Getting Past Paralysis

shriveled cornI stood in my kitchen between sports drop off and pick up. Several shriveled ears of corn caught my eye. Ugh! They were a guilty reminder that I’d let several produce items go to waste since last Wednesday when I picked up the previous farm box in spite of good intentions. And there next to them were a dozen fresh ears of corn from today’s farm excursion.

The corn conundrum made me remember something my new 4th grade teacher said to me yesterday.

“There’s just so much with the mini lessons and the small groups. I sorted them into groups from the pre-assessment, but then I wasn’t sure those groups were right so…I haven’t really started groups yet. I don’t even know where to start.”


My frazzled mom self, exhausted from a cross country meet with so little parking I practically had to jog the course myself to get to where my son was, a trip to pick up our CSA box, a drop off at the rink, and then walking in to a kitchen whose vegetables have clearly seen better days could totally relate to that first year teacher.

She didn’t mention all the other things, the math, the lunch count, scheduling the guidance lesson, and SLOs, but they were all looming. Just as I still faced studying with my boys for a combined four tests tomorrow, and the announcement at 9:00 that my younger son absolutely needed the load of delicates washed because he needs shorts for practice tomorrow–“I put the clothes in the washer, Mom, but I don’t know how to turn it on. Oh, and can you please try to make sure it gets in the dryer?”

With so much on our plates as teachers, it’s easy to understand the deer in headlights look. Sometimes teachers don’t know what to tackle first. They want to do the exact right thing and it can be paralyzing.

I had asked the first year teacher how small groups were going because I didn’t see any happening. While I was moving around her room and conferring to get a sense of her class, she sat shuffling a stack of the pre-assessments looking uncomfortable. It wasn’t an accusation. It was a conversation starter. And her response gushed out like it was a relief to get it off her chest. She explained that she didn’t want to do the groups wrong so she had sorted and resorted them, but couldn’t decide.

“You aren’t going to hurt them by trying a group, even if it isn’t the perfect group. Don’t worry. Any group is a good start if it gets you started,” I assured her. “Would it help if I took a look at those and sketched out one way groups might look? I could come tomorrow and teach a couple of groups so you could see what they might look like. Then we could talk about how I decided and what might come next.”

“Really? You wouldn’t mind? That would be such a help.”

So last night (which thankfully was a little less hectic on the mom front) I sorted her readers based on their pre-assessments and penciled in small group plans for the next week and a half. Those plans included a primary goal, a list of which few students needed to start with that goal, and gradual release over about three meetings. I also created a couple of demo pages in my reading notebook for those groups. Because I feel confident naming possible next steps, it only took about half an hour. But really I was able to get it done because I recognized that any personalized instruction could benefit readers. It was entirely likely that some readers would need multiple things. I could choose one knowing that I’d get to another one later on. I also avoided paralysis because I knew that if I found myself with a group sitting in front of me and one reader didn’t fit well, I could always say, “off you go,” and catch up to them in a conference.

Today I shared the plan for the groups. I scheduled two a day so the first and second groups needed something very similar. I suggested that I could model as many groups as she needed, but if she felt ready I could model the first and she could repeat it with the next group. We could repeat that pattern across the next several days until she felt more comfortable.

Something imperfect that happens is better than the perfect thing that never will.

Both my boys ate left-over boxed macaroni and cheese tonight that I made this morning just so they’d eat something. It wasn’t perfect. But stirring the powdered cheese in at 6:00 this morning meant that at 6:00 tonight I could tackle the other things that were important to my family today. And I’ll admit, I didn’t quiz anyone on chemistry or algebra. That may have been ideal, but realistically what I could manage was to quiz them on AP Government and Latin American geography. They are both fed, showered, and in bed. Tomorrow is another day at home.

And it will be another day in classrooms. Tomorrow we’ll pick up where we left off with small groups and conferring. There’s always more to do.

Which reminds me…I have a dozen more ears of corn to vacuum seal.


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