Returning to Life Again

salvēte, amīcī et sodālēs! Once again, it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to write to you this way. In fact, I see that this is my first post for the month of December! As many of you know, December is a very difficult month in factory-model schools. Even if courses aren’t ending (or about to end in January, in our case), there’s still pressure to “get to the right place” before the Winter Break. And of course there are lots of interruptions to the routine – special holiday programs, field trips, and the like. They’re good for students, who need and deserve the opportunity to do a few “non-academic” things from time to time, but they’re hard on teachers, who have to plan around them. It’s also hard to readjust to the routine on a day when something “special” or “exciting” has happened.

In my face-to-face teaching world, where the semester ends (and new classes begin) in mid-January, December is also the time when I pledge to my students that “everything new” will have been “covered” or “introduced” before they leave for their Winter Break. This leads to a rapid pace during the earlier months of the school year – a pace that my students sometimes complain about at the time. By December, though, when they see that “everything new” really has been “covered” or “introduced” in their Latin classes, they tend to feel a lot more positive about the pace – especially when they compare the relative calm of our classes with the frantic forced march they experience in others. Yes, they’ll see a few new vocabulary words in January, and they’ll read a few new stories – but they won’t have to deal with any brand-new grammatical concepts, and they will have had plenty of time for the “older stuff” to sink in over their two-week vacation.

When I compare typical final-exam results on this schedule to those from the brief period when we did try to end the semester before the holidays, I’m amazed at how much better my students do when they take exams after a break. Of course, there’s a good bit of recent brain research about the importance of “rehearsal” for long-term memeory, and about the connection between “rehearsal” and adequate sleep. Check out this link from the California Department of Education for a good summary, and this fascinating one about the implications of the brain’s natural rhythms for when – and how often – you should review things you really want to transfer to long-term memory. How well are we doing with the kind of regularly spaced, intentional rehearsal described in that second link? And are we teachers showing our students why and how to do it?

I don’t think we are – and I think that’s a big cause of the exhaustion that teachers and students experience at this time of year. Even though I’ve been fascinated by The Brain for years – and even though I regularly teach my colleagues about “connections between Differentiated Instruction and the Brain” in that online staff-development course I teach for my face-to-face school district – I had never seen the recommendation to rehearse the day’s learning an hour or less before you go to bed, which features prominently in the California Department of Education link I mentioned in the paragraph above. I suppose we all have experienced the “mysterious” solutions that come to us, either in dreams or when we wake up, if we’ve been thinking about a problem right before we go to bed at night. But I’d never made the connection with learning – or with brain function! It’s amazing what adequate rest can do!

And yet, for so many students and teachers in factory-model schools, adequate rest during the regular school term is a distant hope at best. Students rush from class to class; they rush to each lunch; they rush to after-school events or jobs; they rush home for a rushed dinner; and they rush to complete homework assignments that their teachers rushed to prepare and will rush to discuss or grade the following day. Is it any wonder that so many students and teachers are exhausted so much of the time? Or that the levels of mastery and retention are less than we’d wish? I’m reminded of a sign that used to hang in the office of the wise, crusty old mechanic who maintained our family cars when I was a child. It said something to the effect of, “We can do things three ways: good, fast, and cheap. You can choose any two.” Sadly, I think too many schools choose fast and cheap, then wonder why the results aren’t as good as they could be.

quid respondētis, amīcī?

  • Do you find that you (and your students, if you’re a teacher) are exhausted at this time of year?
  • What do you think of the brain-research findings we looked at in this post – especially the ones about regular rehearsal and about the rehearsal – sleep connection?
  • What are the implications for the ways that you teach and learn?
  • And what are the implications for the Tres Columnae Project?

Tune in next time, when we’ll take a closer look at these questions and raise a few others. intereā, grātiās maximās omnibus iam legentibus et respondentibus.

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Published in: on December 22, 2010 at 2:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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