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by Abigail Turley

Last fall, I decided I’d had enough of the traditional syllabus or course outline that either sat in my students’ notebooks untouched or ended up in the trash unread. I’d rather get to know my students before I put on paper some kind of calendar or sequence of units, which I’d never be able to stick to anyway.

My co-teacher and I came up with an interactive stations activity to help students physically navigate the classroom, get to know the teachers and the classroom norms, and learn about the course content through collaboration and inquiry. We were thrilled at the results: loads of engagement and a culture of community and respect.

We vowed to never handout the traditional syllabus again.

Now that we are virtual, I’m thinking of ways to turn the traditional syllabus into an ACCESSIBLE and ACCESSED online resource for students. The purpose of this “syllabus” changes a bit when we are in a virtual environment, doesn’t it? I want to create a culture of trust, autonomy, respect, and community while introducing some important information that students will need to know for navigating this new learning experience. I need to introduce them to the learning space, help them create new understandings of participation, and encourage them as they rethink collaboration. My syllabus needs to be constructed in a way that supports them in these endeavors.

The platform is important. Of course, your LMS would be an easy way to create and post the info. But linking to Google Slides or Padlet would offer some visual appeal as well as streamlined organization. Keeping all of the important beginning of the year info in one place will be helpful to my students and their caregivers.

Now let’s make it visually appealing. How about embedding a video where you talk through a part of your syllabus, demonstrate how to use an online learning platform, or introduce yourself? Those trendy Bitmoji classrooms provide visual hyperlinks to resources and information.

How do we decide what to include in this new syllabus? I’ve been thinking about what I would need as a virtual learner: a syllabus that addresses my fears about virtual learning, what I want to know that I can’t find out by looking around a classroom or asking the kid next to me, and what will help me as I work independently and asynchronously.

Check to see if a student can answer all of these questions by referring to your virtual syllabus:

  1. How do I reach the teacher?
  2. What is this course about?
  3. What are the major units of study and how will choice be part of the units?
  4. Where do I find (materials, resources, assignments, recorded lessons, live Zoom links)?
  5. How do I access texts, both assigned and independently chosen?
  6. What do I do if I’m going to be absent or need an extension?
  7. What are your expectations of me as a learner?
  8. What are my rights as a learner?
  9. What do my caregivers need to know to support me at home?
  10. How do I know that you trust and respect me?

What I will not include:

  1. Weighting, points, or any other mention of grades
  2. A late policy or anything that deducts points for lateness based on any formula

These two things go against my pedagogy and do not fit my purpose: to create a culture of trust, autonomy, respect, and community while introducing some important information that students will need to know for navigating this new learning experience.

I don’t envision this new virtual syllabus as anything like my old once-and-done, set-in-stone photocopied paper. It’s a living, breathing, evolving space. I imagine it will grow and change as I get to know my students and their strengths and needs.

Out with the old, in with the new. Let’s toss that old digital file in the trash and rethink the syllabus.

Abigail Turley is a 2019 Writing Project fellow. She is beginning her 22nd year as a high school English teacher in the West Chester Area School District, and she works as an independent literacy consultant. Abigail is currently preparing for virtual teaching and learning alongside her husband, also a teacher, and her three children who will be completing 5th grade, 9th grade, and freshman year in college online. In her free time, she enjoys peace and quiet and books. You can find more of her virtual teaching tips by searching the hashtag #twominutepd on Instagram.

Call for Blog Posts

The PAWLP Blog would like to hear from you! How has distance learning and/or summer professional development helped you to prepare for the 2020-2021 school year? How are you re-envisioning your brick and mortar best practices to meet the needs of online and hybrid teaching?

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.

What My Bike Has Taught Me About White Privilege

via What My Bike Has Taught Me About White Privilege

A Positive Mindset in the NEW NORMAL

by Eileen T. Hutchinson

At PAWLP’s winter conference, renown author and guest speaker, Angela Stockman shared her maker movement, design thinking philosophy to motivate reluctant writers towards new creative ideations. Her expertise, insights, and passion with varied 2.0 digital platforms was very contagious in keeping the energy alive in writer’s workshop. So intrigued with her diverse, successful classroom experiences, I purchased her latest book, Hacking the Writing Workshop, to add new sprinkles of ingenuity in my own writing lessons. Angela really challenged my thinking and mindset to get more tech savvy to reach my learners, but then I returned on Monday back to my remedial instruction with 6, (K-5) Title 1 groups and testing. I placed her book on the shelf for a summer read due to the daily demands of my job.

