Category Archives: Readers Writers Workshop

Positives in the Pandemic Part Two: Managing “Research” via Distance Learning

Argumentative research is a skill our freshman English team has always built up to and focused on at the end of the school year. We had planned to start this process in April and were thrown a curveball when COVID-19 arrived and shut everything down. Instead of throwing out all the work we have done, we regrouped and revised our approach to “research” at home. Here are the steps we took to make “research” manageable for our students.

Step One: Change the topic

We had originally planned to have the students research teen issues and argue which one has had the greatest impact on teen’s lives today, but with all the struggles our students are facing we didn’t want them to research that at home without the mental health supports that our counselors and social workers provide when needed. So we changed it around and had them research something more “positive.”

Our new topic: Positives in the Pandemic

Step Two: Narrow Their Topic Choices

Instead of giving students free rein, we gathered resources around four topics that continually popped up in the news and on social media and created DBQ style documents to help them manage the research they were expected to do on their own. While this scaffolding decreased the actual “research” our students had to do, we did challenge students to find a source on their own using the LibGuide created by our school librarian.

Step Three: Chunk and Keep the Process Manageable

After seeing our students struggle to manage big projects in other classes, we decided we needed to break down the process into even smaller manageable chunks that would hopefully be easier for students to follow: chunks by date and process step, video directions, models, and a lot of Google Meet options for students to get extra help.

It worked! The students spent the past three weeks synthesizing the documents and organizing all their ideas into their essays. This was the best work they have submitted all year and all done from home.

As I reflect on this final writing process piece, there is a lot I learned and will apply to the classroom next year. Whether we are in school or teaching remotely, making work more manageable, and providing additional sets of video directions (to review when they are away from the classroom) will be the new norm. As you think about these last few months of school, what ways did you make research or big projects more manageable? What will you continue to add to your teaching strategies next year?

Melissa Sethna lives and teaches with her husband in Mundelein, ILOn a regular school day, she is so busy coaching teachers and planning professional development (along with co-teaching her English class). Under this mandatory school closure time, when she isn’t helping her colleagues, she is catching up on her to-read list, binge-watching Veronica Mars, Northern Rescue, & Never Have I Ever, and making time to workout at a normal hour. You can follow her on Goodreads and Twitter @msethna23.

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

Free Digital Book Resources for Teens – Booktalking during a Pandemic

Independent reading always matters.

Student access and student choice are important now more than ever, so it’s time to share what is working!

Before our school went to distance learning, we could see it coming. We knew it wasn’t a matter of if, but of when, so the teachers in my department made extra space and time for our students to go to the school library during English classes to check out books. It was a good idea and I’m glad we did it, but those books are running out. Many students have read through their check outs and then some, and are looking for something new.

During regular school days, I always shared a new book in the form of a book talk. It’s hard to keep that up without our classroom library right at our fingertips, but it’s still important.

That’s where the online book talk comes into play.

I’ve been posting and talking up books every day of our online learning time. I have tried to find books that are free and relevant so that there aren’t any unnecessary barriers for students.

One resource that I’ve particularly loved is Epic! because they have so many graphic novels, and right now their content is free for teachers and students until June 30.

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They have more than just graphic novels, and their collection is very kid-friendly.

Another one I love is Simon Teen’s offerings of lots of current YA lit. They rotate their free offerings each month, and most of their content is the full read.

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I’ve definitely used these options for my virtual book talks. In fact, today I’m book talking Want.

Some of my students have discovered that listening to books is more appealing to them than traditional reading, so audio books are more and more popular in my classes. Audible has made their content free until the end of the school year, so it’s a great resource. They’ve got titles for all ages, from classics to teen lit all the way down to picture books for little ones.

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Some other good resources are

  1. the new Harry Potter World website.
  2. Time for Kids
  3. Project Gutenberg
  4. Bartleby.com
  5. Scribd

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Harry Potter

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Time for Kids

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Project Gutenberg

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Bartleby

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Scribd

This is certainly not a comprehensive list. There are many, many resources out there for our students and teachers. These are a few that I am familiar with and I like. I hope they are helpful for you and your students. Feel free to leave more ideas and resources in the comments below!

Julie has been teaching secondary language arts for more than twenty years, spending the first fifteen in rural Central Oregon, four in Amman, Jordan, and the most recent school years in Managua, Nicaragua. 

Follow her on twitter @SwinehartJulie

The Right Kind of Feedback

This morning, I opened my email to find that a student of mine was the topic of a long chain of emails. She is a senior that has not completed any work throughout our 6-plus weeks of distance learning, so she is failing every class for the 4th marking period. As I scrolled through the various responses, I noticed a pattern. There was no mention of her mental or physical health, or any thoughts about her current situation at home. Grades were the concern, not her.

