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.