How ironic–6 weeks later, our normal teaching routines came to a halt with the sudden closing of schools due to Covid-19. In a flash, I was hit like a tsunami; I needed to readjust my paradigms pronto to reach my students with the new demands of distance learning.

The NEW NORMAL came into implementation with lots of uncertainty and anxiety. So, this distance learning curve with daily Zoom meetings or Google classroom was a 180 degree learning curve for me. While my district used Seesaw and Schoology, I only dabbled in their functions due to the demands of testing/reports, progress monitoring, and child study meetings. Exploring these platforms further always remained a job on my to-do lists.

Distance learning changed that. With a renewed commitment, focus, lots of PD training as well as 1-1 meets with colleagues, I jumped on the bandwagon, learning how to navigate Zoom sessions with wait rooms, virtual backgrounds, shared screens, and a white board with annotations. Within weeks, I was quite proud to have my 6 groups up and running with 2 live weekly Zoom sessions and follow-up activities in Seesaw, Schoology, and group emails. I even held some 1-1 sessions with readers and their parents to work on specific literacy goals. 

Now, almost through the summer, I am proud to be an employee for West Chester Area School District that has been offering continued PD opportunities throughout the last five weeks with varied topics based on teachers’ needs and interests. We have an amazing technology team who has worked relentlessly with teachers on all kinds of digital 2.0 topics for instruction. Thank goodness the sessions are recorded and archived in a digital library for review and reference. Even as a seasoned educator, I have to admit that I enjoyed learning about distance learning. The PD sessions re-energized my spirit for teaching. I highly recommend using your district PD to broaden your understanding of the platforms and resources within your school as well as taking advantage of the many webinars being offered to assist educators during this transition period.

Along with embracing life-long learning and seeking opportunities for professional growth, I had the wonderful opportunity to teach a cyber writing camp to rising star fifth graders which has opened new doors for me.


As we gear up for a new kind of school year, whether virtual or a hybrid model, personalized instruction with live Zoom lessons, Google classroom, teacher LOOM videos, student-friendly rubrics and audio/video comments will be welcomed on your district platforms for increased engagement and student achievement. With that said–BEWARE!! There is a wealth of platforms, resources, and learning tasks out in our ever-changing cyber world–INFORMATION OVERLOAD! My advice–Be SELECTIVE and REFLECTIVE as the old saying goes–Less is More! With confidence, find the platform/s, resources, and activities that work BEST for you to master in greater depth and understanding. Put your best foot forward each day, knowing you have your students’ best interests at heart.


Eileen T. Hutchinson is a veteran reading specialist at Exton Elementary in the West Chester Area School District. She is a proud PA Literature and Writing fellow for the project since 1999. She has been a site coordinator and writing teacher for the youth summer programs in varied districts. She has coordinated e-poetry contests previously through the project and presently in her district with writing scholarships from educational grants. With a passion for fine arts, music, and writing, she enjoys sharing her synergized visions and creative spirit in school-wide literacy events.

Call for Distance Learning Blog Posts

The PAWLP Blog would like to hear from you! How has distance learning and/or summer professional development helped you to prepare for the 2020-2021 school year? How are you re-envisioning your brick and mortar best practices to meet the needs of online and hybrid teaching?

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.


Teacher to Teacher: Building Community in a Virtual Setting

by Lynne R. Dorfman

In the beginning of the new school year, establishing a strong class culture is our first priority, whether we are face-to-face or virtual. We cannot assume that this culture exists, even if many of the students have had other shared classroom experiences. Last year, we started online classes in March or shortly thereafter. Students and teachers had to make big adjustments in how they navigated a school day.

In a traditional classroom, there are practices that most teachers use to build a classroom community. In shifting to online learning, things are going to look different, but a community of learners can be built in the online setting based on the same core values of a traditional classroom setting: trust, respect, human kindness, and responsibility. It is possible to stir excitement and fun into our virtual classroom, and we can begin with opportunities to build personal relationships with our students and help them to get to know each other as well.

