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Pacing Myself


In my last entry I wrote as an English teacher about testing. Now I’m writing as a Social Studies teacher. I am both. I’ve got to talk now about Pacing Guides. I don’t know if there are any school systems NOT using pacing guides, but let me explain just in case. A pacing guide outlines the entire curriculum on a day-by-day basis. For example, on days 3 and 4 of the US History pacing guide for second semester, for example, my class should be learning the Economic, Political and Social Impact of World War II. We (I work with a co-teacher) have two days this week to teach mobilization; rationing; civil and economic equality; the changing role of women; the impact of minority migration to cities; the US response to the Holocaust, and the forced migration of minority groups to internment camps. I’m serious. Two days on the block schedule is 172 minutes. Of course the fire drill we have scheduled for Wednesday will take 20 minutes. After we teach this information, we’ll spend three days teaching the military strategies and turning points of World War II. There are seven days’ total allotted for the World War II unit. I can do that. If I push it.

The assessment point is this: “Which events show the persistence of discrimination during World War II? Include details and examples to support your answer.” That is a good question, also from the pacing guide. If the students can answer it, I can be sure they understand the social/economic/political situation of the World War II era. And that’s the kind of question that helps them develop high-level thinking skills. The kind of skills they need to pass high school assessment tests.

Pacing Guides push students and teachers hard, and give a lot of information. For that reason, I like pacing guides. As a new teacher, if I have a curriculum question, I can refer to it and find my path. I know what went before, what comes next, and how much time the current topic should have. The new teacher mentor told me the Pacing Guide is a “guide” not a “ruler”. So if I need an extra half a day to cover something, I take it. On the other hand, I also know that if the superintendent of schools drops by to visit, every US History class is our county should be on the Day 3 topics if it happens to be Day 3 of Semester 2. Get it? It’s flexible, in a rigid kind of way.

The pacing guides have a use. Teachers know what should be taught, and how to measure the learning. References to the textbook and supplementary materials are provided in the guide.
If a student moves from one school to another within our county, he will continue learning where he left off.

But, just as with the assessment tests I wrote about before, I have concerns. I wonder, what about the joy of learning? What happened to students developing and following their interests? How frustrating it must be for a student to ask a great question and be told, “I’m sorry, we can’t cover that in this class.” Students with great questions aren’t given time to find the answers.

What about the truly great teachers, who are excited about a topic because it’s their passion? There’s no time to explore anything in greater detail, or to let students experience the joy of independent research. Field trips no longer exist, and guest speakers have to be carefully matched to your assigned lessons. Honors students can’t get too far ahead and special students can’t lag behind, because we’ve all got to be on schedule. What do pacing guides take away from us?

I’m beginning to see education like a railway system. Look at the map: there are lots of possibilities. There are interesting stops along the way, great views out the side windows, and interesting people on board with us, if we look up. Same for the pacing guide. Lots of adventure, if we could allow ourselves a small side track. But when we’re measuring the success of our journey through a high school class there’s only one question: when will we reach the destination? It's as though the trip only counts if the train’s on schedule.


My sister, a fine and formerly excited educator in Florida, is leaving the system for just those reasons. Her pacing guide has drawn her a map to leave this profession that so many of our youth today need. Quality and dedicated teachers are hard to find, and the system that continues to mire itself in red tape is forcing those amazing people out of the system.

Such a shame for the future of today's youth.

Beth Butler

As a World Geography teacher I shudder at the thought of having the dynamic relationship that exists between myself, my students, and the subject matter (a dynamic world) regulated (and inevitably restricted) through this type of framework.

However, as a researcher I can't help but wonder if it is what we need. I was initially shocked when I encountered the use of this type of curriculum when visiting schools in Japan and Germany. But I also grappled with the knowledge that, statistically at least, German and Japanese students do, on average, learn a lot more "stuff" about the world. Moreover, the teachers I spoke with didn't see it as a burden. They didn't spend the countless hours that I do designing their curriculum--which ostensibly freed them up to spend more time on student assessment.

Don't our much hailed AP and IB teachers utilize similarly structured guides? If highly prescribed learning outcomes in AP and IB courses are good for our best students, why wouldn't we feel these should be good for all students? How can we expect our schools to get all students to perform at the same high level with so many unknowns in the "inputs" they get?

It strikes me that this issue is really a broader cultural debate. America has traditionally valued the "pleasure principle" of learning more than the "discipline" model. Part of our identity as rugged individuals requires us to constantly pursue our own dreams, our own identities. There seems to be an over-riding assumption that we are inviting students (and teachers) to come to the table to pursue learning as a means to feed their inherent self-interest (and then require them to stay even if they believe their self-interest would be better served elsewhere).

