Making space


My major New Year’s resolution is to teach less.

And no, not because grading is interfering with my precious sleep.

It’s like this. When I first started as a young teacher, I led long, unstructured discussions of readings. We had a lot of fun. We had some great arguments. We explored some fascinating by-ways. It was good. But after a while, I began to realize that some of my students were learning more about debating tactics than about history. I found that we could spend a lot of time on whether Hammurabi was evil and mean and never really quite get around to nailing down much about the ways in which his code reflected broader Babylonian society, let alone the ways in which it may have been an improvement on previous conditions.


I embraced essential questions and backward design. I learned more about differentiating lessons and started mixing up my approach. I got better at making goals and transitions clear to the students. I learned more about the skills my students tend to struggle with and broke them into lessons aimed at smaller parts. In other words, I teach more deliberately and with a deeper awareness of the larger picture. I teach better.

A side effect of this is that my lessons tend to be a lot more structured than they once were. I find I’m breaking things–concepts, skills, even activities–into more discrete pieces, so that nearly everything has multiple steps. I’m also trying to do more things in the same lesson than I was in the old, let’s-just-talk-about-the-book days: I’m presenting the same information in multiple ways, checking for understanding in multiple ways, trying to help students be more conscious of their learning on a meta-level, and still managing the age-old history teacher’s balancing act between practicing skills and “covering content.” So everything we do in class is serving multiple goals, and it’s important that none of the steps get missed. I also love finding good stuff–a great lesson idea, a text that will make some aspect so much clearer, a picture I hope they’ll remember, or even just a question that seems particularly spot on–and it is very hard to resist throwing in one more thing that I think my kids will be excited about.

All these things are important, and the complex interplay among them is one of main reasons I love teaching so much. If it were easy, it would be a whole lot less fun. But I’ve noticed something else, too. Much too often, I’m in a hurry.

All that structure begins to own my time with the students. I find myself looking at my plan for the day and saying to myself, “we can hold the report-back part to five minutes, and that will give us time…” (I know, if I’m honest, that my class is constitutionally incapable of discussing anything in less than 10 minutes, 15 for preference. But that’s a big chunk of a block, and we have stuff to do). I find myself listening to students in a discussion worrying at an issue, going back over the same ground, and thinking, ‘please, please just point out that Alexander’s conquest had positive effects as well as negative fast so I can wrap this up and still have time to introduce the essay topic.’ The result is sometimes good activities that only half come off because students needed more time–time to go in circles, time to be confused and then find a way out of confusion, time to have second thoughts, and time to look back at where we’ve been and figure out for themselves what they’ve learned.

Time is perhaps the most valuable commodity we teachers have. None of us have enough of it–probably by definition. I sometimes feel as though the ancient world goes by in a blur, and I lament the things that time has forced me to leave out of the itinerary: the Enuma Elish, the way in which Egyptian hieroglyphs changed over time, the debate over the nature of arrival of the Aryans in India–all things on which I have taught very satisfying lessons in the past but which I had to leave out in this particular course in favor of others. And yet, I had exactly the same sort of regrets when I was teaching an earlier class in which I covered a third of the civilizations in the same amount of time. There is never enough time. That’s just the way it is.

I have gotten pretty comfortable cutting things out of my syllabus, covering less in order to cover it better. For all my complaints about favorites that are left by the roadside, I find that pretty easy to do. What is harder, but just as important, is to trim back my goals for each lesson in order to make space in each class to simply be in the moment.

So my resolution this year is to give my students–and myself–more elbow room. I will try  to build in a blank space into every lesson plan and an empty day into every unit to fill with the unexpected, to give my students the gift of time when we need it: time to go around in circles, time to repeat the process until everyone is on the same page, time to talk about something important that is not on the agenda or even on this year’s list of learning goals. Time to breath.




About wordsarestrong

I teach history at an independent school in California.
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