Taking Away the Water Wings.

There was a time when I enjoyed Easter Study days. Getting down to the business end of the year; kids beginning to really focus; the more relaxed approach; the snacks. I tended to get their full attention when they had given up their holiday time and were aware that I was giving mine. I would even take pride in the numbers I would get in the sessions; surely testimony to the relationships I was building with the class and their appreciation of my teaching. Great results in August were clearly down to that extra work we had all put in.

But then, after a few years of this, something began to trouble me. It wasn’t merely that I was giving up holiday time I could and should have been sharing with others. It wasn’t even that it was voluntary with no chance of ever being paid. It was down to the fact that, even though I tried not to notice, the kids who really needed the extra help never turned up; the high flyers who were destined to pass with ease always did. It was a joy and a luxury because there was little challenge; little chance of it not being a success.

So does Easter study class really help them? Do they need more time with a teacher to go over material they haven’t learned yet or need more practice in? I don’t think so. What I think serves them better is time on their own to revise and learn, revise and learn; time to think for themselves and develop understanding of the things we no doubt spend ages in class going over pre-holiday. Dare I say it but, yes, developing understanding is at times a very solitary activity. My pupils will benefit greatly from sitting quietly in their own rooms and revising the work.

We may well be doing them a disservice by providing more teacher access at this vital time. I haven’t done the research though. Sorry. But, in my experience, it seems that perhaps we over-protect them from real learning at this time of the year. Perhaps we provide too much of a safety net. We may do that for genuinely caring reasons: we want great results for pupils and school; we worry that a little bit extra just might make the difference. However, I would suggest that targeting those most in need would be more beneficial and these guys often are reluctant to give up holiday time.

So, at this point, perhaps we would be kinder to them if we simply locked the school over the Easter break. Removing the water wings might help them to become better learners. And, while I can understand the argument that offering Easter classes may help to develop a stronger leaning culture in a school, they may well learn better without us. I still want them to be able to contact me – I use Glow for questions and access to materials – but I won’t feel any guilt about not being in school at all.

Speed – ‘the not-so-hidden curriculum’

So, as usual, I was marking this morning; wading through some S2 classwork, becoming more and more frustrated. I usually set myself a goal of x number of books until I have a break. What always happens is that I start off being meticulous and then, as time passes and I haven’t got though as many as I intended, I begin to rush. I panic, my writing becomes untidy, occasionally illegible, and the last few don’t get the support I give the first few. Not always, but certainly sometimes. After fifteen years I’ve never been able to control that.

This all comes back to pressure of coverage, doesn’t it? Pressure to get through as much work as possible in the shortest available time. However, today I asked myself this; ‘are you more likely to make mistakes if you are rushing or if you take your time?’ Sounds silly when I put it like that but, more often than not, this is how we construct our curriculum. It is unforgivable for me to make mistakes while marking – never underestimate how damaging poor feedback can be – but even more unforgivable if we cram our course so full, pressure of coverage inevitably leads to error,

Having just finished our prelim in English – you may call them ‘mocks’ – it is fairly clear that those who succeed are those who can write well in the shortest space of time. We value speed over anything else, it seems. We are impressed by those who can cover the most work in the shortest time and covet those who cope better than others under pressure; and no doubt there is value in that. Coping under pressure is clearly an enviable trait. Even in teachers, it seems, those who can seemingly cope well with workload go further. However, there is something that doesn’t quite sit right about that.

In his book ‘The Art of Slow Reading’, Thomas Newark describes speed as ‘the not so hidden curriculum’. We have six weeks left until exam leave. In that time I have to cover two poems, half a play and revision of everything else for the whole year; we have to fine tune two Folio essays. We will get there; but it’ll be through tears, sleepless nights, frustration and hours and hours of rushing though marking and assessment as quickly as possible. Think what might we achieve if we slowed things down, covered less and learned more deeply.

This has been the first year of the new Higher in English and much of it I’ve really enjoyed. There are clear progressions from National 5 and it has challenged me to tackle different texts in different ways. However, it has also become clear that I will never be able to tackle two major texts in the same detail that I used to: no more ‘Hamlet’ and ‘The Catcher in the Rye’, for example. Alongside six Don Paterson poems – yes, I know I could do that a different way but choose not to – there is simply not the time. I hear teachers in others subjects who are on their knees with the pressure of coverage. It needs to stop. If we are to ‘declutter’ the curriculum – one of the aims of the Curriculum for Excellence – then we need to do it now. And, somewhat ironically, we need to do it as quickly as possible.

Newkirk, T. The Art of Slow Reading, (New Hampshire, Heinemann, 2012)