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Distance Learning: Establishing a Work Completion and Grading Policy

By Lauren Heimlich Foley

The last few weeks have felt like a whirlwind blend of late August preparation and early September go time. The amount of new information, last minute changes, and not knowing what tomorrow will bring makes me thankful that I usually only experience the strain of back to school once a year.       

Now in the throes of distance learning—with a scheduled meeting time for each class, priority standards in place, expectations for online behavior, and a revised year-long reading and writing map—one more item came up in my eighth-grade team’s text message thread: a work completion and grading policy.

At the middle grades level, students have a two-and-a-half-hour block of time each week for each class. (First and second period meet on Monday, third and fourth period meet on Tuesday, fifth and sixth period meet on Wednesday, seventh period meets on Thursday. Thursday and Friday offer additional office hour time and independent work time.) During that class period time, teachers are available for real-time virtual office hours, whole-group meetings, small-group meetings, and one-on-one conferences. There is a thirty-minute lesson with up to an additional sixty-minute long-term assignment. Although students are encouraged to complete the work during their period’s time slot, home and personal obligations may make this impossible for students to do. While all students have access to a laptop through our district’s 1:1 initiative, our students have varying levels of responsibilities at home. To help students be as successful as they can be and stay on top of their work, we are asking students to complete each week’s assignments before our next scheduled class time. With our district moving to a Pass/Fail option for the fourth marking period, we want to ensure that our students have the time, guidance, and help to be successful.

Like the start of any new school year, I needed to establish routines and expectations. I have started to do this with Canvas, our learning management system, by maintaining certain key components of our class and creating new routines like our Office Hours One-on-One Discussion Board. Our district asked teachers to develop class guidelines by explaining how distance learning would work within their own classroom. And, while we have a district-wide Pass/Fail grading system in place, my students and their parents needed more information on how this translated to our English classroom.

The science teacher on our eighth-grade team made a grading letter, outlining the expectations and guidelines for distance learning. With a few content-specific tweaks, I adapted it for my English classroom. First, we sent an email blast to all students. Next, we sent an email blast to all parents and guardians. See the emails below. By sending out an email that genuinely hoped students and families were doing well while simultaneously offering insight into how the rest of the school year would work in terms of work completion and grading forged a we-are-working-together-and-we-will-get-through-this bond. Being transparent and upfront with parents and guardians and showing I care for the well-being and success of their students has helped me maintain positive parent-guardian relationships. I sent out the email on Thursday, and I have already received two positive emails in reply.

Although I would like to think the letter will ensure all students turn in their work on time the first week, I know I will have missing work. Being flexible will also be an important part of making this grading policy work. Monday, April 24th will mark a complete, one-week cycle for all classes under our district’s Phase II of Distance Learning and of our new grading policy. For students, who have not turned in work that first week, I will reach out to students and their parent and guardians. Although my grading policy says work turned in late will be marked as failing, I will be flexible this first week, allowing a grace period to ensure everyone is on the same page and understands the expectations.

With the announcement that schools will not be returning to our physical classrooms this 2019-2020 school year, specific guidelines and a little extra TLC—for me, for my students, and my parents and guardians—will help us make it through.

Call for Distance Learning Blog Posts

The PAWLP Blog would like to hear from you! What does distance learning look like for you, your students, and your school district? What digital programs are you using? What lessons have you tried out? What routines and expectations are you establishing?

Blog posts will be featured in our Distance Learning column each Monday. Please email the PAWLP blog if you are interested or would like to find out more information.

Book Review: Renew! Become a Better and More Authentic Writing Teacher by Shawna Coppola

Written by Robyn Chegwidden, Amanda Dudek, and David Richard

Take everything that you know about the “writing process” and put it on hold. Shawna Coppola challenges the effectiveness and orthodoxy of every aspect of what it means to be a writing teacher. At times cheerleader, at others a scold, Coppola leads the reader through many different methods of teaching emerging writers their craft.

