Sometimes, my desk fills up with clutter: stacks of paper, typically 30–40 sheets deep, that have been arranged on top of one another in a criss-cross fashion so that they remain distinct. This represents the “work” of my students: a given assignment for a given class period, piled up and waiting to be pushed through whatever algorithm I create in order to “evaluate” it before pushing it back out to them the next time I see them (or, as is often the case with me, when I happen to remember to clean my desk…I’m terrible about returning this stuff).
The use of scare quotes in the above paragraph for words like “work” and “evaluate” is absolutely intentional. I seriously question whether or not what the students have done on these stacks of paper is “work.” Moreover, because it may not be work, then it probably doesn’t have any real value, so how can I “evaluate” it? (Unless, of course, I want to put a zero on it and then deal with the student angst that ensues!)
What have I really done?
Well, I kept us all busy. Keeping students busy means keeping me busy. Busy-ness feels like productivity, but it’s really not. Busy-ness fools me into thinking that things are happening, that I’m getting things done, that I’m changing the world!
Keeping students busy is not valuable. Filling up their time with activities does not provide them the opportunity to dig into a good, meaningful activity, and tackle it in a thoughtful way. Instead, the busy student works to get things done and puts very little thought into what she is doing or why she is doing it. The work of the day becomes a checklist, a bunch of to-do’s that become to-did’s added to a long list of to-already-done’s from all of the student’s other classes and activities.
(You can go back and read that paragraph again, but replace the word “student” with “teacher.”)
Done day after day, year after year, keeping students busy has two major negative impacts:
- The busy student becomes a follower of recipes. Rather than thinking deeply about how to solve a problem, how to make it through the maze, the busy student looks for the recipe that is appropriate for the occasion. When there’s not a recipe to follow, when creativity is required, look out! Things will get hairy!
- The busy teacher—and I’m speaking about myself here—becomes harried. The number of activities and assignments piles up, and it becomes difficult to keep track of who’s doing what and where they are in the system. The stack grows and grows, and before too long, a giant desk cleaning is needed in order to right the ship!
If you feel like your class is becoming a checklist, you might want to think about how you’ve organized things. Any project, any assignment, of course, has its steps, but these steps shouldn’t be focused on the speed with which they are completed, nor should they always be prescribed or even mandated.
Activities that are meaningful don’t keep us busy. They require time, attention, and thought. Deep teaching requires us to value quality over quantity, to think of the school year in terms of less is more.
Activities that are meaningful produce value for the persons involved. In addition to a less is more approach, we might also consider the idea that anything worth doing is worth doing well. If it’s worth doing, then it will have value. Sometimes that value is very apparent—building something in a shop class, for example—but at other times, the value is a bit more nebulous: what did I get out of explicating that poem?
Every morning, I journal. It takes a long time: typically 40–60 minutes for me to get my three or more handwritten pages in. (I’ve set three as a minimum thanks to Julia Cameron’s practice of “Morning Pages.”) This is a meaningful activity; it takes me a while. But if something is worth doing, then it’s worth taking the time to do it, right?
My journaling has a positive impact on my life; it forces me to put the present-day into perspective, processes the day before, to come up with writing ideas or teaching ideas for the days to come. I love it, but I also find it difficult and time-consuming sometimes. Many mornings, for example, I want to hit SNOOZE and get another hour of sleep. But, since I know that writing out my morning pages leads to a better day, I do it. I’ve been doing it for three years now, and I can’t think of a time when I finished those pages and said, “Well, that was a waste!”
This journaling process is slow.
It’s the opposite of busy.
This is what any good class assignment should be moving toward. When designing an assignment, ask yourself these questions:
- Does the assignment promote a focus on a process that includes reflection? → Have I given my students enough time to do it and to think about what they’ve done? ←
- Is the assignment geared toward having an impact on the way the student understands her world?→ Have I given my students the opportunity to understand something new and to express the (potential) impact of that understanding? ←
- Am I giving this assignment because I want to feel effective?→ Am I assigning this for their betterment, or is it really about my need to feel like I’m doing something? ←
That last question is key. We don’t create a curriculum for ourselves. We really can’t. We mustn’t. Stop, please! I do not want to give assignments so that I feel good or so that I can check a box.1 We don’t want to put the student through a course of study that is geared toward making us feel good.
Sometimes, we get antsy when students are sitting in our classroom and staring into space. We feel guilty that they aren’t getting any learning done. But this is not true. Sometimes, good thinking requires us to stare into space! Sometimes preparing for good thinking requires us to process whatever happened before—that D- on the AP Bio project, perhaps—by staring into space for a bit.
I see this in class discussions all the time. Someone asks a deep question, a question that really probes, that plumbs the depths of the human soul! The room goes silent. The hair stands up on the back of my neck. The silence grows louder. Things get awkward. The quiet draws on. A sense of dread starts to fill my chest. Will no one be brave and bold and speak to this question? After what feels like a long pause (but is probably only 30 seconds), I jump in to save the conversation.2
What a waste! I just ruined it! I killed their opportunity to think so that I’d feel more comfortable because I sometimes mistake “vocal” for “productive” or “verbal” for “thinking.”
After class discussions, I usually reserve 5–10 minutes for the class to unpack the conversation: discussion about discussion. It’s super meta, but it’s also super important. We have to think about what we’ve just done, what we’ve just experienced. We have to reflect:
- How did we do?
- Where did the conversation go off the rails?
- Where was it awesome?
Invariably, if an awkward silence like the one described above has happened, students will say, “We weren’t talking the whole time.” They perceive this as a negative. But when we unpack that, when I ask them what they were doing during that silence, someone will chime in and say that they were thinking about the question.
Thinking about the question is a big win, y’all! Celebrate it!
If you’re having a shallow discussion, if you’re giving a shallow assignment, then you’ll know it because the students will have all the answers. They’ll be able to apply the recipe to the task at hand, check it off their lists, and then move on to the next one.
If you’re giving shallow assignments, then you’ll know it because your desk will fill up with small scraps of paper, little things to mark that don’t take much time but come in large numbers.
I’ve let this happen to me from time to time throughout my career. It’s pernicious. Pushing those papers back and forth across my desk makes me feel productive, but when I stop to ask myself whether or not I’m actually making an impact on my students’ hearts and minds, the answer is grim. That busy-ness that made me feel good and productive at the moment, typically makes me feel ineffective upon further reflection.
Make an impact.
Do something meaningful.
1 Some of us, I know are hemmed in a bit. We work in contexts that require us to check some boxes, to have some grade in the book each week or every other day, for example. In talking with colleagues at such schools, I have honestly never heard one of them say that they liked this system. I’ve never heard one of them say that having to put something in the grade book every week feels meaningful. I’d love other perspectives on this.
2 I am indebted to the good people at the Exeter Humanities Institute (EHI) and Alexis Wiggins for always pushing me to let the students do the work in class discussions. For those who do a lot of class discussion, the baptism-by-fire available (at a rather steep professional development cost, I know) at EHI is second-to-none. The Harkness Method requires real patience and deep trust. But it’s just the sort of quality-over-quantity approach that I love. Alexis Wiggins has taken Harkness and morphed it into what she calls “Spiderweb Discussions.” Check out her book The Best Class You Never Taught.
Stephen Hebert has held leadership and teaching positions at a number of independent schools. Most recently, he serves as an English and Social Sciences teacher and Upper School Diversity Coordinator at The John Cooper School (TX). Stephen is also a frequent author and publisher of a blog called Rooted: Eduction on the Ground. This article was first published in Rooted.