Hitting the Reset Button: Pacing

At the beginning of this year, I committed to spending some time reflecting on what went well last year and which areas of my teaching practice needed a “reset button” after 18 months of interrupted schooling. This month I’m looking closely at one of the things my PLC discussed most during virtual and hybrid learning: pacing.

We decided early on that we were going to simplify the heck out of our curriculum, toss anything that wasn’t high priority, and take our good ol’ sweet time doing the best we could. It was the best decision ever and probably the only thing that kept me (and my students) sane last year.

So why in the world did I find myself RACING through a week of writing instruction this week so my students could have full drafts before we conferred so they could hit a submission deadline that mattered only…in my head?

Time for that reset button, Maguire.

One Step Forward

This all came to me in a moment of deep thought as I was smugly half-cleaning my bathroom last night. You see, my New Year’s Resolution this year is to just do one chore every night–and it doesn’t even have to be done well (see “half-cleaning”).  My theory is that a bunch of continual steps in the right direction will eventually snowball into a clean house and organized life.  

Would it be better to just deep clean my house and then have the whole family commit to not being slobs? 

Maybe, probably.  Will that ever in a zillion years happen, though? Lol. No.

For my students, this hyperfast week of going from prompt to polished essay has probably felt like me demanding that they scrub the toilet and vacuum and fold the laundry and empty the dishwasher all in one night. 

Is there an argument to be made that this is AP English and they need to be able to do it without support in 40 minutes in May and they chose this class and most of them are capable of this level of intensity at this point in the year?  

Maybe, probably.  Will any of that matter when they’re freaking out about Friday’s deadline, though? Lol. No.

I don’t have an easy answer to this pacing question–especially as it pertains to the world of AP. I do know, though, that we’ve all been through the wringer for the past few years and if I’m going to rethink my practice, I need to be thinking about the role I play in that wringer.

Where are you right now?

My students spent last week examining a text together, working in groups to plan a mock essay, and practicing developing commentary in a rhetorical analysis essay. They should have been ready to work on their own, but after my lesson on Monday, I realized they just weren’t. 

So the next day, instead of diving into one-on-one draft conferences, I started class with this:

To be clear: words like “un-great” were chosen quite deliberately on my part. I knew they’d laugh and I knew it would calm some nerves.

Based on what we had done previously, they all should have been at at least Step 3 or 4.  Though I was tempted to be irritated, I forced myself to remember that a half-clean bathroom is better than nothing. I needed to shelve my frustration and just meet them where they were in order to get to the next step. 

When they walked in and saw the slide up, I could feel allllll the tension just…poof. 

Admit you haven’t written anything because you’re stuck? Hard pass. Laugh and say “Yup. My thesis is lame”? That’s much easier. 

I gave each student 4 squares of colored paper (red, orange, pink, green) and told them to identify their step by putting the matching color on the corner of their desk. 

What do you need right now? Pick your color.

Kids quickly identified where they were and we got to work.The frustration of Monday was gone and keyboards started clicking because regardless of where they placed themselves in my “steps”, there was a clear directive. Each writer had an on-ramp to the task at hand.

I went to the self-identified red cards first and found they were a combination of students who had missed big chunks of instruction in the last week (thanks, Covid!) and students who froze when I asked them to move beyond restating the prompt. Both issues were relatively easy (and quick) to address in a 2-3 minute conference. 

Next, I started working my way through pinks and greens. These were fast mini-conferences because I was only looking at paragraphs and each started with the student saying “THIS is the part I don’t like or like.” By zeroing in on this small piece of writing, they were able to ask specific questions about choices they had made. Some needed redirection, some needed some targeted questioning, and some just needed a confidence boost (Flip that card to green! This is solid!)

As I finished up the pink cards, some of my orange cards were getting flipped to pinks so I met with them, too. By the end of class, I had time to check in with the orange kids who never flipped to a different color. All had made some progress and most were close to a full, well-developed paragraph.

Surprisingly, the colored flags on their desks were the unexpected key here! I had added them to the lesson at the last minute thinking it would help me keep track of who needed what. It did that and a little more, too, I think! It is so hard for many students to ask for help. And it is so easy for others to ask for help. When I ask “who wants to confer?” there are some guaranteed hands in the air. That’s great, but I need to talk to everybody. This made it crystal clear what everyone needed without it being too obvious or forcing people to call out their weaknesses. Sure, anyone could see what color your card was, but since everyone had one and they were small–no big deal. 

What is your next step?

It’s only the middle of January, so it would be awfully bold to say my one chore resolution is a success, but I will say that the smallness of it is working. Fold one basket of laundry. Get a car wash. Clean out the dog’s dishes. Take back returnables.

At the end of class today, a student said “So do we have to have our full draft ready for tomorrow?” and I quickly replied “NO!”  I’m sure a few will (it is AP, after all), but I quickly revisited the directions slides and told them that I just wanted them to do their next step by tomorrow. Lots of relieved faces and I’m fairly certain almost all will follow through on the small step.

At some point, they’re going to need to figure out how to bang out a full essay with less step by step support. And at some point I’m going to have figure out how to clean my whole house. But today is not that day, folks. For now, we’re going to take it step by step.

–Hattie

Have you adjusted your pacing as we return to normal-ish? How are you meeting your writers where they are? I’d love to hear your thoughts (and I can handle it if you want me to tell my I’ve getting soft in my old age!). Comment below or connect with me on Twitter @TeacherHattie.

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