Most people outside of education don’t know much about one of the biggest headaches in the school world: the “master schedule.” The master schedule involves making sure that every student in the building is in an appropriate class for every period of the day. Given the number of students, the number of course offerings, the number of interventions that struggling students need, the number of accelerated courses that high-achieving students need, the number of courses that occur in other buildings, the fact that people need to eat lunch, and so on, it’s a miracle that any schedule anywhere actually exists. The seemingly simple addition of one course elective to a master schedule can upset the apple cart of every course for a particular grade level. Thus, to manage this nightmare, administrators and counselors must prioritize various course options and student groups, never to the satisfaction of everyone.
Once the computerized scheduling program sorts kids into classes, teacher names are moved into slots that determine who teaches what. When secondary teachers receive their schedules for the coming year, they typically pray for one thing: very few preps.
A “prep” is each separate course that a teacher teaches in a day. For example, last year, during first semester, I taught one English 11 class, one Honors English 11 class, and one English 10 class in a day, thus yielding three preps and a planning block. The second semester of that year, I taught three English 11 classes, thus yielding me that Holy Grail of High School, one prep and a planning block. I am here to tell you, however, that despite the appearance of my schedule sheet, I have never truly had one prep. Ever. None of us has. The notion of having “one prep” is a myth, a myth that increasingly worries me.
For the first several years of my career, I almost never taught two sections of the same course in a semester. I typically had a different prep for each period of the day. In English, those multiple preps present various challenges: knowing the texts available for each grade level, knowing the pieces in each grade-level anthology, knowing the grade-level writing requirements for each grade, and so forth. Having more than one prep undeniably involves more work, organizationally speaking.
When I say that I have never taught one prep, though, I mean this: We should not teach several sections of the same course in the same way or at the same pace. Each individual class is a different prep (regardless of its label) because the intellectual work involved in meeting each class’s needs is where the real work happens, and that work should never be uniform across groups of students. If we are ever to move forward in differentiating instruction to meet student needs (our ethical obligation to each child), then we must examine each period of the day individually, each class mix, each student, each situation differently.
Last year, I (the Queen of Preps) actually requested having only one prep. I asked my principal at my former school to give me all English 11, the course where I think the rubber will ultimately meet the assessment road as we move further along in Common Core implementation. I wanted to focus my energy on one set of books, one set of standards, while trying to figure out some key pieces of the puzzle. He honored that request except for that one English 10 (a long story involving a lunatic, classroom scissors, and the word “insidious” that I can share with you over a stiff drink someday). One would think my life was much easier that year as a result of so few preps, but in reality, I learned more convincingly than ever that giving a course the same name has no bearing on how differently each period plays out with different kids.
When I taught “one prep,” I was rarely ever on the same lesson on the same day with those classes. They voted on different major works to read, they chose different writing prompts, they progressed at widely different rates on everything. You know why? Because they are humans, not slots to fill in a schedule. Had they progressed uniformly, I would have found myself stuck in a science fiction story (and I don’t like science fiction, as a rule). They progressed differently because they are different, and handling those differences is my responsibility.
In tandem with this idea of the “one prep” myth is the fact that I think sticking to one prep, one grade level, or one student type is dangerous. We should all teach multiple grade levels during the same semester. We should all teach both advanced courses and intervention courses during the same semester. My reasoning for this is twofold:
1. When you focus on one student type, you lose perspective. After a day filled with freshmen, you start to think that all kids have the immaturity problems that your freshmen have. After a day filled with honors kids, you think that all kids have the needy helicopter moms that those kids often do. You make dangerous generalizations about students and parents and humanity. We need a balance of people to keep us in balance.
2. When you only experience one student type, you start prioritizing sameness in your instruction of them. When you have “one prep,” keeping every class on the same lesson plan on the same day becomes important when it really shouldn’t be. Uniformity becomes valued, and that’s bad. We will never learn to differentiate if we prioritize uniformity and sameness as instructional goals.
Of all the blog posts I’ve written, I expect this one to be one of my least popular with my colleagues. I’m fine with that. I struggle with differentiation every day. I wish I could have students who progressed in the same ways at the same times in the same semesters in the same rooms. That is just not going to happen. It is not real. It is not true. “One prep” is a myth, a myth that often keeps us from growing and understanding more about how students learn.
People (including me) tell themselves little lies all the time, lies that attempt to help them make sense of the world. A Big Lie we tell ourselves in education is that if we have one prep, if our kids are the same types of kids, if our lessons are the same for every class, if everything is the same, we won’t lose our minds. Once we start to believe that different kids are going to behave uniformly because we want them to, that sanity ship has sailed. We are pursuing the illusion of sanity through the myth of "one prep" instead of pursuing genuine sanity--seeing the world as the complicated and magical mess that it is.