Adding to Our Alphabet Soup: T, for Time

“Nobody sees flower, really—it is so small—we haven’t time,

and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.”

—Georgia O’Keefe


Alison Boardman, in her February 8 COW blog post “Finding the Balance Within Social/Emotional Learning,” calls for a fourth letter to the acronym SEL: S, for space: “… I worry that if we become overly focused on the learning piece, we might overlook the other part—the space that allows youth to experience the social and emotional ‘ness’ that is critical to being a socially and emotionally developed member of humanity. … What I needed was space to process my own connections and emotions and to think through my reactions on my own and with others.”

Her post gets me thinking. In the context of COW’s “alphabet soup,” with its goals of SEL (Social Emotional Learning), UDL (Universal Design for Learning), and PBL (Project-Based Learning), what other letters are missing—that is, what other dimensions of the classroom experience do we need to attend to in order to support students, and teachers and researchers, to become more socially aware, more self-aware, more knowledgeable and strategic about learning, more motivated to learn, and all the other goals associated with the rich and ambitious visions of SEL, UDL, and PBL?

For me, that letter is T, for time. I’ve been thinking about it in the context of PBL, in particular, where we want students to develop the patience and interest to plunge into “consequential making” (a term I have learned from our partners at Lucas Education Research), to tackle complex questions, to take on real-world challenges, and to think deeply and creatively over a sustained period.

When I was a teacher, time was always the enemy. I remember joking with colleagues on the first day of the school year, “I’m already behind!” Fire drills, lightning drills (I taught in South Florida), late-night emails from enthusiastic colleagues planning last-minute field trips, even snow days, especially snow days—all emotional triggers contributing to my growing sense of conviction that I would never “get through it all.”

Just recently, I was watching a video of a class (not part of the “Composing Our World” project), and in a 60-minute period, the teacher mentioned time, in one form or another, 13 times. Now, some of these instances were no doubt useful, such as “Take 60 second to turn to your partner and. …” But I wondered about some of the other references, such as “Now, have a quick discussion about. …” or even the one suggesting—wishfully, I would argue—a learning environment of temporal flexibility: “Take your time to write. …” Can we reasonably expect students to “take time”—to feel that, to trust they have that—during the course of a 60-minute period with 13 reminders of time? Not to mention students needing opportunities, before writing, to think quietly or talk with a friend (Anne Sexton had Maxine Kumin, Elizabeth Bishop had Robert Lowell, and the list goes on). What was even more interesting to me, in the video I watched, was how students seemed to take up the teacher’s time-anxious discourse. Consider this moment, in the context of small group work: “Are you guys done?”, one student to the group. And then, “You’re slow,” to one in particular, who was furiously writing. Then, the speaker sighing, sinking her head between her hands. …

In a heartbreaking Op-Doc in The New York Times titled “Summer’s Choice” (1/25/16), by Keith Fulton and Lou Pepe, Summer, a high school senior and exceptionally talented artist, doesn’t get to graduate from high school when she chooses to take care of her grandmother, who took Summer under her care after her mother left her “for drugs” when she was 4 and her dad left her when she was 7 ( This story, of course, points to systemic sources of inequity that go beyond the control of educators. I’m not saying we can solve dilemmas such as this one. But it does make me think. What kinds of messages are we sending students when we ask them to choose between school and “doing the right thing”? What kinds of messages are we sending to students when we say “Tell me more” while sneaking a glance at the clock? I know I did it. How will we give students the time they need, the relationship to time they need, to “go deep”? When we take up a question or challenge in the context of PBL, we need to give students the time to answer it. Really. Time to venture a response, time to tinker with tools, time to consult an expert, time to consult another expert, time to ask another question, time to make something, time to challenge, time to debate, time to listen, time to talk, time to revise.

I know, I know, all time we don’t have. I don’t have the answer; I have yet to make time my friend. But, as an educator, I would like to start thinking more intentionally about what it looks like to give students time and space for deep learning. Perhaps it means building flex-time into our lesson plans. Perhaps it means streamlining our purposes as educators, so that we become more selective and intentional about the activities and scaffolds we build into curricula. I know the goal of Project-Based Learning is to have students investigate a problem or question of interest to them, so perhaps it means giving students the opportunity to make their own decisions about how to spend time (while, of course, providing them with the structures and supports they need, so they are not overwhelmed).