 “The minute—no, the very second—that we believe we have done all we can for our student writers—that we have learned all there is to learn about, say, teaching them how to write satisfying conclusions, or how to generate ideas for writing—well, that is also the very second we become less effective.”

The author contends that there is no one way to reach a finished project and many of the traditional methods may not be helpful to all students. Rather than a linear process that begins with a “brainstorm” on through a finished, polished final draft, the writing process may take many different routes. Rubrics may be too confining. Five paragraphs may not be enough. Five paragraphs may be too much. Indeed, limiting the process at the outset does both the author and the evaluator a disservice. Donald Graves, largely hailed as the creator of the early ideas regarding the writing process says:

“Don’t be fooled by the order in which I describe the writing process. I have to use words, which follow each other in systematic and conventional fashion, for you to understand what I am about. This suggests that thoughts follow in a systematic order for everyone. Not so.” (Grave 2003, 220-221)          

Coppola is nothing if not passionate about her subject. Her anecdotes, gained from sixteen years as a public-school teacher and mother of two, illustrate the practices that she wishes to challenge. Are rubrics helpful? What should a graphic organizer look like? How is a story told? What should the revision process look like? What is the most effective way to grade? In the end, the most important idea about writing is that the story gets told. This can be accomplished either through visual composition, written word, or a combination of both. All these topics and more are discussed in her easy to read, 100-page work. The author includes many different ideas and concepts with which to assess our own writing pedagogy in the ongoing struggle to meet the ever-evolving needs of our students in a constantly changing social environment.

           Renew! is easy to read; it is aimed at those that teach emerging writers in the elementary grades. Secondary school teachers may find that much of the content is inapplicable to students in high school, but this detraction is ameliorated by the upbeat tone and lively language of the author. There are so many different techniques offered that there is guaranteed to be something for every teacher of writing to apply in the classroom. Renew!Become a Better—and More Authentic Writing Teacher, is sure to offer some new ideas for all. It is Coppola’s hope that we all can internalize a habit of rethinking, revising, and most–important –renewing our teaching practices.  

Punctuation Through Poetry

Justice quote

While I am quite certain my 7th graders have been introduced to and worked with punctuation marks of all kinds, they don’t seem to have mastered them. This fact started me on a quest for grammar activities which would help my students take ownership of their punctuation choices, while stoking the fires of interest and creativity. What better way than through poetry?

Justice – “based on or behaving according to what is morally right and fair.” I definitely want my students to use punctuation for the the purpose it was meant for, and I found a fabulous book of poems that creatively introduces readers to punctuation marks and how they can bring words to life. This is one of my favorites.

Betty Franco

We’re called semicolons.
Our job is to link.
On the pages we’re quite friendly;
We look like a wink.

We help different clauses
that need to unite
by linking them up
to deliver more bite.

We’re like couplers for train cars
lined up on a track;
we keep sentences chugging,
cutting all the slack.

First, we read the poem and notice the punctuation marks and what their purpose is in the writing. After linking this discussion to the work we have already done around the topic, students write their own poems using this as a mentor text. They enjoy writing the poems, and they get practice with the semicolon without feeling like they are being forced…a win – win.

Mercy – “compassion or forgiveness.” Although punctuation is very important to a writer and is essential to conveying a writer’s purpose and meaning, it isn’t set in stone when it comes to poetry.

I love to have my students write poetry so that they have an opportunity to use punctuation in non-conventional ways to express meaning. That is where the mercy comes in. Students have a difficult time “playing” with punctuation and trying things besides the “safe” option when writing poems. They often question their use or non-use of punctuation in poems and want my “blessing” that they are doing it “right.”

It is my hope that my students leave me as writers who know how to follow the “rules” as well as when it is appropriate to break them. Do you have some favorite ways you use poetry in your classroom? Please share in the comments below.

