We had two weeks from the time school closed to the re-opening fully online. Over those two weeks, several questions about learning and my students swam in my head: How will we all stay connected? How can I keep engagement going – socially, cognitively, and emotionally? What supports do students need to learn new apps; which apps best support interaction, collaboration and feedback? Should I keep doing the same units we had already begun? Should we read and write about our COVID-19 experiences and this new world? How will I run the workshop model? Each one of these questions tugged at me, shifting my instruction, assessments and, in some cases, content for online teaching.
Pondering these questions was one of the gifts of COVID-19. They provoked me to revisit my core beliefs – that learning is social, it should be rooted in relevant, authentic content, it is about critical thinking and community, it’s centered on students doing the reading, writing, thinking and talking, and learning is in service of growing humans who are critical, savvy consumers and producers of story. I wondered, how might I keep these core beliefs alive, online in an engaging way? And, to be honest, it was a bit of a streetfight to get there through the changes, the fear, the unknown as we shifted to online learning. But mostly the fight was in letting go — letting go of my own expectations for what we achieved during in person learning; I found I had to cut back by 75% to be able to manage this massive instructional shift while implementing my beliefs. Once I accepted this new reality, I was better able to bring my core beliefs to life in a virtual world. As we get ready for Round Two of COVID teaching and learning in public schools, here is what I want to remember:
Learning is social; kids need work time together, and I can help scaffold those experiences in a way that engages kids socially, emotionally and cognitively. Prior to March 13, 2020 my students engaged in daily discourse about their learning. We had grown a culture of talking to learn as a community. So I was shocked that my students didn’t want to talk about their thinking when we met in live virtual classes. Many wouldn’t turn on their videos (and I didn’t force this). We had had such a rich culture for discussion through Socratic seminars, table talks, shared reflections, and there was something about online live meetings that took this energy out of our classroom. After various trial and errors, I’ve learned a few things.
Start class talking about something super personal to the group.
I used collaborative Pear Deck slide questions like “Place of dot anywhere on the map you would travel if you could right now.” or “How are you feeling today?” I would play a quick Kahoot. This is not how I typically begin a class in person. But this instructional shift got kids warmed up a little bit, helped us to remember who we were. In essence, we had to get to know each other again, and play like we often do in the beginning of the year.
Invite small group discussion.
When we shifted to academic talk, a more effective practice was putting kids into small groups for discussion. We succeeded in two ways: first, I asked the learning specialist teacher teacher and speech therapist (who were already in this class) to each take a heterogeneous group of kids for a text based discussion. This allowed learners to be in a group of ten or fewer. Over the course of three weeks, these 6th graders talked more each week due to this routine and practice. In a different class of 7th graders, I offered a choice between small group discussion with the requirement being you had to talk during the virtual class, or students could give a presentation of their ideas through an infographic or newscast. After weeks of silence in virtual meetings, surprisingly, most students signed up for the small group discussion. While there were very long periods of wait time at the beginning of each discussion, once the talk got going, students talked to the end of the class. Even in adult meetings, I’ve noticed 1-2 minutes of silence in online discussion. We really have to wait for it, and encourage students that it is ok to share.
Provide preparation time before oral sharing.
I also figured out that students needed practice to form their words before talking about them online, as a scaffold for better online discussion. In the classroom, this is also true, but often, in the past, I set up talking first, then writing. However, online, kids did better talking when they wrote first. When I shared this with a colleague, she suggested that perhaps these early teens felt like talking in a virtual meeting was akin to presenting in a YouTube video or being on camera. Being online was more of a performance, with the whole class listening and watching you. Thus, rehearsal mattered and helped! This made sense to me. To give students this written practice, I used synchronous Pear Deck lessons or online discussion prompts first, then moved them to discussion in online meetings.
Use time wisely.
Another shift to support student interaction and connection, was flexing my workshop. During online teaching as a middle school teacher, I had two 30-minute time slots a week with each of my classes. At first I met two times a week, but this was overwhelming to kids. Plus, I knew that attending a live class for direct instruction was going to lose kids fast — I needed to make the live meeting be more than me talking “at” kids explaining the week’s task. Thus I decided my direct instruction – my focus lesson – would be at the beginning of the week via a screencast or an asynchronous Pear Deck Lesson. And the second 30-minute meeting in the week would be a live class meeting with the focus on interaction, collaboration and discussion. In between these, I offered office hours for one-on-one conferences – students could come to my office hours by choice, and at times by invitation. It wasn’t a daily workshop, but it was a workshop over the course of the week.
Invite meaningful work.
Finally the work I was asking kids to do still needed to matter. While I had several online plug and go programs at my fingertips, I just couldn’t go there. I’d lose cognitive engagement. I was already so sad that we had lost time together as well as some meaningful performance tasks I had planned. I refused to lose meaningful work. But I also knew there were important realities before us to think about. The first two weeks of online learning, we paused our units and explored the impact of COVID on ourselves and our communities. We explored how various ways writers process the world around them though blogs, poetry, memes, and comics. We journaled. We selected, revised and published our best ones. Students and I were able to ground ourselves in our new realities, but also choose a genre that helped us express COVID experience. All the while, I introduced our new online systems and apps. After this onboarding period, we went back to our units that had been planned through backwards design. My sixth graders finished writing their own amazing hero’s journey fiction stories. And my seventh graders finished researching and presenting their arguments about impacts of the digital revolution on our lives and whether or not we have a responsibility to do anything about these impacts.
As we move forward into Round Two, my school will most likely be offering blended learning and, at some point, full online learning. I plan to keep working to ensure that my beliefs and practices match, no matter the instructional space I hold, by having students write before talking, growing small group discussion structures and routines, and building ways to connect to each other. During wait time, I’ll be encouraging, kind and patient. I’ll ask colleagues to help with small breakout groups. I’ll continue to design units that are meaningful and up to the task of growing students to be engaged, curious consumers and producers of story. I’ll keep working little by little on producing focus lessons in video format and building structures for work time and debrief. I’ve got a lot to learn about blended learning and using these videos, but I think this will really allow for more one-on-one and small group work time, not to mention give students more autonomy and agency. And I’ll start the school year knowing, after two months of crash and burn last year, that I can. I’ve got a vision now for how this might work – it is a vision for holding on to my beliefs, while I shift my instructional format.
Post author Jennifer Brauner has worked in public schools ranging from a paraprofessional in special education and math to teaching middle school social studies and English language arts. She has worked at a district level and as a consultant for PEBC and EL Education. Jenn brings forward these experiences as a classroom teacher once again, teaching 6th and 7th grade reading and Language Arts. She continues to learn and grow with PEBC as a classroom lab host.
Inspired to try this approach in your classroom? Check out two examples of Jenn’s recent lessons