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Teacher to Teacher: Planning for the New School Year

by Lynne R. Dorfman

What will this new school year look like?  As the federal government and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention change their guidelines, we need to remain flexible in our thinking to create a plan of action for the 2020 – 2021 school year. There is so much we have no control over, but we can prepare so our classroom can function as a face-to-face, remote, and hybrid model. Many districts in our area are doing some kind of a blend model, and some school districts are offering a virtual school for teachers and students who prefer distance learning until a vaccine or treatment can be offered to everyone.

As you organize your content for instruction, consider co-planning with a grade-level colleague. If you feel you shine when teaching writing, find another colleague at your grade level in your school or across the school district. You and your partner could offer a series of videotapes to extend instruction into your students’ homes when they are not in school. These can be planned as the minilesson with places to ask questions and pause for active engagement where students can be placed into breakout rooms and discuss how they will use a writing craft or strategy. Returning to whole group on a platform such as Zoom, the teacher will link the strategy learned in the minilesson to the work students will now do during independent writing time. If you ask students to keep the cameras turned on and their sound muted, you can give them 20 minutes of writing time and use the chat to talk with students who may have questions for you. Pull students back for reflection time. Be sure to pose a reflection question or two using the whiteboard feature or place them in the chat right before students begin their independent writing time.

If you are meeting with your students in a virtual or hybrid meeting, it is important to establish a sense of belonging but more difficult to do than in a face-to-face setting. One thing you may want to do is share some things about yourself to help your students get to know you. I like to share 3 – 5 photos about myself and explain a little bit about each one. If you enable share for all participants, students can share a picture slide they have placed in google drive or email it to you as an attachment. Ask them to share 2 – 3 photos they can talk about. For the first three weeks, select two or three students to share each time you meet on Zoom. Here is my picture slide. What can you learn about me?

Introducing Myself with Photos

Or create an “About Me” inside-outside chart.

These can be shared on a chart in a face-to-face or hybrid setting. Ask students to create their own, drafting in their writer’s notebook and then using markers and/or colored pencils to create a larger chart on poster paper. If your school does not allow any display of students’ work, let them create their charts on their devices and talk about them with a partner, maintaining social distancing norms or send to you to display several at a time on your large screen/whiteboard.

About Me INside Outside chart

Ask students to send you a baby picture of them. Create a Pinterest board or build a photo album to share virtually or in a blended or face-to-face session. Give students a chance to guess whose baby picture is displayed on your screen. Ask students to write a piece “Once I…. Now I…. and use their baby picture and a current photo to add to the writing. Students can repeat this scaffold several times.

Lynne baby pic 3 Corgis and me in snow

Once I just hung out with Mom and took it all in. Now I hang out with my three Corgis and take in the beauty of all the seasons during long walks in our neighborhood.

Some examples to share wit your students>

Once I rode a tricycle, but now my pink two-wheeler takes me all over my neighborhood with my friends.

Once my favorite school subject was math, but now my favorite subject is science.

Use Status of the Class for writing and/or reading workshop. This quick check-in is a great formative assessment that gives you a quick glance of how your students are using their independent reading and writing time. Status of the class emphasizes process. For writing use “P” for planning, “D” for drafting, “C” for conference, “R” for revision, “S” for research, and “F” for final draft or publish. Before independent reading time, ask students for the title of the book they are reading and page number. Make sure to record the date. Code our responses for the following information: “F” finished a book, “A” abandoned a book, “S” ready to start a new book, or “C” are ready for a conference. This information helps you praise students who are completing a book and encourage students who are moving slowly. Check in with those students who are not finishing a book for a long period of time to see if you can offer support. In about three minutes time, you know what all your students are reading!

It doesn’t matter if you are doing a virtual, hybrid, or face-to-face model; you need to build a consistent routine with lots of opportunities for choice and self-pacing. Build your community. It is a much more difficult task if you are totally virtual, but take the time to do it in order to have students who are engaged and motivated to learn. It is well worth your efforts!

Lynne R. Dorfman is a Writing Project fellow (1989). She is currently working on a new book for Stenhouse Publishers with Brenda Krupp, Welcome to Reading Workshop. Right now, Lynne is reading Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy by Gholdy Muhammad and Next Year in Havanna by Chanel Cleeton.


