Search form

The School Day:
It's Not a Race;
Let's Change the Pace!


Does the relentless pace of the school day frustrate you? Do you need to cram more and more into six hours? In his latest book, Time to Teach, Time to Learn, Chip Wood takes a serious look at the frenetic pace of teaching and learning. He offers dozens of suggestions for refocusing on what's really important during the school day. In this exclusive Education World e-interview, Wood talks about his new book and about his ideas for changing the way we spend time in school.

It's time -- time to take another look at the flow of the school day. In Time to Teach, Time to Learn: Changing the Pace of School, just published by the Northeast Foundation for Children, educator Chip Wood has pulled together some totally practical ideas for refocusing on what matters most in school -- teacher-student-parent relationships and great ideas! Wood's thoughts are rooted in 30 years of teaching children and classroom teachers. Co-founder of the Northeast Foundation for Children, home of the Responsive Classroom® approach, Wood is also the author of Yardsticks: Children in the Classroom Ages 4-14. This week, he took time to share with Education World some of his thoughts and ideas about time in the classroom.

Education World: In 1985, you wrote in A Notebook for Teachers: Making Changes in the Elementary Curriculum: "We need to stop hurrying children. To hurry through the day, to hurry through classes, grades, and a timetable of achievements is contrary to the nature of children and will do irreparable damage to their minds and souls." Now you've written a book devoted entirely to the issue of time in the classroom. Can we assume you think there is a greater need than ever for educators to think and talk about this issue?

Chip Wood: For at least five years before writing this book, I became aware of how often teachers were telling me they didn't have enough time. The urgency of their frustration often bordered on desperation. These were dedicated professionals who cared deeply about their students and their teaching but couldn't "find" the time for any number of critical activities -- from covering all the curricula they were expected to cover, to reading to their children every day, to having time for a morning meeting with their classes. Teachers have always worried about having enough time, but the level of desperation seemed new to me, as if time was being increasingly compressed in school. Yes, I think it's critically important for educators to think and talk about this issue. [Many teachers] feel helpless to do anything about the way time is for us in the school setting. But there is a lot we can do, as I try to suggest in my book.

EW: Who -- or what -- experience has most influenced your thoughts about the use of time in the classroom?

Wood: Interestingly, summer camp has probably influenced my thinking about time in school more than anything else. As a counselor and camp director, I watched children learn their way through summers paced to the rhythm of childhood. There was always time to stop and look, to ask a question and think about possible answers, to be incredibly physically active, to rest and reflect, to sing and work in a community with caring adults. This is the vision I keep holding out for school. Theoretically, Piaget's seminal work "The Child's Conception of Time" and Jacques Montangero's "Understanding Changes in Time" have helped me stay focused on time as a developmental issue that we have largely ignored when it comes to thinking about how we plan children's learning experiences.

EW: In writing this book, you spent a lot of time observing the use of time in schools. You did something few educators get the opportunity to do -- you followed individual students for an entire day. Teachers too! What was the most surprising or eye-opening thing you learned from doing that?

Wood: That it took me 30 years to do it! How can we make all these decisions about school scheduling without knowing what using that schedule from a consumer's point of view is like? What kept me from having this experience as a young teacher? What assumptions was I making as a young principal that made me think I knew what school was like for the kids? What is it about the culture of our profession that keeps practitioners from doing the market research and keeps the professors in the universities apart from the reality of children's experiences in school?

EW: Many communities are closely examining the issue of time in the classroom. In a number of communities, school boards have eliminated recess to make time for "more important things." Makes sense, doesn't it?

Wood: No, it doesn't. The more we compress schedules in an effort to have more time for learning, the less we actually have. We are teaching children -- living organisms in the growth stages of their lives. Children must play, exercise, and rest in order to attend to their schoolwork and hold on to the content we are so rightly concerned they master.

EW: Education policies seem to heap more and more stress on weary teachers and on an already full school day. You write in Time to Teach about the emphasis on "blame-and-patch" quick fixes. More requirements are added, while nothing is subtracted. There has got to be a better way?

Wood: Well, one better way would be to listen to those weary teachers more! That's what I tried to do in writing this book. Teachers have extraordinary ideas, but they are so busy teaching, they seldom have time or a place to articulate their insights. I've tried to convey what teachers have been telling me, as well as my own classroom experiences, in a way that might get the attention of those concerned with improving schools.

