Great Teachers Slow Down – You can, Too!

We’re all Speeding Up

Take attendance, fill out IEP reports, reply to admin emails, submit observation forms, submit formative grades, manage bathroom passes, monitor phones, work the room, work the clock, give helpful feedback, integrate research-based best practices, build relationships and – crap! – actually take attendance: at times, it can seem the teaching profession is all about speeding up. 

The first nine years of my teaching career, I believed greatness was a result of speeding up, always seeking to push myself and my students to see just how far we could go.

I now realize that good teaching isn’t about speeding forward, but slowing down and returning to skills we already have, to build upon them.

I learned to slow down in the middle of my ninth year of teaching, when I participated in the College, Career and Community Writer’s Program. We were about to start a unit called “Coming to Terms with Opposing Viewpoints.” This unit focuses on the skill of countering – a key part of argument writing where you acknowledge the validity of an opposing view before revealing its limitations toward your own argument. 

Coming to Terms with Slowing Down:

Joseph Harris in his book Rewriting: How to do things with Texts explains how essential it is for writers to come to terms with an author’s work before using it in their own writing. In its simplest form, coming to terms is approaching a text with “an active mix of skepticism and generosity.”

My students’ writing showed that they were plenty skeptical of opposing perspectives. They were lacking in generosity. 

Such is the result of a largely pro/con rhetoric in modern society. The thinking goes: “I will only entertain your idea long enough to determine how ridiculous it is – and my writing will do the same.” 

Knowing my students needed help developing the skill of “coming to terms”, I looked over the mini-unit’s lesson sequence and resources. Several days’ work seemed to focus on a two-sided Notecatcher, so I pulled it up on my screen. 

This will take forever. I thought. 

The first time I taught countering, my lesson included one whole slide, with four “steps” and a few sentence stems. 

Couldn’t I just reteach that slide? I wondered – still stuck in the mentality of speeding up.

The notion of slowing down, taking a couple days to not only fill out the Notecatcher, but also teach students how to use it when writing, felt like an absolute grind. 

Hang on, deep breath – another part of me crept towards the surface. You chose this mini-unit because you believe in this move. Students need to learn how to do this.

Inhaling deeply, I looked over this two-sided Notecatcher to see what it was asking me – and my students – to do. I considered each row as one moment, one move. Practicing Harris’ suggested skepticism and generosity, I thought: I’m not sure about it, but I’ll see what it has to offer. I exhaled. 

I set the Notecatcher aside and returned to the Lesson Sequence. One day – one full block in my case – would be dedicated to collecting key arguments from the text and recording the credibility of the author. These things we’d done before – my students could probably do that independently. The rest of the first page focused on countering moves – recording the limitations of the arguments.

This day would end with students writing to a prompt: concisely stated, students would rewrite the argument from the source they most disagreed with. The trick? They had to write the argument in a way that would respect the original author’s perspective. 

Oh boy. I thought. We’ll need to take this really slow. I took another deep breath.

My sped up self would want to do this in 5 minutes. Slowing down, I realized it would perhaps take 45 minutes as we worked to come to terms with an idea that opposed our own thinking. I took another deep breath.

A Moment of Slow Movement:

Fingers tapping, toes twitching, I worked to picture this learning moment to help ground myself, slow my planning down.

Okay, so what can this moment actually look like? What are the small steps? I picked up the Notecatcher, hoping I could use it to piece together a slow, small-step moment for my students. I imagined how I would model to my students what this move looks like:

“Okay,” I’d say, “so you all have your current claim, and you have selected the perspective you disagree with most. I’m going to pick up Gannon’s OpEd and try and work through what it is he’s saying.”

At this point, we would look at our previous annotations and the ideas we captured in our Notecatcher to write out the author’s argument.

I would continue: “Where in the text can I grab a quote so I make sure to include his voice on that focus?” Papers rustle as students pull out Gannon’s OpEd. 

This is a move we’ve made before, but it’s usually working with a text we agree with. We like looking at sources when they build up our own point. Digging into a source is much more difficult to do when we’re looking to respectfully represent an idea that opposes our own. 

Then would follow the most difficult moment: “Now, I’m looking to not only represent Gannon’s idea, but also to give credit where credit is due. I mean, I could just say ‘hey, this dude said some stuff, but his ideas are still crap’ and that’s not going to validate his perspective. We’re looking to write about opposing ideas in a respectful way. So, how can I give Gannon some respect? What could I add that shows his ideas are worth listening to?”

That was a cue – I’ve used that language before when we talk about authorizing.

“You nailed it, James! I could go back to my Notecatcher, where I commented on the credibility of the author and the source.”

I found myself nodding as I envisioned taking students through the Notecatcher to teach them the generosity that would come before the skepticism. Such modeling, mixed into student writing time and small group peer sharing, would probably take 45 minutes. And the next day, we’d come back to it again. 

Flipping over the Notecatcher, I saw that the other side focused on recursive claim writing, something we’d done many times this semester. Scanning the rows, I again saw a place where I’d need to slow down and teach students to be generous:

Students would need to repeat the skill of finding “merit” in an opposing view. Returning to the text, we would again return to the writing we disagreed with, looking for evidence to seriously consider.

When completing this step, we could pull out the previous day’s “coming to terms” writing and build on what we already recorded about the opposing perspective’s view. Graphic organizer to source to notebook to source, and back to graphic organizer. The flow of this slow moment was taking shape. 

Can we all just slow down?

This movement of slowing down, coming back again would reveal to my students what good writing and thinking look like. Instead of sitting with our claim and casually batting away opposition, we wrestle with ideas that we are not comfortable with. 

Like I had to wrestle with the idea of slowing down in my teaching. 

We as teachers CAN choose where our students need to slow down, giving them opportunities practice a crucial move as they work towards building a skill.

My fellow teacher, where is it you need to slow down? We can’t control so much in our profession, but maybe we can choose when it is we step back, move slowly, and teach our students small moves towards understanding.