August 21st, 2014
Summer is winding down and many of you are back in your classrooms and back to the hectic days of fall. In her new post Sarah Cooper invites you to linger in summer for a bit longer and consider what the slow pace of summer can teach you about, well, teaching. “The more time I take, the more sophisticated the students’ work becomes, and the more I understand how they learn,” she writes. Sarah teaches U.S. History at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, California and she is the author of Making History Mine.
Striving for Slow
Summer is the land of slow for teachers.
Slow mornings when we have time to sit and read the paper. Slow afternoons when we drink coffee with a colleague and talk in terms of what-ifs, not what must be done, in the classroom next year.
Even those of us who teach summer school, take care of family or attend professional growth seminars find that the days dance to a different rhythm. Calmer. Not dictated by bells or meetings. Subject to more of our control, our curiosity.
The “slow teaching movement” has gained momentum in the past several years, often encouraging us to let go of technology’s grip a bit.
Right now, I’m not talking as much about technology as about time.
As a friend and I commiserate every August, “Why can’t we bring more of the summer pace into the school year?”
We can’t always fight against a schedule cramped for minutes. But we can give our students time within that schedule to think, reflect, and discover themselves as learners.
From the lazy, mellow perspective of summer’s end, I’ll share a few slow stories, two about our students and one about us as teachers.
Story 1: More Research Time in Class = More Fun
Last year, for an extended research project, my eighth-grade U.S. history students did easily 80 percent of the work in class. I kept reserving more and more days in our library computer lab and ended up with ten 43-minute periods, about seven hours total.
With all of this time to work in class, students could:
- Land on a topic they really cared about, not one they picked because they had to make a quick choice. (“This guy’s last name is the same as my favorite soccer player…”)
- Find rich sources, not just the first ones they stumbled across late at night while they were also texting their friends.
- Ask questions about how to do a works cited list and parenthetical citation.
- Paraphrase quotations thoroughly to ensure they weren’t plagiarizing.
- Find additional sources once they started writing if they realized their argument needed more support.
This ended up being the most library time I had ever spent on an assignment. I expected that the projects would be better as a result, and they were. The students found scholarly sources, discovered insightful quotations within them, and linked the facts more adroitly because of the extra time.
What I didn’t expect were the comments from students that the project was fun only because they had enough time to work on it, inside and outside of class. This statement, repeated again and again in their written feedback, has convinced me of the power of slow projects to increase engagement.
(Not incidentally, giving time to work in class also meant that students were not distracted by electronic devices, making their focus sharper.)
Story 2: More Writing Time in Class = More Creativity
At the end of a unit on civil rights during the Civil War with “Glory” as centerpiece, I wanted students to follow their curiosity. They could explore any question they had about the topic through a mini-research project.
However, we didn’t have much time: two days in class doing research, and Monday class plus Monday night’s homework to do a 250-word creative or interpretive response.
As students wrote their reflections that Monday morning, many of them were just starting to hit their stride when we had ten minutes left.
I envisioned the homework saga that night: Some students would want to spend an hour finishing but would become distracted or pulled away by other homework or extracurriculars. The final products, hurriedly stapled on Tuesday morning, would seem rushed and unfinished. Oh, and all the eighth graders were going on a class trip on Wednesday.
So I nixed the preview of nuclear warfare I had planned and instead gave everyone the day to work, with the absolute stipulation that they needed to finish by the end of class.
The eighth graders were grateful, and I really enjoyed reading their projects, including one by Wylie that combined visual and linguistic literacy, comparing Navy recruiting posters from the Civil War and World War I.
The World War I poster, featuring a man tinkering with a sub’s diesel engine, “seems more like an inspirational drawing,” Wylie said, “while the emblem and big title on the Civil War poster give it a very straightforward look.”
Story 3: Less is More, Period
Every year I try to do less and make that less count more – by addressing multiple standards and skills through a close reading of one primary source document rather than three, for instance.
Every time I forget to do less – which happens regularly when I hope to cram in one last skill or idea – I end up driving myself and my students a little crazy.
Last month I taught a weeklong summer school English class for ninth graders. We worked with five elements of voice, as described by Nancy Dean in her excellent Voice Lessons.
The class lasted two hours each day, with a ten-minute break in the middle. For each 55-minute session, I imagined we would read aloud a piece of literature, annotate it, discuss it as a class, pair up to identify elements of voice, come back together to talk about them, and write individual thesis statements on the passage. And then I thought I’d “fill in” the rest of the time with a ten-minute sponge activity on diction or imagery.
It’s funny, even writing out that entire list makes me tired. And I realized on the first day that, even though a number of kids in the back were restless here and there, we would gain more from staying with a document five extra minutes than we would from a sharp transition to something else.
So we stayed with it.
During pairs work, I took the time to look at passages each group had annotated, asked students to go deeper in many instances, and circled back to check that they had.
During full-class discussion, we looked at several more lines of poetry than I usually would. When arms and legs started twitching, I asked the kids if they wanted a stretch break. No, they said, being polite.
So a minute later, when one student volunteered the word “nonchalant” to describe a poem’s tone, we defined it and then I asked them all to stand “nonchalantly.” After they sat down, full of attitude, we looked at one more fabulous metaphor with new eyes.
Going Slowly Isn’t Easy
It can be easier to assign a rat-a-tat series of activities, as I did for my first years teaching, than it can be to listen to, critique and circle back to students’ ideas. It’s less messy to assign research to be done at home than to supervise it in class, with the inevitable off-task moments and dead ends.
But it’s not less fulfilling. The more time I take, the more sophisticated the students’ work becomes, and the more I understand how they learn.
Now, can someone please remind me about all of this slow summer thinking when the frenzy of October comes along?
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