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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.

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: 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!

You’re Cordially Invited: Design Your Personalized English Teacher Summer Camp

by Lauren Heimlich Foley

“PAWLP’s Invitational Writing Institute is summer camp for English teachers!”

I made this declaration the second week of my institute in 2017—and I meant every word of it. The institute revealed how much I missed immersing myself in reading, writing, and researching.

The last two summers, I have designed my own independent writing institute of sorts. I set goals and outlined “assignments” to complete. I collected texts and ideas as I went, joining book clubs, connecting with colleagues, presenting, and establishing writing and reading routines.

For this summer, I am in the process of creating a personalized summer camp syllabus to guide my creative and professional exploration. Here is what I have so far:

1. Creative Writing and Writing Process Reflections

After the institute, I started to use the quick write time with my students to focus in on my creative writing interests. Before, my notebooks were filled with random ideas, inspired by the quick write’s topic of inspiration. Instead, I began to focus on my creative interests and love of dystopian and sci-fi stories. As I generated ideas based on genre and craft, a storyline and character started to take shape. The more I stuck with this inspiration, the more the idea developed. I shared and shaped my ideas with students, family, and friends. Not only did this experience enhance my own writing process, but also I was able to talk to my students about how they might use quick writing to focus on specific interests of theirs or to develop their Self-Selected Writing pieces. Although I had suggested this in the past, I started to nudge students more. Now, I am nudging myself to complete a messy first draft by the start of the school year.

My colleague at Lenape Middle School, Christy Venters, and I will be hosting Lenape’s first virtual Reading-Writing Summer Club, starting next week. We are excited to support our students’ reading and writing as well as offer some much needed socializing since many of them are still feeling the isolation of social distancing. I am also looking forward to sharing my work and receiving feedback.

Although I have always been a reflector and instilled this in my students with metacognitive reflections, my spring 2020 grad class, Composing in the Attention Economy, with Dr. Famiglietti pushed me to take my thinking further. After discussing options for the scope of my web presence assignment, Dr. Famiglietti suggested creating a blog that focused on my writing process. It has been a fun and eye-opening experience, pushing me to get into the trenches of my thinking and writing process. Over the summer, I will continue posting at least once a week.

  • Is there a creative or personal writing project you started but have not finished or have wanted to start but have not found the time?
  • What is holding you back?

I have always found that summer is a great way to jump into a project and nurture that creative side!

2. Research Interests

For this summer, I want to touch on the following research interests:

  • Creating student leaders within the writing-reading workshop
  • New teacher mentoring frameworks and pre-service programs
  • Digitizing the writing-reading workshop

I’ll spend time over the summer reading and studying books, articles, and studies. I’ll explore best practices and ways to re-imagine those best practices. And, I’ll pick a few ideas to write about whether for personal reflection, PAWLP blog articles, or posts on Yammer. I will check out the call for manuscripts for NCTE, CEL, NJCTE, PA Reads, The Amplifier Magazine, and other professional journals and organizations. Regardless of whether I submit or write a completed draft for any of these calls, the ideas will help me consider how I might enter into these academic conversations now or later.

Additionally, I will be gearing up to write my master’s thesis in the next year. I will use this summer and my research interests to focus in on my ideas and decide what avenue I would like to explore.

  • What do you want to learn more about?
  • What would you like to re-visit or investigate further?
  • How might researching your interests guide you to implement action research next school year?
3. Next/Best Practices

Two focus areas for me to hone this summer and put into practice next year will be utilizing Canvas and Teams to enhance distance learning and celebrating diversity through multicultural literature.

The two books that are starting out my inquiry on distance learning are Catlin Tucker’s Blended Learning in Grades 4–12 and Karen Costa’s  99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos. I will consider how I can best use Canvas and Microsoft Teams to enhance distance learning, the balance of asynchronous and synchronous learning, and the social and collaborative opportunities for students.  

To investigate how to further foster diversity through multicultural literature in my classroom, I am in the process of collecting books and articles that will drive my inquiry. I will reread Sara K. Ahmed’s Being the Change and Tanu Wakefield’s article “The ‘Close Reading’ of Multicultural Literature Expands Racial Literacy, Stanford Scholar Says”, and I will study Mathew R. Kay’s Not Light, But Fire. These along with other resources will ask me to reflect on the books my students have access to, the titles we book talk, and the whole-class and book club novels we read. They will help me to offer a variety of multicultural books, lead meaningful conversations, and invite students to expand on their thinking and world perspective.