National pacing guides alternatively assert that learning needs to happen as part of our inherent collective need to have an informed (and highly skilled) citizenry. Pacing guides assert that the choice is no longer yours to make: learn. Perhaps we must admit we can no longer afford the inefficiencies of our more open-ended inquiry model of teaching and learning.

But perhaps there is room for compromise: What if schools were required to offer, in addition to the core curriculum, an ongoing class in independent inquiry? Bubbling over with pre-defined concrete knowledge filtering in from their core classes, students would be coached in the deeper exploration of those topics that happen to tickle their own interests. Perhaps teachers from core curriculum courses could share or rotate through the leadership of this post--to ensure their own fires of inquiry continue to burn.

I am a parent, not a teacher at least, in the traditional sense. Although, it was remarked many times by those who were charged with my education that if I were not to become a teacher, I would have missed my calling. Therefore, I still teach. Mostly in daily life and cirumstance, to those who are willing. I have been given a unique opportunity, in that I have a child who requires "special" education. She has multiple disabilities we creativly overcome together, daily. I believe that the failing in our system is that we are bent to have people learn what they are not naturally driven to. We are overly concerned with teaching the reader to become proficient in math and the visa versa. In other cultures, natural talent is pursued in the determination of what educational course is taken by the individual for preparation in their future vocation. These choices are made rather early in the process and those bound for college are diverted to a different study than those destined for trade. We all seem to want to have each student be exactly the same as the other. This is not how we as human beings were designed. It is our difference that we have most in common. Uniquness is our common bond. I believe that learning SHOULD be a pleasure, that individual interests ARE key and that students should be encouraged to pursue professions that peek those interests and natural talents. It's a trick though to find such an individualized program that would permit it. I know this because of my experience with IEP. We must realize that we do not make the student. They are already made. It is our job as Parents and Educators to uncover what and who each student is and to empower and encourage them to be all they are intended to be. This is how greatness is born.

This is the subject of my most recent soap box sermons. Not only are things like pacing guides taking the creativity and spontaneity away from teachers, but it is also turning teachers away from the true art of teaching. Education is so focused on assessment that there is no good instruction going on anymore. Assessments are the end of the process, based on history. History can't be changed. Focusing on assessments is reactive. If we changed the focus to good instruction, which is the beginning of the process, good test scores would naturally follow. Instead, we are focused on the end without giving thought or attention to the beginning. That's bassackwards if you ask me! It's like waiting for a plane to crash before buying the radar equipment needed to keep it from happening. If we'd invest the money in the best instruction and quality educators, I bet our system won't crash either.

I would welcome a pacing guide. It's a "guide" not a cast-in-stone "law." Use if as a guide. High school history classes are not college-level classes. All that is required of a high school history class is an overview on a topic, not an in-depth analysis. Give the students the big picture and when they get to college, they can take history classes that only study World War II or any other war as their heart desires. If you really understand your subject then you will be able to do this and do it very well! I believe that. By the way, you have a fascinating topic to teach. What are you complaining about?

Great insight into a complex issue...while pacing guides are not perfect they do insure a measure of accountability for teachers and students...think about what was taught, or not taught before pacing guides...the smart got smarter and the rest were often left behind...?

It seems that the curriculum argument continually comes down to matters of assessment and the worries of teaching to a test or some other form of "robbing" the students of a pleasureable educational experience. On this concept, we're all torn, and will continue to be such, because there is not one solution that addresses all of the needs and concerns for the many, many problems that the whole of the field of education faces today.

For example, in one of the previous comment blocks, Ms. Butler mentions the fact that her sister in Florida has recently stopped teaching because of all the newest "educational" techniques being passed down to her. I think our greatest problem with this, as teachers, is that we resent the fact that people who have no concept of being in the classroom and actually teaching 150 students a day are now passing down these approaches to us, telling us how we should teach and what it takes to be successful at it. Many current teachers, especially veteren teachers, take these implementations as a direct insult to their current and previous practices, when they have certainly, at least at some points, experienced success in the classroom using said practices.

However, one thing it seems most people are failing to consider is that the ideology, practices, values, and overall attitudes of students today are vastly different than those students held even just five years ago. This is the ADD generation, reared on video games with fast-paced, flashy graphics, the Internet and its ability to connect us to the world, and various other challenges that they meet daily such as parents who aren't involved, jobs that aren't concerned with their schooling, and a complete breakdown in all support systems. And it doesn't take a veteren teacher to know that these supports are essential to a student's overall success rate in school, no matter the student's age. So, the teacher becomes even more overwhelmed than he or she already was in the clumsy attempt to keep up with the ever-shifting dynamic that is the student mentality today. We assume various roles outside of simply being a teacher, which we all know hurts our productivity as teachers. Couple that with the fact that the political boundaries within education are continually being blurred, and you have a group of over-worked, under-paid, and certainly, under-apreciated teachers, who are simply, well, exhausted and tired of all the "accountability" being placed squarely on their shoulders. It is no surprise that veteren teachers are chosing to leave the field, because they remember the greatness that the classroom used to offer its students, and that seems to be a dimenishing quality under the new legislature.

