I keep thinking about these boys in the cave in Thailand. As news of their rescue filters through each day, I ponder the time they spent in darkness, hopeless and afraid. These boys are the age of my sons. They love to play ball, ride their bikes and have adventures. And yet they’ve just endured harrowing conditions, dividing their lives into two categories: Before The Cave and After The Cave.
I was talking to a wise teacher recently and he offered me some advice about preparing to teach my next class. He suggested that I think about my students being in some sort of “God forbid” situation: prisoners of war, alone in the wilderness, or, yes, trapped in a cave. He reminded me of all the stories of people in the same situations who recited little tidbits they remembered from school or church: Scripture, Shakespeare, nursery rhymes, anything to help them keep their sanity and stability in what were nerve-wracking, hopeless situations.
“What are the things they should remember about your class in ten years? What is so important in your curriculum that they still need to be able to know and recite it in utter darkness?”
This question has me staring at my syllabus in a new light, really trying to hone in on the “why” behind our studies and what the truths and virtues are I want my students to carry with them long into their adult lives. Whether their soccer team gets stranded in a cave, literally, or if they have a dark life moment so cavernous that they despair, I want their hours spent with me to contribute to their survival, to buoy them and offer hope.
The same question could be asked about my own mind, and the mind of my own children. At some point in life, we all go into a cave and the waters rise threateningly high. What are the truths my mind will cling to when I’ve lost connection, lost my deposit, lost my true north? What little tidbits will filter through my own kids’ mental catalog when they stare down the darkness?
My teacher friend suggested I write a “catechism” of sorts for my students, rather than a syllabus. Show them that the stuff that’s really important, we’re going to repeat over and over, until we know it in our bones and in our knowers, and until we can carry it with us over hill, over dale, and into the caves.
This is tricky enough to accomplish for a nine-month long single subject course, but even more difficult to articulate and condense as a parent for the 18 years we spend shepherding our children.
Our list includes some Shakespeare, lots of Scripture, the gospel threads, truths about God, why we’re all here, and, if I’m honest, my kids will probably be able to recite a litany of “momisms” like “clean your room, check your pits before you leave the house, brush your teeth, and don’t put your shoes on the counter.”
Not exactly life-giving, but certainly practical.
They’ve also got quite the list of comedy sketches, movie quotes, and other bits of pop culture that filter to them through their parents and their friends. This puts the 18 years they spend under our roof absorbing words, stories, verses, music, art – some of it good, some bad, into a much deeper perspective. As I plan our school, as we think through our family worship, as we ponder the affections, hobbies, and culture our children are absorbing, I keep asking myself: How will this serve them in the cave?
Now, look, their whole lives won’t be spent in a cave, literally or figuratively. We’re preparing them for happy moments, too. But when the darkness sets in, I want them to be ready.
So I wonder, then, What is in the “In Case of Darkness” litany of your family? What will your kids carry with them to the caves?
In between organizing my house, running kids to and fro, and writing my own projects, I’m taking lots of time this summer for “teacher in-service.” Curriculum is already pouring in for next year and I’m also prepping to teach a new subject at our local co-op. Hence, Mama needs some education.
We don’t become non-teachers in the summer. We take the time to think about things.
As I’ve studied, I wanted to condense my notes into something I could refer to quickly as I plan each subject we’ll be covering next year. Maybe you’re in the same boat and want to look over my shoulder? (Keep in mind, these aren’t my ideas, just a condensed version of the wisdom of others.)
First, understand where your students are coming from. What did they learn in previous years that prepared them for this year? What might I need to teach them in the beginning in order for them to feel ready for my class?
Who our students are becoming is much more important than what they can do.
Second, understand where your students are going. What is the scope and sequence of the subject you are teaching? What can you help make them ready for in their future studies? How can you lay a strong foundation that other teachers or future studies can build on?
Finally, consider your mission statement. This seems like a really broad concept for planning, but I think it’s important to keep at the forefront of my mind as I evaluate math programs or the syllabus for my lit students. We’ve recently simplified our family’s school mission statement and if I write it at the top of every page in every teacher’s manual, maybe it will help me keep my eyes on the Real Prize next year.
One thing I learned in my teaching last year was that, while my goals for my co-op class were good, I actually had two large objectives and only 50 minutes a week in which to achieve both of those. The consequence of having more objectives than I had time meant that, while we made progress, the progress wasn’t as great as I had hoped for my students in a single year. I felt like we barely scratched the surface. I gave them the tools to carry on themselves, but whether they will use them is up to them. I would have liked to walk beside them a little longer! In hindsight, I would have been better served teaching two separate classes for each objective (in a perfect world, obviously. I think my head would have exploded in reality!) Hence, picking a reasonable objective is important, too.
This leads me to a set of questions I think will really help me hone in on my objectives for my class next year.
Three Questions to Ask When Planning:
- What should my students love more at the end of this course? (This one hits me right between the eyes.)
- What should they be able to do? What skills will they develop?
- What concepts will they learn? What should they know?
We need to give students something higher to love than the grade. If the grade is the highest pleasure, then we have failed.
Once you’ve answered these, dive a little deeper. Make a list of 10 facts/essential ideas your students should carry with them when they leave. Not 50 terms, not 20 key dates, just 10 Essentials. Too many facts work against the idea of a student learning to love a subject. Fewer dates/facts will invite deeper understanding and let the students draw the connections themselves. One teacher suggests writing a catechism of these ten things for students to read/recite together at the beginning of each class. This bit of chanting puts the ideas in their mind and frees them from the temptation to cram, pass, and forget. In addition, it helps a teacher hone their focus and their plans and determine what the most important things are.
As you plan activities, ask:
- Does this activity equip my students?
- Does this activity inspire my students?
Activities should do one or the other, but the best is when they work in tandem to complement each other. For example, I practice piano more when I’ve just attended a beautiful concert. The inspiration is the concert, the equipping is knowing what scales I should practice and how. From my classroom last year, our study and analysis of a unique slam poem gave the students the tools to create their own slam poem, and the exciting performance we watched inspired them to jump in and give it a try. (The results were fantastic, by the way.)
Since I need this in a shorthand where I can remind myself often, here’s all the info condensed to be printed & stuck in my planner:
Consider your students.
Remember your MISSION.
What should students LOVE, DO, and KNOW at the end of the year?
Pick Just Ten Essentials.
Do my activities EQUIP and INSPIRE my students?
Happy planning, y’all!
*Most of these quotes and ideas are from a class on ClassicalU entitled “Essentials of Teaching” by Robyn Burlew with Christopher Perrin. It’s possible I’ve added some random ideas from one of the myriad of books I’m reading, but most of the credit goes to this particular class. I can’t recommend ClassicalU enough for teacher training.