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.
(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.
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