Can Workshop Work from a Distance?

For weeks I have been trying to figure out how I will run a writer’s workshop style class from the various distances that learning might take place from this year: the social distance of six feet, the oscillating in-and-out-of-class distances of blended learning, and the fully online distance from my kitchen table to my students’ houses.

I haven’t been the only one worrying about that either. In recent weeks I’ve gotten over a dozen queries about this exact topic, and I think what makes this question so tricky is that workshop was largely created to eliminate the various distances that traditionally existed in classroom. It was meant to get the students working together in slightly messy groupings instead of working alone in orderly 19th century rows and meant to get the teacher out and amongst the students instead of standing behind the podium at the front of the class.

And yet now, even in the best case scenarios for this fall, we will likely be stuck in rows again, rows that will be even farther apart this time. We will also likely be wearing masks and maybe have some plexiglass and industry-scale ventilation joining us too.

Further, as COVID cases continue to rise in the United States, a great many districts and schools are also opting to replace in-person rows with online ones, boxes lined up in neat columns on Zoom calls.

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How Can I Connect with Students and Build a Classroom Community From a Distance?

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Many once-in-a-generation challenges await educators this fall. With that in mind, the blog will be a little different this summer. It will still have a writing instruction focus, but it will also focus a great deal on how we might continue to have relationship-based, workshop-style instruction in classrooms that, if COVID cases aren’t significantly lowered, are looking increasingly likely to be somewhat or completely distanced or socially distanced for those of us in the United States.

Much of this thinking will be a lot more conceptual than I normally publish. This is because most of us have so little idea of what our classes will be like beyond the fact that they will undoubtedly be very, very different. Still, even though the horizon is filled with question marks, there exist many established voices and best practices that can potentially be of use in lighting our way down the twisting and uncertain paths ahead.

The organizational structure for the blog this summer is that each week I will pose a question that I and the writing teachers I know are grappling with and then go in search of answers to that question. Also, if you have questions you are struggling with, I encourage you to send them to me here.

This week’s question is based around something I’ve been thinking about since school ended, which is that the pandemic hit near the end of the school year, at a time when most teachers have firmly established relationships with their students. The same will not be true this upcoming year–many of us will have entirely new students–which has me wondering and worrying about the following:

How can I Connect with students and Build a CLassroom community if most or all learning is Distanced or Socially Distanced?

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The Six Books I’m Reading This Summer

It is somehow almost July, which means it is past time for my Six Books of Summer. Since I have some new readers, I wanted to quickly recap the theory behind this annual post, which goes like this: My to-read list is impossibly long. Intriguing books and must-reads come at a rate that far outpaces my time to read them, and so in my early years of teaching I spent my summers desperately trying to read as many books as possible in the vain attempt to catch up on my list. The issue with this was that even when I kept up a frantic pace, my list never shrank as much as I hoped and I often ended the summer feeling less recharged and a bit fuzzier on the details of many of the books than I’d like.

My approach now is to prioritize. Instead of reading twenty or thirty books, I read six–one per week–and I take my time and really enjoy, process, and think through the books. I have been doing this now for three years, and the result has been far so much more meaningful and satisfying than my old I-have-to-read-them-all method.

I also encourage you readers to discuss the books with me; some of my favorite blog-related conversations have happened over previous summer book choices.

So without further preamble, here is my 3rd annual list of the six books I’m reading this summer. It is out later than I normally like, but with everything happening in the world I needed a little extra time to regroup before getting back on the keyboard. I hope you enjoy.

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Using Storytelling to Keep Students Engaged in the Last Month of School

T.S. Eliot states in The Wasteland that “April is the cruelest month.” He is close, but he misses the mark by a month, at least in my opinion. In normal years, I find May to be the cruelest month by a fair margin, at least when it comes to my teaching life. The problem is that after a long Michigan winter, the extra summer sunlight of the north makes everything lush and leafy, seemingly overnight. This might not seem like a bad thing, but the appearance of summer is a serious problem when it comes to my students, as en masse and like clockwork they begin to checkout in uncharacteristic ways once the trees suddenly burst with leaves, despite the fact that over a month of school remains.

This May is obviously very different than previous ones, but the one similarity with other years is that the second it stopped snowing (which was only a week and a half ago), I once again saw my student engagement drop rather precipitously. Of all years, it makes a lot of sense that students would struggle to engage right now though. Many just want the year to be over, but I believe there is also a larger issue at play. To understand what it is, here is an image of a basic model of motivation from my book Flash Feedback that combines the work from James Clear and Dave Stuart Jr..

The idea behind this model is pretty straightforward: Our actions (or inaction for many students right now) largely come from our identities, and our identities largely come from the outcomes we’ve experienced from previous actions.

This Identity/Action/Outcome Loop helps to explain why in normal years student actions and outcomes begin to differ in May and why seniors sometimes get pretty acute cases of “senioritis” when the summer appears on the horizon. In these situations the identities from the past year–the basketball team member seeking a regional championship or the AP student looking to pass the AP test–begin to wane, and as they do, the actions and outcomes that come with those identities naturally begin to wane too.

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Best Practices for Teaching When One Has Little Time and Even Less Bandwidth

Teaching in normal times is not a profession that lends itself to balance. A study by the Gates Foundation and Scholastic found that teachers on across the country work over 53 hours a week on average, and it seems that every year the number of tasks, students, and papers grows larger and larger.

And even though right now the vast majority of us are not teaching in our schools, the size of the job remains massive for many. There are meetings to attend, classes to teach, feedback to give, and students and parents to reach out to. Further, there are new tasks: we must translate our brick-and-mortar classes into new digital spaces, learn entirely new platforms, keep up with ever-changing requirements and developments, and help 140, 150, 160, or maybe even more students navigate a moment of acute worldwide trauma.

At the same time, many significant barriers to productivity have risen around us. I, for example, am the primary caregiver for two children under four during the week, meaning my teaching has been relegated to early mornings, late evenings, and weekends. And I am one of the lucky ones who isn’t dealing with losing a job or, even worse, a loved one due to the pandemic.

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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

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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

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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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What My Students Need Right Now

Last week I wrote about how the sudden transition from being a brick-and-mortar teacher to an online one had left me unsure of my next steps and how I looked to solve that problem by turning to the students and asking them to write me a letter about what they needed right now.

These letters were not graded, but I still got more students who turned them in than any other graded assignment of the year–nearly 90% of students ultimately replied. Many of the letters were quite long too, with students going on for pages about their stresses, sadness, and strategies concerning the crisis and the sudden loss of school.

I learned a lot of things from these letters. I learned that far more students than I would have ever imagined have immunocompromised people in their lives who are high-risk in regards to COVID-19 and that a great deal of them are being asked to care for younger siblings and relatives whose school is also cancelled. I was reminded of just how varied students are, with some taking this in stride and others feeling unable to leave their beds. I also stood amazed and uplifted at the overall thoughtfulness, empathy, and strength that I saw again and again from members of a generation that is often maligned by others as not having those things.

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