EW: Many school administrators see change as a top-down process. You list in Time To Teach eight changes that school boards and superintendents might make at the "political" level that would help schools make better use of time. Among the changes you suggest is "reduce school size." What impact might smaller schools have on students?

Wood: To learn and to care about learning, students have to feel there's a reason -- that someone cares that they learn -- that someone cares that they care. This means they have to be known. Relationships are the foundation of all learning. We learn for social reasons. I spend a good deal of time in the book trying to articulate the critical importance of the social context of learning in the classroom and the school. Violence, as we have been seeing so tragically in our schools, is often the outcome of being ignored, left out, isolated, feeling anonymous. The overt violence is obvious, but there are subtler forms of violence: the violence students do to themselves inside when they think no one even notices them or their schoolwork and the violence we do to their thinking when we rush them through packed hallways into overcrowded classrooms and mammoth assembly halls. We have to put the "home" back into homerooms and the feeling of community back into the schools by changing schedules and groupings. If we did that we would see not only a change in social behavior but improved test scores as well.

EW: You list more than a dozen changes that principals might make on the school level to make wiser use of time. One of your suggestions is to reorder the middle of the school day. How is the middle of the day you envision different from that seen in most schools?

Wood: If we paid more attention to the physical development of children in school, this would be more obvious. Exercise and play should precede food and be followed by rest. In most schools today, children eat in a rush, then go out for recess (if they even have it), and then go back to the classroom and go right back to work. Recess, lunch and quiet time, in that order, can settle students in a profound way and create a space for the consolidation of learning and the rejuvenation needed for a productive afternoon. By quiet time, I don't mean just rest but an alone time to read, write, draw, even do homework. Children have almost no experience with silence these days, with reflection. Without these experiences, we may raise test scores, but we will lose our philosophers, our scientists, and our artists.

EW: You make dozens of suggestions for time-related changes teachers can make at the classroom level. One of those suggestions is that teachers should take time each day to step back and just observe. How can a teacher find time to do that?

Wood: If we are always instructing, how do we know what the students are experiencing? It is nearly impossible to instruct and observe at the same time, although we do our best. One technique I've used is to tell my students that when I'm wearing my "observer badge" (or wearing a favorite cap or carrying a teddy bear or doing whatever works for you), they cannot disturb me or interrupt me. I tell them "It's part of the teacher's job to watch how children learn." It's amazing how well it works and how much I do learn! Observing in your next-door neighbor's classroom and having her observe in yours can be so very helpful as well. There is so much to see if we take the time.

EW: You write of the frequently frantic last minutes of the school day. Do you see a more effective way to bring closure to the school day?

Wood: Imagine you have cleaned up the room. The students have collected their homework, the notices to go home, their sweatshirts and backpacks. You and your students sit in a circle on the rug and still have ten minutes until the buses are called. Quietly you ask "What did we do today we should be proud of? What did we do today we could do better tomorrow? Who can think of a vocabulary word you learned today? Who needs a homework call from a classmate tonight?" Instead of rushing to the last minute, use reflection to change the quality of the day's learning.

EW: You are a published author with a following among educators. Do you have a favorite education-related book or author? Who has influenced your thoughts and your work?

Wood: Sylvia Ashton Warner's book Teacher continues to be my all-time favorite book about teaching because of its honesty and insight. It never seems old or dated to me despite when and where it was written. More contemporarily, Vivian Paley's books move me deeply. The Girl With the Brown Crayon is a treasure.

EW: Time is an issue in education that clearly bothers you. Is there anything else that bothers you nearly as much?

Wood: The writers I mentioned above teach us in their books that teaching is about living in the present moment in a deep and attentive way with our students. They show teachers well prepared and knowledgeable about content but equally knowledgeable about the needed social context for that content. School must finally be about the timeless relationships between teachers and students. When school shrinks to be about only the business of comparative outcomes, test results, and efficiency, all our lives are diminished.

Time to Teach, Time to Learn: Changing the Pace of School is published by Northeast Foundation for Children. To get a copy of the book, ask your bookseller to order it for you, call the Foundation at 1-800-360-6332, or order on-line at the Northeast Foundation for Children's Web site.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 1999 Education World

Updated 08/27/2009