I started these school holidays at a pretty nice state of play for any secondary school English teacher facing a holiday period. It was the rare circumstance of having no marking to take home with me. All of my classes had completed assessment (analytical essays and narratives!) in the final two weeks of term and I’d made it my mission to have all of them marked, with results entered and report comments written before the holidays started. I worked into the night and from early in the morning trying to get through it all, with that holy grail for teachers, the ‘end of term’, drawing ever closer.
I almost achieved my mission. There were just report comments left to do for one class when the bell rang on the final day of term and I got that job out of the way within the first couple of days of the break.
Even still, I drove home that Friday afternoon at the end of term, with a crate of materials, folders, resources, books, my laptop, my favourite pens and notebooks…the ‘things’ of a teacher. I’d joked to a colleague as I was packing my things into what happened to be a mover’s storage box that students might surmise (as students like to do!) that I’d been ‘sacked’ if they saw me walking to my car. The thing is, I didn’t particularly care about that – I was on a mission for the break and I needed the tools of my trade on hand.
What had driven me for those final weeks of term was quite a desperate yearning for space. Space to think and space to plan for what’s next. In essence, space to slow things down.
Space to plan
You see, I have a lovely opportunity before me. I’m about to introduce a new subject to a class of keen and talented students at our school. The subject is Literature, a relatively new syllabus offering in the recently-introduced ATAR system in Queensland and I am in the fortunate position of being the teacher who takes the first group of students through the two year course. Yes, it means more work, new work, and quite a bit of work on my part in order to introduce the subject. But, because I am that teacher, the only teacher, and there is just one class of students, I am in the loveliest of situations of being able to choose exactly what I want to do with students (obviously with the guidance of the QCAA’s Senior English syllabus), which texts we will study (albeit partly influenced by the prescribed texts lists for Units 3&4), how I will approach lessons, what learning activities we’ll do and how assessment will transpire.
“What had driven me for those final weeks of term was quite a desperate yearning for space. Space to think and space to plan for what’s next. In essence, space to slow things down.”
It gives me space. And I think it’s high time for some space in our education process right now.
So, as I was driving home on that Friday afternoon just a week and a bit ago, I was feeling good. I was feeling like I’d reached a natural pause in my work life, not just because the dates dictated that school holidays were beginning, but because I’d managed to find myself at a point where I could give proper attention to an important task – the planning of a new unit of work. Yes, it was the start of the holidays and I was looking forward to time to relax certainly. And I’m not going to pretend that I’ve spent the whole past week of the holidays working on planning a new unit. But I have been doing some of that.
As I drove down the long last road before I turned into my own street that afternoon and I was contemplating the pleasure of planning this new course, its first unit in particular, and the possibilities which existed in terms of approach, the term ‘slow teaching’ came into my mind. Or maybe, ‘slow learning’. I’ll admit neither phrase sounds quite right at first – but they grow on you if you think a little more about them.
Slow teaching – an analogy
We’ve all heard of ‘slow cooking’; most of us have likely done our fair share. In my mind, the principles of slow cooking and slow learning/slow teaching (I’m still deciding on my preferred term) are the same. Taking 8 hours to slow cook a shoulder of lamb or taking 1-2 hours to oven roast that same shoulder of lamb results each in an edible meal. But, I would argue that slow-cooking allows the lamb the time to absorb the goodness of the garlic, the rosemary and the splash of white wine; indeed, to process and respond to those key elements, by softening and falling from the bone upon serving, and always delivers a dish with depth, far superior to its oven-roasted equivalent.
Now, I can hear the clamour almost! Nice idea, but time is exactly the barrier! And, don’t worry, often I’ve been one of the first to cry out in frustration at the dearth of time we have to teach our subject. It seems an impossible dream; just imagine…If only we had the time in our crowded curriculum to deliver learning which enables students to process and respond as deeply as we might wish! The reality is that time is precious and there never seems to be enough to cover all that we feel (or told!) needs to be covered.
But, I think there could be a solution.
Maybe it is possible to wrangle back time with a slow teaching approach; an approach which results in a learning experience which is far superior to its crowded, rushed, and sometimes directionless cousin. Could part of the secret be that we need to make harder, more confident decisions about what we do and how we do it? Not second guess our choices? Not be swayed by every shiny new resource/idea/approach that comes volley-like at us? Not lose sleep over leaving ‘out’ a particular activity or worksheet?
“Maybe it is possible to wrangle back time with a slow teaching approach.”
Does time in the trade make teaching any easier?
Before I outline my thinking, I’d like to pause again, to go off on a slightly different, although related tangent. I’m literally completing my 30th year of teaching this year. Over that period, especially when planning and teaching a unit of work for the first time, I’ve had many moments where I’ve thought to myself, well, at least next time I teach this it will be…easier, less work, more straightforward. And, the thing is, that has been so often not the case.