Distance Learning: The Unexpected Ease of Screen Recording

by Catherine Mooradd

At the start of distance learning, I found myself asking how do I keep mostly everything the same for my students, despite the fact that everything has changed? I understand the importance of consistency and routine in maintaining a community of motivated learners. Distance learning was about maintaining normalcy wherever I could in my lessons. I just had to figure out how.

One of my classroom routines comes about twenty minutes in, after our independent reading time. Here, students come together as a whole class. We share about our days so far, go over our essential questions, and state our learning targets. We talk about yesterday. We recognize the “why” of today. And then, you guessed it, I launch into a fury of direction giving.

I already have digitally oriented students who expect to use technology at some point throughout our lesson, whether it be a choice of texts from News ELA, or Quizlet live. Our home base is Canvas, our district’s learning management system. Therefore, it is entirely routine that I physically walk students through any directions before I say “GO” and the usual, beautiful chaos unfolds. Every day, I display my laptop screen on our classroom projector. My students watch my mouse navigate through the day’s tasks and listen to me give verbal instructions.

At the start of distance learning, I knew what directions I needed to deliver to my students every day, but I didn’t know how I could deliver them so closely to our norm. I found myself asking, how do I keep this crucial classroom time of “direction giving” the same? How can I deliver personal, digital directions asynchronously, when students are not in my classroom watching my projector, but sitting at their kitchen tables instead?

I landed on the idea of screen recording—a way to capture my computer movements live while I narrate instructions. Screen recording, or screencasting, is available through a variety of programs, such as Screencast-O-Matic, WeVideo, or Microsoft PowerPoint. Screencast-O-Matic, for example, is a free website with user-friendly buttons. The plugin allows you to test your audio before filming, press pause and resume mid recording, and even offers follow up editing tools before it publishes your video to a neat mp4 file.

Screen recording allows students to watch and re-watch your directions for that day’s lesson. They can split their screen with your video on their left, while navigating through the actual steps of the lesson on their right. They can pause you, rewind you, and repeat you. Additionally, students can be assured they are completing steps in their learning progression accurately and correctly. With screen recording, you can show students what a finished product will look like. Most importantly, you can maintain your personality, tone of voice, and sense of humor throughout your usual “instruction giving” time. There is comfort in knowing your students are listening to you, their teacher, just like they have every day since September.

The following are ways in which you can make screen recording beneficial for your students: 

  • Take advantage of showing students your whole computer, not just a PowerPoint slide. Many times, I will begin a lesson with a new desktop image or an inspirational quote that involves a personal anecdote. These little moments have the power to maintain classroom community and culture.
  • Use your curser or laptop pen to orient students towards important steps or key terms. Many screen recording programs have a bright yellow curser in the shape of a large circle.
  • Use screen recording as a tech rehearsal for your lesson. Log in issues or other problems may arise that would have gone unnoticed had you simply typed instructions for your students. Don’t re-record over small tech glitches, though. If it happened to you, chances are it will happen to your students, too. Take advantage of these moments and solve them live.
  • Use multiple windows with ease. This is a great time to minimize the online text you’re reading and pull up Canvas to display the assignment that goes alongside it. Scroll through websites and point out any helpful tools the site has to offer. This prevents having to screen shot, then copy and paste images to PowerPoint slides, which can be limiting and takes time.
  • At the end of your screen recording, use the time to reiterate how students should be reaching you during the lesson, or as a reminder for any synchronous meetings that day. You can also use this time to touch on tomorrow, so students are prepared for what is ahead!

Distance learning may have opened my eyes to screen recording, but a regular school year could really benefit from this tool as well. Screen recording could be a way you deliver enrichment options or review material to students. Teachers with flipped classrooms can make live instruction fun for homework. Most importantly, students can partake in screen recording themselves to demonstrate topics or websites to peers. I’m already envisioning our neat classroom collection of kid-driven videos, teaching us everything we have yet to learn. . . .

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 if you are interested or would like to find out more information.

