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.
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