I recently volunteered to co-chair a committee for my son's elementary school's PTA. He's going into first grade, so I'm still a "new-ish" parent in the school and looking to get more involved where I can. One of the pieces of information I received was a list of "musts" for committee chairs. "Must" was typed in boldface and there was a page of them. It filled me with anxiety to see all those bold MUSTS on the page for a volunteer position.
But it made me think of an anchor chart I saw for writing workshop. It was entitled "Non-Negotiables" and included things like spelling high-frequency words correctly, using punctuation, and capitalizing the first letter in a sentence. As if a child would ever not be capitalizing because he didn't realize it was a non-negotiable. Where is the understanding and respect for how students are entering into writing- perhaps as an ENL student bravely attempting to write in English? The special education student who has a story to tell but needs support with conventions? The student excited about her story, that it all came rushing out? Where is the conversation about first drafts and how writers go back, reread and make corrections? At what point in the process are these components of writing "non-negotiable"? And says who?
The older I get, the more I realize that semantics are everything. It's all in how we say it, how we invite others in, how we frame what we mean. I want my students to know that they capitalize because it makes their writing easier to read. I want them to understand that punctuation helps a reader follow along. It helps the writer give voice to the piece of writing. I want students to care about how their writing looks and sounds because it matters to them and someone is going to be reading it....not because their teacher said it's a "non-negotiable".
I am the furthest thing from a rebel, but I feel a rebellion stir in me when I'm given a similar type list of non-negotiables when it comes to instruction. Such a document fills me with a similar sense of dread like I got when reading the PTA "Must" list. Who has decided that these are the non-negotiables when it comes to teaching? Have teachers been part of this conversation? If not, why not? We are the ones living and breathing the instruction we do with real live little people in front of us. Surely our thoughts and ideas on the teaching and learning process should count for something? Why not ask us what instructional practices we value most and how we've come to feel that way?
I am a teacher who cares deeply about my craft. I read blog posts and professional books and children's books and I take workshops and watch webinars and listen to podcasts about teaching. Why is it assumed I need a list of "must do's" when it comes to teaching my students? Where is the respect for my professional expertise and knowledge?
Maybe its an overreaction, but I think it's worth noting that such a document can cause feelings of anxiety and resentment in the very people you are hoping to inspire and empower. Perhaps skip the list of "must-do's" and "non-negotiables"- whether you are a teacher, an administrator, or a PTA leader! Talk with your people about what matters and ask them what they think. Then you can be sure to mention the ideas you think are critical too, and together, a shared vision might start to piece together.