Are grades themselves all that vital to a student’s success? I’m going to argue no. From what I’ve seen, grades often create more problems for both teachers and students. Students have been taught to rely on them. That at the end of the day, a number matters most. Instead, grades are hindering learning. I’ve watched talented writers do a minimal amount of work, knowing they are capable of so much more, but still earn 100s. Other students have jumped numerous hurdles only to be kicked in the shins with 65s. Why? Because the rubric said so. Yes, our public education system perpetuates the problem, but I think there are ways that we teachers can push back. We can teach our students to value the learning, and it all starts with the right kind of feedback.

Think about one of those days you returned pieces of graded writing that you devoted countless hours to. You left those margin filled with ink. Suggestions galore! Do your students even read the comments at that point? Take them to heart? I doubt it. By then, the assignment is over and done with. The guidance, nudges, and praise we give our students throughout the writing process is where the learning takes place, not at the end when an assignment is returned.

This is where conferring comes in. Though we may have to get creative in our techniques, conferring can still take place during distance learning. First, a time to check-in. How are you? I miss you. Can I help you with anything? Then we can slowly pull–sometimes drag–out the various talents hidden inside every child by offering up a brief amount of time for more chat about the piece of writing. What was your goal with the piece? What do you need help with? We search for a place of beauty to highlight and an area that, with a nudge, could inspire growth.

So, back to my senior. We spoke today. I miss you. How are you? Her response shook me. She needs help, not a reminder about her failing grades. We shouldn’t be worrying about a number, but instead finding new ways to motivate and help each child.

This week, I’m setting up private Zoom conferences with each of my students. We will meet for 10-15 minutes sometime within the next two weeks, and just talk. I’ll listen, question, and coach. I’ll highlight accomplishments and encourage risk-taking. Oh, and grades? Yeah, I know I still need to give one. That will come from a discussion between me and each student at the end of the year.

Sarah Krajewski teaches 9th and 12th grade English and Journalism near Buffalo, New York.  She is currently in her 18th year of teaching, and hopes to get back to her classroom soon.  You can follow Sarah on Twitter @shkrajewski and her blog can be viewed at http://skrajewski.wordpress.com/.

Walk and Confer: Another Way Back

The eleven year old (11 yo) and I–and sometimes the 8 yo–have been going on a lot of walks. Usually initiated by me, he readily (and sometimes the 8 yo but usually if we scooter) accepts. On these walks, I mostly listen. I’ve learned much about Star Wars, the Percy Jackson series, the Harry Potter series, LEGOS, Minecraft, the history of baseball, birds… and whatever else he’s been reading and viewing and creating. As we walk, shoulder to shoulder (he’s getting taller!), looking at the trees and for birds, we connect. But I’ve also discovered that I can ask questions. Yesterday 11 yo offered his opinion that books are really preferable to movies because the movies always leave out or change key details (yep, full on book nerds in this house). So I asked him why he thought the movie makers would choose to leave out details. He launched into an animated explanation involving the Harry Potter books versus the movies. Our walking and talking, at times it seems, has been connecting and conferring. We’ve been moving together toward shared meaning. 

This kind of meaningful movement may be just what we need when school resumes. When my 8 yo learned about her first class meeting over Google Meet, she was delighted to learn that she too would get to be the little box on the screen. I laughed, but it’s heart-wrenching. We’ve all become little boxes on the screen. And the limited dimensionality of that is an effect of this shared trauma. When school resumes, then, how do we move together toward shared meaning with the now larger than life persons gathered between our four walls?

We move. We listen. We talk. We engage our learners in the walking reading or writing conference. Instead of pulling up the stool alongside the desk or sitting across the table from one another, business-as-usual acts that might now evoke anxiety and fear after months of social distancing, we walk. Walking will allow us to fall into rapport (body mirroring), to find an easiness with our body language that will make it easier to talk and to connect. Feeling scared or anxious can make it difficult to look someone in the eye, and walking removes that pressure. And knowing that learners will not only need to re-learn how to share a physical space with our bodies and with our words, everyone in the room can walk with a partner as we walk and confer with individual students or pairs of students. We can use questions or prompts (on cards to flip through) or post around the building; here and here are a few resources around walking and talking. Our typical conferring prompts remain valuable, too. Moving and conferring is another way back. Not just to each other. But to meaning and creativity and possibility and hope.

In my head, I keep hearing the words of Virginia Wolff: “Better than these walks…”. These walks with my 11 yo and 8 yo may be what I remember most about this time in quarantine. Better than these walks as learners will be when we can be shoulder to shoulder, connecting, moving together toward renewal. 

Kristin Jeschke likes to move (unless her nose is in a book). She serves an active and caring staff as an instructional coach at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

 

Positives from this Pandemic

I wasn’t sure what to write for this post. My teaching life has been thrown up in the air since we started eLearning in my school on March 17th. I thought a month after my last post, I would have it together and be able to share something amazing that my students and I are working on. That is the opposite from the truth. eLearning has been tough these past few weeks and finding the balance between work and home when you can’t leave work to go home is overwhelming. To keep things light I am trying to find positives in my class and at home. My hope for you is that you are able to find positives (even glimmers of hope) in your life too during this dark time. Here are just a few glimmers….

