Skip to content

Archive for

Distance Learning: Twitter Offers Remote Professional Development

by Lauren Heimlich Foley @lheimlichfoley

Twitter is the best distance learning for teachers!

I resisted Twitter for a long time. Despite what my friends, colleagues, and mentors said, I was not interested in joining another social media. Facebook was enough for me—or so I thought.

In teacher circles, I started to hear Twitter mentioned as a place for online professional development as well as professional networking. Chats, live videos, and events offered online spaces for people to join academic conversations and talk with like-minded individuals. Next came people asking for my Twitter handle. When I said I wasn’t on yet, people were shocked.

Then, for Dr. Famiglietti’s class, Composing in the Attention Economy, joining social media became a requirement. By spring 2020, I felt ready to tackle the Twitter adventure and signed myself up. I began following colleagues, teacher-researchers, and authors. I cultivated my own online professional development community. However, from March to May, I only checked Twitter a few times, and I posted nothing for fear of making a Twitter faux pas.

Once school ended, I decided that summer 2020 would be the season of Twitter. Like any new writing genre, I started to notice people’s tweets and used these posts as mentor texts. I also followed more people and organizations. The amount of information and new ideas surprised me; I had no idea what I had been missing out on.

June 27th marked the date of my first tweet. Since Saturday, I found exciting professional development opportunities and book release information. Here are my top 3 finds:

  • @nErDCampNJ1 tweeted author panel links.
  • @ncte shared that Jason Reynold’s Long Way Down will be a graphic novel.
  • @somaiyadaud posted the release of her 2nd book—Court of Lions which is available August 4, 2020. I have been waiting 2 years for this! Read Mirage first; it is book 1 in the series.

In just 3 days, I have realized that Twitter is the best distance learning for teachers. I am so very excited to be joining the Twitter universe. If you are not on yet, definitely sign up!

You’re Cordially Invited: Design Your Personalized English Teacher Summer Camp

by Lauren Heimlich Foley

“PAWLP’s Invitational Writing Institute is summer camp for English teachers!”

I made this declaration the second week of my institute in 2017—and I meant every word of it. The institute revealed how much I missed immersing myself in reading, writing, and researching.

The last two summers, I have designed my own independent writing institute of sorts. I set goals and outlined “assignments” to complete. I collected texts and ideas as I went, joining book clubs, connecting with colleagues, presenting, and establishing writing and reading routines.

For this summer, I am in the process of creating a personalized summer camp syllabus to guide my creative and professional exploration. Here is what I have so far:

1. Creative Writing and Writing Process Reflections

After the institute, I started to use the quick write time with my students to focus in on my creative writing interests. Before, my notebooks were filled with random ideas, inspired by the quick write’s topic of inspiration. Instead, I began to focus on my creative interests and love of dystopian and sci-fi stories. As I generated ideas based on genre and craft, a storyline and character started to take shape. The more I stuck with this inspiration, the more the idea developed. I shared and shaped my ideas with students, family, and friends. Not only did this experience enhance my own writing process, but also I was able to talk to my students about how they might use quick writing to focus on specific interests of theirs or to develop their Self-Selected Writing pieces. Although I had suggested this in the past, I started to nudge students more. Now, I am nudging myself to complete a messy first draft by the start of the school year.

My colleague at Lenape Middle School, Christy Venters, and I will be hosting Lenape’s first virtual Reading-Writing Summer Club, starting next week. We are excited to support our students’ reading and writing as well as offer some much needed socializing since many of them are still feeling the isolation of social distancing. I am also looking forward to sharing my work and receiving feedback.

Although I have always been a reflector and instilled this in my students with metacognitive reflections, my spring 2020 grad class, Composing in the Attention Economy, with Dr. Famiglietti pushed me to take my thinking further. After discussing options for the scope of my web presence assignment, Dr. Famiglietti suggested creating a blog that focused on my writing process. It has been a fun and eye-opening experience, pushing me to get into the trenches of my thinking and writing process. Over the summer, I will continue posting at least once a week.

  • Is there a creative or personal writing project you started but have not finished or have wanted to start but have not found the time?
  • What is holding you back?

I have always found that summer is a great way to jump into a project and nurture that creative side!

