Doug Lemov's field notes

Reflections on teaching, literacy, coaching, and practice.

01.05.16Najee Carter: Systems, Routines & the Art of Positivity

Happy New Year from TLaC Towers! Just before the holidays we watched a clip of Najee Carter at North Star Alexander Street Elementary School. It left us feeling downright warm, fuzzy and full of holiday joy- not something one necessarily expects from a Systems and Routines clip! As a capstone to this season of giving, TLaC team member Maggie Johnson shared these observations about Mr. Carter and his spirited 2nd graders.

BC.DIA.GR2.Carter.’Battle is on.’Clip2432 from Uncommon Schools on Vimeo.

After giving students directions for their independent practice, Najee asks his group of boys to pack up their materials, adding a swift non-verbal signal to reinforce his direction. Najee leverages this moment to build a bit of momentum: “My girls are ready. Boys get ready to bring it!” And a second later he’s counting down from 10, setting an energetic pace for students’ packing. When other teachers might slow for stragglers, Najee accelerates his countdown a smidge to inspire speed, effectively so. But the tone stays buoyant and casual, intimating that he expects a ‘happy ending’ when he gets to one.

Right after reminding student how to show they are ready, Najee gets an eager hand from a student. He wants to ask a question in the middle of the transition. Najee acknowledges the hand but–with a subtle gesture–asks the student to lower it for a moment. This small almost invisible action sets the stage for the year of fast and focused transitions ahead—when every student’s focus should be preparing for what is to come and helping to get quickly and mindfully back to instruction. Najee himself shows this by resisting as much as possible his own inclination to talk. Seconds later we see this student put his hand up one more time before the transition is over and put it down again without a cue from Najee. Beautiful: a reminder that clear and consistent expectations teach students to self-manage.

Then comes the high point of the clip: Najee’s Do It Again. He notices that one of his students is standing behind his chair with folder in hand when the routine is to leave materials on the table until cued by the teacher to pick it up. Though it may seem like an insignificant particularity, there are many great reasons that Najee may have broken this part of students transition into two steps: it minimizes time lost with students fumbling to pick up their folder and push in their chair simultaneously, it prevents students from dropping their folders or misplacing papers, and it helps ensure students stay mindful of bringing their materials with them to their classroom chairs. He’s “planned to the detail” as Doug puts in on page 363 of TLaC 2.0. Rather than ignore this small misstep, Najee chooses to correct it by having all of his students do their transition again, or Do It Again.

Even in this mundane moment, Najee is effortlessly ebullient. “Uh oh,” he says playfully, “Sit back down. My man Woody remembered you just stand. You don’t hold your folders.” That is, instead of calling out the student who got it wrong he calls out Woody for getting it right. And then they all go back and practice one more time. Even more than that, Najee seems to genuinely appreciate the mistake as if were a perfect opportunity to study how to transition correctly and to shine a light on Woody. With one brushstroke Najee keeps the student who made the error both anonymous and accountable. In a flash, students are standing behind their chairs again, even faster than they did the first time, with the student who was in error receiving positive reinforcement from Najee for getting it right. A few seconds later, Najee’s has a new group of students at his table and he declares “Show Time!” It’s time to get back to the main event.

We love that Najee’s Do It Again is book-ended by rigorous academics. When it opens, Najee is sending the boys off to process their discussion in writing with a challenging prompt. In the end, the girls are discussing their written work within 7 seconds (by my count) of sitting down. And we love the irrepressible positivity in everything he does.

Thanks, Najee, for this rapturous clip. We are resolved to practice our technique!

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