The average middle or high school class meets around 50 minutes a day, around 180 days a year. That’s 150 hours, or 6 and a quarter days. Just in terms of minutes and seconds, it’s enough time to, say, see all 36 plays in Shakespeare’s First Folio back-to-back, and still have time to listen to the Sonnets at the end, or complete an 18-week plan for preparing for a marathon, twice. It’s often forgotten how much of regular-people’s jobs are spent preparing for a single presentation or sales talk, delivered multiple times to multiple clients– not a different presentation every day of the year.
Of course, teaching isn’t just or primarily about presenting: You’re not the sage on the stage, you’re the guide on the side, as many a corny professional development coach has advised. A friend and colleague once said- “you’re directing a play, but it’s a different play every day, and the kids show up not knowing what it is and what their part is going to be.” (To which I said, “and sometimes they decide that their part is: throwing paper balls.”)
The resolution is repetition of some sort or another. Most of this is repetition of previous classes the kids have taken, and what they think “school” should be: come in, sit down, copy stuff off the board, raise your hand to answer questions, answer practice problems or do classwork worksheets, take tests or write essays, get grades. I don’t want to undersell this vision of school. It can seem boring from the outside, and it doesn’t conform to what the curricular reformers and professional developers want to see. But, as Gary Rubinstein points out in a great little book called Reluctant Disciplinarian, success is never boring for kids: if you can make kids feel successful within the context of traditional, formal schooling, and prove to them that they are learning something, that feeling is never boring. (I’m less crazy about Gary’s blog, which often comes off as tetchy and one-note, but Reluctant Disciplinarian is a little masterpiece of honesty about how bad an incompetently-run middle school classroom can become, how painful disorder and chaos can be to kids, and how teacher narcissism can cloak itself as idealism and progressive methodology.)
At the same time…look, I’m not saying every class has to be Dead Poets’ Society, but there has to be a place for experience, exultation, discovery, shared adventure in school as well as discipline and steady progress. Such opening of experience can go too far. Particularly in science class, it is, as they say in Spinal Tap, such a fine line between stupid and clever. Handing out raw liver for kids to take blood swabs from to look at under the microscope: stupid, at least after Moses swiped a piece to devour on a bet and then projectile vomited on his Special Education teacher later that day. Dipping our heads into a bucket of water to demonstrate the diving response, such that when my principal took a surprise deputation of the Deputy Chancellor and three Assistant Superintendents into my classroom, half the class was chanting “Hold Your Breath, Hold Your Breath” while the other half, heads under water, held out their wrists for pulse measurements, turned out to be clever. (At least it was more clever than it would have been if, when the Deputy Chancellor asked my principal, “is that legal?” he hadn’t improvised on the spot and said, “oh…sure, I think it’s a very common middle school lab.”)
But this is getting very far afield from what this essay was supposed to be about, which is about dimensions of curricular planning: sequence, differentiation, and rigor– or more topographically, longitude, latitude, and altitude. As I said above, the only way to make the incredible *length* of the school year manageable is to employ some degree of structure and repetition. It is with good reason that the one book on every American elementary school teacher’s shelf is The First Days of School, which instructs the reader to teach each aspect of the school day, from signing out the bathroom pass to writing a header on notebook paper, as a set of defined and practiced rituals, like “Wax On, Wax Off” only for choosing a new book from the classroom library or picking up missed homework when you were absent.
If there has been a change in American pedagogy in the last couple decades, in fact, it has perhaps been the ascension of the “workshop model” in reading and writing courses, which takes this approach and runs with it: lessons and group activities are compressed into “mini-lessons” (brief expositions at the beginning of the class), and the majority of the class period is given over to individual writing or silent reading, with occasional conferences with a teacher or peer or small group to evaluate or provide feedback. It’s a “latitude-first” model: lots of room for individual choice and direction in the day to day and over the course of the classroom period, but relatively little variety in structure or content of the lesson from day to day, as students practice the same reading strategies or writing techniques over and over again. A well-run workshop classroom tends to feel focused, productive, but atomized when you walk into it, with every kid pretty much doing his own thing, marching towards the next Lexile level or assigned compositional form, preparing diligently for the writing prompts and reading passages on the PARCC or Smarter Balanced tests at the end of the year. The workshop model is, for all the idealism with which Lucy Calkins and her army of Teachers’ College recruits evangelizes for it, in many ways a realistic resignation to the fundamental challenges facing American teachers– the vast range in ability, particularly in reading, that confronts teachers within an ordinary classroom, along with the diminishing time outside of school that children are likely to spend reading for pleasure if left to do it on their own.
But, in spite of the accuracy of some of the understandings driving the workshop model, you also want to shout– at the army of professional developers, if not at the teachers doing the best they can to accommodate their demands– that the whole rest of their lives will be more than enough time for kids to be alone, independent, working towards individually weighted but collectively immaterial goals. School needs to be about some kind of shared experience and common text, at least part of the time, or it really is almost nothing but the signaling treadmill that Bryan Caplan claims it is.
I have strayed from my task; as Grant Wiggins would put it, the Essential Questions remain unanswered, affixed over the chalkboard but ignored. “Perhaps writing an outline next time would help?” the helpful, imagined, workshop-implementing voice over my elbow inquires of me, no doubt correct. But like the teacher who opens a blank planning book in August to pore over the vast distance from Labor Day to June, or like the reluctant student for whom the single sheet of ruled notebook paper never seems to end, our progress towards goals is often of less importance than how we spend each moment.