2. Research Interests

For this summer, I want to touch on the following research interests:

  • Creating student leaders within the writing-reading workshop
  • New teacher mentoring frameworks and pre-service programs
  • Digitizing the writing-reading workshop

I’ll spend time over the summer reading and studying books, articles, and studies. I’ll explore best practices and ways to re-imagine those best practices. And, I’ll pick a few ideas to write about whether for personal reflection, PAWLP blog articles, or posts on Yammer. I will check out the call for manuscripts for NCTE, CEL, NJCTE, PA Reads, The Amplifier Magazine, and other professional journals and organizations. Regardless of whether I submit or write a completed draft for any of these calls, the ideas will help me consider how I might enter into these academic conversations now or later.

Additionally, I will be gearing up to write my master’s thesis in the next year. I will use this summer and my research interests to focus in on my ideas and decide what avenue I would like to explore.

  • What do you want to learn more about?
  • What would you like to re-visit or investigate further?
  • How might researching your interests guide you to implement action research next school year?
3. Next/Best Practices

Two focus areas for me to hone this summer and put into practice next year will be utilizing Canvas and Teams to enhance distance learning and celebrating diversity through multicultural literature.

The two books that are starting out my inquiry on distance learning are Catlin Tucker’s Blended Learning in Grades 4–12 and Karen Costa’s  99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos. I will consider how I can best use Canvas and Microsoft Teams to enhance distance learning, the balance of asynchronous and synchronous learning, and the social and collaborative opportunities for students.  

To investigate how to further foster diversity through multicultural literature in my classroom, I am in the process of collecting books and articles that will drive my inquiry. I will reread Sara K. Ahmed’s Being the Change and Tanu Wakefield’s article “The ‘Close Reading’ of Multicultural Literature Expands Racial Literacy, Stanford Scholar Says”, and I will study Mathew R. Kay’s Not Light, But Fire. These along with other resources will ask me to reflect on the books my students have access to, the titles we book talk, and the whole-class and book club novels we read. They will help me to offer a variety of multicultural books, lead meaningful conversations, and invite students to expand on their thinking and world perspective.

  • What is something new you want to try out or feel is important to try out in your classroom?
  • What practices do you want to re-examine, re-study, or re-imagine?
  • How will investigating a topic or topics enhance your teaching philosophy and improve your students experience for the 2020-2021 school year?

I am looking forward to a balance of relaxation and rejuvenation this July and August. Between spending time outside, social distancing with family and friends, and attending my personalized summer camp, I know summer 2020 is going to be great.

If you have not participated in an Invitational Writing Institute, please treat yourself and sign up for summer 2021! This was one of my favorite professional experiences!

Distance Learning: Summer Reading Recommendations

by Lauren Heimlich Foley

Rita DiCarne and Kelly Virgin inspired this week’s blog post. Each summer I choose a combination of professional texts and YA novels to read. This July and August, one area I am focusing on is online learning, blended learning, and the digital workshop. I will not have time to read everything mentioned below but will use this post as a guide and reference point for my own learning. I hope it helps you to cultivate your professional development summer reading list.

1. Digital Writing-Reading Workshop

I mentioned the following two books—The Digital Writing Workshop by Troy Hicks and Adolescents and Digital Literacies by Sara Kajder—in my last distance learning blog post. I believe these texts are important for me to reiterate because they are foundational. If you have not read these books, I would highly recommend one or both to begin your journey at digitizing your writing-reading workshop. The theory, practical application, and resources will enhance your teaching whether you return to the brick and mortar classroom, remain distance learning, or teach a hybrid model. These books will serve as references as I continue to reflect on my own teaching practices. Looking ahead to next year, I want to explore more ways my middle schoolers can engage with texts they are reading whether a whole class novel, book club book, independent reading book, or online articles. I also want to cultivate additional online, real-world writing opportunities. The following titles will help me further hone my digital workshop best practices:

2. Creating Videos to Enhance Student Learning

At the end of the school year, I asked my students for feedback on distance learning. Three students mentioned that they greatly appreciated the PowerPoint lessons with my voice over. They also said my directions in Canvas were clear and easy to follow, but they asked for more videos and/or audio clips of me speaking the directions. They explained that reading the mentor texts, following along on the PowerPoints, and reviewing all of the written directions in Canvas added up to a lot of online reading. Not to mention when you multiply that routine times all of your classes. For the last week of school, I left a personalized message on the module overview page using the Canvas audio recorder. I liked the concept and wished I had discovered it sooner.

