Teaching and the Art of Saying "No"

Teaching and the art of saying “no”

Here’s the scene: Two things pop-up on my calendar simultaneously. My wife, Jen, and I realize two things are planned for the same day. An overwhelming feeling notifies me that I’ve taken on too much. The root cause of this? Not saying “no” often enough.

There are two causes to this scene:

  1. Fear of disappointing others
  2. Shiny object syndrome

The first cause is rarely justified. When I respect my own time by managing priorities, other respect my time as well. The second, shiny object syndrome, is sometimes good. For example, my original Internet browsing of the Teachers Throwing Out Grades group led me to teach a full year without grading any of my freshmen assignments.

But more often than not, the cycle goes like this:

Can’t say no —> overcommitment —> stress —> less energy to do all of those commitments.

Saying “no” purposefully is an art, and it is essential for success as a teacher and as a person. When planning instruction, the art of saying “no” comes down to the question: how will I spend my time with my students?

How do I figure out what to say “no” to?

There’s a quote from General George S. Patton that helps me when I’m struggling to make plans. He said:

“A good plan today is better than a perfect plan tomorrow.”

I apply this to teaching by telling myself that often, the decision of what to teach is less important than actually making the decision. No, teachers should not simply teach whatever they want. We should deliberately decide on the best materials and lessons for our students, forget everything else, and accept that we cannot teach everything. Say “no” to all but the things we decide are the essentials.

What’s an example of this?

Close reading might be the most cluttered part of English Language Arts instruction. The mountain of approaches, resources, strategies and skills mentioned in blog posts, books, conference presentations and Tweets is overwhelming. It’s a recipe for overcommitment. It’s a place to practice the art of saying “no.”

In previous years, I’ve been distracted by trying to teach every reading strategy I can think of, different types of annotation for different situations, various ways to ask and answer questions, and all sorts of literary devices and stylistic elements that students might come across. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see a problem with doing any of those things, but I did see a problem in my own teaching with doing ALL of those things.

It was time for a change.

Throughout this past school year, Falling in Love with Close Reading by Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts was a helpful guide for my direct reading instruction. It allowed me to practice saying “no” when planning my days, weeks, units and entire school year.

The reason it was so helpful? It was simple.

There are four aspects of close reading mentioned in the book: finding evidence to support an idea, analyzing word choice, analyzing structure and analyzing perspective. That’s it. I chose to focus on one of those ideas per marking period, building on the previous marking period each time.

The list above includes only a fraction of the topics that could be taught under the umbrella of “close reading.” It worked well for me and my students because we had a clear focus and clear objectives. There was no shiny object syndrome, because there was a simple plan to follow.

This is not an endorsement for Falling in Love with Close Reading, but it is an endorsement for developing a clear, simple framework for however you approach your direct reading instruction.

Other helpful, streamlined models for direct reading instruction include:

Falling in Love with Close Reading: Lessons for Analyzing Texts–and Life by Chris Lehman and Kate Roberts
Notice and Note by Kylene Beers and Bob Probst
Notice and Note for Nonfiction (same authors)
How to Read Literature Like a Professor
Doug Fisher and Nancy Frey’s thoughts on annotation (slides):
The Non-Freaked Out, Focused Approach to the Common Core by Dave Stuart Jr.

When have you practiced the art of saying “no” in your teaching? What frameworks for close reading do you use? Leave your answer in the comments.

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