Monday, April 30, 2018

Working Well/Working Slow



"Make sure you do your best work. This is not a race. Take your time, do it right."

We all say it with certain assignments and projects. Many of us have been saying it more often than normal because The Big Test At The End is upon us and if there's one thing we are allowed to say it's "Take your time, you have plenty, please don't rush though this."

I've heard it said, and have since stolen and repeated, that projects are like gas- they will expand to fill the space given. Give a student three weeks, and he will finish the night before it's due. Give the same student the same project and only a week, he will finish the night before, and quality will only be minimally impacted, depending on the assignment. (Obviously, and I feel it's important to point this out because we have a tendency to over-simplify the complexities of education in conversation, this is a generalization. I know some assignments take longer to do well than others. The general idea stands.) This is the idea idea behind both my Hobby Project assignment and my Quick Build projects. Teaching students that they are capable of managing time and learning faster than they thought they could.

Time is always a factor in everything we do. Time management is one of the hardest parts of learning to teach because you simply cannot learn it as a student. You must be standing in front of a class and have it slowly dawn on you that it is lunch time already holy crap I've been teaching this for ninety minutes that's just not possible the class clock must be wrong I'll just check my phone oh no. Time management is why, amongst other reasons, the Big Test At The End sucks. It eats up give chunks of instructional time, or time I could be napping and showing episodes of Bill Nye*. Time management is why I like making videos for kids to watch in class for instruction sometimes. I can get a lesson across quicker in a video than I can in front of the room, and it gives me time to mix around the room and give more personalized instruction while giving the kids the option to rewind as needed. Note- I said in class. I'm not flipping for videos to be watched at home, this is inequitable for my population.

Given all that, it's important to remind students "you have as much time as you need. Do your best." I always forget to add one important piece to that direction. I should say "You have much time as you need within reason. Do your best." Let's now sit together for a moment and pretend that adding "within reason" would actually make a huge difference. ... Feels good right? Feels like one of those feel-good cat poster tweets that sounds deep but doesn't actually say anything. "Within reason." How does that differentiate? As the teacher I know that "within reason" is different for each of my kids. I know that this one can be done with the whole writing assignment in an hour, including planning and editing. And I know this kid will be just about done planning and might have started his rough draft in that time. I know this kid will think she's done in the hour but will actually only be done with a rough draft and oh no, this is not fifth grade work.***

Who is working well and who is working slow? Who is taking advantage of the time and who is taking advantage of the time? This is always a teacher's call. We need to decide on the fly, using what we know about the kids and what we see being produced, whether the work being done makes sense given the time and instruction. Where does "doing your best" end and "come on, let's get a move on" start?

On top of that, how willing should we be to tell students "You have been doing this test for much too long, and at this point you either know it or you don't. Guess." You have given those tests. When nearly everyone in the room is done and you walk by the kids still working and one is on question two of sixteen. What? Come on. Where did you go? Speaking for myself as a test-taker, I am hyper-aware of what I know and what I don't. I tend to test quickly because I know when I don't know something and I don't spend a lot of time cranking on it unless I think I can puzzle it out. A personal example of taking a long time on a test would be when I had to get Oregon teacher certified when I moved here from Hawaii. I needed to take a bunch of tests, and the math test had a few questions that at first glance I had no idea how to do, but I knew I could grind and find a long way around to the answer. Maybe not the right way or the fast way, but a way. That test took me a long time, I was working slowly but well. When I take a writing test or a reading comprehension test I finish fast. If I'm taking a long time on one of those that's bad because it means I'm drifting. So I use my personal experience when watching kids work, but I tie that to knowing my kids aren't me so what are they doing, and why. If I can I stop the student and ask them to explain what they're stuck on or what their thinking is. If I can't stop the student then I hope they don't believe "take your time, do it right" actually means "stare at this long enough and I'll magically understand it".

Is this student working well or working slow, or is it some combination of the two, is just one of the calculations we do multiple times a day. It's one more reason teaching and learning can't be broken down into simple ideas. Take your time. But not too much time. A reasonable amount of time. For you. For this task. Today.

Oh, one last thing, because I can hear someone in the back shouting it at me- Yes, I know in your job it'll be rare for your boss to say "Hey Peter, if you can finish these TPS Reports at the pace which will allow you to do your best work and have it on my desk when you're done, that would be greeaaat." I know that many bosses will say "This thing you have to do for your job needs to be done by the end of the day". I know that because I also have a job with time-sensitive work. However, I do not see my job as preparing students to enter the job market. I am helping to prepare kids to be responsible, productive members of society and, more importantly, awesome, fully realized humans. Just like I believe that if I teach well without teaching to the test my kids will do well on the test, so too do I believe that if I help my kids become the fully realized humans they want to be, they will be successful in whatever job they take on. I'm not training a workforce. I'm teaching people.


*this is what's known as a "joke"**

**I show Cosmos now instead, longer episodes mean longer naps

*** "fifth grade work" also being a flexible term than varies depending on the fifth grader I'm talking to

If you like this post and the other posts on this blog you should know I’ve written three books about teaching- He’s the Weird TeacherTHE Teaching Text (You’re Welcome), and the just released A Classroom Of One. I’ve also written one novel- The Unforgiving Road. You should check them out, I’m even better in long form. I’m also on the tweets @TheWeirdTeacher

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