As I explored possible books for my summer read list, 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos caught my eye, especially “Tip 19: Take Students on a Tour.” In this section, Karen Costa suggests creating video virtual tours to “show” students how to navigate the learning management system. The video might review prior knowledge, module organization, course assignments, and weekly directions. After perusing more of the book on Google, I will be ordering my own copy as a reference.

3. Social Networking Influences on Adolescents

To better understand why social networking sites appeal to my teenage students, I want to read more about their digital, social lives and the psychology behind it. In learning about what makes them gravitate toward social media, I will be able to use Canvas, Microsoft Teams, and other technology platforms to further engagement students and enhance our digital workshop. As of now the following articles will assist me on this journey. I am currently looking for others and will comment on this post if/when I find additional titles.

4. Blended Learning

Blended learning may be a reality for many teachers this coming fall. Learning how to navigate and balance my brick and mortar best practices with technological enhancements will be important if I am going to create an engaging, meaningful, and relevant learning experience for my students. My district’s professional development secondary education coach, Michele Meyers, recommended Catlin Tucker’s books. Her blended learning philosophy will be of help as I envision my 2020-2021 classroom. She has many published books, resources, and videos on her website. I am still deciding whether I am going to order one or both of the following titles:

5. Structuring your Summer PD + Additional Resources

Dr. Buckelew shared the article “How I’m Spending My Pandemic Summer Vacation: A professor creates a syllabus to guide herself and other faculty members in preparing for more remote teaching this fall, amid Covid-19.” by Sarah Rose Cavanagh. The author’s voice is inviting, and she offers a plethora of reading options and great resources.

With the whole summer ahead of me, I am looking forward to enjoying the extra time to read and write for me, bird watching on my apartment balcony, finally getting to hang out with family and friends—six feet apart. This list of books and articles will guide my professional summer reading and help prepare me for the fall.

What resources are you using and what texts are you reading to prepare for the Fall 2020-2021 school year?

Call for Distance Learning Blog Posts

The PAWLP Blog would like to hear from you! What did distance learning look like for you, your students, and your school district? How will distance learning change or enhance your brick and mortar routines and best practices? What does Fall 2020 look like for you, your classroom, your school, and/or your district?

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.

Summer Reading!

The other day friend and colleague Rita DiCarne posted her plan for summer reading – rotate through one book for fun, one for her students, and one for professional development. This seemed like a great rotation and helped me figure out some of my next reads.

For Fun: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

This book popped up as a recommendation from my Amazon account and is about twin sisters who ran away from their small hometown together but went on to lead very different lives. As the first page explains, “…the twins scattered, their lives splitting as evenly as their shared egg. Stella became white and Desiree married the darkest man she could find.” Stella moves to California, where she keeps her identity as a black woman a secret from everyone, including her white husband. Desiree eventually leaves her husband and moves back home with her daughter.

I downloaded the audiobook so I can enjoy the story with my husband on our several long summer vacation drives. So far we’ve only listened to the first few minutes, but we are already hooked by both the plot and the narration. The story starts in present-day Mallard with Desiree’s surprising return to the small town before it flashes back the summer of 1954, when the sisters ran away from home together. Shayna Small narrates the book with a slow, southern voice that draws you into the characters’ lives and their setting.

For my Students: You Brought Me The Ocean written by Alex Sanchez and Illustrated by Julie Maroh

My students LOVE graphic novels – I never seem to have enough on my classroom shelves. This graphic novel, published by DC Comics and set in the DC Universe, seems to have something for everyone – love, friendship, family tension, secrets, super powers. Jake, the main character, is struggling with his evolving identity as he develops a crush on swim team captain Kenny, secretly applies for a college far from home, and grapples with a mysterious power marking his skin. The book was just published a week ago and I can’t wait until my copy is delivered! Here are the first two pages for you to sample:

For Professional Development: Argument in the Real World: Teaching Adolescents to Read and Write Digital Texts by Kristen Hawley Turner and Troy Hicks.

This book has actually been in a pile on the corner of my desk for over a year. However, in light of the likelihood of teaching my students argument writing via a virtual platform in the fall and with consideration of the ever-evolving issues dominating our society and news cycles, I moved it to the top of my to-read list. I can tell from the chapter titles and section descriptors alone that this book will offer a wealth of practical approaches that I can use to encourage my students to be more critical readers and writers of digital argument.