  • What is something new you want to try out or feel is important to try out in your classroom?
  • What practices do you want to re-examine, re-study, or re-imagine?
  • How will investigating a topic or topics enhance your teaching philosophy and improve your students experience for the 2020-2021 school year?

I am looking forward to a balance of relaxation and rejuvenation this July and August. Between spending time outside, social distancing with family and friends, and attending my personalized summer camp, I know summer 2020 is going to be great.

If you have not participated in an Invitational Writing Institute, please treat yourself and sign up for summer 2021! This was one of my favorite professional experiences!

Distance Learning: Summer Reading Recommendations

by Lauren Heimlich Foley

Rita DiCarne and Kelly Virgin inspired this week’s blog post. Each summer I choose a combination of professional texts and YA novels to read. This July and August, one area I am focusing on is online learning, blended learning, and the digital workshop. I will not have time to read everything mentioned below but will use this post as a guide and reference point for my own learning. I hope it helps you to cultivate your professional development summer reading list.

1. Digital Writing-Reading Workshop

I mentioned the following two books—The Digital Writing Workshop by Troy Hicks and Adolescents and Digital Literacies by Sara Kajder—in my last distance learning blog post. I believe these texts are important for me to reiterate because they are foundational. If you have not read these books, I would highly recommend one or both to begin your journey at digitizing your writing-reading workshop. The theory, practical application, and resources will enhance your teaching whether you return to the brick and mortar classroom, remain distance learning, or teach a hybrid model. These books will serve as references as I continue to reflect on my own teaching practices. Looking ahead to next year, I want to explore more ways my middle schoolers can engage with texts they are reading whether a whole class novel, book club book, independent reading book, or online articles. I also want to cultivate additional online, real-world writing opportunities. The following titles will help me further hone my digital workshop best practices:

2. Creating Videos to Enhance Student Learning

At the end of the school year, I asked my students for feedback on distance learning. Three students mentioned that they greatly appreciated the PowerPoint lessons with my voice over. They also said my directions in Canvas were clear and easy to follow, but they asked for more videos and/or audio clips of me speaking the directions. They explained that reading the mentor texts, following along on the PowerPoints, and reviewing all of the written directions in Canvas added up to a lot of online reading. Not to mention when you multiply that routine times all of your classes. For the last week of school, I left a personalized message on the module overview page using the Canvas audio recorder. I liked the concept and wished I had discovered it sooner.

As I explored possible books for my summer read list, 99 Tips for Creating Simple and Sustainable Educational Videos caught my eye, especially “Tip 19: Take Students on a Tour.” In this section, Karen Costa suggests creating video virtual tours to “show” students how to navigate the learning management system. The video might review prior knowledge, module organization, course assignments, and weekly directions. After perusing more of the book on Google, I will be ordering my own copy as a reference.

3. Social Networking Influences on Adolescents

To better understand why social networking sites appeal to my teenage students, I want to read more about their digital, social lives and the psychology behind it. In learning about what makes them gravitate toward social media, I will be able to use Canvas, Microsoft Teams, and other technology platforms to further engagement students and enhance our digital workshop. As of now the following articles will assist me on this journey. I am currently looking for others and will comment on this post if/when I find additional titles.

4. Blended Learning

Blended learning may be a reality for many teachers this coming fall. Learning how to navigate and balance my brick and mortar best practices with technological enhancements will be important if I am going to create an engaging, meaningful, and relevant learning experience for my students. My district’s professional development secondary education coach, Michele Meyers, recommended Catlin Tucker’s books. Her blended learning philosophy will be of help as I envision my 2020-2021 classroom. She has many published books, resources, and videos on her website. I am still deciding whether I am going to order one or both of the following titles:

5. Structuring your Summer PD + Additional Resources

Dr. Buckelew shared the article “How I’m Spending My Pandemic Summer Vacation: A professor creates a syllabus to guide herself and other faculty members in preparing for more remote teaching this fall, amid Covid-19.” by Sarah Rose Cavanagh. The author’s voice is inviting, and she offers a plethora of reading options and great resources.

With the whole summer ahead of me, I am looking forward to enjoying the extra time to read and write for me, bird watching on my apartment balcony, finally getting to hang out with family and friends—six feet apart. This list of books and articles will guide my professional summer reading and help prepare me for the fall.

What resources are you using and what texts are you reading to prepare for the Fall 2020-2021 school year?