Thoughts? Ideas? Please share. … Post a blog or respond in the comment section below!



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  1. Alison Boardman
    February 16, 2016

    I loved reading your post Mara. I’m glad I took the ‘time’ to read it. I often feel like I am rushing myself and everyone around me to get on to the next thing – pushing, pushing, pushing – afraid that if I don’t have an eye on the clock the wheels might fall off. I believe that is the opposite of mindfulness, learning to be in and to experience the present. But perhaps time doesn’t have to be the enemy in the classroom. Having 2 minutes to share with a partner or 5 minutes for a quick write can be a helpful guide to students when they know what to do and why. Not everything needs a time limit but I see students most deeply engaged when they are interested and know what the point is. Are we discussing to brainstorm ideas, to come to consensus, to reinforce understanding in preparation for quiz, or to learn more about one another? And for some of us, knowing how much time we have to do the work offers useful guidance. So the question is back again: How do we live within a world ruled by the clock without being a slave to it? Thanks for opening the discussion.

  2. Becca Kaplan
    February 18, 2016

    You brought up some awesome things to think about in this post! Thank you!

    Here is a video of a song by Elephant Revival that I thought of as I read this post:.
    Sometimes when I find myself too stuck on thinking about timing I hear the lyrics in my head…
    “Even Einstein said, time is not a condition in which we live.
    It’s a condition in which we think, and we can change the ways we think.
    So the question remains,
    Well what is time?
    It’s when the sun comes up,
    The sun goes down,
    The moon comes out
    And the people dance all around”

    The calendar we use, the school-day structure, these are all made up– constructed at a different *time* for reasons that may no longer apply but continue to guide our daily life. My partner and I recently started pointing out and “taking time” to look at the moon each night– the lunar cycles mark time in a very different way, one that we can see and feel. It helps me feel like time is slowing down to remember the natural cycles that mark time rather than the constructed ones (the 365 day solar calendar isn’t something I can actually observe and experience myself).

    There is a wonderful novel about the earth’s rotation slowing down, which totally shifts the way humans have to conceptualize time: “The Age of Miracles” by Karen Thompson Walker– I definitely recommend it!

  3. Shawn Jaworski
    March 4, 2016

    Thanks for writing this, Mara. “Time” has been very much in the front of my mind recently. With our first child due in 6 days, my wife and I are scrambling to make final preparations, but not at home, where you’d think. I’m planning on taking three weeks of leave right after the birth, and the countdown to leaving my classroom is actually more stressful than the baby countdown, about which I should be far more concerned. Why is this? Because time is so precious for teachers, and despite knowing that I’ll really enjoy the time away, I know there will still be a sense of “lost time” with my students. And I wonder, is it really lost, just because I’m not there? Or is this just a different kind of time, in which my substitute (a preservice teacher) can grow and learn as an educator through interaction with my amazing students? I’m also concerned with leaving my class before completing my work for the Compose Our World project. I know this can’t be helped, but I do feel somewhat guilty to “abandon” the project right as they are finishing their work.

    Another thing I thought of when reading this was a recent conversation I had during conferences. I have a student in English 10 who is 8 months pregnant, and I recently received an email from my administrator about “figuring out” how to handle her grades when she leaves to have the baby. The conversation I had with this student and her mother was quite revealing. She is a fantastic student; maybe not “gifted”, and never taken an honors class, but extremely hardworking and driven. Her mom told me that many of her teachers, upon discussing her pregnancy, were visibly disappointed and even hinted that she was basically ruining her life. Knowing this girl, those assessments are preposterous, and show that even educators often judge people before they know the story. I suppose that this relates to time because it’s about how we prioritize time. Her other teachers felt that by spending her time raising her daughter, this student was throwing her life away. I think it’s quite the opposite; I think that she actually made an extremely difficult and mature decision, to have the baby and still stay on track to graduate. In fact, she plans on graduating early, so she can move on to college and finish her education for her daughter. So this speaks to what you were saying about our students learning to take on “real-world challenges” because it doesn’t get much more real than bringing another human into the world; trust me, it’s what I’ve spent the last 9+ months thinking about!

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