“Learning is experience. Everything else is just information.”
~ Albert Einstein
Last spring I joined thousands of my teaching colleagues across the country, as we pivoted into emergency remote learning with the outbreak of the coronavirus. On March 13th, 2020, we thought we were taking an extended spring break with a return to the classroom. We had no idea what was in store for us. We weren’t returning face-to-face, and all school social and community events were cancelled or put on hold indefinitely – the school musical, choir and band concerts, spring sports, prom, and graduation.
After spring break passed, the challenge ahead was daunting – designing learning and engaging students in a fully online space with little time to prepare and within the context of a global pandemic.
I’ve had a lot of time to think, reflect, and read this summer. While I am learning as I go and developing what works by failing forward, here are a few nuggets of learning I’m carrying forward this fall in the online classroom.
1. Relationships. Relationships. Relationships. Kids First – People First – Checking in with students and asking them how they are doing comes first. I relied on the relationships I already built face-to-face in the classroom before our departure in March. Continuing to build trust and community in an online space is critical for students to feel comfortable engaging online in discussions and in sharing their work. I plan on beginning the school year with a two-week unit that focuses on building community and “learning how to learn” in online spaces. I plan on meeting with small groups of students virtually the first few weeks, so that I can get to know each student, their interests, and their stories.
2. Black Lives Matter – Tragically, we left off the school year with the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd, and we are returning without justice realized and with the recent shooting of Jacob Blake. Students have witnessed social justice activism, protests, social unrest, and an unjust system steeped in systemic racism. We must return to school ready to lead our classrooms through an anti-racist lens. We must be prepared to have courageous conversations. We must decolonize our curricula and design learning with culturally responsiveness at the heart. We must be the disruptors. I’m looking forward to using Gholdy Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy as a critical focal point of my curricular design this fall.
3. Barriers – Bigger Than Ever – Just because we’ve decided to return to school this fall with grades and attendance does not mean that it’s business as usual. I know this is obvious, but I want to really dig into this for a moment. While resilient, the kids are not all right. Many students’ families are experiencing houselessness, food insecurity, sickness and death, loss of employment, and mental health challenges. The divisive political climate, civil unrest, extreme climate disasters, and climbing COVID-19 deaths bombard our students’ news feeds, impacting our students’ sense of security and hope for the future. We are on the front line to listen to our students’ stories and find out how they are truly doing. Listening, really listening, is key.
4. Student Agency, Voice, & Choice – More than ever, student agency is paramount to student engagement. Key to student engagement is making the learning relevant to their lives. The current state of the world and student interests and passions provides an unlimited number of possibilities for rich, critical, and meaningful learning experiences. We already know that research backs up this approach to learning – make it “connected.” By “connected learning,” I am referring to that sweet spot in learning when we have the magical three elements: interests, relationships, and opportunities. “Learning is motivating when it grows out of personal interest;” “learners need support from peers and mentors to persist through setbacks and challenges.;” and “success beyond the classroom requires tangible connections to real-world career, and civic opportunities” (Connected Learning Alliance). One idea I have been kicking around in my head is a unit for my 9th Lit. & Comp students called “Project Me.” Students begin with an issue or topic that is a passion or interest. Through project-based learning, research, and a multi-genre approach, students explore their passion through texts, media, and making (writing, media production, art, music, the sky is the limit). This will weave in so many critical literacies: writing (informative/explanatory and creative), deconstructing texts (both print and multimedia), oral presentation, soft skills (planning, goal setting, project management), and more. I plan on utilizing project teams (or groups) organized around similar themes or interests, so that students can connect with their peers, as well as offer support and feedback. I imagine students presenting and publishing their work to the classroom community.
5. Less is More – Make it Bite-Sized – Online learning demands that we cut the fluff and simmer things down into its most important and essential parts. I’ve realized that if a task takes me one hour, it’s going to take most of my students 2.5 times as long in the online learning environment. Relying on backwards design, what is it that we want our students to know and be able to do? How can we design the learning experience with short, impactful mini-lessons, mentor texts, and applications? In my school district, we use the LMS (learning management system) Canvas. Canvas allows us to design modules, so that we can zero in on the specific learning targets, tasks, and content we want our students to explore. I’ve learned to keep it bite-sized, so that students don’t get overwhelmed. Modules can function like “learning playlists.” We can design the learning as topical playlists with choices built in, as well as opportunities to gain baseline knowledge that can be applied to a passion-based project.
