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Photograph from Teacher Workshop January 2024

The Power of Slowing Down

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This blog post is by Abby Krolik of the Library of Congress.

Slowing down can feel like a luxury, especially in a classroom, with pressure to get through what feels like mountains of material in just 180 days. Yet, participants in the Library’s professional development workshops often note slowing down as one of the most valuable strategies they take away. Taking time to immerse in a topic allows learners’ brains to fully process the information. Going beyond first impressions makes room for nuance and wondering. All of this enriches learning and understanding.

Primary sources lend themselves particularly well to slow and careful observation. Each source contains layers of information, from the overall impression to the little clues that hint at the creator’s values and beliefs. With each new detail discovered, new questions bubble to the surface. Investigators of every kind go through this process to reach their discoveries—whether it’s a detective, a historian, a scientist, or anyone who conducts research or solves puzzles.

Careful observation  can be incorporated into any classroom.

  • In science, observation is a key task for understanding the world around us. Students can pore over public health data to spot patterns in how certain diseases spread.
  • Math classes can take time to look carefully at a graph or chart from this primary source set to understand the calculations that went into it and how that information is translated visually.
  • In English/Language Arts, students can examine drafts of a poem, such as Langston Hughes’ Ballad of Booker T. What do the author’s notes and changes suggest about how they wanted to communicate?
  • In social studies, looking carefully at an artifact, such as a 16th century map of the world, can excite questions for further research.
  • In art or music classes, spending time with a song or portrait can reveal layers of meaning that would have been missed otherwise.

At the Library recently, teachers from a range of classrooms slowed down with a photograph currently on display in the exhibition, Not An Ostrich & Other Images from America’s Library.

Woman holding a broom and a mop standing in front of an American Flag
Washington, D.C. Government Charwoman. Also known as American Gothic. Gordon Parks, 1942

They took in the image and then shared what they were noticing with the group.

  • The mop is in focus while the background is blurry.
  • The image is in black and white.

Reflections and wonderings soon entered the mix.

  • The person looks posed—not natural.
  • The woman has an “inscrutable” expression on her face.
  • The flag in the background is backward—why?

The teachers then explored directions they could go in with their learners.

  • “…[S]tep inside the characters’ perspectives and write an “I am” poem, a speech… a dialog with another character, [or] a skit…”
  • “I would like to start off the whole unit of study with a provocation. …I don’t want to tell them what our new social studies unit is about. I want the student’s wonderings and questions after looking at the maps to drive our inquiry…”

Afterward, participants shared how they felt about the experience…

  • “…[I]t was a helpful reminder not only of the value of slowing down but also of testing hypotheses and ideas as we observe and discuss together.”
  • “The photo itself was perfect for studying and slowing down. It is deceptively simple and involves a plethora of subjects while having few compositing elements.”
  • “As a science teacher, I’m excited to incorporate some of the primary sources to illustrate the consequences of human activity on our environment and for students [to] observe and critique these moments in time.”
  • “I can now see the power of using primary sources, and with careful scaffolding, they can be accessible to younger learners.”

How can slowing down support the learning goals in your classroom?

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