One thing you should try to do as a teacher is to get to know your students’ names as quickly as possible and something about them that will help you make a connection with each and every student in your classroom. If it is possible, ask students to send you a photo with a sentence or two about what they love to do in school and at home. You could create a slide deck in Google Slides with space for your students to upload images of themselves, their pets, and things they enjoy doing. Visuals are a great way for students to connect with classroom members in your virtual classroom community. Your school may be able to provide you with a picture file, or you can take a screenshot of each student with a good camera, but either way, you’ll want to find out what your students are interested in.

Take a quick survey. Ask students to fill out an online interest survey. If they are young, spend a week to highlight five or six students every day and ask them two or three questions to give you some information. You might ask them about their reading interests, their favorite foods if they have siblings or pets, and something about them, their favorite school subject, their favorite game (indoor and/or outdoor). What would they like to learn about this school year?  Be sure to model with your own responses to the interest survey you are giving your students.

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Summer Learning and Collaboration Generate Insight for the 2020-2021 School Year

by Lauren Heimlich Foley @lheimlichfoley

Since distance learning started, Teams, Zoom, and FaceTime have been lifelines to “see” family and friends, work with students, speak with colleagues, and attend professional development. In July, I had the opportunity to experience a variety of online learning spaces. Sliding between teacher, student, participant, mentor, and colleague has given me an interesting perspective that I will bring to my classroom this coming school year. The biggest insight came from my school’s summer reading-writing club, the webinars and meetings I attended, and the informal, collegial meetups.

Community—Our Human Connection

In my brick and mortar classroom, connections blossomed naturally. We started our class period like any “adult” meeting: students settled themselves into their seats and caught up with friends for a few minutes. When I dimmed the lights, students found a place to pause before diving into their books. After whispered student-teacher conferences, our room erupted with conversation dedicated to reading—extensions, connections, observations, etc. A similar independent and collaborative process resumed for mini-lessons and workshop time.

Community makes the writing-reading workshop thrive, and this summer I have seen how powerful conversations and face-to-face communication can be. The summer reading-writing club meets once a week. As everyone joins the meeting, we chat about our weeks, asking about new movies, adventures, experiences, foods, books, writing pieces, etc. The small talk connects us to shared and new experiences, which in turn supports our readerly and writerly conversations.

Similarly, when I meet with one of my professors, Dr. Buckelew, and with colleagues to collaborate on professional development, our conversations naturally start with some chit chat—we are yearning for human connection during a time that threatens to separate it. Colleagues of mine at Central Bucks shared how during distance learning they started meetings five to ten minutes before the official lesson time, so students could chat with one another. Another teacher asked his high schoolers to participate in an adapted version of show and tell where students displayed something from their home on the screen. Hearing these experiences reminds me of the importance to use the time when together to be together. This is the time where knowledge is constructed and extended and students are a beehive of activity.

Something else that struck me is the rich, small-group conversations. My small-group, optional Teams meetings during distance learning revealed the power of collaboration and meaningful talk; they built community for the participating students. This importance has been echoed throughout July in the many small-group chats I have been a part of. I am exploring the logistics of running multiple small-group middle school Teams meetings without a teacher present in order to have these conversations happening simultaneously. I have so enjoyed Zoom breakout rooms and want to create a similar opportunity for my students. Recording all sessions may be the answer as well as Mike Caulfield’s suggestion of a shared class document where students record answers and meeting notes for the teacher to review in real time.

I have also learned how the camera fosters deeper connections. While I am not always comfortable with turning my camera on—and I know my students are not either—seeing a smiling face on the screen is so inviting. My favorite peer interactions are always digital face-to-face meetings. This coming year, I am going to step out of my comfort zone and show my face, and I will invite my students to do the same.

