How Long is Too Long?

I recently wrote this post for The Math Collective blog and am re-posting here, because, well, when you only write a blog post every 6 months, you want to put it in as many places as possible!

“Keeping kids on the rug” is kind of a thing in elementary schools.  Since the dawn of, well, rugs in elementary classrooms, teachers, administrators and coaches have been pondering the length of time that is appropriate to keep kids in the meeting area for a lesson.  How long is too long? Should a math lesson be 8, 10, 13 minutes long? We seem to universally agree that 20 minutes is too long. Yet I doubt there’s a teacher I know, myself included, who hasn’t kept kids on the rug for 20 minutes or more. There’s just so much to teach!

A typical day in my classroom could easily look like this:  The kids gather on the rug for the math lesson.  Everyone is settled and attentive.  I start out with a little warm-up, kids are engaged, we’re feeling good.  I move into the big idea for the day.  Mild fidgeting ensues. We’re about 8 minutes in. Maybe a turn and talk will help, I think to myself.   After the turn and talk, I want to show them what one solution path might look like.  But I want to show it with unifix cubes first.  Noah and Eric have started poking each other, and Alysia is fully reading a book from the classroom library at this point.  “Alysia, can you make 18 with these cubes?” I ask, trying to pull her in. I’m sweating a little bit. We’re at like 12 minutes right now and I haven’t even done one example with them yet.

ontherugWe work through one problem with the cubes and I think they can see it. I think like 12 of them can see it. But there are 14 other kids in the class! I’m not sure if they can see it.  Let me try one more with the cubes, I think to myself (now arriving: 15 minute mark).  After the second example, I feel like I’ve gotten maybe four more kids on board.  At the same time, at least five more kids are completely checked out.  Alysia has moved on to Chapter Two of the book after her brief stint as “18 maker.”  I am definitely sweating.  

“OK guys, let’s just take a quick look at the problem set together,” I say.  They take out the workbooks they’ve been dutifully sitting on for 20 minutes.  We read the directions out loud.  About two kids total are paying attention at this point.  I am 100 percent sure that they’re not going to know what to do when they go off.  At the same time, it’s been 22 minutes, which is officially WPTTGOTR (Way Past Time to Get Off the Rug).  “OK, go on back to your seats and get started,” I mutter in defeat.

I know why all of this happened, and happened repeatedly, in my classrooms.  It’s a very simple, very honorable reason:  I wanted to make sure they learned.  

But aren’t there other ways that kids can learn, beyond sitting on the rug for a lesson?  I knew that there were.  I just had to let go of some control over the learning, and have some faith that learning could happen even when I wasn’t right there to see it.  At first, I tried just telling myself something I wanted to believe, but didn’t totally believe yet:  that the lesson is just one opportunity for kids to learn, not THE opportunity for kids to learn.  I experimented with giving kids lots and lots of time to work on an interesting and appropriately problematic task. I walked around. I conferred. Kids were engaged. Kids were learning. I tried structures like partner coaching that provide kids time to work independently and talk about their thinking in small groups and partnerships.  I overheard conversations kids were having when they didn’t know I was listening. They were actually talking about math.  I started to believe it.  I didn’t need to keep them on the rug until they got it.  I needed to give them something to think about, and let them go think about it, with tools and partners and good problems, for a long time.

There is some anxiety that comes with letting go of control.  I admit that it can feel a little scary to send kids off the rug, knowing that they don’t totally “get it” yet.  So much of our self-worth as teachers is tied up in students understanding.  But there is also great freedom and relief in admitting that I, the teacher, am not the sole nexus of learning.  Learning can happen even when we’re not there to witness it.  If we believe this is true, our work as teachers can be directed towards creating opportunities for kids to learn in all of these different ways — from us, yes, but also from rich, meaningful tasks, from studying the work of their peers, from having time to consider new ideas alone, and from having time and space to explore and grow ideas with their math communities.  


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