Last month I shared my thoughts about how "coverage pressure" nearly led me to move on before my students were ready. My decision to slow down and focus on my students' skills rather than simply plow forward resulted in far better student performance both on that essay as well as the next essay they are currently writing for me. I have had several students voluntarily tell me that they understand what to do far better now because we slowed down and spent more time digging deeper.
The new evaluation law requires that all teachers be able to demonstrate how their planning and implementation results in student growth toward an important content standard or goal. As I wrote that piece linked above, a minor epiphany occurred to me: coverage of content and student growth are not the same thing.
I got to thinking: in a typical year, I teach To Kill a Mockingbird, Animal Farm, various short stories and short non-fiction, poetry through the PoetryOutLoud curriculum, Romeo and Juliet, Anthem, the Odyssey, and a few research projects and narrative tasks embedded periodically in there. If I cover all that, I can check each off the list.
If I don't have time to finish the entire Odyssey, my overall evaluation doesn't suffer, and in reality, neither does my students' overall education. I'm lucky in this regard that my standards as an English Language Arts teacher are about the skills related to literacy; trudging through the Odyssey is just one more opportunity to practice and refine those skills. If it is truly important that they know about Scylla and Charybdis for a future job opportunity, I'll send them to the SparkNotes…because chances are that even if I force that content into their head it will only be around for as long as they need to use it and then those neurons will get pruned.
My evaluation does, however, ask whether my students have grown. In hindsight, until I was compelled to consider it as a result of the new evaluation law, I had never really thought about growth the way I do now. Sure, I'd be prodding kids to improve their thinking, writing, and comprehension–I'd scaffold and assess and intervene and reteach–but I wasn't really thinking about long term growth over time. Skills were repeated and refined, and growth did occur, but I ended up far more focused on completing the curriculum than really deeply examining my students improvement and growth.
Now, as I focus on how I facilitate growth, I realize that content (what or how many stories, novels, or plays I can cover in a year) is less important that what I get kids to do with that content. I could fill my students with information, because knowledge is power, but at the end of the year they are simply "more full" rather than "more capable." Knowledge is only power when you can do something with it. Those skills, with focused practice and repetition, will withstand the pruning that is the reason we might not now know the name of the main character (or even the basic plot) in Sense and Sensibility but still maintain the capacity for reading implied main ideas that were practiced and refined with that text.
A profound and fundamental shift in my practice–one that is still in progress–is the shift toward emphasizing my students' capacity to use what I teach them, not just report parrot back to me facts, dates, and details that may otherwise be ephemeral.