Writing-Reading Workshop Blurs the Lines Between Asynchronous and Synchronous Learning

by Lauren Heimlich Foley @lheimlichfoley

Hanging up the phone, my mind buzzed like the dragonflies zipping past my balcony. A colleague and I had been discussing my workshop structure during distance learning. We made an interesting observation: my instruction and student learning did not fit neatly into asynchronous or synchronous learning. Over the course of any given week, student work slid between the two. The movement felt natural because our brick and mortar workshop effortlessly “pinged” between whole-group and small-group instruction, independent work, conferences, and collaboration. Moreover, before Covid-19, conversations and extra help occurred during advisory, lunch, and resource as well as before and after school and in the hallway.

During distance learning, students communicated with each other and me outside of designated synchronous learning through Canvas discussion boards. They asked questions, received feedback, and collaborated in almost real time. Students reached out as much or as little as they needed. This in between work simulated brick and mortar conferences, partner work, and out-of-the-class-time conversations. In trying to explain this type of learning, I am adopting the term (a)sync. (A)sync moves beyond the binary of asynchronous and synchronous learning; it creates the opportunity for students to communicate with their peers and teacher during non-synchronous times. Once school starts, I will bring my students into the conversation with informal action research. Their feedback will guide my approach and refine this “next” practice. 

Independent Reading, Quick Writing, and Conferences

Much of my reflection has concentrated on building a community of readers and writers through independent reading, conferences, quick writing, and group work. In school, we start every day with independent reading. By the end of the week, I have conferred with every student at least once, and table groups have shared updates and informal book talks. We have generated and shared writing ideas that strengthen and create new connections. The choice and collaboration here become pillars for the learning that follows. If there is limited or no time in the physical classroom, then synchronous Teams meetings are another option.  

Long-term (a)sync “table group” discussion boards will also keep students connected when not face-to-face. Students can post and respond as much or as little as they would like about their reading and writing. This past spring, students had the opportunity to communicate with each other outside of scheduled synchronous learning. Here they shared an exciting moment in their writing pieces, asked questions, got book recommendations, etc. While I occasionally commented or asked a question, these discussion boards were created to strengthen students’ writerly and readerly conversations and connections outside of synchronous learning.

How I will organize independent reading, quick writing, and conferencing for the 2020-2021 school year is very much up in the air for me. Once there is a district plan in place, I can begin negotiating when, where, and how this work will take place. I do know that (a)sync communication will continue to play a factor along with synchronous or face-to-face conferences.


In our brick and mortar workshop, sometimes mini-lessons begin with activating prior knowledge. Other times we start with the mentor text and construct our knowledge. From there, students discuss how and why the author uses a technique, or they analyze literature. Depending on the difficulty of the skill, students may practice it, independently or with peers, which creates the opportunity for additional help or enrichment before moving on to workshop time.

Distance learning worked similarly: students reviewed direct instruction and mentor texts through PowerPoint recordings. There was a practice component: Canvas quizzes with immediate formative feedback could be retaken as many times as needed. For some skills, students created, submitted, and received individualized feedback before their long-term assignments.

(A)sync learning became a key role in these mini-lessons. One-on-one discussion boards offered the support that students would have received in class and during the school day. Although students could ask questions during optional Teams meetings, they were held at scheduled times. Some students–because of extenuating circumstances–were unable to attend. Or, like in class, they felt uncomfortable asking their questions in front of a large group. These one-on-one discussion boards offered a place in between asynchronous and synchronous learning. When students posted to their individualized discussion board, I could see the new message as easily as refreshing my email. I checked these discussion board notifications as frequently as I checked my email (or more frequently during scheduled class time) because I established this was the mode students and I would communicate in. I offered feedback, answered questions, clarified directions, etc. I made it clear that outside of class time (after school hours and on weekends) I may not respond until the next school day.

