The Re-Write Blog

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

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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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What I Did on My First Day as an Online Teacher

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Like much of the country, today marked my first day as an online teacher. And like many other teachers out there, suddenly switching from the physical classroom to the digital one is only one small piece of what I am grappling with as I try to best prepare for the tumultuous weeks to come.

With that and the profusion of resources flying around right now (I do love how educators are sharing with each other, though the sheer quantity has been overwhelming at times), today’s post is short, but I wanted to share what I did with my students today on my first day as a digital teacher in the hopes that it might help others. It is short, but the results were both meaningful and helped me tremendously as both their teacher and in my own journey through this suddenly brave new world.

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What Story Does Your Feedback Tell?

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Stories are one of the most powerful forces on the planet. Few things are more effective at persuasion, better for promoting engagement, or more memorable than a good story. This is why politicians and advertisers speak in stories and why Fortune 500 companies pay big money for storytelling consultants to come train their workers. It is also why we teach stories, both how to write them and how to read them.

This power of story is well known to educators, and consequently we as teachers tend to do a lot of storytelling. We weave the content of our classes together into clear narratives, guide students in unpacking the stories around them, and help students to tell better stories about themselves.

The one area where we teachers often forget to be a storyteller though is in our feedback to student work and writing. Instead, when it comes to feedback, we often switch from storytellers to detached arbiters of right and wrong. We simply mark what is correct and incorrect and leave it up to the students to interpret the story from there.

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Why I Teach Shel Silverstein to High Schoolers (And What It Means for How We Choose Texts and Mentor Texts)

Three years ago I realized that my poetry unit needed help. While I gushed about the thoughtful symbolism of “Ozymandias” or the elegant simplicity of Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” I looked out and found far too many worried or blank looks on the faces of my students–looks that spoke to them being lost, indifferent, or both.

So the next year I started my poetry unit with a request that students bring in poems that they love, thinking that these favorite poems would show my students that poetry wasn’t something foreign or beyond them; it was something they already knew and loved. But, as is so often the way in the classroom, things didn’t exactly go as I’d scripted.

What happened was that in two sections of 9th graders, nearly 30 of the 60 students brought in a poem by Shel Silverstein. Volumes of Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree populated my desks, and while I have my own fondness for Shel Silverstein, I was at first deeply annoyed by this. Bringing him in felt like a mockery of the class and the assignment. Obviously, “Peanut Butter Sandwich” has no place in a high school–or so it seemed to me at the time.

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Why Poetry Should Be a Daily Part of All Writing Classrooms

My understanding of poetry while I was a
student in the 90s.

As a middle and high schooler, I felt that poetry was something akin to a doily: a frilly, ornamental, and somewhat useless thing that was cool for people who were into that kind of thing (aka, not me). Whenever a teacher said it was time for poetry, I sighed internally, held my nose, and got through it as quickly as possible.

As an English major in college I had to take a poetry class, and at first my mindset and experience was similar to middle and high school, but then one day the professor brought in a poem called “Root” by a Hungarian poet named Miklos Radnoti (full text at the bottom). Radnoti, who was of Jewish heritage, wrote the poem while on a forced death march towards the end of World War II–a march that would ultimately take his life. The poem “Root” was one of a number of poems that were found on his body after the war and published posthumously.

It has been nearly 20 years since that class, and I remember nothing else about it, but “Root” remains seared into my consciousness. There was something so amazing about Radnoti’s imagery, the raw emotion, and the fact that it went into the ground with him and then came out again to tell his story. I’d read hundreds of poems before, but that latched onto my soul and like the raven it still is sitting there today.

This moment with “Root” was when I realized what poetry really is. Far from a needlessly frilly doily, poetry is humanity reduced into its essence. It is experiences, emotions, ideas, and language compressed into little bite-sized pieces, which makes it, when wielded well, an incredibly powerful tool in the writing classroom. It took me a while to figure out how to use it right (next week’s post is on how I win over the poetry skeptics in my classes), but today I use poetry daily in my writing classes and in a myriad of ways; I simply can’t imagine my classes without it. Here are five of the most impactful ways that using poetry helps me to be a better writing teacher:

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How to Make Student Goal Setting Actually Work

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This post is adapted from my upcoming book Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster – Without Burning Out from Corwin Literacy.

I’ve discussed the power of student goal setting before—how having students set regular writing goals comes in at or near the top of a number of meta-studies focused on effective teaching practices, likely due in part to the way it grants students some autonomy, frames the student’s growth as a collaborative endeavor between the teacher and student, and allows students to in part pursue the topics they value most.

And yet, despite the research supporting it and the clear logical reasons for why it would be valuable, real and serious student goal setting tends to be rare in our educational landscape. And I have heard from a number of teachers that it often falls flat when they try to engage in it.

So, today I want to borrow upon a section of my upcoming book Flash Feedback and discuss how we can make goal setting actually work:

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