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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.

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