Less Is More: Teaching Kids What Matters Most

A MiddleWeb Blog

Rita Platt is a former middle school teacher, librarian and language specialist and currently a Wisconsin K-5 principal.

A year after the first of the COVID closures, schools have made great strides in providing an education to students in one of the three most common modes of learning: Online, hybrid, and face-to-face with some students out due to illness or quarantine.

My own district has been mostly face-to-face with longer bouts of hybrid at the middle and high school levels.

By and large, we’ve done a good job of it. But, as a parent of a middle school student, I have continued to be surprised, and a little dismayed, by how little seems to have changed at that level. There seems to be a continued focus on getting curriculum done and not much focus on meeting students’ needs.

Maybe that’s unique to my corner of the world and maybe it’s not. Either way, I want to share advice for a paradigm shift away from “coverage” and toward deep and differentiated learning. A new idea? Nope. But one that bears constant revisiting to be sure.

Less Is More, Now and in the Future

In several recent posts I’ve written about how in these crazy times of COVID – perhaps more than ever before – it’s important to remember that less is more. In my school that meant working with each grade level and content area to hone our essential standards even further –  to what we call the “Ride or Die Standards.” (Urban Dictionary definition: When you are willing to do anything for someone you love or someone you really appreciate in your life.)

As I’ve shared before, some years back my district (like many) worked to identify our “essential standards.” Sometimes called Power Standards, these are the 10-12 most important things a student has to know and be able to do in a given subject.

This year, we honed them down even further to the three to five standards that are the bare minimum needed in each content area to make sure our students are ready for the next grade.

We determined them using three criteria:

One, they are high leverage standards, meaning that mastering them helps a student in a variety of ways.

Two, they are enduring and have value past the date of a test or two.

Three, they are important for readiness, meaning that without mastering the standard, a student will struggle with other concepts and standards down the road.

If you and your team haven’t already done this, it’s not too late, but it’s never too early either. I promise, it’s worth the time.

Questions to Guide Teaching

Once you’ve got your ride-or-die standards identified, it’s critical to keep them at the forefront of your teaching. While I don’t require my staff to write and submit formal lesson plans, I do often talk about the concept of being really clear about the what, why, and how of teaching – knowing your lesson plan inside and out whether it’s written down or not.

I believe that if strong teaching is in place, if someone were to ask the teacher or students about a lesson in progress, both should be able to identify the learning target and tell why it’s important (how it connects to standards or students’ demonstrated needs).

Further, the teacher should be able to easily explain how it fits into the class and/or school’s wider goals, explain why they are using the teaching strategies and structures they chose, and how they might assess progress toward the target.

While I’m not a full-time classroom teacher, in my role as principal I continue to actively teach, on average an hour every day. The following five questions are the shorthand method I use for checking to be sure my lessons are focused and meaningful:

  1. What do I want kiddos to learn?
  2. Why do I want them to learn it?
  3. What does the formative data say about where they are in relation to the target?
  4. How can I best engage them so they reach the target?
  5. How will I know when they’ve learned it?

If I cannot answer the questions, I know it’s time to go back to the drawing board and decide if the lesson really needs to be taught and if it does, how I can teach it in a way that will reach all learners.

If I decide that it isn’t a priority and I can’t legitimately prove it needs to be taught, I let it go. There is too much to do and too little time to do it, especially this COVID year. Our students are overwhelmed by school and by life. Their parents are too.

Helping Students Help Themselves

Above I wrote that if a visitor were to enter a classroom both the teacher and the students should be able to answer questions about the goals of a given lesson. Helping your kiddos understand the whats and whys of the lessons you share with them is as important for them to know as it is for you to know.

A simple way to share learning targets with your students is to remember to tell them the whats, whys, and hows of each lesson.

For years, I’ve kept laminated signs like the one below everywhere I teach. I have a copy on the chair I sit in, on my desk, at the front of the room, and a mini-version on my lanyard.

Copies are in most of my teachers’ classrooms too. They serve as visual reminders for students and adults that we need to share the learning intentions with them. If I forget, students almost never forget to ask me.

A Letter to My Amazing Teaching Staff

In many of my Heart of the School posts I’ve shared emails I’ve sent to my staff. That’s because, in general, if I send a long(ish) email to them, I think it’s important enough to share, and if it’s important enough to share with my teachers, I want to share it with as many wonderful educators as possible. In that spirit, I share this recent letter with you.

Dear Teachers,

Recently a treasured colleague shared this video with me, and I am telling you it had me out of my seat AMENing all over the place!  

It’s only five minutes and it’s affirming and wonderful and reminds me of all that we do intentionally and intuitively at our wonderful schools. It speaks to the need for us to stop worrying about the silly notion of “COVID slide” and start focusing on the fact that we’re teaching what needs to be taught.

Please watch it, maybe even with your PLC groups, and think about the work we did this year and last to hone down our essential standards to the MOST important ones by trimester.

The speaker in the video, Tom Schimmer, ends with this comment: “Either we find the silver lining <of the pandemic> to rethink that which is truly essential <in teaching and learning> or we miss this moment and go back to sacred routines we all believed were sacred only because we kept telling each other they were so.”

My question to you is, what do you think changed for the BETTER because of the pandemic? Did your teaching methods, pacing, presentation, materials, etc. change? Did your communication with families change? I would LOVE to hear your thoughts on this if you care to share. It’s so easy to focus on all we lost this year, but we gained a lot too. We just need to think about it that way!

Happy viewing/thinking!




Rita Platt is a principal and NBCT in Wisconsin and recently received a leadership award from the Kohl Foundation. Her first book, Working Hard, Working Happy: Cultivating a Culture of Effort and Joy in the Classroom, is a Routledge/MiddleWeb publication. It’s a quick read, filled with practical ideas about creating a learning culture in your classroom and school (see this review by Anne Anderson). MiddleWeb readers receive a 20% discount at the Routledge site with the code MWEB1.

Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a National Board Certified Teacher and a self-proclaimed #edudork with master’s degrees in reading, library, and leadership. Her experience includes teaching learners in remote Alaskan villages, inner cities, and rural communities. She currently is a school principal, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute and writes for We Teach We Learn. Rita's first book,Working Hard, Working Happy: Cultivating a Culture of Effort and Joy in the Classroom (Routledge/MiddleWeb), was published in July 2019.

1 Response

  1. Sara L. says:

    Hi Rita,

    I so enjoyed this article — many solid reminders about WHY we educators do what we do! My big takeaway from this article is your idea that “less is more.” I couldn’t agree more that it is important to choose the most important standards and “ride or die” with those. I’m not sure how my current administration would feel about this idea — but I like it! Our current fast-paced approach to curriculum is diminishing the most important skills and concepts.

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