Days 19 and 20: The Highlights Tour

We packed up on Thursday morning and left Seattle, headed west to Olypmic National Park. We stayed that night in Pacific Beach, a small town located, well, on a beach on the Pacific. It was a quick stay; the next day we left the Olympic Peninsula and returned to Portland. At some point I’m going to write about Olympic National Park and about climtes and ecosystems, but that wasn’t really the focus of these two days.

As we were packing up in Seattle on Thursday morning, my wife was lamenting our departure. She was really enjoying our trip, she said, but she was feeling like it was the highlights tour and she really wished we had more time to spend in some of these places. I have to admit that I’d been feeling the same way. I’m thrilled that we’ve seen and done as much as we have, but I also wish we’d had more time to spend in Seattle and in places like Rainier and Glacier. 

My focus on these two days was on her comment, this feeling, and the fact that it applies to far more than just our trip. I’ve been struggling a lot with this same decision as a teacher. Too often I feel like my classes are just highlights tours of the math when I’d really rather slow down and spend a lot of time on one thing. I can’t help but think that the students don’t always love the highlights tour that class can be, and it certainly does seem to send the message that content is more important than understanding.

Two years ago I did slow down for the first time, and it was a fabulous experience. The students were engaged, they were able to direct the learning, and in the process they had a much deeper understanding of the material. I did it again last year, and in the coming year I’m going to introduce some colleagues to this approach. Slowing down has its costs, of course. Spending a third day in Seattle would have required us to cut something out, and so it would be with my classes. I had to cut some topics two years ago and to this day I wonder if I did the right thing, even as I know my students are benefiting from the decision. 

It should be clear at this point that my priorities are helping my students develop understanding and ask questions; connect the world around them to the theory; and take ownership of their learning. All of this seems to imply that we can’t take a highlights tour; there are some things you can understand quickly, but most ideas require dwelling on to fully understand them. Unfortunately, there are times when we have to do the highlights, whether, it’s because that’s all we have time for or because of some external reason like the SATs. Deciding when to dive deeply and when to do the highlights on our trip was easy because we had about six weeks. We have 2-4 years to do integrated math, so these decisions are going to be much harder to make, and the stakes seem much higher. 

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