One the first page the authors drive home the importance of teaching our students how to wade through the digital landslide of arguments they are inadvertently exposed to everyday: “Like us, our students, who are beginning to use tablets and smartphones at increasingly younger ages, are exposed to a variety of arguments. Some of these arguments come from reliable sources that include credentialed experts and reputable news organizations. Others come from anonymous marketers and opinionated individuals who write blogs and discussion posts. All of us must make sense of the barrage of information.” I can only assume students will experience an increase in exposure to these arguments as they continue to learn via a virtual platform and I’m hoping to discover some engaging and practical ways I can encourage them to think more critically about them by reading this book.

What do you plan to read this summer – for fun, for your students, for professional development?

Kelly Virgin

Kelly Virgin teaches English for the Kennett Consolidated School District and has been a PAWLP teacher consultant since 2010. She is a proud bookworm and loves sharing her passion for reading and writing with her students.

Distance Learning: Re-Imagining Student Conversations and Collaboration in the Digital Writing-Reading Workshop

by Lauren Heimlich Foley

At the end of each school year, I find myself reflecting. I wonder how I can enhance the order of my units, improve my mini-lessons and assignments, foster more meaningful student collaboration, and so forth. Students’ end of year reflections help me hone my best practices and prompt me to consider the ways I can better meet their needs. This year marked a first for me: asking my students to reflect on distance learning. Although there are best practices for the digital workshop, blended learning, and online teaching, teaching solely on the computer was something I had not yet studied or tried. I considered how best practices in the digital writing-reading workshop applied, contemplated my teaching philosophy, explored my district’s technology resources, and—most importantly–remembered my students.

During the last decade, my digital writing-reading workshop focused on a variety of digital, multigenre, and multimodal projects, the electronic portfolio, various online platforms to create and share work, and student collaboration using Microsoft products. These assignments were enhanced through student-student and student-teacher face-to-face conferences and conversations. Even when my district implemented Canvas, our learning management system, I balanced high- and low-tech assignments and class periods. I was cognizant that I re-defined the ways students used their laptops to ensure that technology enhanced and re-imagined materials, assignments, and collaboration instead of simply replacing pencil and paper and in-person interactions.

I found the discussion boards to be a strength of Canvas, but I did not want these blog-like forums to replace students’ verbal conversations. So, discussion boards became a place where they could post writing inspirations for their classmates, make book recommendations, receive feedback on writing assignments, publish their drafts, post a summary of their verbal table group discussion for the class, and share individual or group practice examples from mini-lessons. These boards housed information, writing pieces, feedback, and conversations for later reference and use.

Then, distance learning hit. I—once again—had to re-imagine how I could foster student conversations and collaboration as well as student-teacher conferences. One-on-one and small-group Canvas discussion boards and Microsoft Teams proved helpful. Weekly Canvas discussion boards enabled students to share their quick writes, book insights and recommendations, and drafting with their brick and mortar table groups. However, students often logged in to complete their work at different times. Although students could ask questions, offer answers, and leave feedback, their peers were not present to engage in real-time digital conversations. For our final unit, the electronic portfolio, I asked each class period to sign in at the same time so that they could read one another’s work and have conversations with each other. This invitation proved the most successful: it had the most participation. Additionally, our optional Teams meetings enabled students to ask questions, review directions, discuss books, and share writing pieces. Students signed up for these calls, and they left with new book titles, writing inspirations, and clarity.

Now, with more than a marking period of distance learning under my belt, I have begun to see its limits and possibilities. Armed with student reflections, my experiences, and new and old resources, I am asking myself these questions for the 2020-2021 school year:

  • How can I enhance distance learning practices to better meet the needs of my students?
  • How will distance learning change my best practices in the brick and mortar classroom?

