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I originally planned to take a few weeks–maybe a month at most–off from writing at the start of the school year to get accustomed to being a remote teacher (we have been online the whole school year). That was over two months ago, and yet only recently have I started to feel that I am, maybe, finding some semblance of balance when it comes to teaching to boxes on a screen (or at least enough that I can stomach looking at a keyboard and screen a little while longer after yet another Zoom-filled day).

I plan to have a full-length post coming after Thanksgiving, but, given that there is so much that is distinctly not working across the educational landscape at the moment, I wanted to quickly share today three things that are working well in my remote classes, as now, more than ever, we need to exchange tips and ideas in real-time. So without further preamble, here they are:

#1: Individual Breakout Rooms

There is nearly nothing that I like better about teaching over Zoom versus teaching in an actual classroom. The one exception to this is that I have unexpectedly found reading and writing conferences to be as effective or even more effective in a Zoom room than they were in my brick-and-mortar classroom. This was deeply perplexing to me at first, but over time I began to realize that unlike the classroom, where even the quietest conference could be heard by a sizable portion of a class silently reading and writing, a private Zoom room truly is private.

Over and over I’ve found students this year, protected by the secure walls of their own breakout rooms, have been far more thoughtful and forthright about their reading and writing life during our conferences than I have ever seen before. In a private room they can share their poetry without worrying about a classmate snickering behind them or admit that they haven’t read a book in years without others knowing.

In fact, I have found conferencing in individual breakout rooms to be so effective that I now put each one of my students in an individual breakout room each day during our 30 minute choice reading/writing block (we meet twice a week for 100 minute blocks). I then spend the whole time quickly bouncing from one room to another, talking with students about their hopes, goals, and struggles when it comes to their reading and writing. This gives me an hour each week to get to know students, build relationships with them, and do the essential work of helping them to develop strong reading and writing identities–an hour that has gone a long way towards helping me to build surprisingly strong connections with students during these highly disconnected times.

I should also note that to keep all of these conferences straight in my head, I keep a printed attendance list where I record a quick note about each discussion. This is a version of Dave Stuart Jr.’s Moments of Genuine Connection Clipboard, and the running list of students and details allows me to make sure that I don’t miss anyone and helps me to hold onto key details in a time where my memory is just not as good as it usually is.

#2: Shout Outs

I normally pride myself on having classes where students regularly share their work and celebrate the work of others. But early this school year, many of my methods for sharing and celebrating fell flat over the digital divide, which makes sense considering the fact that many of my students have never even seen each other’s faces.

Still, finding a way for students to hear and revel in each other’s work is so important. Those moments provide invaluable mentor texts, build class cohesion, and help to establish the high expectations of my class. Keeping in mind student reticence to share over Zoom, I have taken to starting each block with a “shout-out” where I have a slide that quotes anonymous lines, ideas, and sections from student work during that week that I celebrate in front of the class.

I often use these examples to make points about topics we are learning, to initiate discussions, or as anchors for recall activities, but what they all share is the idea of celebrating the growing and learning happening now, even as we wait for normal life to return at some point in the future. And the results have been so positive that I plan to keep daily shout-outs as a part of my teaching even once we get back to the classroom.

#3: Flash Feedback

This summer, based on how the spring went, I wrote about how creating purposeful touch points between students and teachers will likely be critical given how many of the normal points of connection will be absent. When I wrote that though, I don’t think I fully appreciated how disconnected it would feel to teach day-after-day in a backyard office that I hastily built this last August.

And as I’ve talked with my students over the past two months, that same theme of disconnection has come up again and again and again. My best defense against those feelings of disconnection, both on the part of my students and with myself, has been to ramp up my flash feedback (my term for personalized feedback that is given in under a minute; here is a link to more about it for those who are new). Those little moments of one-on-one connection over the work of the classroom have been invaluable to keeping the classroom together.

My goal at the start of the year was to give flash feedback at least a couple times a month, but since then I have set a new goal of having at least one moment of flash feedback for every student every single week, and those regular points of connections have been invaluable for helping students feel connected to me and the class and feel a sense of forward motion and progress. My data for this is that when my students wrote me a November check-in letter, they brought up the moments of quick personal feedback from me followed closely by personal growth from them as the highlight of the year so far over and over–far more than any other aspect of class!


I plan to return with a full post after next week, but until then I hope that everyone is healthy, well, and can get some rest next week. Also, if you have things that are working in your classes, remote or not, please share them with me, as I would love to share them with my readers. As I said at the start, now, more than ever, we need each other, and the stakes could hardly be higher.

Thanks as always for reading and yours in teaching,
Matt

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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