Repetition is the best teaching tool; I have used this mantra with my students (always repeating it three times for the fun of it) for years. It is an axiom that I've always believed. If we learn a skill and practice it faithfully, it will stay with us. Coaches use the theory when they say, "let's run that play again!" Musicians believe in the fact that perfect practice makes perfect. A speech teacher I know insists that "prior planning prevents poor performance" and encourages with the knowledge that it is the continued repetition of her students' work that gives them such success. But there is something else I've learned recently about repetition: sometimes, repetition is merely redundant. Let me explain...
This summer I thought it might be "fun" to get a summer job. It would also be a way to bring in a little extra money to help with bills and things, so I looked around. I didn't think any employers would really like to hire someone who was only available for a couple of months: why would anyone go to the bother of interviewing, hiring, training, scheduling, and paying someone who was going to be leaving for her full-time job just a little while after you had her trained? Because of this thought, I figured that I should try a temp agency.
So I did. The first week of June I applied at a temp agency here in town, and I was "hired on" because I passed all the computer tests to show that I could do jobs they'd find for me as a clerical temp. Then I waited. And waited. And waited. June passed into July, and still I hadn't been placed anywhere. I had begun to think I never would, and, to be honest, I enjoyed my time off. I slept in every day, stayed up late every night, played on the computer, and took lots of naps. I read books, tried recipes, did some crafts, hung out with friends, and generally let the stress of a hectic school year slide off my back and out of my life.
Then I got the call: the temp agency asked if I were willing to stuff envelopes at a local mailing services center. "Of course!" I said. "I can do that." Therefore, Tuesday morning I showed up at the business, not really sure what I'd be doing, but I was ready to do it. Luckily, my life had given me the practice I'd need to do this job. I remember sitting on the green shag area rug in the basement of our house in Spencer, Iowa helping mom fold, insert, tab, label, and sort Aglow newsletters. I recall helping my dad at KJLY with various mailings for the radio station he worked at in Blue Earth, Minnesota. I also helped Myrna, the school secretary (and uncontested ruler of the roost) when I was in high school, with sundry clerical duties that included mass mailings. I am no novice when it comes to stuffing envelopes and the like.
However, despite that preparation, nothing really prepared me for the absolute dullness of the routine. There I sat with other ladies (who, I'm glad to say, made the monotony of the next few days bearable!), and we began stuffing inserts and letters and brochures into envelopes. First the newsletter, then the brochure, then the labeled order sheet, then the matching labeled return envelope, and--finally!--the labeled mailing envelope all the previous inserts get stuffed into. Over and over again. Also, because there were three labeled parts to the insert, we had to make sure that everything was put in the right place, in the right order, and in a quick manner. This was a large mailing, which is why they hired temps to help. The first day we did all the outside of the US part of the mailing, and we had to physically add stamps, too. A dollar stamp, a ten cent stamp, a two-cent stamp...over and again on thousands of envelopes.
We had a couple fifteen minute breaks and a half-hour lunch (I didn't know I was supposed to bring my lunch on that first day; I was glad I'd had a good breakfast and had some change in my purse so I could buy some snacks from the vending machine), but even with those breaks the constant routine of grabbing a tray of the labeled mailing and envelopes, matching all the inserts and stuffing them began to wear on me. The ladies with me kept it from becoming totally boring as we talked and became acquainted while we kept our hands very busy. We had over 27,000 envelopes to stuff, and that kept us going.
At the end of the first day, I couldn't believe how tired I was. Physically, not mentally. At the end of the second day I had paper cuts on all my fingers. At the end of the third day, I had sore shoulders from the repetitive movement, and I had no idea that sitting in a cushioned rolling chair all day could cause one's bottom to hurt. I felt like I was just an envelope-stuffing robot. Grab, grab, grab, grab, stuff. Grab, grab, grab, grab, look at the clock, stuff. Grab, grab, grab, grab, ouch! paper cut! stuff. Repetition is redundant.
And that's when it hit me. I need to make the repetition in my class meaningful in order for it to be a powerful tool. If my students only read, write, repeat with no imagination or interest coming from them, all that work will have been merely work and not something worthwhile. My content is NOT junk mail that will be fodder for trashcans. My students need to be able to read and write, but I need to remember that repetition is redundant when I see the students in their desks doing yet another worksheet or taking yet another quiz. I need to ask myself if the worksheet or quiz is something that will help them or if it is something that will be just a time filler as they look at the clock and wait for the bell.
So... repetition really IS the best teaching tool... it taught me that 1) I don't want to stuff paper envelopes for a living; I love teaching, even if I do need a break from it at the end of the school year; and 2) my students are the envelopes I'm putting my content into, and I need to make sure that the content is meaningful for them and their futures.