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Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

04.04.14Systems and Routines is an Academic Tool, Too

Some of the most popular sections in Teach Like a Champion are the parts of the book about establishing systems and routines to make the classroom more efficient and maximize instructional time.  This section will get a revision in TLAC 2.0 with lots of updates and improvements.  One small but useful addition is this short sidebar about applying the principle of systems and routines to academic tasks.  I thought I’d share a draft of it now so you didn’t have to wait for the new  version of the book to come out!

 ACADEMIC SYSTEMS : GETTING BEYOND BEHAVIOR

It’s not just tasks like moving to the carpet and passing in homework that respond well to routinizing in the classroom. Academic tasks are ideal as well. Habits of Discussion (a new technique in the revised TLaC about building productive discussion habits; you can read more here and here and here), for example, is a classic system and routine in which students learn and practice how to make their discussions more productive.  Turn and Talks (also a new technique; discussed in posts here and here and here though) too would be all but impossible without the systems for accountability and efficiency I describe in that chapter.

In fact the more a behavior occurs and the more central it is to what you seek to accomplish in the classroom, the more responsive to routine it is.  Think for example of the power of having a routine for annotation or marking-up text.  You tell your class: “Every time we read we do so with pencils in hand- we underline key details, circle vocabulary words and summarize important scenes in the margin,” or something like that. You practice that until students can use the system with near-automaticity. Then for the rest of the year you can simply say, as East Boston’s Rue Ratray did in a lesson I recently watched, “Take five minutes to read and annotate this passage. Go.” One of your key academic tasks ensues without further explanation or discussion.  And of course there’s a virtuous cycle here. Once you have a system it’s easier to do it—the transaction cost for starting goes down; the efficiency goes up—so the better and better students get at it. You increase the rate of improvement at core tasks by systematizing them.

Or consider the power of a routine for text analysis: “When I give you an excerpt from a text we’re reading you’ll do four things with it: identify the characters involved and the setting, explain its place in the plot of the novel, describe how the scene exemplifies or challenges a key theme (one we’ve talked about or one of your own), compare the scene to another from the same book or another we’ve read as a class this year.”  If your students could do that in five minutes, your Do Now (another routine!) could involve this kind of solid practice at text analysis three, four, even five days a week.  You’d merely choose a rich paragraph or two, excerpt it and let them tear it apart. Talk about low transaction cost!  Again, systematizing something makes it easier to get going and increases the efficiency of its output, and that’s a powerful tool on the academic side too. It takes the focus from how to complete the activity and puts in on the substance of the task—“What do I want to say about this passage?”

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