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.

Out of necessity, I’m making some shifts in my practice, and I think some are shifts I want to maintain once I’m back in my classroom eventually. 

I have no idea what I’m doing teaching online. I’ve never done this before. And I’m cut off from my usual source of monitoring how things are going—observing how my students respond to things when we’re in the classroom together. So I’ve been asking my students each week how it’s going and making changes in response to what they say. The google form I’ve been using starts with the most important thing, simply checking in with them, person to person to make sure everything is okay as it can be in their worlds. Then it moves into whatever questions I have that week—about our online class meetings (which are optional) and how I can improve them or why students didn’t go if they didn’t go. Or about the videos I’ve been making and which ones they are actually finding useful. Or about the whole class in general—what’s working and what’s not. The form also gives the students a chance to reflect on how they did in the last week. I offer a series of descriptive statements like “I turned in all of the work” or “I asked questions when I wasn’t sure what I needed to do” or “I did some of the work.” My idea here is to present some ideas of how the class could be playing out for them, which makes for quick self-reflection as they choose which statements best describe their experience. This sets them up well for the final question about what they’ll do in the next week to be as successful as possible. 

One thing I learned from this form is that a few of my AP Lit students were overwhelmed at the amount of work. Our school has restricted us to giving students no more than 30 minutes of work per day, per class. I thought I had pared it down to something that would fit into that bucket of time, and most of my students were indicating that the workload was fine. But the few who said they were overwhelmed were REALLY overwhelmed, and I figured that the changes I made for them would benefit everyone. AP Lit became very choose your own adventure. 

When the stay-at-home order hit and sent us all home, we were just ramping up to move from the thinking/idea development stage of extended literary arguments to actually writing them. In my planning for online instruction, I narrowed the focus to three things: the papers, reading Beloved, and preparing for this year’s modified AP Lit exam. We’re still doing those things (my sadness at having to teach Beloved distance learning style is enough for a whole other blog post), but I changed the extended literary argument option to a “piece of writing” that has five total options: the paper as originally assigned and four other options that travel a spectrum toward streamlining the course work as much as possible. I also offered students reasons why they might or might not pick each option and why it was okay for them to choose something less than they might otherwise do.  

Here are some things I’m paying attention to: 

  1. Of course we all assess how things are going by observing our students constantly in the classroom, but I can’t do that now. Asking intentionally for my students’ feedback each week has enabled me to change course quickly to better support my students and their varying needs during online teaching. In fact, my students and I are co-constructing my courses right now. This falls into my career-long goals of creating a classroom space where my students have ownership of their work, of their idea building, of their expression. I get a little better at this year by year, and I think that the necessity of needing to get better fast at online teaching has shown me a powerful path to building a course together with my students. I will more often ask them intentionally, how’s this class going for you? What could we do differently to improve it? 
  2. Choose your own adventure AP Lit is working. I am already a teacher who offers a lot of choice, but what I’m doing in AP Lit right now is next level for me. I’ve landed on powerful options that will invite students to each customize the course toward their individual needs, and my mind is spinning on how to leverage this even more in the future. 

While I struggle to teach under these challenging conditions, I’ll continue to notice what I can see differently from my perch in front of my computer screen. We can get to the other side of this as smarter teachers using what we’ve learned in these weeks to make our schools more humane for our students. We just have to pay attention.

If You Liked This…

Join my mailing list and I will send you a thoughtful post about finding balance and success as a writing teacher and a list of curated reading suggestions each week. Also, as a thank you for signing up, you will also receive a short ebook on how to cut feedback time without cutting feedback quality that is adapted from my newly released book Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster – Without Burning Out from Corwin Literacy.

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