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Posts tagged ‘distance learning’

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.


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.

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: 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?

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: Twitter Offers Remote Professional Development

by Lauren Heimlich Foley @lheimlichfoley

Twitter is the best distance learning for teachers!

I resisted Twitter for a long time. Despite what my friends, colleagues, and mentors said, I was not interested in joining another social media. Facebook was enough for me—or so I thought.

In teacher circles, I started to hear Twitter mentioned as a place for online professional development as well as professional networking. Chats, live videos, and events offered online spaces for people to join academic conversations and talk with like-minded individuals. Next came people asking for my Twitter handle. When I said I wasn’t on yet, people were shocked.

Then, for Dr. Famiglietti’s class, Composing in the Attention Economy, joining social media became a requirement. By spring 2020, I felt ready to tackle the Twitter adventure and signed myself up. I began following colleagues, teacher-researchers, and authors. I cultivated my own online professional development community. However, from March to May, I only checked Twitter a few times, and I posted nothing for fear of making a Twitter faux pas.

Once school ended, I decided that summer 2020 would be the season of Twitter. Like any new writing genre, I started to notice people’s tweets and used these posts as mentor texts. I also followed more people and organizations. The amount of information and new ideas surprised me; I had no idea what I had been missing out on.

June 27th marked the date of my first tweet. Since Saturday, I found exciting professional development opportunities and book release information. Here are my top 3 finds:

  • @nErDCampNJ1 tweeted author panel links.
  • @ncte shared that Jason Reynold’s Long Way Down will be a graphic novel.
  • @somaiyadaud posted the release of her 2nd book—Court of Lions which is available August 4, 2020. I have been waiting 2 years for this! Read Mirage first; it is book 1 in the series.

In just 3 days, I have realized that Twitter is the best distance learning for teachers. I am so very excited to be joining the Twitter universe. If you are not on yet, definitely sign up!