Currently, I am exploring how Canvas and Teams can foster student conversations and collaboration. I returned to the work of Sara Kajder and Troy Hicks—two teacher researchers who, early on in my career, greatly informed my digital writing-workshop practices. The following research will inform my practices next year:

  • Lenhart et al. in “Teens and Social Media” (2009) posit, “The primary motivation for participation in a social network is to interact with friends and/or members of the participating community (as cited in Kajder, 2010, p. 18).
  • Ito et al. (2008) explain that digital adolescents use social networking spaces to “find a different network of peers and develop deep friendships through these interest-driven engagements, but in these cases the interests come first” (p. 14, as cited in Kajder, 2010, p. 18).
  • Students and teachers “can use blogs to offer responses in the form of posting, tagging, and commenting (Hicks, 2009, p. 41).
  • “Students can simply post responses to journal prompts or share links” and “they can write analyses of online materials, synthesizing across sources and building on their previous posts” (Hicks, 2009, p. 41).
  • “[Will] Richardson suggests that blogging invites writers to synthesize ideas and opens up conversation between writers through commenting on the posts of others and then incorporating those posts into one’s own writing” (Hicks, 2009, p. 41).
  • Blogging “demands that students read, respond, and write in ways that encourage more specific response and utilize features of a digital writing space. That is, students who blog are able to hyperlink to sources of information and inspiration, embed multimedia for specific rhetorical purposes, and engage in larger conversations about their topics” (Hicks, 2009, p. 41).

Kajder and Hick’s insight in social media networking and blogging is influencing the way I perceive Canvas discussion boards and Teams meetings. I am also considering how my students’ interests in YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Facetime, and other social media can give me insight into how I can appeal further to their digital, social lives.

My students’ feedback confirmed the desire to share more through discussion boards and have more opportunities to socialize in Teams. They enjoyed the portfolio publishing the most out of the publishing opportunities because their group members were all present. They wanted different groups to share with and a variety of discussion boards for different purposes. And, they liked being able to use text, audio, and/or video to post. Moreover, they preferred when the discussion boards remained open, so they could access them and post without time limitations. Students praised the one-on-one office hours discussion board which replicated the conferences I would hold during independent reading time and our workshop time. In terms of Teams, students wanted set times for regularly scheduled meetings. Some appreciated that these calls were optional while others would have preferred them being mandatory. A common thread that surfaced was the desire for more and varied opportunities to share with peers.

Next year, I will use Canvas and Teams to tap into my middle schoolers social and digital nature. They will have more online opportunities to forge connections with peers and make new friends while simultaneously thinking creatively, critically, and empathetically as they enhance their reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills.

I have been doing some brainstorming. Below are the ways I would like to employ Canvas and Teams next school year whether we are teaching remotely, in school, or a hybrid of both. Some ideas I have tried before in my brick and mortar classroom and during distance learning while others I will experiment with for the first time next year. I am sure this list will grow and change as the summer continues and once school starts.

Canvas Discussion Board Creation Notes

  • Create groups based on friends and interests.
  • Rotate groups weekly or by unit so students can interact with new/different classmates.
  • Include small-group and whole-class posting opportunities.
  • Create groups with students from my different class periods.
  • Vary what students are sharing and commenting on.
  • Consider the names of discussion boards to help students and me locate conversations.
  • Provide commenting sentence starters.
  • Set clear expectations.
  • Provide directions for using the boards.
  • Stress the different ways they can post information: text box entries, Office 365 uploads, attachments, pictures, audio recordings, and webcam videos.
  • Find out if there is a way to see all posts even if students edit or delete them.
  • Keep discussion boards open and ongoing.
  • Remind students that they can share digital media along with their own posts such as external links, videos, articles for research, links to books, pictures, music, videos, related online texts, etc.

Canvas Discussion Board Topics and Purposes

The following items could be adapted for small-group and whole-class discussion boards.

  • Collaboration: a place to share and create materials for group projects, to discuss book club books, and to receive feedback on writing components
  • Student examples for reading and writing mini-lessons
  • Receptacle of genre study or whole-call novel questions that other students and I can provide answers to
  • A place to share drafts throughout the writing process for revision and editing feedback as well as publication celebrations
  • Foster topic and genre brainstorming and rehearsing in which students ask each other to expand and reflect on their initial writing ideas
  • Conversations that build off of previous conversations with their peers or professional posts  
  • Replication of brick and mortar quick write shares and informal table group book talks
  • Book recommendations with links to Goodreads and/or Amazon for their peers’ further exploration
  • Create separate threads for students to reply to which would focus around student-selected texts for mini-lessons, poetry analysis, book passes, common themes in independent reading books, recommended books in different genres, genre study mentor texts, etc.
  • Create separate threads for jigsaw lessons
  • Sharing of mini-lesson ideas or workshop inspirations such as strong words I’d like to use in my own writing, literary devices, figurative language, conventions to experiment with, ways to include MLA in-text citations, authors’ mood and tone, etc.
  • First book chapter or page posts: reader responses, observations, recommendations, first impressions, etc.
  • Independent reading book posts: analysis, read like a writer observations, writing inspirations, and mini-lesson application

