Learning While Teaching Online

A Note from Matt: This is the second in my mini-series about what various amazing writing teachers are doing across the country in their classes right now. This installment comes from Sarah M. Zerwin, a teacher out of Boulder, Colorado, a Writing Project consultant, and author of the new book Point-Less: An English Teacher’s Guide to More Meaningful Grading (see right). I have long read and been inspired by Sarah’s work on her blog The Paper Graders, and I’m expectantly waiting for a spare moment so that I can crack into Point-Less, which just arrived last week!

I hope you enjoy the post, and I’ll be back with a new one next week!

Learning While Teaching Online

by Sarah M. Zerwin

As I’m writing this, my phone is buzzing with texts and emails and voicemails from my school district. They’ve finally called it for the rest of the school year. So the online teaching I’ve been doing for the last few weeks will continue. I’ll have to say goodbye to my students without the usual end-of-school-year traditions in my classroom. I’ll only get to wave at their tiny, often pixelated images lined up in neat rows on Google Meet. 

I’m so sad about it all. And anxious. And worried about my students. And finding it really difficult to focus on responding to their work. I am not right now able to be the teacher I want to be for them. 

But I’m paying attention.

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Finding Grace in the Heart of Pedagogy

A Note from Matt: Last week I wrote about how it seems that everyone I talk to is experiencing this global crisis in dramatically different ways. This has been especially true for my students, who’ve reported wildly different reactions, ranging from feeling stressed at the lack of school to being relieved to not have school’s stresses, exhausted to well-rested, angry to indifferent, and desperate for instruction to not wanting any school work at all. This wide variety of experiences has made planning lessons particularly tricky, as I know that my students are in very different places, and many of them are in very different place than me. Because of the range of experiences for both students and teachers, I have been regularly turning to amazing teachers I know across the country to ask what they are doing, and many of their answers have been instrumental in helping me to create a class that better supports my students and keeps learning moving forward as much as possible.

So this week, I plan to share what some of those teachers who have helped me to shape my thinking are doing, in the hope that hearing about other classrooms will help you too. Today, the first in this mini-series is from Andy Schoenborn, former Michigan Council of Teachers of English president, a leader of the Chippewa River Writing Project, co-author with Troy Hicks of the wonderful upcoming book Creating Confident Writers, and one of the best teachers I know, talking about the essential role that grace plays in teaching during a pandemic. I hope you enjoy!

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Choosing Their Own Path: Why My Students Will Create Their Own Writing Curriculum Over the Next Nine Weeks

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

This week marked the beginning of “forward instruction” in my district, which meant that last week I had to to figure out what forward writing instruction means during a time like this. Does it mean the same papers I was already planning translated into digital versions? Does it mean tossing out the bigger papers in favor of small, skill-building assignments? Does it mean nudging content aside completely in favor of processing the moment we are in? Or does it mean something else altogether?

As I thought on this, I also pitched this question to Twitter…

…and I quickly got a multitude of answers that ranged from photo-essays and multi-genre projects to podcasts and poetry on the topics that ranged from an examination of ethical dilemmas to COVID-19 journaling to discussing the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. The number of responses was somewhat surprising, but what surprised me far more was that out of dozens of teachers who responded, not one had a plan that was even remotely similar to any other.

The variety of plans was striking in the moment, but on further reflection it fits with my experience during this crisis so far. In the other two major world crises I have lived through as an adult (9/11 and the Great Recession), I found that the responses and experiences of the people around me shared a lot commonalities. The same has not been true with this crisis though; nearly every person I talk to and every article I read speaks to a reality that is remarkably different than my own and from the other perspectives I’ve heard.

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The Essential Role of Feedback in Distance Learning

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Some of the strangest images of how Covid-19 has affected the world are the early pictures of professional and college sports teams around the world playing in front of empty stands. Those images were my first major indication that something different and scary was heading our way, and they perfectly capture the feeling of the moment we are living in. When I walk through my neighborhood today, it feels an awful lot like an empty cavernous stadium.

I feel that same eerie silence as well when it comes to my classes. It is not that I’m out of communication with my students (here is what I focused on during my first and second weeks of distance learning); it is just that I am used to the noise of the hallways, the energy of a classroom jammed with 35 bodies, and the hundreds of small conversations I had on a daily basis just a few weeks ago.

Without those things, it has felt in recent weeks like I was teaching to an empty lecture hall, even as I posted notes for students, provided enrichment opportunities, and responded to their letters and enrichment work. This feeling wasn’t fully wrong either. My approach to teaching relies heavily on small human-to-human moments with students. I focus a lot of attention on greeting them at the door, quick check-ins, and making sure to ask about that upcoming play or game, and replicating those remotely isn’t fully possible.

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