Even after 30 years of teaching, it doesn’t get that much easier. Yes, I know more – I have a better understanding of say Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet or To Kill a Mockingbird now than I had as a first or second year teacher, simply because I’ve engaged with those texts so many times over the years. But, I don’t think that necessarily makes me a better teacher. In some ways, it’s even harder now to know what to teach and what approach works best with students, largely because over a thirty year time span, there have been so many possibilities presented. In some ways, I’m envious of the first and second year teachers who don’t have the filing cabinets overflowing with folders of resources collected over three decades of teaching English across eight different schools (not to mention the electronic folders and files of resources accumulated in more recent years, along with daily emails from organisations purporting to have the latest/greatest webinar on teaching and learning approaches).
When I began to plan a Macbeth unit of work earlier this year, I remember commenting to a colleague that I felt like I was drowning in a sea of resources (and I’m not usually that dramatic!). It wasn’t so much a matter of what to use in the teaching of the unit, it was more about what not to use. Or, should I say, what could be used best for the purposes of preparing students for writing an analytical essay under examination conditions. In the end, I culled the tsunami down to a more manageable collection of approximately 80 pages, and for the most part, these have been useful. The point is, I wonder whether a further distillation of these 80 pages could deliver equally strong (or even better?) outcomes.
“Could part of the secret be that we need to make harder, more confident decisions about what we do and how we do it? Not second guess our choices?”
Dipping a toe into the slow teaching space
This brings me back to the idea of slow teaching. Right now, I have the opportunity to implement a version of this approach with my new Literature class. We’re about to kick off the two year course with The Crucible, another text I’ve taught many times over the years and for differing final outcomes – for a while there, we were asking English students to create and deliver an imaginative narrative; for another couple of years, students worked towards the creation of feature article.
This new group of Literature students is going to be producing an analytical essay response relating to how power is represented in the play. In reality, given the predictable interruptions of Term 4, we’ll have around 7 weeks of lessons for the unit.
As I said, I brought home a big crate of materials for this planning exercise – folders of resources, sample essays/assignments from students over the years, syllabus documents – and I’ve spent time going through it all. And that’s just the paper copy resources!
I’m at the stage where I’ve decided on the task question for the assessment and I’m backwards mapping from there using the key point/question list below as a guide.
If I’m adopting a slow teaching approach, these (in bold) are the non-negotiables, along with some of the questions I’m still considering.
Here’s where it’s at.
- Introduce the ideas of literature/literary texts – how to define these texts? Whose definition do I most trust and whose definition will work best for Year 11 students?
- Understand the context of the play – what’s key here? McCarthyism, witchhunts, 1692 Salem/theocracy?
- Introduce ideas about power, oppression and repression – how to keep this contained/focused?
- Read the play – as a class/individually? Which acts are most important to read together?
- Comprehend the play – how many questions is enough? Question quality?
- Engage with others’ readings of the play – how many? Sources of these criticisms?
- Revise the generic conventions of analytical essay writing – how much do they already know? Where is refinement required?
- Practise analytical essay writing – how many practices is ‘enough’?
- Cater for all learners in my class
In short, the unit isn’t completely written. That will come. In fact, I’m quite deliberately not mapping it out down to every last detail right now. I want to allow for some organic growth as I learn more about my students as the unit unfolds.
Back to pen and paper (and glue!)
One last decision I’ve made is controversial perhaps, but certainly related to fostering a slow-learning approach. I’m going to require my students to have an exercise book where they handwrite their work. Yep! They’re going to have to put the date in the margin, draw headings, and they’ll receive hard copies of worksheets, so they’ll even need glue! Heck, they can even design a title page if they feel the urge. I think the beauty and power of work completed in an exercise book is massively under-estimated. The tactile nature of flicking through pages of your own work, of appreciating the endeavour, and seeing it all laid out has such potential for fostering positive impacts on learning.
Lots to learn
I’ve got a lot more to investigate around this idea and a quick Google search tells me I’m not alone in going down this path of thinking. It also tells me that there are many and varied interpretations of the idea of slow teaching. Jamie Thom’s book Slow Teaching: on finding calm, clarity and impact in the classroom is on its way to me and I’m looking forward to learning more around what could be possible in this space. His website https://www.slowteaching.co.uk/ is well worth further attention and I’ve subscribed to his podcast, The Well Teacher also.
To be honest, instead of feeling apprehensive or disorganised right now, I’m feeling quite calm. I don’t have every last answer to how the unit will roll out just yet, but that’s okay. And I’m hoping my students will sense in my approach a kind of permission to take their own time also, to engage and to appreciate, rather than to rush busily through their learning.
Ultimately, it’s about trusting myself to offer students a chance to deeply engage that I’m most looking forward to. Let’s see how it goes.