Teams Meetings to Support and Enrich Canvas Discussion Boards

  • Create a standard Teams meeting time each week. At this point, I am unsure whether attendance will be mandatory or encouraged, and I am waiting to see if there is a directive from my district.
  • Conduct small-group Teams meetings based on students’ needs and/or similar interests (e.g. table groups, weekly discussion board groupings, interests, genres, book topics or themes, and/or skills differentiation), which will either be mandatory or encouraged.
  • If we are back in the brick and mortar classroom, but social distancing, I can use Teams to have one-on-one or small-group conferences with students from across the room. I imagine us sitting six feet apart and plugging in our earplugs to quietly talk to one another.

Since my district has a partnership with Canvas and Microsoft, I am primarily using them; however, these ideas can be easily applied to a variety of platforms such as Google, Zoom, and Flipgrid. Kajder and Hicks also reference a variety of platforms that are available to teachers.

With summer almost here, I anticipate plenty more personal reflection and professional development. I look forward to what September brings.


Hicks, T. (2009). The digital writing workshop. Heinamann.

Kajder, S. B. (2010). Adolescents and digital literacies: Learning alongside our students. National Council of Teachers of English.

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? How will distance learning change or enhance your brick and mortar routines and best practices? What does Fall 2020 look like for you, your classroom, your school, and/or your district?

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.

The Odyssey: My Distance Learning Journey

by Molly Leahy

The third marking period began with such promise after I attended an invigorating session with smart colleagues and new ideas at the PAWLP Day on February 8, 2020. I had a new stack of books recommended by keynote speaker, Angela Stockman, and after Dr. Emily Aguilo-Perez’s session, I was so excited to try zines with my students for our end of the year unit on Speak. Reconnecting with PAWLP Fellows restored my professional soul and rekindled creative energy during the season of hibernation. Just a month later, our school life and dependable bell school schedule morphed into the unknown with the closure of school and the start of our continuity of learning at home.

During this transition phase, my anxiety stemmed from trying to figure out how my real classroom could be repackaged, uploaded, and sent out electronically to our classroom community. One of Angela Stockman’s slides on that cozy Saturday in February, asked us to examine our own teacher heritage, or profile, with a slide entitled “How might you build your teacher identity?” This is what I struggled with the most during our two week period of preparing for learning to resume remotely on March 29th. Every year, I save the best pieces of literature for last, and I kick myself for never feeling like I have enough time before the bell rings for the summer break. This year’s crisis was not whether I had enough time for the works of literature, but rather deciding what was essential from the literature units. While many of our students have been working more hours because they are essential to the grocery stores and the nursing homes in our communities, I had to decide what was truly essential for my 9th grade English classes to do at home. Together, we managed to go on a journey.

From the start of this digital odyssey, I wish I could say I gained wisdom from Athena along the way, but like the great hero Odysseus, I made mistakes. For me, the Land of Lotus Eaters meant I was definitely eating comfort foods and emotionally eating over the stress of the news and my fear of online learning; I ignored my own goals of eating healthfully and exercising. Yoga pants or sweatpants—like the Lotus Eaters—are not my friends; they kept me from my goals and normalcy.

Fortunately, after adjusting and creating a routine that included more exercise, I was ready to hear from the Sirens, my students.  I was perhaps a bit too zealous right out of the gate on day two, creating a back together bingo based on their first writing prompt. Basically, I hosted a party and then sat there by myself wondering if I even copied the link for Google Meet Hangouts correctly. I think some students were too shy to use Google Meet. In some ways, I shared that feeling.

As I learned to overcome my own digital shyness, I knew I had to put myself and my image out there more—or maybe I needed to remember my teacher identity before downgrading to the sweatpants uniform. While I created my own read aloud videos with my IEP students in mind, I also needed to challenge my students who were headed into honors courses next year. Choice seemed important to include as a means to motivate all students, and I hoped their curiosity would compel them to click on links leading to enrichment.

I created a survey at the start of our online learning and then again at the midpoint. The survey assignments had the highest completion rate of all my assignments because students love to give their opinion, it’s not hard work, and they don’t have to worry about wrong answers. Mental note—how can I trick students into thinking every assignment is a survey? Their responses indicated that they wanted more

  • Interactive work
  • Opportunities for group work
  • Choices for some of our assignments

This was the proof I needed to make sure my digital classroom resembled the physical space I packed up way too early.