Our students are reading. Not everyone (and if I am being real honest, only 43% actually logged their pages last week on our class reading log.). But, there are students who complain about reading during our ten minutes everyday in class, that are taking the time to record the books they are reading. We built up this reading habit and now students are doing it on their own!

Students miss us. I miss my students terribly and I worry about them while they are at home. When we get emails or Remind texts from them asking how we are doing, or just checking in, that brings a smile to my face. The time we spent trying to build relationships with them first is working and students know that we care.

More and more students are starting to do work. I am not sure if our kids are an anomaly or not, but it has been a slow go getting students to be motivated at home to do their work independently. I celebrate every day that a student completes even a portion of an assignment in our class. Students need to know that we will celebrate them for every little thing they do and encourage them to keep at it!

Students are taking feedback and revising their work. With eLearning I thought that students would put the bare minimum into their work. Boy did I sell my students short. I am so proud of our students. My co-teacher and I have been giving feedback in their Google Docs and students are asking questions and taking time to make changes to improve the work they turn in. Even in this time of struggle, they care enough to keep working on something until they are happy with their product.

Self Care has become a priority. I am encouraging my students to take care of themselves (getting outside, getting exercise, journaling, etc.), and am making it a priority for my family. There is never an excuse now not to workout at some point in the day, and when the weather is nice, I push my husband (who is also a teacher) to get up and take a walk outside with our dogs to get our daily dose of vitamin D. Our school day sometime goes later in the afternoon/evenings to meet the needs of students, but life has been more manageable taking these breaks.

Family time has been rekindled. Between school and our boys’ athletic commitments, our family was lucky to have dinner together on Sundays. We spent many evenings where I had dinner with one kid while my husband ate with the other. COVID-19 has allowed my family time together every night. We are cooking together, #supportinglocal restaurants (especially those owned by families we know), baking treats, binging TV shows (#TigerKing, #VirginRiver, & #TheOffice are my new favorites) and playing games with one another.

As you reflect on this “COVID-19” time, what are some of the positives that you are celebrating in your life right now? Please share in the comments below. I would love to celebrate along with you.

Melissa Sethna lives and teaches with her husband in Mundelein, ILOn a regular school day she is so busy coaching teachers and planning professional development (along with co-teaching her English class)Under this mandatory school closure time, when she isn’t helping her colleagues, she is catching up on her to-read list, listening to “Today’s Country” on Apple Music, and making time to workout at a normal hour. You can follow her on Goodreads and Twitter @msethna23.

Connecting With Students During Distance Learning by Shelby Scoffield

About a week ago, I adopted a cat. I named her Covie. 

I have no idea why I bought her. I am not a cat person. I am not even an animal person. But there is something about having a ball of fluff sitting on your lap when you are staring at your computer teaching via webcam all day long. 

Because of my impulse buy, I have learned something about myself. I like people. I like talking, socializing, and connecting with them. So much so, that I adopted a cat to fill that void. 

If I am craving some sort of connection to an outside human being, I can only imagine what my students are feeling at this time. 

So how can we help our students still feel some sort of human connection? 

We can connect through social media. I have always used Twitter in the classroom and now I rely on it more and more. I am constantly posting articles for students to read, prompts for them to respond to, or book recommendations. Doing this not only cultivates a sense of classroom community, it lets students know that they still have a teacher who is invested in their education. Recently I even created a classroom SnapChat. Students enjoy the challenges that I send out to the group, and better yet, they enjoy seeing pictures of me being goofy. 

We can connect through book chats. A colleague of mine does a daily YouTube live stream where she recommends books that students should be reading. Another colleague of mine has developed a virtual book tasting activity for her classes. Regardless of what you do, talking about books with your students gets a conversation going. Better yet, it might even inspire them to pick up a book instead of binge watching T.V.

We can connect through our virtual classrooms. After holding one of my virtual classes, I have started asking a student to stay “after class.” I ask them how they are doing, how their families are doing, and how I can help them be successful during distance learning. 

We can connect through writing. Now more than ever, I am seeing the importance of letting students choose what they want to write about. By letting them have this power of choice, students are able to express opinions, frustrations, and accomplishments. This can be done in something as simple as an assignment, or a virtual entrance or exit ticket.

— We can connect by showing them we are human. The other day I was holding a class session and my new cat knocked a box off the shelf. After the box came crashing down, my students were not interested at all in the material we were discussing. Instead, they wanted to see my cat and talk about her “weird” name.

Not too long after that, my nephew started screaming in another room while I was teaching the same class. In my haste to get out of my room, I ran into a shelf. Yes, the wonderful moment was broadcast to all 35 students who were watching me. Distance Learning is not very graceful or elegant. Students are going to see a side of us that we normally don’t reveal in the classroom. However, by letting students see this human side of us, we are connecting with them and letting them know that it is okay to talk about “normal things.”

How are you establishing a connection with your students during distance learning? I would love to hear your ideas!

Shelby Scoffield is a teacher at Mountain House High School in Mountain House, CA. She has recently discovered that she really likes cats, macaroons, and the Hamilton soundtrack. You can follow her on Twitter @sscoffield1.

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