This column is written by High School English teacher Jerry Heverly.
During the days of the Cold War there was a familiar maxim among the folks who did the laboring. “We pretend to work,” said the workers, “and they pretend to pay us.”
There’s some of that in my line of work, I think.
We lock up kids inside a building for seven hours a day doing things they’d mostly prefer not to do. It’s unreasonable to think that I can compel them to be “on task” for all those minutes.
Unfortunately that is something I cannot say out loud.
To make this school routine work there has to be some slack, some time when we—my students and I—go through the motions.
Years ago I wrote an article for the national English teacher’s journal. (“Why I No Longer Teach Vocabulary”)
I was excited to see my own writing in print. Yet I secretly hoped no one in my department would notice the piece. I knew it would cause an uproar at best and, at worst, make me a figure of ridicule.
After all I was arguing that one of the mainstays of the curriculum was a fraud.
I thought then, and still feel, that the real reason we assign all that vocabulary work is to give everybody a rest.
Students wearing you down? Need a break from the heavy lifting of the teaching game? Give ‘em a list of words and a dictionary.
“Look up these words and write out the definitions. Use each word in a sentence.” I bet you all had this kind of assignment in school more than once.
I’m certainly not criticizing anyone for this kind of school tasking. I still do it from time to time myself. I’m not so certain of my own wisdom to claim I know for a fact that such activities don’t provide some benefits.
But even if you proved to me that my educational theories are bogus I still would maintain that vocab lessons—and a bunch of other things that we routinely do in school—exist only to provide time for everyone to catch their breath.
This all affects me most directly when administrators look at my work.
They want, understandably, to weigh my actions objectively. Thus the appeal of numbers: test scores, parent contacts, office referrals, whatever can be quantified is desirable.
One of the things they look at is my efficiency in the use of time.
“That was a wonderful lesson you taught on gerunds,” they say, “but I noticed it took you four minutes and twenty seconds to transition to the lesson on participles.”
How do I tell them that, if truth be told my students are not learning for 55 minutes every day. That some times I’m just as happy to see a few minutes wasted. That the four minutes and twenty seconds you complained about is nothing compared to the eight minutes we lost yesterday while I dealt with the girl with the broken glasses.
Or how about the five minutes of non-scholarship that occurred last Monday when I had them write an essay that I chucked into the wastebasket after school?
Last month a district curriculum expert importuned me to reduce the time I spend on silent reading. She noticed that many of my “reading” students weren’t reading. What could I say? It was true.
How could I tell her that those non-reading moments were, for me, an investment. I want my students to learn to read for pleasure. To get them to that point often requires patience.
I can coaxe them into opening a book. I can whisper encouragement as they peruse a magazine. But sometimes it just takes time; time that may sometimes involve sitting in a quiet room surrounded by other kids reading.
Read other columns from the Entirely Secondary archive. The tag line is inspired by education blogger Joe Bower who says that when his students do an experiment, learning is the priority. Getting the correct answer is entirely secondary.