpose? What is the ultimate goal?

And, I mean far beyond the midterm.

I left the meeting today believing that this teacher had experienced a light-bulb moment. I am hopeful that this conversation will be at the forefront of his next planning session, and he will begin thinking about his purpose for everything he teaches. This starts with looking at the end.

Understanding by Design, a method developed by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins, has,at its very core, the idea of setting a purpose for learning before planning. As I have been talking to Lauren, working with teachers, and reading Penny’s book, I keep coming back to this fundamental concept that has (on my best days) helped to guide my teaching: Think about where we want students to go, WHY we want them to get there, and then create a means for them to do so.

In Write Beside Them, and in her book about building readers, Book Love, Penny Kittle mentions the emails she sent college professors to determine what they want students to be able to do in their writing when they arrive at college. These responses became the purpose and intention when she thinks about teaching writing. This is the ultimate backwards planning.

As teachers, we should always be thinking about where our students are heading next and then setting a purpose and intention for helping them to get there. We should also have students be a part of creating and understanding this purpose, for isn’t our ultimate goal to develop students who will decide what their purpose will be and know how to plan to get there?

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