The Pace of School

The most popular blog post I’ve ever written is one called “Schedules and Timetables”. I wrote it about a year and half ago, and it continues to get hits almost every day. I don’t really know why. I certainly don’t consider it my best work. It’s a pretty straightforward comparison of the American public school schedule of an 11th grade, university-bound friend with my daughter Anna’s British sixth form timetable for Year 12 (equivalent to US 11th grade). The difference between the two is in the pace. The British timetable left free periods between classes, light days that balanced the busy days, and opportunities to meet with teachers to get help when needed.

Anna is now settled into US public high school after spending last year in a British sixth form and her previous 10 school years homeschooling. A look at that “Schedules and Timetables” post reminds me that current discussions of school reform are ignoring one of most central problems.

The pace is simply frantic. Since she started US public school, Anna doesn’t get enough sleep at night. She wakes up each morning early, hurries out the door and runs through her hectic schedule…a dash to class to sit 47 minutes…think…write…work, then, at the bell, dash to the next, switching off thoughts of the previous 47 minutes to sit…think…write…work about a completely different topic.. again and again for seven different subjects each day.

When the final bell rings, she dashes off again to her various after-school activities. She has had to drop her involvement with our beloved community theater and most of her work hours because there is simply not enough time. She no longer reads for pleasure because there are so many assigned readings. But there are still dance classes, Quiz Bowl team, Girls Scouts, and more. By the time she gets home, she eats a quick meal and starts on the homework. Her weekends are filled with more homework, exercise to counteract the hours of sitting all week, part-time work, and precious time with friends.

An old yogi of mine used to say, “It is in the periods of rest that we absorb the benefit of our activity.” That doesn’t only apply to physical exercise. Without time between classes, I see that Anna doesn’t retain as much knowledge this year as she has in her previous years of schooling. It seems that the more school work she has, the less she really learns.

I also see the toll it’s taking on her physically in her eyes, her hair, and her skin. It takes a toll on her emotions as well. Sometimes she weeps for no reason, or no reason she can name. Sometimes she snaps.

Grant Wiggins’ blog recently highlighted the issue of the pace of school when he featured a report from a teacher who spent a day shadowing high school students. As a follow-up, Pernille Ripp is asking students to share pictures of their school day on February 5th, with the hashtag #studentlife, to show teachers what a student’s day is really like. I hope efforts like these will start a discussion of ways we can address the problem of our harried pace.

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7 thoughts on “The Pace of School

  1. This comment reminds me the film The Race to Nowhere that I watched at the Universtiy of Maryland, and the interesting debate with American teachers after it. This is by no means our reality in my country; on the contrary, it´s the opposite. Students are allowed to do whatever they want and they eventually pass the subjects and graduate with no effort. However I think that American schooling is very hard for children, even in elementary level. Children deserve a childhood and adolescence with enough time to study but also to play, rest and be with family and friends.

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    • It’s so interesting to hear how different education is around the world, Patricia. Do you think that most young people in Argentina are challenged to learn all they need to meet their goals for the future? It’s no easy task to strike that balance between providing a challenging learning environment and also giving young people time to play, rest and develop socially, but the fast pace of American schools is certainly taking its toll on many of our students and teachers. I’d love to learn more about your system. Thanks for commenting.

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  2. Now that I’m in college, I know that sometimes I can be extremely productive in those times in between classes. I’ll meet with professors, have a snack, chill for a bit, do part or all of a reading assignment or forum post, and feel much more prepared for my next class. High school wasn’t anything like that.

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  3. Sing it loud, Sister… And sometimes the sheer volume of assessments, added to an already frenetic schedule, just pushes us over the edge. This week, we administered 3 of the national Performance Series assessments, our building did our ACCESS testing (a bilingual assessment), and we administered one of our CFA’s. All after a week of 2 snow days and a day when half of the building stayed home because it was still frigid. Our students spent most days either in front of a netbook screen, sitting “quietly” reading while others finished, or working on a paper/pencil activity in which they, for good reason, had no interest. Every student in my room was wrung out by this afternoon – just hoping for a regular week when we actually get some instruction done! So was I. It’s exhausting to be continuously rushed – and so disheartening to feel like we are racing through our lives … and theirs.

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    • Great examples..your school perfectly illustrates our current educational environment. Tennessee’s new writing assessments will disrupt most of our instruction during the month of February. Let’s all work together for a change.

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