Additionally, while I feared that the chat option would be distracting to students, it has proven otherwise. Establishing clear expectations prior to, or at the start of, the meeting is a big help. During the summer club, teacher conversations, webinars, nErD Camp PA, and the NWP marathon, the chat provided a place to ask questions, share writing, recommend books, post links, etc. It enriched the learning experience. I want to incorporate the chat in my classes as a way to enhance our communication

The last—and perhaps most surprising—way I felt like a member of a community this July was reading and writing online together. I have been amazed by how good it feels to write, knowing that other people are writing with me. During distance learning, reading and writing happened asynchronously. Then, my colleague suggested that we create time to read and/or write during our summer club. This experience along with the NWP marathon revealed how writing and/or reading “with” other people (for 10 to 20 minutes) creates a sense of community because the share time after is so rich with ideas and feedback. I am still deciding whether or not my classes will turn their cameras off during this time or leave them on.

A virtual and hybrid community also extends to the work I do with my fellow teachers. Reaching out, holding social gatherings, attending meetings, and collaborating develops our sense of belonging. I have truly loved attending webinars and conferences last month. I know that working with colleagues during distance learning and over the summer has helped me to feel connected. A friend of mine included my creative writing and revisions as a mentor text for her students, and she shared a mini-lesson with me. Recently, a colleague of mine suggested “guest speakers;” students view pre-recorded lessons by other teachers in your department. I am excited to try this with teachers who also use a writing-reading workshop framework. Even though Covid-19 collaboration may look different, I will continue re-creating my teacher communities to support and learn from one another in digital spaces.

Real Time–It Won’t be Perfect

When interacting with people virtually, we often invite them into our homes, and meetings are recorded. Early on, I expected these experiences to be like scripted and edited movies. But, they are not. There is a vulnerability that I faced as my professional and personal worlds blended together and the realization that on camera bloopers were bound to happen. During these last few weeks, I realized that I am not alone. In the various online spaces I participated in, interruptions happened: unpredictable pets, impromptu family guests, home phones blaring, and doorbells ringing to name a few. But, there were interruptions in the brick and mortar class too: cell phones accidentally ringing, school phones calling for students, fire and intruder drills, altered schedules for special occasions, bathroom breaks, and critter crawlers on the floor.

I have learned that certain strategies can help me when teaching online: turning off my video if I need to walk through my house to find a better Internet connection, keeping my charger close, and silencing my phone. I have also set aside a room or area—even turned a table around so my camera faces a wall—to prevent my family walking past my screen. When a parent or sibling joins a conversation or a student overstays a Teams meeting, I have discovered some “exit lines” that help me steer or end a conversation. These lines can also be helpful for students if a parent walks into a room or their dog starts barking. Understanding that we are not meeting in a bubble and that there may be some type of disruption has helped me prepare for—and embrace—the unknown.

Technology difficulties can be frustrating and pose another type of interruption. In the last few weeks, I have experienced webinar presenters unable to share their PowerPoint; the Internet breaking up so I could not hear a participant speaking; student issues with their microphones; computers shutting off because of no charge; and forgetting to unmute the microphone before talking. I even accidentally kicked a student out of the summer club meeting instead of making them an attendee. In all of these scenarios, each person tried to remain calm and explained the problem. Everyone provided support, encouragement, and understanding. If anything, these struggles forged a stronger bond with the group. And, with some troubleshooting, the problem was fixed.

The last big takeaway relates to establishing guidelines. When I attended nErD Camp PA’s virtual conference, each session moderator reviewed the rules for the chat: anything inappropriate resulted in the prompt removal of the individual from the conference. Although my students and I review class expectations early on in the school year and we may review discussion board or small-group guidelines as needed, this constant reminder each Teams meeting or discussion board might be an important component. During distance learning, I sent out an email to the students participating in the optional Teams meetings. It was a way to establish a time, share their work with the group, and remind them of the rules. If there are regularly scheduled meeting times, the email may not be necessary anymore; however, making the expectations present in other ways will be important.

With each new virtual learning opportunity, I consider how I can bring my experiences and knowledge into my classroom. I am remind that I am trying something for the first time like everyone else, and it will not be perfect. Technology has its struggles whether we are in the brick and mortar classroom or online. But, most importantly, I am learning with my students and with my colleagues. I am excited to bring these ideas to my blended and/or online writing-reading workshop for the 2020-2021 school year.

Call for Distance Learning Blog Posts

The PAWLP Blog would like to hear from you! How has distance learning and/or summer professional development helped you to prepare for the 2020-2021 school year? How are you re-envisioning your brick and mortar best practices to meet the needs of online and hybrid teaching?

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.

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.