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Distance Learning Writing-Reading Workshop

By Lauren Heimlich Foley

“Thanks for keeping things as normal as possible and for being positive. It’s helped me. I know this hasn’t been easy for you either.”

Kasey, an eighth-grade student, said this to me as she left one Friday afternoon in November 2019. Earlier that week, our school was rocked by the unimaginable–a student attempted to take their life in one of our school bathrooms. 

As a teacher and as a human, this November experience was one of the most difficult things I have ever faced. And, something I never thought I would deal with. As an educator, I had to figure out the best way to help my students cope with the situation while at the same time continue teaching. “Keeping things as normal as possible” helped me and helped my students.

Now, in March 2020, I am faced with another unimaginable teaching experience: distance learning. While I feel more prepared and less rocked than in November, I again needed to figure out how to keep things “as normal as possible.” When our school closed, my classes were in the middle of drafting their text dependent analysis core, a district requirement. Luckily, the day before we left, I told my students, “If we move to distance learning, our core will be put on hold until we return, and we will move into our next unit, Self-Selected Writing (SSW).” For more information on SSW, click here.

In this post, I want to share how I have moved my writing-reading workshop and our self-selected writing to an online course through Canvas (my district’s learning management system). Below are the main components of our workshop that I am implementing this week in order to keep things consistent:

  • Time to read and write
  • Mini-lessons
  • Quick write inspirations
  • Choice
  • One-on-one conferencing
  • Student sharing and collaborating

Daily Plans

To streamline directions, my district asked teachers to post daily updates with the date, topic, overview, tasks, estimated time, and links. While I have swapped out learning targets and agenda to overview and tasks, the overall look of my daily page has stayed intact.

I am also trying to keep our weekly schedule similar even though students should be working on English for only 30 minutes each day. On Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, I allotted time for reading, writing, mini-lessons, and quick write inspirations. Thursday is dedicated to reading workshop, providing students with additional independent reading; time to work with their books in various ways; and the opportunity to share their ideas with classmates. I wanted to digitally replicate our workshop feel as best as I could.

Friday always focuses on SSW with style, craft, and grammar mini-lessons plus workshop time for students to write, conference, and collaborate. Because of distance learning’s limited time, I took out the minilesson. However, if students wanted to read for 10 minutes, they were welcomed to do so. For student conversations, I created discussion board groups based on their table groups in class. They could share their work with their classmates and collaborate through Canvas. At the end of their 30 minutes, students were invited to complete two tasks: submit your weekly quick writing (or SSW) to the assignment for feedback and share your current independent reading book title and page number.

(Since my district went offline on Friday, our SSW day will be moved to Monday, March 23rd)

Below are pictures of my lesson plans for March 17th, March 18th, March 19th, and March 23rd.

Mini-lessons and Directions

PowerPoint has always worked to share text excerpts and mini-lesson notes with my students. I like how easy it is to add and move pictures, and the recording option comes in handy. With distance learning, PowerPoint has helped me compile and share materials. As per our district’s directions, all lessons should review and enrich student knowledge. This approach supports Penny Kittle and Kelly Gallagher’s “laps” and “spiral back” practice in 180 Days since we are returning to and extending previously learned concepts.

In our Tuesday mood mini-lesson, I selected a passage from The Children of Virtue and Vengeance (you should read this series!) that illustrates a change in time and mood. For Wednesday, I selected another passage from The Children of Virtue and Vengeance that used imagery. While we analyzed mood and imagery earlier this school year, we have not done so in this capacity. Thursday’s PowerPoint reviewed discussion board expectations and directions. I offered two possible post topics and included student examples of posts and responses. See some of the mini-lesson slides below.

Conferences, Assignments, and Discussion Boards

Reading and writing conferences are vital to our classroom. Being at home, I am missing chatting with my students. To help solve this issue, I turned to Canvas; however, any learning management system, online sharing platform, chat feature, voice recording app, email, etc. will work to digitally conference with your students. On Tuesday and Wednesday, I invited my eighth graders to submit items between the hours of 7:30 am to 2:00 pm for optional feedback and conferencing. Some topics that we discussed were reactions to their independent reading books, their quick writes, answers to or questions about the mini-lessons, and book recommendations.

On Monday’s SSW day, I will ask students to share their writing progress for the week and their book titles and page numbers. In school, I check student reading progress weekly through conferences and page numbers. During distance learning, Thursday’s discussion board replaced my one-on-one and table group conferences so that students and their peers could also talk about books and swap ideas.

With non-graded distance learning assignments and the uncertain circumstances students are facing at home, I cannot control who submits and who does not. Although I have not had one hundred percent participation, 48 students posted to the discussion board on March 19th, and 49 students shared their work during the optional submission days on March 17th  and March 18th. Regardless of participation, my main goal is to offer a “normal” space for students to interact and enjoy their reading and writing.

Closing Thoughts

Even if you have not previously implemented a writing-reading workshop in your class, I believe that this structure or an adapted version of this structure could help you and your students share writing pieces, talk about books, and encourage conversation.

During this past week, I kept returning to Kasey’s words: “Thanks for keeping things as normal as possible.” As I implement distance learning, that is exactly what I am striving to do.

I would love to hear how you are implementing an online writing-reading workshop and what tools you are using to make distance learning a success!

Next week I will share how I am maintaining other classroom practices during distance learning: a moment of pause, daily inspirations, and student leadership.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Mary Buckelew #

    Thank you so much for sharing the translation of your “Brick and Mortar” reading and writing workshop to the online platform. You include so many fantastic ideas and structures! Although I am teaching older students, I can clearly envision from your detailed piece how I can apply some of your ideas and structures to my “new normal,” online teaching. You always amaze me with your insights, lessons, & writing! Many thanks! Mary


    March 21, 2020

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