Monday, January 26, 2015

Short Lessons

Brandy Vencel, author of Afterthoughts, wrote a great post about Charlotte Mason and her use of short lessons. Short lessons is one of the many reasons I'm attracted to Charlotte Mason methodology. As a public school teacher, I come at this topic from a different angle. I see the detriment of long lessons, a norm in public school.

In California, the "recommendation" for math instructional minutes is 50 to 60 minutes daily, and the "recommendation" for language arts (in grades 4 through 8) is two hours per day. Districts and schools can (and do) turn these "recommendations" into mandates, and go so far as to mandate these minutes be grouped together in uninterrupted blocks.

I loved Brandy's idea about breaking up her son's 30 minutes of math into two 15 minute periods. As a homeschooler, she can make this decision. 

In addition to the math and language arts requirements, I am required to spend 45 minutes daily on E.L.D. (English Language Development). This must be a block of 45 minutes, and can not be broken up into smaller periods of time (for example: two blocks of 20 and 25 minutes, or three blocks of 15 minutes).  E.L.D. includes things like writing with correct capitalization, punctuation, and spelling; grammar; multiple meaning words; idioms; etc. (Wait, you say, aren't those things part of "language arts"? Yes.)

One of my favorite movie quotes comes from O Brother Where Art Thou: "It's a fool who looks for logic in the chambers of the human heart." I would have to alter that to:
It's a fool who looks for logic 
in the chambers of the human heart... 
or in the public school system.

Brandy pointed out that in Class II (9 to 11 year olds, the age group I teach), math lessons were 30 minutes. You can get a lot done in 30 minutes... if you're not trying to get through an unreasonable amount of content before a district assessment or the high-stakes end-of-year Common Core test... or if you're teaching a child material that is accessible to him or her... or if you don't have 30 students with 30 different problems, some of them not mathematical, some of them emotional (anger or sadness about a situation at home or a situation with another student), some of them physical (lack of sleep, hunger, thirst, needing to use the restroom).

Today we spent an hour and a half on math. I was teaching students how to change a mixed number into an improper fraction. We reviewed the homework. Then I taught new material, including vocabulary (mixed number, improper fraction). Next I introduced them to MAdd Face and explained that MAdd Face is always MAdd because he's always squeezed in between a whole number and a fraction. Fourth graders totally relate to this; they do things like divide their desks in half with tape so their desk partners don't get into their space. Then, we worked some problems together, and finally, I explained tonight's homework.

An hour and a half.

But we have to get through this material. They're going to be tested on fractions the second week in February, and we are behind.

We're always behind.

It's never a celebration of what they do know, or what they can do. It's always a question of how many points away were they from "proficient."

And why do they fall short of proficient? Because long lessons don't actually work. If they did, all of my students would be able to change mixed numbers to improper fractions, however a handful of them still can't. Why? Well, that handful never memorized the multiplication facts. And now, because of pacing plans, and because multiplication facts aren't of personal importance to them, some of my students never will.

Brandy also pointed out that writing in 4th grade was 10 minutes! Ten minutes, not an hour, which is what teachers in my district and districts across America have been told to allot by programs like Lucy Calkins' Writing Workshop. Ten minutes is developmentally appropriate, and longer than that at 9 years old is unnecessary to the long term goal of producing a person who can write effectively.

Living in L.A., one does all sorts of L.A. things. One very L.A. thing I did once was to take a screenwriting class. In it, we learned that movies are broken up into sequences of 10-15 minutes. (A screenplay outline has 8 sequences, and you use this formula when writing an outline for a screenplay.) Something integral to the plot has to happen (approximately) every 15 minutes. Fifteen minutes is the moment when our attention wanes, we shift in our seat, and we need something exciting to happen to re-engage us.

We need art. We need a nature walk. We need music...

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