Sometimes lesson planning was like trying to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis. Each decision for the day’s lesson seemed to have unlimited possibilities, but hard decisions had to be made in determining essential skills and content. I questioned which path or approach would reach students best. My colleagues who serve as coaches throughout the district offered wise counsel, better than the advice Circe gave Odysseus. These sages led professional development online through Google Meet and provided directions and suggestions for many options and tools in our ever-increasing technology repertoire, arming me with edPuzzles, flipgrid, screencastify and loom—all nouns that did not exist in my early career lexicon. I could attend a session live and ask all of my questions, or I could log on later to the recorded session and review the lesson and all of the resources. Just like our PAWLP teacher consultants have always done, this professional development offered practical strategies to improve choice and communication, and best of all, the professional development served as a model for how I wanted to run lessons.

During another adventure, I didn’t quite crash the cave of Polyphemus, but I was led into the minds, homes, and lives of students through their writing. Between The Odyssey and Romeo and Juliet, students wrote a letter to their Future Self-Post Pandemic. As expected, the personal writing assignment resulted in more students completing their work, but reading their letters made me really regret that we weren’t all together in the classroom. I read letters from some students whose views seemed very limited, and then I read letters from students who experienced losing someone they loved to the virus, working more hours at nursing homes, or caring for their younger siblings while their parents went to work. I worried that without being back in the classroom together, our community of students wouldn’t be as empathetic. And then current events taught everyone in this country that we need to see other viewpoints and not be myopic monsters, but were my students paying attention and making connections?

I realize that I will need to adjust our typical-in-class-community-building work right away in the fall so that we can build a sense of community virtually where students feel they have a safe and trusted space to encounter honest dialogue with others who might have different views.

My students definitely did not adopt Penelope’s cunning and strategy from “Test of the Bow.”  Perhaps they were testing me—No, I’m sorry, just copying the brainstorming template and saving it to your Google folder doesn’t count as completed work! Clearly, I need to be more crafty in designing work that the students really want to engage in, and wow—doesn’t that critical thought bubble seem very familiar, so brick and mortar normal.

Odysseus made it back to Ithaca, although his home palace was a very changed place with a few more battles for him to win. We return in the fall for our new school year. At our very first digital in-service day last week, my department decided to start the next school year by planning as if we will be teaching remotely. This unified decision helped us to move past wondering what will happen, and it gave us back some control in our destiny. By using our newfound tech skills and by planning for remote learning, we can create our opening units to work for students whether they are with us in the building or at home. I know I can return to familiar territory: choice, connection, and community in the classroom. Somehow, I will navigate my way through self-selected reading to promote the love of reading even from afar. I have survey data to prove students crave interaction, and it turns out, I do know how to send out links for Google Meets correctly, so writing conferences can resume virtually.

Did I drag out the Odyssey longer than 10 years? Maybe, but ultimately, this teaching phase was really my very own odyssey with challenges, discoveries, and help along the way.  My teacher identity, carefully crafted after twenty-seven years, needed some hi-tech retooling, like Odysseus installing GPS. I learned I didn’t want to be forgotten. I mourned the loss of my favorite works in order to end the school year triumphantly. And maybe, my pride or ego got in the way as I tried to pare down the content or curriculum to only essential work for my students, our essential workers. Trying new teaching approaches remotely has felt like a digital shot in the dark, without experiencing any adolescent faces or groans—the typical feedback to gauge the success or failure of new ideas. However, this time of separation from students and a brick and mortar classroom presented much needed reflection on an unusual professional adventure, and I feel more confident about the next journey.

Molly Leahy teaches ninth grade English at William Tennent High School in Warminster, PA. The 2019-2020 school year was her first year returning to the classroom full-time after five years serving as the district’s Lead Teacher for RELA. This return to the classroom full-time sparked such joy that the closing of school seemed extra painful. The next adventure for her is teaching the school’s newest course, AP Research. Her experiences as a PAWLP Fellow and Institute co-director continue to guide her professionally and personally.

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? How will distance learning change or enhance your brick and mortar routines and best practices? What does Fall 2020 look like for you, your classroom, your school, and/or your district?

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.