Low and Slow
I’m no golfer. But once when I was taking a couple cuts at a kid’s birthday party at Top Golf, a dad who is gave me some good advice: “Low and slow,” he said, meaning that one should draw back the club head in a deliberate way before hitting the ball. Since then, that phrase pops back into my head every time I pick up a club.
I’ve been trying to apply the mnemonic to my teaching too. Take the summer assignment my 8th graders brought to class on the second day. Inherited from last year’s teacher, the hefty requirement included doing response logs on three assigned books, preparing an oral presentation on another choice book, and writing a five-paragraph essay on what it feels like to be homeless (in response to Jerry Spinelli’s Milkweed.) That’s a lot to have teed up right from the start, which means I need to think carefully about my swing.
In the past, I might have dutifully collected all the work at once and tried to grade it as the rest of the quarter unfolded around me (generating lots more new work to grade each week). Maybe I would have waded through its various elements by the time interims rolled around, having a big grade to show for it and a bunch of stale work to return to kids who barely remembered reading the books in the first place.
Taking a more balanced approach honors the time and effort kids put into their work, and also gives us a chance to reinforce important skills and content. In the spirit of low and slow, here’s how I’m handling the summer assignment.
To start, we did a “Got it?” activity on the first day to make sure everyone had the required elements on time and in the correct format. A simple completion grade accounts for about a fifth of the credit. If a student realized while sharing that something wasn’t quite right, he wrote a comment on the rubric to explain where the work fell short. Responsibility for this quick, clerical check was shifted from me to the students.
For homework, I asked students to color code their reader response logs in the margins: yellow for summary, green for discussion; blue for personal connections, and red for critical thinking (including a recommendation). The next day, kids entered the classroom saying things like, “I didn’t have any red,” or, “Is it okay that I had blue and green together in the same paragraph?” By engaging in this metacognitive activity, students could see for themselves how and how well they’d used their “readers’ toolbox.”
As to the oral presentations, instead of listening to a mind-numbing string of them, they’re sprinkled through the week, a few per day. I’m asking kids to take notes each time on a graphic organizer where they record three key ideas, feedback for the presenter (one “plus” and one “to improve”), and rate whether or not they would read the book themselves.
Taking notes makes them listen well and practice the invaluable skill; evaluating the presenter let’s them see what works and what doesn’t (which may help their own presentation). When we’re done, I’ll ask each kid to choose one of the new books to read based on those personal rankings. As an added bonus, we’re freewriting for a few minutes after each book talk, introducing a practice that kids will use a lot in my class to generate ideas and promote fluency.
Let’s not forget the dreaded 5-paragraph essays. I attached a kid-friendly 6 Trait guide to each, and for homework, students had to read and rubric a partner’s paper, then pen a 7-sentence letter of feedback. There’s one sentence for each trait; the seventh can be a question, a stroke, or anything else constructive (“Thanks for not hitting me in the head with that kickball at recess…”). With the feedback, kids revise once more before handing in the paper.
I admit I’ll never know what it feels like to crush a golf ball three hundred year straight down the fairway. But because my approach to the summer assignment was “low and slow,” when we’re ready to move to a new unit together as a class, we will have reactivated prior knowledge (What makes a good reader response or oral presentation?) and established norms (All work should be neat, complete and on time; Writers revise based on peer feedback).
Most important, using a feedback loop and implementing metacognitive strategies right from the start sends the message that that this class helps kids learn how to learn. For us teachers, that’s hitting the sweet spot.