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Posts tagged ‘Molly Leahy’

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.

The Odyssey: My Distance Learning Journey

by Molly Leahy

The third marking period began with such promise after I attended an invigorating session with smart colleagues and new ideas at the PAWLP Day on February 8, 2020. I had a new stack of books recommended by keynote speaker, Angela Stockman, and after Dr. Emily Aguilo-Perez’s session, I was so excited to try zines with my students for our end of the year unit on Speak. Reconnecting with PAWLP Fellows restored my professional soul and rekindled creative energy during the season of hibernation. Just a month later, our school life and dependable bell school schedule morphed into the unknown with the closure of school and the start of our continuity of learning at home.

During this transition phase, my anxiety stemmed from trying to figure out how my real classroom could be repackaged, uploaded, and sent out electronically to our classroom community. One of Angela Stockman’s slides on that cozy Saturday in February, asked us to examine our own teacher heritage, or profile, with a slide entitled “How might you build your teacher identity?” This is what I struggled with the most during our two week period of preparing for learning to resume remotely on March 29th. Every year, I save the best pieces of literature for last, and I kick myself for never feeling like I have enough time before the bell rings for the summer break. This year’s crisis was not whether I had enough time for the works of literature, but rather deciding what was essential from the literature units. While many of our students have been working more hours because they are essential to the grocery stores and the nursing homes in our communities, I had to decide what was truly essential for my 9th grade English classes to do at home. Together, we managed to go on a journey.

From the start of this digital odyssey, I wish I could say I gained wisdom from Athena along the way, but like the great hero Odysseus, I made mistakes. For me, the Land of Lotus Eaters meant I was definitely eating comfort foods and emotionally eating over the stress of the news and my fear of online learning; I ignored my own goals of eating healthfully and exercising. Yoga pants or sweatpants—like the Lotus Eaters—are not my friends; they kept me from my goals and normalcy.

Fortunately, after adjusting and creating a routine that included more exercise, I was ready to hear from the Sirens, my students.  I was perhaps a bit too zealous right out of the gate on day two, creating a back together bingo based on their first writing prompt. Basically, I hosted a party and then sat there by myself wondering if I even copied the link for Google Meet Hangouts correctly. I think some students were too shy to use Google Meet. In some ways, I shared that feeling.

As I learned to overcome my own digital shyness, I knew I had to put myself and my image out there more—or maybe I needed to remember my teacher identity before downgrading to the sweatpants uniform. While I created my own read aloud videos with my IEP students in mind, I also needed to challenge my students who were headed into honors courses next year. Choice seemed important to include as a means to motivate all students, and I hoped their curiosity would compel them to click on links leading to enrichment.

I created a survey at the start of our online learning and then again at the midpoint. The survey assignments had the highest completion rate of all my assignments because students love to give their opinion, it’s not hard work, and they don’t have to worry about wrong answers. Mental note—how can I trick students into thinking every assignment is a survey? Their responses indicated that they wanted more

  • Interactive work
  • Opportunities for group work
  • Choices for some of our assignments

This was the proof I needed to make sure my digital classroom resembled the physical space I packed up way too early.

Sometimes lesson planning was like trying to navigate between Scylla and Charybdis. Each decision for the day’s lesson seemed to have unlimited possibilities, but hard decisions had to be made in determining essential skills and content. I questioned which path or approach would reach students best. My colleagues who serve as coaches throughout the district offered wise counsel, better than the advice Circe gave Odysseus. These sages led professional development online through Google Meet and provided directions and suggestions for many options and tools in our ever-increasing technology repertoire, arming me with edPuzzles, flipgrid, screencastify and loom—all nouns that did not exist in my early career lexicon. I could attend a session live and ask all of my questions, or I could log on later to the recorded session and review the lesson and all of the resources. Just like our PAWLP teacher consultants have always done, this professional development offered practical strategies to improve choice and communication, and best of all, the professional development served as a model for how I wanted to run lessons.

During another adventure, I didn’t quite crash the cave of Polyphemus, but I was led into the minds, homes, and lives of students through their writing. Between The Odyssey and Romeo and Juliet, students wrote a letter to their Future Self-Post Pandemic. As expected, the personal writing assignment resulted in more students completing their work, but reading their letters made me really regret that we weren’t all together in the classroom. I read letters from some students whose views seemed very limited, and then I read letters from students who experienced losing someone they loved to the virus, working more hours at nursing homes, or caring for their younger siblings while their parents went to work. I worried that without being back in the classroom together, our community of students wouldn’t be as empathetic. And then current events taught everyone in this country that we need to see other viewpoints and not be myopic monsters, but were my students paying attention and making connections?