As teachers, we don't enter the profession because we seek to spend our days bogged down in paperwork and other seemingly meaningless tasks required of us by the various authorities. We become teachers because we're passionate about our subjects and the ability to effect change in the lives of budding minds across the nation. Perhaps we have a "save the world" complex, but what's so terribly wrong with that? Apparently, everything, as we're constantly being pulled back in to a methodical, and honestly quite boring, linear plan in which we can't find much value.

Sure, a Pacing Guide might help to keep you on task; it's really not that different than the college syllabus. But while these kids may think they're adults, they're not, and their minds are not geared for the focus necessary to cover WWII in seven days. And is that really doing justice to WWII? Sure, that's a very specific example, but apply that kind of principle to any subject area: Can you cover _Julius Caesar_ in five days and really feel like you've done it justice or explain the Carbon Cycle in one brief class period to the point of mastery? No... it's not realistic. So, we're then forced to cut out the supplemental tools (and anything else that might eat up our precious time block) that we use to try and encourage the necessary relationships between the material and the students' lives, often to the point that you fly through a lesson and no one knows what just happened when the dust settles. I won't even get in to the fact that it's not like we even get the full period anyway with all of the other administrative duties that must be accomplished first (attendance, the latest yearbook survey the kids need to complete by the end of the day, the fire drills-as mentioned, and so many more).

But I'm certainly being long-winded about all of this. The basic point is this: Each student is an individual, as much as the system attempts to push them into a common understanding and appreciation of a subject. These plans do not seem to take that into account. They do not appeare to consider the external stresses, influences, and other stimuli that affect our students on a daily basis or those that affect us on a daily basis. These statutes are easy to pass down from the comfort of an overpriced office chair when the last time the enactor saw a classroom was 1973. This is 2006, and that "old-school" mentality bores students to death. This rigidness causes them to shut down. Why participate if you're not allowed to or your concerns/questions/issues cannot be addressed because of time constraints? Why bother? I wouldn't, honestly; why should I expect them to? How can I *expect* them to? In the end, things like pacing guides are good in theory but bad in execution, and that kind of rigidity and lack of creativity has no place in the classroom without serious modification.

I'm thinking that as a guide, this is not a half-bad idea. It is up to the teacher to get creative and find ways to extend learning for the students. So you have only one or two days to teach a topic, but what is stopping a teacher from designing some type of project that the children can work on as homework that will help to extend their learning on that subject?

I think that it is a good idea that everyone is somewhat on the same page, but remember that everyone does have different teaching styles and the exact information divulged on a topic will differ from class to class, so this is still a guideline as opposed to something set in stone.

I have similiar experience in both disciplines. How would I find out about pacing, curriculum writing and curriculm mapping? If you have any info I would definitely appreciate it. Thanks in advance. mm

Hanne, may I quote an excerpt from this post in an op/ed piece I am currently composing for publication on the web site of a small membership association? Please respond to my personal email: [email protected]

Thanks in advance for even considering this request, whether or not you choose to grant it.

Best wishes & keep up the great blogging!

A fellow midlife career changer,
Pamela "Spike" Cheney Angle, CBC, M.Ed. almost completed (finally!, lol)

I have created a pacing guide for civics 8 as requested, but now the county in Virginia where I teach has decided that it wants world geography taught instead. In the past ten years I have taught United States History to the Civil War, United States History from Reconstruction until Modern Day, American Studies, World Geography, civics for one semester, civics for one year, and now back to World Geography.

How does one follow a pacing guide? We can't even stick to a curriculum for more than a few years. I have taught for thirty-seven years and I can't wait to retire! I remember the "good old days" when I could have fun with the students as we studied things together. How can I have fun with them now? We have Standards of Learning (We've gone from a 22 to 28 to 72 to 85 to 92 to 68 over the past years.) in Virginia and everything hinges on one test given just before school is out for the summer. (Joke!)

I wish all of the state senators and delegates had to pass the civics SOL test or get fired.

Just my comment! I am not an "expert" in education. I just have 36 perfect evaluations since I began teaching in 1971. (Oh, I had one average evaluation from a principal, who did not like my attitude and didn't like her ignorance and told her so.)

Thanks for listening! I am working on my pacing guide now for world geography 8 again!


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