My Non-Negotiables

This is my fourteenth year teaching. It’s my fourth year teaching Grade 1. I am not a new teacher, but I am at a new school. I’m working with a new group of students, educators, administrators, and parents, and trying to meet a new variety of needs. It’s only the third day of school, and I’ve already thought a lot and learned a lot.

  • I’ve had numerous conversations with people that challenge my thinking in the very best of ways.
  • I’ve asked for advice from a “critical friend,” and received many new things to think about.
  • I’ve made changes to my program, and I’ll probably continue to make many more. Every one of these changes has been based on student needs, and I know that any additional ones I make, will be based on student needs too.
  • I’ve thought about play-based and inquiry-based programs, and what these words mean and what they don’t mean. 
  • I’ve thought about the role of the school, and what I believe is possible, regardless of the amount or type of home support.
  • I’ve thought about when to use and when not to use direct instruction.
  • I’ve looked closely at the Grade 1 curriculum expectations and thought about the key academic skills that I believe the students need before they finish the year (knowing where they need to be in the coming years): the ability to read and comprehend what they’ve read, the ability to write, the ability to count, and the ability to add and subtract (and really understand what these concepts mean).

With all of these thoughts in my head, I’ve really started to do some thinking about my “non-negotiables”: those things in the classroom that I don’t see myself choosing to add and/or change.

  • the introduction of a formalized printing program (with black line masters and a workbook)  I realize that this program may teach students to form the letters, but will it help them see the link between letters, sounds, and words? What about teaching printing in context instead? I will still model how to make the letters, but the students will start to see the connections between printing, reading, and writing.
  • the start of a weekly spelling program and/or spelling tests – I am all for teaching the students the sight words, using the Word Wall, and exploring word families, but does memorized spelling help students with carryover into writing? How does it help them see the links between the given word and other words (the thinking component)? How can spelling link with meaningful writing activities?
  • the use of the same lesson or activity for the whole class if the whole class does not need the same lesson or activity – Yes, many students can benefit from a similar lesson or activity, but not all students have the same strengths or the same needs. Why make students do something that they don’t need to do? I often ask myself, how does this lesson or activity benefit each student, and if I don’t see a benefit, then I don’t do it for everyone. 
  • the elimination of “student choice” – Student choice gives students control over their learning. This doesn’t mean that everything needs to be a choice for them. Yes, students need to read. Yes, students need to write. Yes, students need to do math. But how they show their learning, what tools they use, and where they work can help with differentiation, self-regulation, and ultimately, student success. My big question: why do they need to do the work in this one, given way? If I don’t have a good answer to this question, then maybe they don’t.
  • the elimination of inquiry – One of my big questions on a recent blog post was about a “shared understanding of inquiry.” I think that we need this shared understanding. Everything that I’ve read on this topic indicates that inquiry doesn’t mean that there is never any direct instruction. It doesn’t mean that there are no expectations. It does mean that students have more control over their learning as they generate questions, seek out answers, and explore solutions to problems. Inquiry helps students become better thinkers. It helps students become more independent workers. It helps students learn how to collaborate well with others — not just work in groups, but learn from each other. I know that not all educators feel the same way about the use of inquiry, but I wonder if students can develop the same thinking, independence, and collaboration skills without it.

I think that these non-negotiables will help the students succeed academically, while also addressing their social-emotional needs. What do you think? What are your “non-negotiables?” Why do you view them this way? I’d love to know your thoughts!


12 thoughts on “My Non-Negotiables

  1. A non-negotiable for me would be repetitive math worksheets or text book pages. I feel having a student do 20 of the same type of question is unnecessary. If you know how to add 3 digit plus 3 digit numbers you will do all 20 and be bored by the end. If you do not know how to add 3 digit plus 3 digit you just feel frustrated and defeated after the first few and give up. Neither student has learned anything new.

    • Thanks for your comment, Lorina! I would like to +1 this suggestion. 🙂 I absolutely agree with you! I am not a fan of math worksheets — or really almost any worksheet for that matter — because of exactly what you just said.


      • I philosophically feel the same way as well. It’s interesting that every year, I have students who LOVE worksheets and repetitive practice. I think, in certain situations, they can be helpful. However, working through a textbook or workbook as the entire program is not effective teaching, in my opinion.

        • I wonder if students feel this way because this is what they’re used to. Many of my Grade 5’s (students and parents) articulated this same thought at the beginning of last year. When they started to see the benefits in a different approach though, they no longer wanted worksheets. In fact, a group of students actually wrote a blog post for me (on my professional blog) speaking up against worksheets and textbooks among other things. I found it interesting how their thoughts changed. What do you think?


