by Mary Buckelew
“The warm handshake at the classroom door, the encouraging hand on the shoulder of a student who is working through a problem—these small gestures, as well as the other rituals we have embedded into our classrooms, don’t all travel well.”–Frey, Smith, Fisher (ASCD Express, 2020, Vol. 15, No. 17)
For many years, I’ve opened my brick and mortar writing classes with the same trio of activities. Some activities traveled well and some needed adjustment.
- The Mindful Minute (provides a segue from our busy lives to writing workshop)
- Student Announcements (foster community and heighten our awareness of interests, diversity and similarities in our classroom)
- The “Focused Freewrite” (leads us to the content of our class, writing)
Some students likened the opening of our face-to-face writing classes to a ritual, and I remember thinking that’s not so bad. In “Classrooms Need Rituals and Routines — But Don’t Get Carried Away,” Brian Gaten writes of the importance of classroom rituals, “Rituals are more than a daily reminder of the hows and whys of your classroom. They also:
- Give students consistency in their learning and routines to help center their thinking.
- Reduce anxiety so students can be open to class content.
- Create a flow in the day.”
So far so good, but then along came the pandemic. The culture and context of the brick and mortar writing classroom evaporated in the blink of an eye, and I had to acknowledge that not all face-to-face pedagogy or content smoothly traveled to our online classroom.
Fast Forward to Remote Learning
The Mindful Minute became Mindful Stretching
As I looked at the somber faces of my undergraduate students, neatly lined up in Zoom, I realized that perhaps we’d been with our minds too much and needed something other than a mindful minute of silence and breathing. Instead of sitting quietly (although this was certainly an option), I suggested stretching, walking, or dancing 😊 in place for a minute (video off/screen closed). Ralph Peterson suggests, “At best, ritual functions to keep students in touch with themselves, forge community bonds, and liberate imagination” (p. 27). Sometimes rituals need radical revision sometimes minor modifications.
Announcements became “Check In” time
Instead of asking students to share announcements regarding their campus activities (not happening), I invited students to share what was on their minds. It soon became apparent that there were vast differences in students’ experiences during the pandemic. One student was supporting her grandmother and herself by working overtime in the grocery store; another student was working double shifts as a pharmaceutical technician because he and his mother were the sole support of their family of eight! Other students had the time to embrace boredom and or to re-paint and reorganize their bedrooms at home. As the weeks progressed, students became a bit more reserved when discussing their boredom; i.e., they were sensitive to the disparity in each other’s experiences. Eventually, Check-in evolved into sharing new movies/Netflix series and other items to bolster morale. The change in focus necessary and the 10 minutes it took – very worthwhile.
Focused Freewrite (ala Louise Rosenblatt) essentially the same
The goal — to write for three and a half minutes without stopping remained the same. I reminded students that this was not just a time filler. Rosenblatt notes that the freewrite “should be a technique for tapping into the linguistic reservoir without being hampered by anxieties about acceptability of subject, sequence, or mechanics” (1072).
I also reminded students that timed writing and (timed reading) are great strategies to use when we are not feeling the flow; i.e. setting the timer gives us the opportunity to start and stop without feeling like a project or writing piece looms before with no end in sight. I noted that Jeff Anderson and other gurus suggest that freewriting builds our writing fluency, stamina, and endurance. A colleague, Bob Z., told me that some of his students find that the freewrite has a meditative quality to it. So, our freewrites remained 3 ½ minutes long, but I asked students to supply the prompts for our freewrite for the duration of our online classes. Clearly, they enjoyed being asked to do this – Here are just a few of the prompts students shared:
- What do you wish people around you would not do or would do during this time of sheltering and social distancing?
- If you could only listen to one band/musician/ensemble, who would it be and why?
- What is the first thing you would like to do when this is over? Describe using all senses.
In our small group Zoom breakout sessions students seemed to share freewrites more readily and had more to say when we returned to the ‘main room” than in our old brick and mortar days. At the end of this semester, one of my students, Jack, shared the following in his final reflection: “but I believe that the most influential piece of the class that will stick with me after this semester is the focused free write time before every class began. What may seem like a short exercise to get the brain flowing was much more to me. . . . This very small piece of the class was extremely impactful on my current life because it reopened a previously suppressed outlet for stress and anxiety. I could just write without sharing my words or ever having to revise. It was raw emotion or feeling about any topic I chose for that session. I plan to incorporate the focused free writes into my future writing processes to gauge my raw and unedited feelings and knowledge about a topic. I feel it will be most useful before brainstorming and then again after my research is complete to make sure I have a full understanding of the topic before engaging in writing the final product.”
Jack’s comment regarding how the focused freewrite helped him during this stressful time and how he would apply the strategy to his future writing endeavors – made this anxiety ridden and overwhelming online teaching endeavor worthwhile.
Admittedly, teaching online this past semester was anything but smooth, but it gave me the opportunity to ponder my teaching philosophy, my praxis, and the purpose/s of much of what I do. This chance to reflect was an odd gift from an unlikely source.
What did you learn about yourself this past spring? In the classroom? Outside of the classroom? What aspects of teaching online did you enjoy What platforms and apps did you find most useful? What will you focus on this summer to prepare for the fall? I would love to hear from you! firstname.lastname@example.org
Bennett, P. (2020) “This grand distance-learning experiment’s lessons go well beyond what the students are learning.” for CBC News Opinion · Posted: May 11, 2020 4:00 AMET Last Updated: May 11 https://www.cbc.ca/news/opinion/opinion-distance-learning-education-covid-1.5547062
Burns, M. (2020) “Emergency teaching online: 7 steps to get started.” Global Partnership for Education. https://www.globalpartnership.org/blog/emergency-teaching-online-7-steps-get-started
Ferlazzo, L. (2020) “We might have gotten remote learning wrong. We can still fix this school year.” Education Week Teacher. https://www.edweek.org/tm/articles/2020/05/13/we-might-have-gotten-remote-learning-wrong.html
Frey, N. Smith, D. & Fisher, D. (2020) “A Positive classroom climate, even from a distance.” ASCD Express: May 14, 2020; Vol. 15 Issue 17 http://www.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol15/num17/a-positive-classroom-climate-even-from-a-distance.aspx?utm_source=ascdexpress&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=1517-motivation#.Xr0yWV-_6d8.email
Gaten, B. (2020) “Classrooms need rituals and routines — But don’t get carried away.” Blog: Share https://blog.sharetolearn.com/curriculum-teaching-strategies/classroom-rituals/
Peterson, R. (1992). Life in a crowded place: Making a learning community. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.
Rosenblatt, L. (1994). The Reader, the text, and the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Carbondale, Illinois: Southern Illinois University.