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-Imagining Student Conversations and Collaboration in the Digital Writing-Reading Workshop

by Lauren Heimlich Foley

At the end of each school year, I find myself reflecting. I wonder how I can enhance the order of my units, improve my mini-lessons and assignments, foster more meaningful student collaboration, and so forth. Students’ end of year reflections help me hone my best practices and prompt me to consider the ways I can better meet their needs. This year marked a first for me: asking my students to reflect on distance learning. Although there are best practices for the digital workshop, blended learning, and online teaching, teaching solely on the computer was something I had not yet studied or tried. I considered how best practices in the digital writing-reading workshop applied, contemplated my teaching philosophy, explored my district’s technology resources, and—most importantly–remembered my students.

During the last decade, my digital writing-reading workshop focused on a variety of digital, multigenre, and multimodal projects, the electronic portfolio, various online platforms to create and share work, and student collaboration using Microsoft products. These assignments were enhanced through student-student and student-teacher face-to-face conferences and conversations. Even when my district implemented Canvas, our learning management system, I balanced high- and low-tech assignments and class periods. I was cognizant that I re-defined the ways students used their laptops to ensure that technology enhanced and re-imagined materials, assignments, and collaboration instead of simply replacing pencil and paper and in-person interactions.

I found the discussion boards to be a strength of Canvas, but I did not want these blog-like forums to replace students’ verbal conversations. So, discussion boards became a place where they could post writing inspirations for their classmates, make book recommendations, receive feedback on writing assignments, publish their drafts, post a summary of their verbal table group discussion for the class, and share individual or group practice examples from mini-lessons. These boards housed information, writing pieces, feedback, and conversations for later reference and use.

Then, distance learning hit. I—once again—had to re-imagine how I could foster student conversations and collaboration as well as student-teacher conferences. One-on-one and small-group Canvas discussion boards and Microsoft Teams proved helpful. Weekly Canvas discussion boards enabled students to share their quick writes, book insights and recommendations, and drafting with their brick and mortar table groups. However, students often logged in to complete their work at different times. Although students could ask questions, offer answers, and leave feedback, their peers were not present to engage in real-time digital conversations. For our final unit, the electronic portfolio, I asked each class period to sign in at the same time so that they could read one another’s work and have conversations with each other. This invitation proved the most successful: it had the most participation. Additionally, our optional Teams meetings enabled students to ask questions, review directions, discuss books, and share writing pieces. Students signed up for these calls, and they left with new book titles, writing inspirations, and clarity.

Now, with more than a marking period of distance learning under my belt, I have begun to see its limits and possibilities. Armed with student reflections, my experiences, and new and old resources, I am asking myself these questions for the 2020-2021 school year:

  • How can I enhance distance learning practices to better meet the needs of my students?
  • How will distance learning change my best practices in the brick and mortar classroom?

Currently, I am exploring how Canvas and Teams can foster student conversations and collaboration. I returned to the work of Sara Kajder and Troy Hicks—two teacher researchers who, early on in my career, greatly informed my digital writing-workshop practices. The following research will inform my practices next year:

  • Lenhart et al. in “Teens and Social Media” (2009) posit, “The primary motivation for participation in a social network is to interact with friends and/or members of the participating community (as cited in Kajder, 2010, p. 18).
  • Ito et al. (2008) explain that digital adolescents use social networking spaces to “find a different network of peers and develop deep friendships through these interest-driven engagements, but in these cases the interests come first” (p. 14, as cited in Kajder, 2010, p. 18).
  • Students and teachers “can use blogs to offer responses in the form of posting, tagging, and commenting (Hicks, 2009, p. 41).
  • “Students can simply post responses to journal prompts or share links” and “they can write analyses of online materials, synthesizing across sources and building on their previous posts” (Hicks, 2009, p. 41).
  • “[Will] Richardson suggests that blogging invites writers to synthesize ideas and opens up conversation between writers through commenting on the posts of others and then incorporating those posts into one’s own writing” (Hicks, 2009, p. 41).
  • Blogging “demands that students read, respond, and write in ways that encourage more specific response and utilize features of a digital writing space. That is, students who blog are able to hyperlink to sources of information and inspiration, embed multimedia for specific rhetorical purposes, and engage in larger conversations about their topics” (Hicks, 2009, p. 41).

Kajder and Hick’s insight in social media networking and blogging is influencing the way I perceive Canvas discussion boards and Teams meetings. I am also considering how my students’ interests in YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Facetime, and other social media can give me insight into how I can appeal further to their digital, social lives.

