This summer, I’ve been raising caterpillars in my backyard garden. It’s a slow business. Every day, there is quiet, incremental change. Day to day, the caterpillars look mostly the same. But over the course of weeks, a new Monarch caterpillar, only a quarter of an eyelash long, grows to the size of a woman’s pinky finger.
The slowness of it all, the waiting, makes the emergence of the butterfly that much more magnificent. Of course, you could just Google it. I’d bet you could find a dozen videos of eclosure quicker than you could read this paragraph. But it’s different to experience it in person, after the watching and the waiting. It’s a moment that is pure magic because it cannot be rushed, and because it is so fleeting. Today a newborn butterfly walked across my hand. A few hours later, she flew away for good.
Once I started raising butterflies, I had the thought: Why isn’t everyone doing this? But then it occurred to me that I have a taste for slowness that not everyone shares. It’s why I love little dogs so much: They are always up for a midday cuddle, preferably with a nap included. In an email conversation with my new friend Julie Schell, an education support teacher in Canada, she said she “wondered if we should be looking at ways to create ‘slow’ education, in the same way the Slow Movement has touched food, fashion, and film.” Her comment got me thinking: In our high-speed, fast-paced world, could we bring back slowness as a value — for ourselves, and in our teaching?
Julie’s remark made me realize how much we rush as teachers. I think we feel that if our classes are not brimming with activity and assignments, then our students will be bored. Many of us who consider ourselves innovative teachers fear boredom more than anything. We will NOT be that boring, droning teacher with the monotone voice. Instead, we will talk fast! And move fast! We will pile work upon our students so that they are busy! And engaged! The last thing we want is for our students to have nothing to do.
And yet. I think about what happens in the summer, when I have “nothing to do.” Instead of skim-reading to get through my workload, I read slowly, soaking up every word. I notice the sky. I appreciate a walk around the block with my dogs, which can easily take over an hour. It’s hard to break the habit of wanting to “get stuff done.” Even in the summer, my tendency is to want to rush. To make lists. To feel the tug of things that need doing, but don’t really need doing. It makes me wonder, has school trained me to be that way? And what would happen if school were different?
What would happen if we slowed down as teachers? If we took a long breath before speaking? Last semester, I tried introducing more silence into my classes. We did silent meditations and silent writing, even silent group work through an activity called “Chalk Talk” from Making Thinking Visible by Ron Ritchhart, Mark Church, and Karin Morrison. I was surprised by how willing my students were to be silent. When I made space for written reflection, they used the time well. And that made me feel guilty for having spent so many years filling up my students’ time with activity. I had been so afraid of my students being bored that I hadn’t given them ample time to just think, and wonder, and figure some things out for themselves.
In the years that my mother was a high school literacy coach, she used to say that content area teachers felt they didn’t have enough time to help their students with reading. The teachers felt they had “so much to cover” that they couldn’t afford the time it took to give students a lesson in how to read better. I hear the same thing among teachers at the community college where I teach. They would like to help their students read better, or write a better essay, but there’s just no time for it! Fourteen chapters to cover in sixteen weeks, plus midterms!
I think it’s time we rethink the idea of education as “covering topics.” If we’re really being honest, our students probably remember very little of what we teach, content-wise. When I think back on my college days, I remember the Urban Studies TA with the John Lennon glasses and the long blonde braid who said that the only reason not to ban all weapons was because we might have to overthrow our own government. I remember the poetry teacher wearing the elbow-patched tweed who, with class input, wrote a heartbreaking ode to Kristi Yamaguchi on the blackboard.
OK, so I’m kind of old now, but that’s literally all I remember. Mostly, we remember experiences, not facts. We remember encountering a completely new idea. We remember feeling inspired. There’s nothing to “cover” in education. There are only things to uncover, to discover. And discovery is not a fast process.
The slow food movement is about appreciating the time it takes to grow and prepare food. Perhaps slow education would share the same tenet. Instead of moving mindlessly through “material” to get to the exam, we would relish the process of learning. We would savor what we teach and not rush through it, trying to cram more in. Slow teaching would embrace silence and wonder.
This may be controversial, but I would argue that it can’t be done through technology. Technology moves us too quickly to the end result. It shows us the butterfly emerging without the 35 days of waiting. Yes, it’s true, in today’s world, no one wants to wait. We want to change the channel. We want to fast forward. But do we really want life to be all about skipping ahead? Is that what we want for our students? Instead, I’m envisioning my students knowing how to spend a long, lazy summer day. Not on their phone. Not marking off stuff on their to-do list. Not rushing through a mountain of too much homework. Instead, playing with their kids. Drawing. Noticing a plant that needs some water. Watching a butterfly arrive, briefly, then fly off into the wide blue sky.