6. Learning Design – Visual Consistency, Project Based, & Flexible – When designing online learning, I’ve discovered the importance of using visual icons to cue students consistently for tasks, whether it’s a symbol to write in a journal, read a text, annotate, participate in a discussion board, or to submit work to our learning management system. I have a subscription to The Noun Project, but you can use their images for free, as long as you give credit where credit is due. I also like to use images, infographics, and short video clips to break up text on the page and limit the scroll of a page. A sea of text and a long scroll is difficult to manage on a screen for any learner. In addition, by making learning project-based (PBL), students naturally have opportunities to personalize their experience and have agency, voice, and choice in their learning experience. PBL also supports the connected learning model and the research behind student engagement in connected learning experiences. By providing flexible deadlines and offering multiple opportunities to demonstrate proficiency, we can better serve our students in comprehensive distance learning. One of the reasons I love Canvas (my school’s LMS) is that I can create modules that allow students to work at their own pace, where each step in the process can be “unlocked” as students submit work, move through the learning journey, and receive feedback.
7. Frequent Feedback Loop – Game-based learning relies on a frequent feedback loop, where players level up with super powers, learn through trial and error, and gather knowledge and skill along the way. This constant feedback loop engages players and can engage our learners through immediate feedback (peer and teacher) on tasks and process. This invites students to reflect on their work, make decisions on next steps, and integrate the feedback along the way to hone their work and skill. Online learning environments allow for personalized and immediate feedback as students work at their own pace. In Canvas (LMS), feedback can be offered throughout each step in learning modules. I like to personalize the feedback with a voice recording and a text comment for students within Canvas. On Google Docs, I like to use the quick and simple tool Vocaroo to leave a voice comment on student draft work, which may lead to revision or lay the groundwork for a writing conference. (What I love about Vocaroo is that you do not have to sign up to use it, you can post a link in the “comments” on Google Docs, and the recording only lasts a few months, so my voice isn’t out there forever. I prefer this over add-ons within Google Docs, as it’s a no frills, simple tool.)
8. Maximize Face Time – “Live” Learning – Flip It – Zoom Fatigue is a real thing. It is not realistic to think that high school students will sit on zoom for 90-minute blocks, back-to-back, all day long. Let’s face it – we couldn’t do it as adults. For synchronous learning (can we agree to just call it “live” learning vs. “on demand” learning?), we must maximize the time for student engagement: small group discussions, pair/share, jigsaw, read around groups, collaboration, sharing out, application of skills, guided practice, and conferencing. I plan on using “live” learning time for building relational capacity, student interaction, and co-creation. Students crave the social interaction after being socially distanced for so long. I will use asynchronous or “on demand” time for direct mini-lessons via video. In “on demand” learning, students are asked to interact with the mini-lesson and return to “live” class time with an “entrance ticket” that shows their understanding or questions on the subject. Entrance tickets may be participation in an online discussion board and comment on other students’ posts, a quick write, an annotated text submission (try Kami) or a short comment submission. Finally, after reading Dana Johansen and Sonja Cherry-Paul’s book Flip Your Writing Workshop: A Blended Learning Approach, I want to build a library of writing workshop “just in time learning” mini-lessons that students can access during our live and/or on demand learning times. I love the idea that students can access these short video clips as they need them and return to them as many times as they need. If we return to the classroom as a hybrid model or full time, the library of mini-lessons will also free me up to conference with students and check in with groups.
While my ideas are a work in progress, I plan on sharing updates along the way in this year’s journey. Stay tuned for wonderings about choice reading, book groups, writing workshop, and our school’s shift to a 4 X 4 schedule from our A/B block schedule.
- Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy by Gholdy Muhammad
- Flip Your Writing Workshop: A Blended Learning Approach by Dana Johansen and Sonja Cherry-Paul
- Teaching Tolerance – Race & Ethnicity – Talking about race in the classroom
- Connected Learning Alliance
- Buck Institute for Education PBL Works – Project-Based Learning
- The Noun Project – Icons for literally everything
- Vocaroo – Quick and easy web-based voice recording
- Kami – Text annotation tool