My students’ feedback confirmed the desire to share more through discussion boards and have more opportunities to socialize in Teams. They enjoyed the portfolio publishing the most out of the publishing opportunities because their group members were all present. They wanted different groups to share with and a variety of discussion boards for different purposes. And, they liked being able to use text, audio, and/or video to post. Moreover, they preferred when the discussion boards remained open, so they could access them and post without time limitations. Students praised the one-on-one office hours discussion board which replicated the conferences I would hold during independent reading time and our workshop time. In terms of Teams, students wanted set times for regularly scheduled meetings. Some appreciated that these calls were optional while others would have preferred them being mandatory. A common thread that surfaced was the desire for more and varied opportunities to share with peers.

Next year, I will use Canvas and Teams to tap into my middle schoolers social and digital nature. They will have more online opportunities to forge connections with peers and make new friends while simultaneously thinking creatively, critically, and empathetically as they enhance their reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills.

I have been doing some brainstorming. Below are the ways I would like to employ Canvas and Teams next school year whether we are teaching remotely, in school, or a hybrid of both. Some ideas I have tried before in my brick and mortar classroom and during distance learning while others I will experiment with for the first time next year. I am sure this list will grow and change as the summer continues and once school starts.

Canvas Discussion Board Creation Notes

  • Create groups based on friends and interests.
  • Rotate groups weekly or by unit so students can interact with new/different classmates.
  • Include small-group and whole-class posting opportunities.
  • Create groups with students from my different class periods.
  • Vary what students are sharing and commenting on.
  • Consider the names of discussion boards to help students and me locate conversations.
  • Provide commenting sentence starters.
  • Set clear expectations.
  • Provide directions for using the boards.
  • Stress the different ways they can post information: text box entries, Office 365 uploads, attachments, pictures, audio recordings, and webcam videos.
  • Find out if there is a way to see all posts even if students edit or delete them.
  • Keep discussion boards open and ongoing.
  • Remind students that they can share digital media along with their own posts such as external links, videos, articles for research, links to books, pictures, music, videos, related online texts, etc.

Canvas Discussion Board Topics and Purposes

The following items could be adapted for small-group and whole-class discussion boards.

  • Collaboration: a place to share and create materials for group projects, to discuss book club books, and to receive feedback on writing components
  • Student examples for reading and writing mini-lessons
  • Receptacle of genre study or whole-call novel questions that other students and I can provide answers to
  • A place to share drafts throughout the writing process for revision and editing feedback as well as publication celebrations
  • Foster topic and genre brainstorming and rehearsing in which students ask each other to expand and reflect on their initial writing ideas
  • Conversations that build off of previous conversations with their peers or professional posts  
  • Replication of brick and mortar quick write shares and informal table group book talks
  • Book recommendations with links to Goodreads and/or Amazon for their peers’ further exploration
  • Create separate threads for students to reply to which would focus around student-selected texts for mini-lessons, poetry analysis, book passes, common themes in independent reading books, recommended books in different genres, genre study mentor texts, etc.
  • Create separate threads for jigsaw lessons
  • Sharing of mini-lesson ideas or workshop inspirations such as strong words I’d like to use in my own writing, literary devices, figurative language, conventions to experiment with, ways to include MLA in-text citations, authors’ mood and tone, etc.
  • First book chapter or page posts: reader responses, observations, recommendations, first impressions, etc.
  • Independent reading book posts: analysis, read like a writer observations, writing inspirations, and mini-lesson application

Teams Meetings to Support and Enrich Canvas Discussion Boards

  • Create a standard Teams meeting time each week. At this point, I am unsure whether attendance will be mandatory or encouraged, and I am waiting to see if there is a directive from my district.
  • Conduct small-group Teams meetings based on students’ needs and/or similar interests (e.g. table groups, weekly discussion board groupings, interests, genres, book topics or themes, and/or skills differentiation), which will either be mandatory or encouraged.
  • If we are back in the brick and mortar classroom, but social distancing, I can use Teams to have one-on-one or small-group conferences with students from across the room. I imagine us sitting six feet apart and plugging in our earplugs to quietly talk to one another.

Since my district has a partnership with Canvas and Microsoft, I am primarily using them; however, these ideas can be easily applied to a variety of platforms such as Google, Zoom, and Flipgrid. Kajder and Hicks also reference a variety of platforms that are available to teachers.

With summer almost here, I anticipate plenty more personal reflection and professional development. I look forward to what September brings.


Hicks, T. (2009). The digital writing workshop. Heinamann.

Kajder, S. B. (2010). Adolescents and digital literacies: Learning alongside our students. National Council of Teachers of English.

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