Workshop Time

(A)sync learning became increasingly important during workshop time because it provided students with a way to get the feedback they needed. Similar to our brick and mortar assignments, students completed long-term writing pieces which spanned one or two weeks. During spring 2020, students wrote literature letters, developed Self-Selected Writing Pieces, designed scripts and recorded videos, and created electronic portfolios. If we were in our physical classroom, students would engage in small-group table conferences and one-on-one conferences. Additionally, at the beginning of every brick and mortar workshop time, I complete a check-in to see who needs the first few conferences. The one-on-one discussion boards (which I mentioned above with mini-lessons) fostered similar lines of communication in addition to–and outside of–synchronous Teams meetings. Furthermore, the long-term “table group” discussion boards supported students during the writing process. Students were invited to share their work, ask for feedback, and peer conference. The movement between asynchronous, (a)sync, and synchronous learning maximized students’ learning, growth, and participation.

For this coming year, I want to explore large and small group critical thinking discussion boards. Similar to homework completed in the blended writing-reading workshop, students will complete discussion board assignments during asynchronous learning. Synchronous learning (in class, face-to-face Teams meetings, or scheduled Canvas discussion boards) will extend the work completed independently. I am also re-envisioning my community building activities in September and my units of study from the first, second, and third marking periods. The changes and additions for next year will be enriched by the interactions during (a)sync learning.

Much will change between now and September and even once the school year begins. Thinking through these ideas creates a foundation for my instructional planning. I am also exploring how I can maximize face-to-face communication with students, the balance of asynchronous and synchronous learning, as well as innovative ways to use Canvas discussion boards and Teams meetings. I am excited to begin participatory action research this year to study (a)sync learning. Together, my students and I will observe what is working and what needs to be re-imagined.

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 if you are interested or would like to find out more information.

Distance Learning: Mastery Learning Fosters Formative Feedback and Growth Mindset

by Anna Gabriel

When first introduced to mastery learning, it reminded me of coaching. I coach gymnastics part-time, and we spend most of our days drilling the same skills until gymnasts master them. They are not penalized for not knowing how to do a perfect back handspring on the first try; instead, athletes are given corrections on each attempt, and they apply the corrections because they want to do well. They continue to learn and improve during practice as they focus on their coaches’ feedback. Gymnasts do not perform skills at a competition until they have practiced many times, and only then do they receive scores for their performances.

As its name suggests, mastery learning allows students multiple opportunities to practice a skill until they have mastered it. Formative assessments enable teachers to provide students with feedback and evaluate their progress towards a learning goal. Additionally, teachers reflect on the data and offer further review and enrichment as necessary. Once students have successfully met the learning target, they complete the summative assessment, which evaluates how much students learned throughout the unit.

Just like the gymnasts I coach, my students want to be successful. They want to master their academic skills, but most need teacher feedback to do so. In addition, students must fail in order to receive valuable feedback. Thus, I realized that I must put my students in a position where they feel comfortable taking risks. I must put my students in a position where they focus on my feedback rather than their grades. I must put my students in a position where they believe that they can improve. But how can students feel comfortable failing knowing that their grades will suffer as a result?

Central Bucks School District, where I taught this past year, offered a solution: formative assessments should not count towards students’ final grades; only summative assessments should be counted in the gradebook. This grants students the freedom to fail without being penalized. Instead of hyper focusing on their formative assessment grades, students turn their attention to the feedback provided on the assignments. They reflect on this feedback and use it to guide their learning. Finally, when presented with the summative assessment, they have mastered the content because they used teacher feedback to focus their review.

Therefore, I subscribed to the mastery learning framework and started adopting it in my classroom. I took inspiration from a fellow coworker, and as students worked on major essays, they submitted a draft of each paragraph through Canvas, our district’s learning management system. On each paragraph, I left specific comments that contained positive feedback and constructive criticism. Admittedly, students did earn a writing process grade—just a few points—for submitting their drafts for feedback; however, they did not lose points for missing criteria. Rather, I noted the missing components, suggested ways to develop craft techniques, and pushed students to think further about their ideas. Students had time to read and apply my feedback before the final submission. After reading the drafts, I designed mini-lessons to address the needs of each class. I also used the drafts to differentiate future instruction and writing conferences; I often split students into small, homogenous groups based on the results of their drafts. This allowed me to focus my small-group writing conferences and use class time more efficiently.

