What They Learn vs. What I Cover

File527fbcb709896By Mark

I had big plans for this three day weekend. 

Like many of my colleagues, when I look at the calendar and see three or four day weekends (or five-day, in the case of Thanksgiving), I don't think necessarily about all the relaxation I can achieve. Instead, I wonder if I could get a few class sets of essays turned around in that extended weekend. Those big writing assignments take time to provide useful feedback upon. For me, that means 15 or 20 minutes per paper to provide critical, focused feedback for improvement.

My kids submit their writing via Google Drive, so I can add margin comments (and cut-and-paste the comments I find myself adding frequently). When I reviewed their papers Friday after school, I knew I had screwed up.

Error #1: I had let "coverage pressure" get to me. Looking at my calendar, how many chapters I had left in the novel, and what I felt compelled to cover before Christmas/holiday/winter break, I made a mistake I've mentioned before here on this website. I shifted my balance toward more homework. The consequence: my formative check-ins with students on their essay progress did not net really valuable assessment of their progress. They knew what to tell me when I asked where their work was. With my mind on the calendar, I nodded and moved on.

Error #2: In hindsight, my expectations were not as clear as they should have been. Skimming the first handful of papers, it was clear that I did not make clear what the task was. My teacher brain knew what I was after, but I rushed them toward an unclear finish line and the results were a mess.

Error #3: I didn't follow my gut. Through all this, I had the sense of impending lesson failure, but didn't adjust like I should have. I kept thinking that my cursory check-ins would lead to follow through on their part, knowing all along that I was rushing. I should have just pushed pause.

I spent all day yesterday looking at my calendar and debating: I could plow forth, push them on to the next unit so I can finish "on time," or I could hit the brakes, ignore the calendar, and put the emphasis on what they learn to do rather than what I cover with them.

What does this mean? I had to prioritize. When I look at my skills standards, there are some that cut across all the content that I cover. The skills involved with this essay are just those skills–argument, supporting an assertion, drawing conclusions and inferences, using text evidence to support a position, plus the conventional and stylistic aspects of writing. If we plow forth, I'm just kicking the can down the road and I'll face the same struggles in the next unit when I ask them to build upon the skills they "should have gained" from the current unit. Is my job to cover curriculum or teach skills?

I am lucky in my discipline that I don't have to get through Chapter 74 of a textbook by a certain date. We have a list of core works of literature to address, but I won't lose my job (and my kids won't fail some test) if we don't get to all of them. My standards are about skills, not a reading list. My peers in math and science perhaps have different pressures, but I wonder if the same questions don't linger in their minds as they push on to the next unit or chapter after the previous one didn't net strong results.

If there is one dichotomy that bothers me in education is this: fidelity to and coverage of curriculum is paramount; what matters is not "what the teacher presented" but "what they learned." The tension between the two has us caught in the middle. Many times I hear (and feel) the sentiment "they didn't really get it, but I have to move on."

This last week, I let coverage pressure make me forget my real job: to teach students.

So I rewrote the calendars for November, December and January. My next two units were trimmed from five weeks to four each, to give me two full weeks to really address the issues I'm currently seeing in my students' writing. I'm optimistic that this intentional shift will pay off in the long run. Even though the idea of compressing future units inspires that "coverage" anxiety again, I realize that if I move on before they are ready then I'm just completing the calendar instead of teaching them what they need, when they need it…and chances are that the issues I see now, if not addressed, will confound our efforts in those future units.

3 thoughts on “What They Learn vs. What I Cover

  1. Maren Johnson

    I’m sitting here this weekend, with student papers, doing very similar work to you.
    You write, “We have a list of core works of literature to address, but I won’t lose my job (and my kids won’t fail some test) if we don’t get to all of them.”
    You mention that your peers in math or science might face different pressures. That is the case. If my students don’t pass their end of course exam in biology, they won’t graduate. That is some pressure.
    In addition, if the students don’t pass, that means that I or some other teacher needs to spend time with these students after school designing and providing remediation in order that the students do pass the biology test. That means that I (or the other teachers) spend our time after school on test prep type activities, instead of working on designing innovative instruction for our current classes, or other activities. This also means the students spend their time after school on test prep instead of other activities.
    Similar problems exist if the remediation is provided during the school day–instead of taking an elective, students would need to enroll in an additional biology class, and the teacher time would be allocated to that additional biology as opposed to something else.
    This is one of the problems with high stakes testing–the narrowing of the curriculum. Subjects like biology get emphasized to the detriment of other areas when the state legislature requires a biology end of course exam for graduation.
    All that said, I truly believe that students learn more when teachers don’t concern themselves with coverage! Someone at a PD event once said, “You can’t cover everything, so whatever you do teach, teach it well!” I try to tell myself that all the time, and I also try to find those opportunities for fun, excitement, and student engagement in our state science standards! I think we have a strong set of current state science standards, and I think the Next Generation Science Standards show huge promise for our state’s science education system.

  2. Mark Gardner

    While it is also true that students must past a test in “English” to graduate, those tests are skills tests, not content tests (as the biology EOC leans more toward). I’d venture to say that there are plenty of students who excel at writing because of a good history teacher, a science teacher who demanded meticulous lab reports, or an art teacher who required depth of written reflection on works created. I certainly won’t be advocating for an “English” exam that expects students to recall Edgar Allan Poe’s birthdate or to list Shakespearean tragedies in order of first performance.

  3. Mark Gardner

    And I’m sure you’re all wondering, I gave the kids two class periods to revise their work with clear expectations for procedure and focus…and the work is much, much better… and ready for me to actually give useful feedback on now.

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