Rita DiCarne teaches 7th grade ELA at Our Lady of Mercy Regional Catholic School in Montgomery County and is a PAWLP Writing Fellow. You can read her personal blog at

Distance Learning is the new Bike Riding

By Lauren Heimlich Foley

I remember, a spring day much like today, I learned to ride my bike. Taking off the training wheels, left me feeling unsteady. Somehow, the uneasiness pushed me forward, and eventually all of the teetering and balancing paid off. With lots of practice and my dad’s help—and patience—I found the freedom of the open road.

The last three weeks of teaching remind me of when my training wheels came off. I have been trying to find a balance between home life and work life while learning best practices of distance learning through virtual meetings.

With this new teaching format, I wanted to get my students feedback and see how things were going on their side of the computer screen. After one week, I asked them the following questions:

  1. What assignment, activity, or aspect of English distance learning have you enjoyed the most? Why?
  2. What assignment, activity, or aspect of English distance learning can I improve? How?
  3. What is your preferred method of communication with me: Canvas assignment comments, Canvas discussion boards, email, Teams messenger, Teams phone call? Why?
  4. What about distance learning has been the biggest hurdle?
  5. What about English distance learning has been easy and/or have you enjoyed?
  6. What about distance learning surprised you?
  7. Is there anything else I should know?

I choose one specific area of feedback to focus on—preferred method of communication—because so much of our class depends on one-on-one and small-group conferencing.

Although I tried giving feedback on assignments in our learning management system (LMS), my students shared that it was difficult for them to find the feedback and respond to me. The first week ‘conferences’ ended up being mainly one-sided. Although email was a viable option, my students and I receive so many emails throughout the day that it would be difficult to keep track of so much mail. However, they liked how email made it easier to have a ‘conversation.’

I was not sure what to do with their feedback. I knew Microsoft Teams was an option for virtual meetings, but the chat feature would not provide the one-on-one interaction my students and I needed. While walking one beautiful day, I came up with the following idea: create one-on-one discussion boards.

In school, I use discussion boards for whole-class sharing and small-group publication, but I never used them for one-on-one conferencing. If you have a discussion board feature in your LMS, check to see if you can create something similar. Instead of creating groups with multiple students, I created a discussion board with only one student in it. The discussion board essentially works like text messages, offering a place for students to chat with me during our class period and throughout the week. There is a reply button that we both use to keep the conversation going. We meet virtually on the discussion board, and I can provide differentiated instruction. I have answered questions, clarified directions, offered feedback, and suggested books. The discussion board is the closest thing to re-creating our one-on-one conferences. And, they are working! During a second round of feedback, students shared that they like being able to talk to me without the entire class seeing what they said. Their answers also confirmed that they like the discussion boards because they offer live feedback from me and are easy to find and reply to. All in all, these discussion boards have become a reliable, ongoing source of communication.

For next week, I am working on re-creating students’ small-group and table-group conversations through Microsoft Teams. Students are filling out surveys that ask them whether they would like to have a small-group chat about their writing piece or book or have time to share with their table group. I hope this new tool helps students collaborate and receive additional feedback.

Many days I feel like a first year teacher again. So many aspects of distance learning are brand new. In theory they work, but I have to figure out what works best for my students and for me. Getting their feedback on conferencing and discussion boards helped me to find a sense of certainty amid the unknown.

I am trying to embrace the unsteadiness of distance learning like the first time I rode my bike without training wheels. Through it all, I keep reminding myself to experiment and breathe. Chatting with my students, reading their writing pieces, and talking about books has brought me joy during a crazy time. I owe this happiness to my students’ honesty and the one-on-one discussion boards. I hope you are finding the right technological tools for you and your students.

Call for Distance Learning Blog Posts

PAWLP would like to hear from you! What digital programs are you using? What does distance learning look like for you, your students, and your school district? What is bringing you joy? What technological tools are you using?

Please email the PAWLP blog if you are interested or would like more information.