Distance learning was a great opportunity to further implement mastery learning. In my district, students were still expected to submit assignments, but they earned credit for doing so. Essentially, we asked students to shift their mindset about learning; learning was no longer about earning grades, but it was now about receiving feedback and using this feedback to grow. Many students stepped up to the challenge and learned for the sake of learning.

My distance learning class structure mimicked my in-person class: students read independently for 10 minutes, completed a virtual reading conference, reviewed a mini-lesson, practiced the mini-lesson skill in a Canvas quiz, received immediate feedback, and were then given a long-term assignment to further hone their skill. Quizzes with automatic feedback were vital to asynchronous learning, as students could take the quiz at any time and receive instant feedback.

I provided specific feedback on all long-term assignments, and students were expected to review this before completing the following week’s tasks. Assignments often built on each other, so the feedback helped students perform well the following week. For example, in week 6 of distance learning students were asked to submit a script for their video presentation. I provided feedback on the script, and students reviewed this feedback before filming their video presentation in week 7. When reflecting on their distance learning experiences, many of my students noted that they appreciated the frequent and focused feedback provided, and none of my students mentioned the grading practices. This demonstrates a shift in their learning mindset: instead of focusing on fixed grades, students focused on the feedback and their potential to grow. One of my students further demonstrated their growth mindset in a thank you email:

“I have always appreciated the feedback given to me on essays. Seeing these pieces of constructive criticism and positive feedback has opened my eyes to view my writing differently and see what I can improve. It continues to motivate me as I write, so thank you so much for helping me in a big part of that journey. Thank you for genuinely caring about my growth; it has REALLY helped, and I am so grateful!”

I want to help my future students focus on their learning experiences and not the looming grade. Regardless of what the 2020-21 school year looks like, I will develop growth mindsets by providing frequent formative feedback. If I continue to show students that I believe in them, then they will believe in themselves.

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 if you are interested or would like to find out more information.

Distance Learning: Online Student Morphs into Online Teacher

by Molly Leahy

Flying to Chicago, touring Wrigley Field and walking along Lake Michigan were the perks I dreamed of when I signed up for a week-long training session for a new course I’m teaching, AP Research. When events this spring converted the training to online learning, I mourned the loss of my travel opportunity, and I panicked about taking my first synchronous online course. What perks could there be from learning online by myself at home? Instead of strolling down Michigan Avenue, dining on deep-dish pizza, and visiting the Art Institute of Chicago, I only moved to wherever the strongest wifi connection streamed in my house, so I went from my standing desk in an unair-conditioned bedroom to the kitchen table with a view of the front door. By the end of the course, I realized I didn’t need to travel through O’Hare Airport to arrive at a new destination of understanding; I did find perks to this online course–I observed and experienced really good online instruction. These take-aways eased my anxiety about synchronous teaching this fall, if remote learning becomes the path for our district. 

