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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

July is traditionally considered leisure time for educators and the educated -- teachers and students alike. Beaches and books, pools and picnics.

And for good reason. The workload of any teacher or administrator can be difficult for those outside of education to fully appreciate.

That said, there's a thin line between two months of respite and losing ground in your craft. Slumbering for the summer and then expecting to flip the light switch that turns everything on for the first professional development meeting at your school or district can do more harm than good. And since June itself is often full of close-outs, meetings, and general exhale, that leaves . . . well, July.

Though it can be tempting to put the next school year off until last possible day, it doesn't have to be that way. You can still relax, make your own schedule, and "play" enough to free some creativity from the vise grip of a taxing schedule.

While you likely have your own checklist for opening the school year, below are five ideas to help you stay on top of your game without completely spoiling the oasis of summer.

1) Review and Refine Instructional Design

While classroom management, grading tips and collegial relationships get a lot of ink, instructional design is a teacher's real best friend. The opportunities you provide for learners to understand and master new content are the very heart of what we do as educators, and nowhere else is it as accessible as July.

The school year itself is full of grading, reporting, refining and communication. Matters of design are best tackled when you have both time and a bit of spark. No matter what you use during the year -- thematic units; project-based learning; direct, genre-based instruction; online learning; a flipped classroom -- now is the time to look at what you've done and tweak it. Differentiate it, personalize it, make it more authentic, offer more learner voice-and-choice, increase the potential rigor, alter how you activate prior knowledge -- whatever it takes to evolve your craft.

2) Verify Curriculum

Academic standards change -- and recently, they've changed often. Whether you're operating from the Common Core or working to fold in NCTE, P21, or other local learning standards, knowing your curriculum is (obviously) critical. And this goes past keeping up with whatever changes have been handed down from above -- it's about looking at the content you deliver with fresh eyes, which can be difficult.

Find a different way to read the standards this time. For example, highlight them with three different colors: one for standards or specific language you might have missed in the past; one for potential power standards; and one for standards that may offer collaboration opportunities with other content area teachers.

3) Check-in with Your Digital PLN

Whether you're officially checking in with your personal learning network, or simply pinging the PLN you use every day via Twitter or your favorite blog or Ning, ongoing involvement with other educators can help with suggestions #1 and #2. For example, get a teacher from another grade level, state or content area to have a look at one of your units or assessments.

And when you do, be open to their thinking.

4) Building and District-level Collaboration

Team meetings can help ease the anxiety of starting a new school year, no matter how relaxing it is to have your toes in the sand. Classroom management, rewards, scheduling and other areas that can really obscure the curriculum and instruction -- e.g., the learning -- can be taken on at the local Starbucks, or even via Edmodo or Google+, so that when you do show up at your local brick-and-mortar, there's less on your plate.

5) Visit with Incoming Students

Home visits are incredible ways to better understand not just the "city" your learners come from, but the specific neighborhood and house. And it can be eye-opening.

Home visits by educators usually begin with a district or school-level initiative. Postcards sent out a week or so ahead of time let families know when to expect you, and you'll usually go with at least one other teacher, if not two or three. This is probably not the kind of thing to jump in your car and try on a whim. (That's more than a little weird.)

But if it's on the summer agenda for your school and you've never done it before, this is something to look forward to. Visits like these can establish relationships that will go miles in the classroom.

This Won't Be on the Test

However you spend your summer, don't forget to relax. The numbered items above aren't supposed to be another stressful checklist. They're just big ideas to help you make sure that, come opening bell, your classroom whirs on like the rigorous, personalized, digital and authentic machine it is.

If you can start with the big ideas first -- instructional design, curriculum, collaboration, and the learners themselves (especially if you can reach out to them in an out-of-school context) -- it's much easier to swallow when four out of your first five planning periods are brutalized by meetings, phone calls, and enough paperwork to keep Dunder Mifflin in the black.

Give it a shot for 90 minutes a day. The sun and sand will be there when you're finished.

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