Book Review: Being the Change by Sara Ahmed

Written by Danielle Agan and Karen Friel

Sara K. Ahmed offers an equitable approach to fostering social comprehension in the classroom through her book, Being the Change: Lessons and Strategies to Teach Social Comprehension. Ahmed offers a personal approach to teaching social comprehension through the lens of a Muslim American identity. The introduction of this text is not one to be skimmed over. Ahmed gets the reader ready to face their own social comprehension and the work ahead by providing essential questions and guiding principles to reflect upon. As she states, “we have an obligation to make kids feel visible” (2). Now, more than ever, we have an obligation to create a space that feels safe and accepting for all of our students, which is the focal point of this text. The text guides a teacher and class through an entire school year, offering the progression of teaching social comprehension, while providing detailed lesson plans and mentor texts as resources in chapters one through five. In chapter six, the text is concluded with thoughtful reflection and reminders with how to proceed into the future and the importance of celebrating identity. 

Ahmed’s personal voice is strong and passionate about the topic in this easy to read book. She offers several mentor texts and resources to get a teacher started with incorporating lessons on identity into the classroom. This is a great tool for a beginning teacher, or a veteran teacher who is looking to incorporate social comprehension into their curriculum. Ahmed does not fall short in offering a plethora of resources including: picture books, poetry, short stories, short story anthologies, novels, nonfiction, and videos. All of these resources are equipped with appropriate lessons that are detailed and spelled out for the educator. The text is embedded with scripted dialog, or “teacher talk,” so if you are someone who would like this as an support, or are not yet comfortable with social comprehension, it is available to you. However, it is easy to skim over due to the different font and color, so if you prefer just to focus on the lesson itself, this can be easily done. 

The versatility of the lessons and mentor texts makes this an appealing read for teachers K-12. As mentioned before, Ahmed leaves no stone unturned, and packs the book with mentor texts for all levels. In chapter one, Ahmed informs the reader how to “affirm our identities” through identity webs. This lesson begins with a mentor text in order to give the students a model of what an identity web is and how to create it. Then, the students are in charge of creating a definition of identity. Together they brainstorm and jot down words that come to mind on a giant piece of chart paper. From there, the work of social comprehension can begin. The goal of an identity web is to get to know your students while also starting to bridge connections between the kids and yourself. It is a way to initiate the process of learning about each other in a safe space. Ahmed thinks of just about everything with her lessons, including a “follow-up” section and an “addressing tensions” section to coach you, the teacher, through difficult situations that may arise in the classroom. 

Overall, Being the Change would be a strong book to add to your collection of professional development books. Ahmed’s passion about social comprehension resonantes through each page and guides any reader through activities that are ready for the classroom. As reviewers, Karen and Danielle are in very different stages in their careers. Danielle is a first year teacher. She teaches 7th grade English Language Arts, and was able to try these activities in her own classroom. She started at chapter one and is now on chapter three, and plans to continue progressing through the lessons until the end of the school year. Her biggest takeaway is that even if you do not follow each lesson exactly, it is about making a safe space for identity and differences. Karen has been teaching for seven years, as a reading specialist. While she teaches small groups and does not have a classroom of her own, she realizes the importance of having ongoing conversations around social comprehension. Karen highly recommends Chapter 2 – Listening with Love. She agrees with Ahmed’s beliefs that by teaching active, empathic listening real communities are built which strengthen real learning.

A Love Poem to Poems

Poetry is my favorite kind of writing and let me tell you why

In my opinion it is the easiest type of writing you can try.

Poems can be about whatever you may wish

The ocean, your baby brother, your favorite homemade dish

A poem can rhyme, but it surely doesn’t have to

You can make poems into shapes or write a nature haiku

A free verse poem doesn’t have any rules

Pantoums and acrostic poems are often taught in schools

Poems can be short or poems can be long

In poems punctuation and grammar are allowed to be wrong

Poems have lines, stanzas, and breaks.

When writing a poem, though, there are no mistakes

I love poems the most they brighten my day

Sometimes my poems have a lot to say

Because poems can crack your mind open wide

And let out a voice you didn’t know was inside!

Jen Greene ©2020