  1. Handle the unusual circumstances that will occur when school intersects with home life with a sense of humor and understanding. I needed to let my instructor know that there might be a few minutes when I would have to step away from my screen to let in the HVAC repair guy and the dryer delivery guy, and deal with household issues. My instructor’s response was “No problem. I’ll add AC Repair guy to Zoom Bingo, along with kids and pets entering participants’ screens.” Her understanding and good sense of humor helped put me at ease, and I need to remember to approach situations with teenagers at their intersection of home and school with a similar attitude. As I sat in my kitchen, all of the exposed drywall appeared in the screen behind me. It must have been obvious that this course interrupted much needed kitchen renovations. While I fretted and fixated on what my classmates might think of ripped drywall behind me, I realized I was acting like an adolescent–worried about one hair out of place that others don’t see. I may have to help students work through any self-consciousness issues about appearing on camera in front of their peers, so again, humor and understanding should help. 
  1. Create a template or graphic organizer for classmates to take notes during introductions. How will students get to know any of their classmates from home? When we began introducing ourselves, I instinctively took notes to match people’s names with what state they were from and what classes they teach in case I needed to know that for later conversations and group work. I’m not sure it will occur to my students to do the same. Since I teach 9th grade classes, my students will not know half of their classmates who come to the high school from the other middle school. Helping students find ways to connect with each other is necessary and a task that I will have to be more explicit in creating activities or graphic organizers for students to replace organic connections that happen in the classroom setting. We will have a stronger classroom community online if students have a charted or structured way to remember each other. 
  1. Make sure digital copies of all texts are available online, and help students navigate the tabs. The two books and materials I needed for the course never arrived, but at least links for online digital copies were provided. Having multiple tabs open for the digital versions of the books, Canvas, and Zoom was tricky for me, and I would have preferred to have had the two books in front of me with fewer tabs open. From my experience, I hope to remember to provide students with the digital copies, but also to try and find ways for them to access a hard copy, or at least streamline the tabs and windows open for them. Other group members felt sorry for those of us who still had not received the books, so they volunteered to be the group recorders to save us from having to open yet another tab. In appreciation for our group members typing on the slides for us, we would take on the role of speaker. With my students this fall,  I must take into consideration the number of tabs they have open and their ease of switching from one to the other. I may need to suggest roles or accommodations based on how well students can navigate with the open windows and apps. 
  1. Effective group work and team writing conferences can happen with Zoom breakout rooms or the Google Meet equivalent. We logged onto Zoom every day from 9AM – 5PM. Having attended a few Zoom events with family and friends during the spring, I knew about Zoom fatigue. How could we ever survive 9-5 synchronous learning via Zoom? The Zoom breakout rooms with group slides to record our key discussion points allowed participants to have smaller conversations and get to know each other better which varied the pacing of the lesson. The active Google Slides allowed the instructor to monitor each group’s progress, and she could send us chat messages in our separate groups. A special help button appeared in the breakout room which brought the instructor into the smaller group conversation if we had a question. The first time we broke down into the smaller group, I couldn’t follow the slides, Zoom screen, and the other tabs. I volunteered to be the recorder for our group, but I wrote our notes on the wrong slides that belonged to another group. Note to self–maybe color-code the group slides and group numbers to help students as challenged as I was. Sometimes, I could feel my anxiety level rising just knowing the next lesson on the agenda was a breakout room. This was a good reminder for me about how some students can be intimidated by group work. The Google Slides for each breakout room is a great way for groups to be held accountable for producing work, but also for the teacher to monitor what happens in the small groups. Next on my to-do list is to experiment with Google’s version of breakout rooms. 
  1. Maintain a consistent structure with clear expectations to alleviate student anxiety. At the end of each day, we completed a Google Form exit ticket with 4-5 reflection questions, and then we began the next class with the instructor answering our questions. This next morning review helped reinforce key ideas and provide a springboard for the day’s new lessons and material. The slides for this class had a very consistent format with a defined icon or image to represent each book for further clarification. We knew what to do based on the consistent organization of the slides. Our instructor also set clear expectations that our video cameras must be turned on for attendance purposes, so this let us know how we needed to be present in our digital community. When the agenda allowed for workshop time, because the work assigned to us was so meaningful to us, we did not waste our independent time or become distracted; instead, we reached out to our instructor when we needed help since she remained on the Zoom call for coaching.  By crafting meaningful writing assignments and creating purposeful time for students, I can increase the chances that they will want to write and conference with me. While in school under normal circumstances, I look for ways to vary the lessons, room, groupings, etc. However, in an online setting, consistency and simplicity become more important. The small details matter in making sure the learning proceeds smoothly. 

One week of online learning doesn’t make me an expert, so I know I have more homework to do. Leaving politics aside and knowing myself best, I will feel better being prepared for whatever scenario develops. I signed up for a webinar this Friday sponsored by the National Education Association, “Safely Returning to In-Person Instruction” to help me think about issues that I haven’t even considered yet if we return to brick and mortar school this fall. No matter what our district decides, I should definitely read this article from “How Brain Research Helped Retool Our School Schedule for Remote Learning” so I continue to upgrade my tech skills. While I probably won’t be most concerned about assembling bulletin boards or brain break activities in my physical classroom, I can certainly do more reading and research lounging on my porch in the shade. 

I keep having to remind myself that this is a different summer, and just so, preparation for the next school year also looks different. Wrapping our heads around so many unknown factors can be frustrating for sure, but time spent thinking about a foundation with a solid structure and organization that promotes stability is key. The best elements of in-person instruction like group-work, clear directions, consistent structures, and simplified organization can be implemented or altered slightly to fit digital, synchronous learning. 