I realize that I will need to adjust our typical-in-class-community-building work right away in the fall so that we can build a sense of community virtually where students feel they have a safe and trusted space to encounter honest dialogue with others who might have different views.

My students definitely did not adopt Penelope’s cunning and strategy from “Test of the Bow.”  Perhaps they were testing me—No, I’m sorry, just copying the brainstorming template and saving it to your Google folder doesn’t count as completed work! Clearly, I need to be more crafty in designing work that the students really want to engage in, and wow—doesn’t that critical thought bubble seem very familiar, so brick and mortar normal.

Odysseus made it back to Ithaca, although his home palace was a very changed place with a few more battles for him to win. We return in the fall for our new school year. At our very first digital in-service day last week, my department decided to start the next school year by planning as if we will be teaching remotely. This unified decision helped us to move past wondering what will happen, and it gave us back some control in our destiny. By using our newfound tech skills and by planning for remote learning, we can create our opening units to work for students whether they are with us in the building or at home. I know I can return to familiar territory: choice, connection, and community in the classroom. Somehow, I will navigate my way through self-selected reading to promote the love of reading even from afar. I have survey data to prove students crave interaction, and it turns out, I do know how to send out links for Google Meets correctly, so writing conferences can resume virtually.

Did I drag out the Odyssey longer than 10 years? Maybe, but ultimately, this teaching phase was really my very own odyssey with challenges, discoveries, and help along the way.  My teacher identity, carefully crafted after twenty-seven years, needed some hi-tech retooling, like Odysseus installing GPS. I learned I didn’t want to be forgotten. I mourned the loss of my favorite works in order to end the school year triumphantly. And maybe, my pride or ego got in the way as I tried to pare down the content or curriculum to only essential work for my students, our essential workers. Trying new teaching approaches remotely has felt like a digital shot in the dark, without experiencing any adolescent faces or groans—the typical feedback to gauge the success or failure of new ideas. However, this time of separation from students and a brick and mortar classroom presented much needed reflection on an unusual professional adventure, and I feel more confident about the next journey.

Molly Leahy teaches ninth grade English at William Tennent High School in Warminster, PA. The 2019-2020 school year was her first year returning to the classroom full-time after five years serving as the district’s Lead Teacher for RELA. This return to the classroom full-time sparked such joy that the closing of school seemed extra painful. The next adventure for her is teaching the school’s newest course, AP Research. Her experiences as a PAWLP Fellow and Institute co-director continue to guide her professionally and personally.

Call for Distance Learning Blog Posts

The PAWLP Blog would like to hear from you! What does 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.

Books on the Blog: The Tragedy Paper and Like Any Normal Day

by Molly Leahy

The Tragedy Paper

Leahy Blog 2 LaBanIn her first young adult novel, The Tragedy Paper, Philadelphia’s Elizabeth LeBan invites readers to an elite boarding school for dual story-telling. Readers follow Tim Macbeth, a new student who transfers to Irving School, as well as, Duncan Meade, who inherits Tim’s dorm room and his collection of CDs narrating a personal nightmare the previous school year. Both students are linked by English teacher Mr. Simon’s legendary writing assignment known as the Tragedy Paper.

A sign reading “Enter here to be and find a friend” greets students as they enter the school, and fortunately, Duncan has a core group of friends to help him through senior year, unlike Tim. Readers may recognize a classic love triangle between Tim, his only friend Vanessa Scheller, and her jerk boyfriend Patrick Hopkins. The Irving School Bulldogs read Moby Dick and Hamlet, while their English teacher Mr. Simon challenges them to understand themes such as magnitude, and order from chaos. LaBan creates true order from chaos in her choice of narrative structure, recorded CDs that captivate Duncan who can’t stop listening to Tim’s tale, just as readers can’t stop turning pages.  Read more

Energizing for the Long Haul

By Molly Leahy

            “We’re closed” I announced in rapid-fire snow chain speak. My student teacher’s disbelief and disappointment rang clearly over the phone. “Again? Ok,” she sighed, reminding me of someone I used to be.

            I felt like saying, “Oh you have a lot to learn about snow days.” After teaching for twenty years, I love a good snow day to catch up on bills, sleep, and some cross-country skiing.  There are closets to clean, tax papers to organize, and books to read. Sometimes a snowcation energizes me by restoring work-life balance. Other times, the snow day provides additional hours to respond to students’ writing. This feeling of accomplishment or just balance allows us to return to our very demanding profession with renewed vigor.

            But what happens when snow days pile up, blocking the flow and rhythm of teacher and student energy alike? Read more