By Michelle George
My mom is an amazing woman with varied skills. She is a great cook and seamstress, among her many other talents. As I was growing up, Mom tried, often in vain, to pass on some of those skills to me. The difficulty was the fact that we had a tragic flaw in common: we both wanted things done now, if not earlier.
The patience gene was not available for either of us. What saved us all, I suppose, was the fact that my mom was educated largely in a convent in France by Carthusian nuns. They instilled in her what nature could not: self-discipline. My mom passed that lesson on to her kids by teaching us to slow down and do it right. As an educator, my teaching has benefited from this life lesson.
The idea of slowing down begins with being prepared. Those early cooking lessons always began with assembling the needed ingredients and tools. It seemed tedious to drag out the bowls and spices rather than dive right in, but it often saved us from mixing the dried ingredients and oil and then realizing that we were out of eggs. The same is true in teaching. I am always tempted to try out a new website or video example right away, but I’ve learned the hard way that a thorough preview is always a good idea.
I remember one video I showed on Greek mythology. Our outdoor field trip was canceled due to weather, so I needed something meaningful … immediately. The video producers were solid, and the description sounded great. Ten minutes later I turned off the video and pulled out my mythology BINGO game. The graphic representations of Greek gods and their romantic excursions were more than I and my young students were prepared for. Let’s just say that Zeus is not a great role model for successful relationships. Since then I am careful to preview all videos and resources before I share them with my students.
Another aspect of slowing down came from sewing lessons with Mom. I remember my first project. I’d picked out a nightgown pattern with tucks in the yoked bodice and puffed sleeves. My mom suggested that it might be a bit much for my first project, but I was confident. I couldn’t wait to set my foot on that pedal and start stitching.
Mom channeled her inner nun and made me first cut out each pattern piece and analyze just how and where the piece fit into the final project. I then had to lay them on the fabric, shifting and flipping sections to make the best use of the material. Each step from cutting to the final stitch was slow and methodical. I couldn’t run a line of stitches in that soft flannel until I had practiced over and over on scrap material. I practiced threading and unthreading the machine. I was itching to get to sewing the real thing, so when my mom was gone for the afternoon, I set up the machine and began. I wasn’t sure where to start, so I started at the top. When the triangles didn’t quite match up, I just crumpled the fabric and stitched faster. After two hours of increasingly desperate stitching, I stopped to examine my work. The right sleeve jutted off the shoulder at a strange angle. The left sleeve shot up at the back and then dipped awkwardly toward the front. The front of the nightgown was shorter than the back. Mom made me tear it out and sew it again, and again.
I never learned to sew well, but I did learn an important life lesson: if you practice the skills and plan out the steps, the process will have a much greater chance for success.
During the past few years, I’ve tried to put that understanding into practice. Before writing the first formal essay with my seventh-grade students, I backed up and worked on their skills. We read good paragraphs and analyzed the structure. Next we transitioned to the formal essay structure. We learned what a thesis statement is and practiced writing strong ones. We cleared up the difference between facts and opinions, and practiced citing facts to support opinions. We then utilized process writing, practicing each step of prewriting, drafting, revising, and editing before final publication. In that process we broke up the parts of the essay, experimenting with different styles of introductions and conclusions. We critically read model essays on the same topic as our own before we revised. It was a long process. We took more than two weeks to write just one essay, but it was worth it.
Every essay was proficient by state writing standards. (I couldn’t say that of my earlier years of teaching the essay.) Although it took significantly longer to write our first essay, it was well worth the time. The most critical understandings were solid, so transfer to other writing structures was easy. After that first essay, my students were able to successfully apply the principles of process writing in my class as well as others.
So one more time my mother was right. Slowing down to really learn the skills and critical concepts in the early stages of learning facilitates competency and rapid transfer later on. I can’t say that my first nightgown won any medals at the county fair, but I did learn a critical lesson. Today my students are learning the basic skills of expository writing before they jump into a full-blown essay, and they are finding success the first time rather than after repeated failures and rewrites. Perhaps that’s the lesson Mom intended for me to learn all along. After all, Mother is nearly always right.
Michelle S. George is a language arts middle school teacher in Orofino, Idaho. She has a B.A. in English and secondary certification in English, reading, and journalism. Michelle has been teaching seventh and eighth grade for 20 years, and still loves going to school, as a teacher and a student. She has published a variety of lesson plans and written several award-winning grants.