And here is the best news–Clorox wipes are back on the shelves again at my grocery store which means whether we teach from home or in the classroom, we got this!

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.

Distance Learning: Re-Placing Play

by Bob Zakrzewski

Early on, though, I realized that the same music placed in a different context can not only change the way a listener perceives that music, but it can also cause the music itself to take on an entirely new meaning.  Depending on where you hear it—in a concert hall or on the street—or what the intention is, the same piece of music could either be an annoying intrusion, abrasive and assaulting or you could find yourself dancing to it.  How music works, or doesn’t work, is determined not just by what it is in isolation (if such a condition can ever be said to exist) but in large part by what surrounds it, where you hear it, and when you hear it. (9)

David Byrne, How Music Works (2012)

In How Music Works, David Byrne frequently returns to how place influences music’s creation and reception.  Massive cathedrals inspire tones fitting that resonant setting, while open air performances permit more percussion.  Likewise, the tune you jam to on your Friday ride home poorly accompanies your Sunday morning coffee.  And as much as technology allows us to create and access music in ways unthinkable decades ago, it has not altered this relationship between sound and setting; the value of one still varies with the influence of the other.

This spring’s many comic and heartfelt internet posts documented teachers’ awkward scramble moving classrooms to their socially distant, online settings.  Although e-learning isn’t new, educators at all levels immediately encountered its challenges.  With some (but not much) hindsight, we note a wild range of experiences, impacted by everything from student age and ability to economic gaps to administrative support.  And now, with a moment to catch our breath, we remain cautious before doing so, keeping six feet from potential infection or political judgement based on whether or not we wear a mask.

What does that mean for the 20-21 school year?  Like most, I have to wait and see.

Unknowns spike my anxiety, and this one sparks worries I never thought I’d consider.  But my concern here isn’t me.  After all, I am 43 with many aspects of my life more or less settled, such as my family, my career, and a sense of what I need to function best.  For high school students, these anxieties resonate differently.  It reminds me of Paul Bäumer’s comment in Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front about how older soldiers could handle the chaos of war better than the young, having lived long enough to amass experience and create some stability, some faith in how life works and where they fit.  Paul’s teenage peers faced their scary new reality knowing nothing else, scarring them deeply, making them faithless and lost.

I don’t like Covid-19 war metaphors, and I am not claiming our students face the equivalency of trench warfare.  But hopefully you see my point.  Like how music hit my sixteen-year-old ears differently than today, young people are confronting (or denying) their realities in ways I cannot assume to understand because I was once their age.  Now there’s a real possibility I will again need to find the common ground between their perspectives and our course content outside of the place I’ve learned to do this best, our classroom.

Most teachers understand this.  Each class becomes a collaborative space unique to its participants, taking on its own personality, its own life.  Even before Covid-closures, technology pushed this space beyond its walls, often with benefits.  Teaching since 1999, I’ve witnessed implementation of teacher email, online gradebooks, and tools like Blackboard, Moodle, and Google Classroom all changing communication.  And as in many professions, this spring pushed education into video conferencing, Zooming off into new possibilities and frustrations.

Returning to How Music Works, Byrne traces a timeline of sound recording technology from ensembles in rooms with one microphone to individuals isolated in soundproof booths. Throughout this span, innovations spurred creativity, as early multitracked and meticulously mixed wonders by artists like The Beach Boys and The Beatles proved.  But it also obstructed something communal and organic.  (The Beatles’ goal for what became their final album Let It Be was to record as a group again, hoping to recapture the fading joy of playing together like when they started.)  Today, digital technology makes recording and editing isolated tracks even easier, yet many bands still find their most exciting ideas arriving unexpectedly when playing together.

Playing together.  I love how that’s what musicians call it.  Playing instruments.  Playing songs.  Not working—playing.  Maybe that’s what sparks teenage rock star dreams: the idea of playing for a living.

