A RAND study from this last year confirmed what many teachers already know: that teacher workload spiked in the spring of 2020 and for many hasn’t stopped spiking since. Specifically, the study found that teachers have settled into working 6 hours more per week on average since the spring of 2020 and nearly 25% of teachers now work 56 hours or more a week, up from only 5% pre-pandemic who worked that much.
Accompanying this additional workload, the researchers also reported what others studies have consistently found, that we are facing a crisis of teacher morale and mental health, and with it a potential crisis of teachers leaving when the profession is already stretched too thin and facing critical shortages.
As fellow educators, I likely don’t have to tell you this, as many of you live the extra workload and burnout and worries about the future every day or know plenty of others who do. But I wanted to lead with it because, even when we know something is rotten in the state of Denmark, it is still useful at times to get confirmation. Further, like Marcellus in Hamlet after he offers that famous line about Denmark, once we acknowledge the larger systemic problems out loud, it can be easier to take action about what we can control.*
Specifically, while we can’t do much about staff shortages or contact tracing protocols or new time-intensive learning management systems, we can take action in regards to how we run our classes. That is why my first posts of this new year will all be focused on what I am doing to cut down my workload to maintain my sanity and some semblance of balance while also striving to maintain (or maybe even improving through working smarter instead of harder) the quality of my classes.
The first post is on a topic that I have written and thought about a fair amount recently, and yet, truth be told, I’m still not as good at it as I should be: Revisiting information multiple times to increase the likelihood it will get committed to longterm memory.
I’ve said before that a common misunderstanding of our brains is that they are built for remembering things (hence the design of many of the classic instructional methods like lectures, textbooks, and flashcards). Sadly for us teachers the brain isn’t designed for memory though. Given how many neural connections exist in our heads, we could remember dramatically more than we do, but in a world that is noisy and always changing being able to forget most of what we see and hear is actually preferable to encoding it all. Keep in mind the purpose of memory: using information from the past to better navigate the future. When it comes to that, a smaller rolodex of mostly important information beats a massive archive of mostly useless information every time.
In November I discussed that this tendency to forget and its solution–revisiting information through spaced retrieval practice–is why I like to have periodic retrieval games in my classes. It is also why I focus so much on reflection in my instruction and use feedback cycles. Even still though, when I look closely at my practice, I still don’t revisit most concepts more than once or twice, despite the fact that research puts the number of times needed to encode most things into long-term memory at 3-5 times. Further, when I do revisit information, I am far more haphazard in how and when I revisit it than I should be.
That is one reason why this winter I plan revisit the information I’ve already taught more often and more purposefully. The other reason is that revisiting information is also a great time-saving tool because helping students revisit information already covered is generally less work than charting a path somewhere new.
When it comes to specifics, I plan to do three things this winter–all of which will hopefully enable better learning with less (or at least simpler planning) for me:
1. Incorporate “Breather Units”
In his most recent Moving Writers blog post, Noah Waspe discussed his colleague Beth Rimer’s practice of using what she calls “Breather Routines” which are 1-3 week mini units that contain a series of lessons on something that the students need to work on or was covered earlier in the year. The term “breather routine” comes from the idea that these little units are a chance to catch one’s breath after a larger, more in-depth unit.
I love this idea, and feel that, even four days removed from winter break, a breather is something that both teachers and student need. With this in mind, I reconfigured my plan for this winter/spring over the break to include short “breather units” concerning close reading, argumentative writing skills, and grammar/rhetorical lessons. It meant cutting a few new things that I wanted to do, but if the outcome is that students will learn more and go deeper with these critical lessons we’ve already covered, that feels like a more than fair trade.
2. More Choose Your Own Adventure
I recently shared a lesson with my subscribers that I did right before winter break where we looked back on the rhetorical/grammar concepts we learned this semester and used those tools strategically and metacognitively to do a task, in this case craft an argument. Here it is for those who don’t subscribe:
I’ve been doing these sorts of “choose you own adventure” assignments for several years since learning about retrieval practice, and they always lead to a bump in student understanding of whatever we revisit. Still, my use of them has generally been fairly scattershot and opportunistic, filling in gaps when the arise. This next semester, I want to do a lot more of them and to plan them more coherently. My hope is to maybe even do weekly or bi-weekly writing assignments where students revisit all of the rhetorical/grammatical concepts learned before in a similar way and then thoughtfully deploy them for a range of tasks.
3. Improving My Use of Interleaving
There is a third tool that is often discussed with retrieval and spacing, and yet doesn’t tend to get the same attention: interleaving. For those who don’t know it, interleaving is the idea that when information is used in different ways—for example, using research skills in a research paper and also crafting rebuttals during a class debate—it will be remembered better and understood at a deeper level.
One of my favorite examples of interleaving is the way that Brett Vogelsinger has his students write poems about a book before they write an essay on it. This helps students to improve their poetry skills and understanding, but it also helps them explore the themes of the book in a deeper way and unlock interesting emotional language that they can use later in their essays. I’ve done this ever since I heard about it from Brett and can’t imagine writing essays without it.
This winter I want to seek other ways to use interleaving to improve two birds with one lesson in the way that Brett did. Some initial thoughts I have are the following:
- Having students use rhetorical devices more in our discussion of literature (for example, use metaphors, symbols, or juxtaposition to express their feelings/thinking about certain characters).
- Do more mixed-genre writing that requires a unique blend of skills. The new Profile Contest from the New York Times Learning Network is an interesting example of this.
- Having students combine creative writing skills and annotation skills. I got this idea from Remi Kalir’s daily celebration of annotation.
Part of why teachers are doing more is because the pandemic created a whole suite of new tasks, but recently I’ve realized that pandemic-specific tasks aren’t the main driver of increased workload for many teachers. For many the main issue is that they are being asked to do more by all of those around them (administrators, policy makers, department chairs, and even themselves) for a multitude of (often good) reasons: Our students are struggling and these other parties want to help, the pandemic has uncovered serious problems in how we teach and run schools, and this disruptive moment does provides an opportunity to make real positive change.
Still, even when the reasons behind these extra tasks are good, the result is that many teachers are overwhelmed, and loading more onto the plate of someone already overwhelmed–even if its good stuff–is not going to likely have a positive result. As I said at the beginning though, while there are some extra tasks we can’t control, we can keep in mind that more doesn’t always equal better in our classes. Just like with commenting on a student’s paper, less, when done well, can often be superior to more for all parties. That is why this winter/spring, as the world around me asks for more, I am seeking to do less in a way that will hopefully be better for me and my students.
Yours in Teaching,
*For those whose Bard knowledge is rusty, Marcellus offers these thoughts about the state of Denmark as justification to his partner on the watch, Horatio, for pursuing the Ghost and Hamlet to seek out what is rotting away the land. Horatio offers a brief resistance that “Heaven will direct it,” but Marcellus is already spurred to action and goes off in pursuit of the truth, with Horatio at his heels.
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