Eat the Chicken Nuggets


When my middle son was little, I was distracted and in a hurry to get some dinner on the table one night. (Sound familiar?) I plopped him in his high chair, gave him a plate with chicken nuggets and sauce, and then busied myself with other things.

After a couple of bites of nugget, he started crying, and I couldn't figure out why. Nothing was hurting him, and there was nothing obvious going on - just a half-eaten chicken nugget on the plate. I encouraged him to take another bite. He did, made a face, spit it out, and started crying again. 

Frustrated, I was just about to call it a night and break out the back-up cereal, when I thought - what if there's something weird about the nuggets? They looked perfectly fine. But when I bit into one, I realized the issue ... they were still frozen solid in the middle and absolutely disgusting.

I always think about this story when I think about the power of teachers doing students' assignments themselves. It's an incredibly powerful practice, but in the busy-ness of planning, prepping, and teaching, it's all too easy to put it to the side. But we can learn so much from doing our own tasks, taking our own tests, completing our own note catchers, doing our own projects. When we do these things - when we eat the chicken nugget ourselves - we can better pinpoint where things might fall apart and prevent that from happening in the first place.

So, here are 5 ways you can eat the chicken nuggets in your own practice.
  1. Clarify instructions. Check the instructions on every assignment and make sure they are clear, concise, and complete. If the directions send students to a specific page number or tool, is it correct? Do they have those materials handy? Do your directions answer the questions you know students will inevitably have? 
  2. Clean up the format. When you do the assignments yourself, you'll see if the format needs to be changed. Do you need more space in a graphic organizer? Do lines need to be added? Is there too much room, and students will think they need to write an essay rather than a paragraph? Is the font the right size? Are there too many papers to shuffle through? It's amazing how much seemingly small things like these can impact how smoothly an assignment plays out - or doesn't.
  3. Identify likely misconceptions. Especially when you take an assessment, think about likely misconceptions students will have and how that may impact their answer choices. For example, if the student chooses B as the answer, but the correct answer is really C, ask yourself why she would choose that: What's the misconception that's leading her to choose B over C? And even more importantly, what do you need to say or do during instruction to clean up this thinking? 
  4. Maintain a beginner's mindset. Sarah Brown Wessling tells of the time when a student in her high school English class was having a hard time with an assignment for The Great Gatsby. Sarah struggled to help break the work down into chunks for the student because she had developed a high level of expertise with the novel and the assignment, and the student was a beginner. So, Sarah took her own assignment to the library and completed it with text that WAS challenging to her - Proust. This required her to adopt a beginner's mindset to her own assignment, and she found ways to scaffold the work better because of it. Doing student assignments yourself can help you adopt your students' beginner's mindset and be more prepared to break down steps or coach them through sticky spots. 
  5. Create an exemplar. Completing assignments - especially writing assignments - yourself helps to create an exemplar that you can refer to when teaching or assessing student work. And with EL materials, it's powerful practice to complete the assignments and compare your own work to the exemplar that is in the teacher supporting materials. How close did you come to ideal work? And what did you learn from that comparison that you can bring to your instruction?
Two more notes. You'll want to plan ahead so that you can complete assignments or assessments well BEFORE you're scheduled to teach the content. Wait too long to do them, and you won't have enough time to apply what you learn when you're teaching. And this is ideal work to do with colleagues during a PLC meeting. Bringing completed work to the table and comparing the clarifications and instructional moves you suggest with your colleagues is a huge opportunity to dig deep into content and learn together.

There's no denying that it takes some time to eat the chicken nuggets, but when you do, you'll find that instruction is clearer, assignments are smoother, and learning is deeper. 

And you can avoid a whole lot of tears. 

Here's to simply teaching well,

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