Although I’m happy with my alternate career, I’ve never called it playing, but perhaps I’m a product of my time.  In my twenty years teaching, the technology I referenced has made the job easier but also more stressful: emails allow students or parents to vent frustration without looking you in the eye and online gradebooks grant concerned eyes access to a teacher’s ability to assess timely and accurately.  In the early 2000s, No Child Left Behind took hold as I struggled to find my teacher-self in a school that annually fell short of state determined “Adequate Yearly Progress”.  This ushered in data-driven instruction with all its charts and rubrics, turning reading into a sum of skills and writing into a formula.  More recently, I’ve had in-services about rigor, grit, and resilience, words that mean well but connotate no place for play.

Now is the time for play to return to English classrooms—online and off.  Contrary to how this may sound, this is not a call to work less.  In fact, any teacher knows coming up with creative, inspiring lessons is more challenging than providing rote busywork.  It also takes courage, as the success of these can vary wildly from class to class, year to year.  You need to be able to own it when it’s not working and change course if needed.  You need to be able to handle the flood of questions from students more attuned to rote learning, assuaging anxiety as they meet the discomfort of creative risk-taking, the messiness of play.  And then there’s assessment.  How do you objectively grade student assignments that don’t follow a formula?  Projects that involve different students making different things, all for a common standard?  How will this prepare them for next year, for college, for careers, for life?

These questions and more hinder play in our classes, yet I will repeat, we need it now more than ever.  As our country stubbornly seeks normalcy, glaring reminders remain of the seriousness and strangeness of life in a pandemic.  Even if we recapture some aspects of our old lives (The Onion said it perfectly in a recent headline: “City Enters Phase 4 of Pretending Coronavirus Over”), the return to school in whatever form that takes will harshly re-remind us how much our familiar routines have changed.  Add a contentious (to put it lightly) Presidential election fueling deeply personal conflicts and tensions, and anxiety abounds.

In response, English teachers must remember our subject, like music, is one of the arts.  There’s no need to mimic STEM subjects or feel slighted by their growing enrollments and boasts of preparing for lucrative careers.  Our students need the humanness of the humanities more than ever, so offer them the opportunity to create, express, and explore (all aspects of play) their humanity as much as you can.

Can this happen while “Distance Learning”?  Not like in our classrooms, but I think so.  And this is my point: we cannot recreate online what we do in person, so we should not waste energy trying.  As in music, setting has enormous influence.  Our energy needs to go toward creative projects that may stray from or even neglect our traditional curriculum while better engaging our students within the online format.

Our recent quick-switch to online learning was rightfully met by most districts, states, and even the College Board with an easing of requirements, hoping to accommodate the largest number of students for success.  I assume another closure will involve less leniency, citing more time for preparation and stressing higher standards.  I am not arguing against this.  But I don’t want teachers interpreting this pressure as a need to recreate digitally what we do in our classrooms.  Technology is helpful and, as it did for music, opens many doors, but it doesn’t recreate all that happens in a room full of people.  Focusing on doing so is misguided.  Rather, our focus must be on allowing students to gain the equally essential insights that come from play.

I’ve purposely offered few specifics here.  Like how displaying one student example tends to get many following that lead, I don’t want to imply there is a best way to play.  Nonetheless, here is an idea from my online classes last spring.  Using Google Sites, my students built personal websites that included video, audio, photos, and writing, all organized and customized to their liking.  Their sites displayed reflections on books, movies, shows, and music.  They shared their personal writing, essays, poetry, art, photography, memes, video blogs, podcasts, songs, and relevant links.  Every site was different.  Some went far beyond my expectations while others fell short of a fairly low bar.  For a first run, I’d call them successful, but (as is always true in teaching) I have ideas for improving them next time around.

Play looks different from teacher to teacher and student to student, but we can’t let that stop us.  Much bigger worries fill our and our students’ lives.  The English classroom can counter them as a place for students to find, develop, and express voices in manners and modes that suit them best.  Assessment can exist without rigidity, and learning can reap rewards beyond a grade.  While the world supplies the rigor, now is the time to provide a place to play.

Bob Zakrzewski is a 2009 PAWLP Fellow.  Teacher since 1999, he currently teaches English at Strath Haven High School and Cabrini University.

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?

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