Simplicity in English Language Arts

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” -Albert Einstein.

Simplicity is difficult when it comes to teaching. For every minute you spend doing an activity, a reading, a lecture, etc. you are taking a minute from somewhere else. If you’re a slightly overly analytical person like me, you are constantly asking yourself is this the most valuable use of our time given our goals? (And then of course, what are our goals?)

And yet, simplicity is one of the most powerful tools we can use in both our classroom management, and curriculum and instruction, as teachers. Setting up consistent, simple and routine aspects of a class help students know what to expect and reduce the cognitive strain on both the teacher and students having to process new directions rather than using that mental energy to do the work.

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” — Bruce Lee
Simple doesn’t mean easy, it means simple.

For my content area, English Language Arts, simplicity is straightforward, but by focusing almost 100% of our attention into a select few areas we can make go much deeper because we have the luxury of time and repetition.

The Big Three

The big three areas of instruction for ELA are abundant reading, writing, and talking (preferably arguing). When I’m designing my lessons, thinking about assessment, and thinking about what I can do to make my 7th and 8th grade ELA class meaningful, I try to take into considering a simple idea:

“How can I give my students as many opportunities to read, write and talk within the 100 minutes I have each day?”

It is the quantity of the reading, writing, and talking, that I’m considered about first. Then the quality. I am reminded of one last quote:

“Look at a stone cutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.” — Jacob Riis

In short

Figure out what’s most important in your subject area, structure your year, lessons, minutes, seconds to give students as many opportunities as possible to practice those skills, go deep, and keep it simple!

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