Moving from Lightning-Speed to Glacial

October 14th, 2015

Sarah Cooper, author of Making History Mine, is back this week with this thoughtful post about how to slow down and engage with texts and ideas in a world that’s racing past us and our students.

Cooper author photo bigger resolutionMoving From Lightning-Speed to Glacial

By Sarah Cooper

It is so hard for me to slow down as a teacher.

I want to expose students to everything possible over the course of a year.

I want to communicate the excitement of in-the-moment links between then and now – to see these connections flicker like lightning in the air.

And I really don’t want students to be bored. Once they lose the glint in their eyes, the straightness in their spines, I’m mentally out of there, thinking about how to move to the next thing.

We’re working in a world primed for speed, a world in which the pace of the classroom can sometimes seem painfully slow.

At the same time, I’m fighting for that glacial pace, especially when it comes to reading and writing.

Taking slow time to think deeply about a topic. Returning to the same concepts and skills in different ways over several days. Revisiting concepts over many weeks, giving “spaced practice” and “interleaving” concepts, as the authors of Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning suggest.

As a student myself over the past year, taking history classes for a master’s program, I’ve been reminded of the power of sustained engagement with texts.

Here is what I do for each 1,000-word response paper:

  1. Read, with pen in hand, slowly, stopping frequently to cement information in longer-term memory. Without such annotations and pauses, a great book might as well be a sieve for me.
  1. Go through the annotations and type out key quotations.
  1. Print out the quotations and drop them into possible paragraphs. Then write a thesis statement for a weekly response paper. This always takes longer than I think because there are so many possibilities.
  1. Write a draft of the paper, starting sometimes with the introduction and sometimes in the middle.
  1. Go to NoodleTools to compile a Works Cited list. This is a relief because I don’t have to think. It’s also satisfying because there’s a right answer.
  1. Let the draft sit for several days, and then return to it in hard copy to see problems and edits.
  1. Revise, read over one more time and submit online.

After engaging with the text this deeply, what do I remember? Not every annotation I wrote in the margins. Not anything I didn’t annotate.

Instead, I remember what I wrote about and took notes on. The material I worked over in my brain.

This is what’s in long-term memory, what can be applied and used. This is the information I can play with, stare at, pull out to make an odd or unexpected connection with a poem or a current event.

How often do we ask our students to do this kind of sustained engagement with a text or a film or an image? At least for my students, the answer is not nearly enough.

What are we afraid of? Standards. Tests. Boredom. Not “covering” everything. I wish we could coin a new word for “covering.” How about “papering over” or “dashing through”?

We can easily forget the power of time. Of sitting down with a book on your lap, a gripping novel or powerful history narrative. Of wrestling a one-page primary source to the ground. Of knowing and understanding.

Last week, I tried more of this. We spent an entire day on the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence. With partners, the eighth graders paraphrased line by line, and then we discussed their “translations.”

Beforehand I worried about boredom, and I worried about saturating students with text.

They may have been saturated. But they also really understood, for instance, why humans are “disposed to suffer when evils are sufferable,” and they related this idea to moments in their lives, such as trying to break bad habits or ignore family conflict.

There’s such a satisfaction in this personal connection to difficult words, and I’d like to give students more of it. More repeated interactions with a text, through notes and discussion and writing. More re-exposures to a text or an idea long after we first introduce it. A layering of knowledge that builds and revisits and rethinks, throughout the year.

Like ice accumulating on a glacier.

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