          • I teach at an alternative school where worksheets, repetitive practice and textbooks are lightly frowned upon. Many of my students are extremely UN-used to using them. Yet, through learning about others’ experiences in school and entertainment media, they’ll request worksheets or textbooks. Not all of them, but some every year. It still surprises me. Some really like the opportunity to see their work clearly on the page and see a “correct” way to do something.

            Personally, I don’t like to encourage them to see answers as “correct” or “incorrect”, but some students who find inquiry intimidating feel some relief in doing basic practice.

            I think it’s all about finding a balance and doing things that work for different students.

            I do like something I heard about worksheets once, “The students who need the practice don’t get it from a worksheet and those who can do them don’t need them”. That’s an interesting thought that I reflect on when I provide different modes of learning for my students.

          • Shauna, it’s interesting that the media and perceptions of other school experiences have such a huge influence on this. It makes me realize that how we portray ourselves, and how we represent teaching and learning, has far-reaching impact. I wonder how we (those in education) could help change this perception.

            As for a worksheet, I think it all comes down to looking at what’s the best tool for the individual students. How is this tool helping students learn? How is it addressing the different levels of the achievement chart? Who is it right for? It may not be right for everyone, but at times, it may be right for a few students. It all depends.

            Thanks for the great conversation!

  2. Hi Aviva,

    I got a little confused when reading your “non-negotiables” list, as I’ve always thought of “non-negotiables” as things that one MUST do, not those that they will not. However, in reading your post, it’s clear that these are things you feel strongly about and aren’t willing to negotiate. I think it works!

    I agree with all of your ideas. “Doing things the way we’ve always done them” isn’t a way to reach all students. Worksheets, regimented spelling and writing programs without space for individuality don’t work.

    Something I struggle with is matching my values and beliefs with my time. I wonder if it will be easier to make sure I can really individualize instruction with a class of 23 this year instead of a class of 29. There’s so much juggling needed. I have lots of parents willing to come in and volunteer this year and look forward to putting together groups (especially in Language and Math) and having them help small groups.

    Have you figured out a way to give us more time? Or to clone teachers to make us better able to do everything we need to do for our kids!?


    • Thanks for your comment, Shauna! I’m glad that the word works — I was starting to doubt myself. As Kristi mentioned in her tweets, maybe I need to do another post on my non-negotiable “keepers”: which I honestly think are matched more to inquiry than anything else!

      As for the time factor, I’ve always found that the key is to find the similarities between groups and help all students — regardless of need — become independent. Then you can go and sit, conference, and support all students (with lots of time). Getting students to also see that they can support each other, helps with this. Then they’re not relying on you, and you have more time to meet more of their needs. Would this work?


      • Hi Aviva,

        That’s totally what I try to do to, but I always end up feeling like I’m failing somebody no matter how much I plan or how effectively I use the class time.

        Another thing I wonder about with you is how you balance your instruction, working with students and social media during the day. I try to tweet out a lot of what we’re doing, but I never feel like there is enough time as I’m working with kids. I worry that tweeting out what is going on takes me out of the moment with the students a little bit, even though I see the value and get great student and parent feedback. The way you use social media to document your student learning always amazes me. I feel like you might, in fact, have a clone of you in your classroom!

        • I think for me it comes down to really planning/thinking about exactly what I want to get out of each amount of time I spend with students. I know that I can’t do everything, so what’s my focus? Having this focus and having some prepared possible questions even, helps.

          As for social media, I always have my iPad with me. If I see something interesting, I often snap a picture, put the iPad down, and just talk to the students. Then I add the information at the end — when our conversation is done. If I hear an interesting discussion, and I want to add that as a caption, I quickly write the tweet, and then snap the photograph. It doesn’t take long. I also record podcasts a lot, and upload and tweet them out during lunch or prep time. This really helps! What do you think? Would this work for you?


          • Hi Aviva,

            Thanks for the insight into your process. That helps a lot! I think that’s a very effective way of doing it.

            I always struggle to limit my focus and really appreciate your words, “I know that I can’t do everything, so what’s the focus?”. I think that will really help me in choosing what to share.

            How do you manage to make time for yourself during the school day?

          • Thanks for such a great conversation, Shauna! I think that coming to the conclusion that I can’t do it all is important, but really deciding my focus, certainly helps. I hope you find this helpful too.

            As for making time for myself, I usually try to figure out which part of the break I’m going to work, and then I do as much as I can during this time. What doesn’t get done, sometimes gets saved until after school. I’ve thankfully learned to multi-task well (or at least better than I did before), so this helps. Good luck!


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