Shifting to a Lego mindset to teach writing during a remote learning pandemic

Since my kids have been home from school, they have reinvested themselves in their basement Lego worlds comprised of an embarrassing number of Lego sets. The kids disappear for an hour every now and then and build, and they don’t really need my help but sometimes appreciate my approval. That’s the kind of mindset that I’d love for my students to have as we think about writing in this online world. Dad’s not here–now I can finally build what I want to. 

Coates family basement Lego world

In the best of circumstances it is difficult to teach writing. To do it online for the past six weeks has felt at times impossible. But as I look back I can see how it’s forced a few shifts that have helped push me closer to a Lego mindset as we consider how to prepare for an uncertain fall.

More frequent, shorter tasks: In class we tend to focus on timed tasks or processed tasks. My favorites, though, tend to be the pieces that take a day or two. They’re often more polished and experimental than timed pieces and more lively and raw than processed pieces. As we moved online, my goal was for students to continue to read and write independently each week. Here is how I tried to manage the writing portion:

  • Week 1: Writing Challenge 1 (300 words)
  • Week 2: Writing Challenge 2 (300 words)
  • Week 3: book club discussion boards (2 posts+replies)
  • Week 4: poetry discussion Padlets (3 responses)
  • Week 5: Writing Challenge 3 (300 words)
  • Week 6: informal independent reading reflection (personal email)

I tried to find lengths and formats that allowed for a sustained, multi-paragraph thought but were still short enough to ensure weekly completion without overwhelming a student facing a list of tasks from seven different teachers. 

More choice: Kelly Gallagher and Penny Kittle recently published a terrific piece called “The curse of helicopter teaching” in ASCD. In it they argue, “When students haven’t been required to wrestle with difficult writing decisions–and when much of that decision making has been done by the teacher–they lose their sense of agency and their confidence as writers.” Teaching remotely definitely thwarts my helicopter tendencies. I’ve tried to take advantage of this in each of the writing challenges by giving a bigger variety of prompt options (in topic as well as in mode). In addition, I worked to bring in structural choices to push the thinking: based on the topic I chose, what structure makes sense? I think this lines up pretty well with what Angela Faulhaber said about focusing on content before form…what you say should drive how you say it but it’s hard to get there in class sometimes if we’re all writing an argument essay. Since the tasks were short, they were a little more willing to experiment. See a sample task here.

More challenges: This idea comes from John Warner (see his article “I’m never assigning an essay again”), though he calls them “writing problems.” The idea is to give some parameters that foster experimentation rather than a rubric that restricts choices. It’s a narrower focus for the writer, which I think works well remotely. For example, in the first task I challenged students to focus on the specificity in a reflective piece about their Covid-19 experience. For the second Writing Challenge they chose a specific structure to explore (deductive, inductive, anecdote, listicle). The idea is that by narrowing to one aspect of writing they’ll have more space to consider their decision-making. This also allows for more targeted feedback on my end. 

John Warner’s newest book has many writing challenges/problems to explore.

More personalized options: Each task I’ve given remotely has included an option that allows students to focus on their current personal experience. For some it’s clearly therapeutic. For others it’s a chance to document their experience. It’s an easier entry point if they’re home alone and stuck than if we used a traditional academic prompt. But they can still practice specificity and structure; they can still work on adding complexity to their observations. I’ve had to loosen up but it’s empowered them in positive ways. Examples we’ve tried:

  • from Writing Challenge 1: What was the moment that you knew things were not normal, that this was going to be different? How has your life been disrupted? What’s been good, bad, memorable?
  • from Writing Challenge 2: Describe something you’ve been learning about one (or more) of the following: yourself, your family, remote learning, politics, science, your faith, a new hobby or interest. This piece is more personal in nature, so you’ll likely tell a story as you did in the college essay.

More feedback, fewer grades: Instead of grades, then, the focus in our remote learning environment is on feedback (see Sarah Krajewski’s recent tips on feedback here). I try to articulate what they did well and what I noticed about their attempts toward meeting the challenge. Essentially, and I think this is true for in-class writing, too, it’s not about giving more grades but giving more ungraded opportunities to build and experiment. I was also really challenged by this feedback article from Harvard Business Review to reconsider what helps and what hurts, especially if the feedback I give is not face-to-face.

Online writing has got to be more like the end of the first Lego movie, when Will Ferrell realizes that if his son has some freedom about what he can build and is allowed to recombine and go beyond the direction packets, he finds more joy and ownership over the experience. Our feedback can help cultivate this kind of mindset in the writing process whether it’s online or live. 

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He has really grown a lot this year from being allowed to post some reflective pieces on Three Teachers Talk. His first Lego set was the classic 1980-Something Space Guy set. @MHSCoates

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