When a Minute is a Minute

When A Minute is a Minute

As the Instructional Coach/Reading Specialist at a large urban high school, I have the privilege of observing and supporting teachers in all content areas.

As I listen to teachers inspire, encourage and sometimes cajole their students, I am often reminded of how we use time as part of our classroom culture.

On a recent morning, I observed Brent Scott, our computer science teacher.  I had met with Brent prior to the beginning of the school year and asked if I could observe his classes during the first few weeks of school.  While I wasn’t necessarily sure how I could support him, his students and their work, I was certainly willing to do whatever I could to assist him in embedding literacy instruction into his courses.

On a recent Tuesday morning, Brent’s sophomore students walked into the classroom, picking up the handout for the lesson.  The environment of Brent’s class is aligned to success; instead of students sitting in individual desks, they sit at tables so collaboration is easy and expected.  In addition, each student grabbed a chromebook, logged in and waited for the next step.

Brent began class by welcoming his students and explaining that today’s programming lesson was going to be challenging, but with the expertise in the room, he was certain his students would be able to figure it out with him.

I jotted down some notes.  I often share lessons, language and ideas with the teaching staff and I especially liked how Brent’s message inferred that this lesson wasn’t expected to be an individual opportunity; rather, they would work together to write and evaluate the program.

Brent had explained to me that his students had varying degrees of expertise regarding programming.  Some students followed the directions step-by-step waiting on Brent to check their work for accuracy.  Other students felt comfortable being risk-takers and moving forward without waiting for affirmation.

As Brent read the directions, students began to take notes in the margin of the handout and others nodded and commented to the students at their table.

Once the directions were read and clarified, Brent took his seat behind his computer.  Students opened up their laptops and together teacher and students applied the directions to today’s goal of writing a program.

Brent re-read the directions as he and the students applied the instructions.  About one-third of the way through the lesson, Brent leaned back, looked at his students and said, “Let’s take a minute to reflect on the work we’ve done so far to make sure it makes sense.”

And he stopped talking.

The minute wasn’t a euphemism, he actually stopped for one minute while students took the time to look back to check their work.

Surprisingly, a minute can feel like a long time.

Then I started thinking about it: how many of us mention time as a way to give students the opportunity to reflect, but actually fail to give them that time?  In other words, do we use time as an arbitrary measure of learning?  What might happen if students used time to motivate their own learning?  What could happen if the teacher stopped talking and allowed students time to read, to wonder, to think?

And what might happen if the teacher stopped talking for more than a minute?

After that minute, Brent asked his students for feedback.  Was there anything they wanted to change that might make the program easier to write?  Could they offer better directions, perhaps more descriptive directions?  If so, what suggestions did they have?

Brent stopped again.  He asked students to take three minutes to talk over his questions and offer ideas on making his lesson better.

And he stopped talking.

The students turned to each other and began sharing their ideas.  Some students referenced their notes in the margins of their handout and other students pointed to their computer screen as they offered recommendations on how to write a more precise program.

Brent asked for volunteers to share their thoughts.  As students offered suggestions, I realized that because Brent gave his students time and the opportunity to use that time without teacher interruptions or suggestions, students were able to brainstorm ideas and develop those ideas into well-constructed scenarios of possibilities.

Often times, when we give directions to our students, we’ll set a timer to keep us on track and to show them that we are serious about staying the course.  But do we actually stop talking and give control of that time to the students or are we interrupting, clarifying and paraphrasing the work expected within that time?

My original objective in observing Brent’s class was to gather ideas for possible literacy interventions.  However, as I watched him use teacher silence as a teaching tool, I realized that he had, indeed, embedded literacy in his lesson: re-reading, annotating and critical thinking were all ways that students were gathering information to make meaning and to make the meaning even more explicit.

As you prepare your next lesson, consider setting the timer.  But then step back and allow your students the time they need and the time they’ve earned to think through their thoughts – without interruptions and without assistance.  Their responses will demonstrate their learning and what you need to do to review, reteach and step back, once more.

Peg Grafwallner, M.Ed., is an Instructional Coach/Reading Specialist at a large urban school in Milwaukee, WI.  As an English teacher, at-risk educator and reading specialist, Peg has taught advanced English and developing readers.  Currently, Peg models, coaches and assists teachers in creating comprehensive literacy lessons meant to enhance skill-building; in addition to providing instructional support to teachers district-wide.  Peg is a blogger, author, and national presenter with articles appearing in ASCD, Edutopia, Exceptional Parent, Literacy Daily, Literacy and NCTE and the WSRA Journal.  Peg can be reached at peggrafwallner@hotmail.com or at https://peggrafwallner.com