Can we be Remote & Student-Driven?

In NYC, the Chancellor defaulted families to a hybrid instructional model if they didn’t get to submit their hybrid or in-person selection. This means we don’t really know what our parents want. We are in the process of finding out.

My school, which prioritizes the health and safety of both adults and students, has selected the model offered to us where instruction is in the building for part of the day a few days a week, with other class time and classes offered remotely. This gives us a sense of how to plan.

Still, my colleagues and I are preparing for an unknown situation with potentially constantly-changing variables that affect instruction, never mind the health/safety aspect. It would have been easier (and, as we all know, safer) to be fully remote, spending our time and resources improving upon what we did in the spring since we know there is a good chance we will be fully remote again at some point but, as we know, those who make big picture decisions for schools rarely take the functioning details into consideration. Let’s face it, they have less experience at this than even we do.

So, what is the plan I am envisioning, whether I am remote, with my students in various places, or if I am in the building with students both virtual and in front of me? More importantly, what am I prioritizing in this plan?

First, these are instructional pieces I am prioritizing (I teach Writing; our ELA is a split course):

  • Flexible Time – in my writing class, allowing students flexibility in learning to develop and plan out their writing, finding that feeling of “flow” while knowing they may abandon a piece and want to try something else in the middle, like any writer, is very important. I want them to develop a sense of their process and that takes, well, time.
  • Building the Student-to-Student Bonds – it was so hard going remote last spring and that was with having known my students for two full years (I taught Reading in 11th and then looped to 12th with them). A combination of senioritis and coronavirus stress, as well as connectivity issues just left a lot to be desired. I also felt like a teacher on TV, staring off into that Zoom void of blank screens. Students would talk or send me messages but creating a space where they wanted to engage with each other about their writing was hard.

The largest factor in all this was that being vulnerable with others in a Zoom is just a very different experience; the spotlight anxiety is real. Plus, just like us, students lose the ability to read body language and other nonverbal cues we send and rely on as humans.

So, I will do this in 3 main ways – scheduling time for table shares, whole class “first draft” shares and small group quick write shares.

  • Conferences —Although I am familiar with many of the rising 12th graders, my goal is to spend as much of our synchronous time getting to know them as individuals and writers. I believe very deeply in the power that writing has to heal, to hurt, to inspire and to empower but feeling safe to go those places is mandatory.
  • Modeling —For me, modeling means more than “showing students how to do something”. It means showing them there are many ways of doing something, and that what matters is how you talk yourself through things and reflect, and also learning to be aware of the mistakes you make while learning while not allowing shame to creep in. My feedback from my students was that seeing me model through my own writing, being honest about what kinds of things were hard to write about and my strategies were valuable experiences for them, but I also have students model.
  • Writing with “window or mirror” mentors — using real texts by real writers, even if it’s snippets, made writing come alive for my students. I always chose texts that I knew would grab them or act as a “window or mirror” for them first, because I emphasize developing a purpose as part of developing voice, and then we looked at technique and the genre building blocks themselves. I don’t organize my curriculum by genre. I will get into that more later.
  • Few, recursive course objectives & not content coverage — I don’t teach genre units. I organize my structure around the writing process in the beginning in the year with short writing cycles so students experience completion/success and practice different strategies. Then, my lessons shift to focusing on writing techniques that serve an author’s purpose or message and genre exposure. When I was remote in the Spring, I recorded genre-specific minilessons for students to reference once they chose a genre.

Note on how I organize writing instruction: To be clear, I do not teach brainstorming as a distinct moment in time from drafting since when I write, drafting is often how I brainstorm and then, depending on how it’s going, I might using lists or sketching, outlining, etc. So, instead, I teach strategies for different kinds of brainstorming and drafting. Revision is also something that I don’t teach as a distinct “time” since sometimes you only have minutes to spend between drafting & revising, depending on context or product, and sometimes there are days, weeks or months where writers’ primary focus changes. So, again, I teach strategies. This helps me, too, since sometimes students are publishing genres that they are more familiar with than I and I don’t worry about that.

Ok, so with those essentials, I can organize my time. Although I have been told we will be in 85-minute blocks back to back, I am rough drafting my “in-class” time and focusing more on a weekly rhythm. I do this because I know if I plan things down to the day, something will come to mess that up and leave me scrambling to recalibrate.

However, I am thinking this for a period breakdown:
10 min.Listen to music as kids enter then read excerpt from  mentor text, something that will set a mood for writing
15 min.Students use our mentor text protocol to re-read & dive into the mentor text in a small group (breakout room), discussing & annotating it collaboratively. (They don’t get through the whole text usually & that’s not the point)

 *Students can use (or Perusall – I am looking into it now) to annotate, and this can also support those working asynchronously.

10 min.Students share out whole class by group what they discovered from/about the mentor text. The purpose here is primarily to hear from and learn from each other.
15 min.Students “quick write”, using what inspired them in the text. They share with each other. This can be done in notebooks, away from the screen.

 Then 1 to 2 students volunteer to share their quick write out, whole class.

25 min.Independent writing: (students can again move away from the screen at this point and write on a notebook if they prefer)

Students will be designing and working on individual or pair/team projects (their choice) as I confer with them

75 min. mark:

So, 75 minutes is a long time to be engaged in something. I’m hoping having opportunities to be independent/small group/whole class will make it feel more dynamic. But, I also want to give students the chance to be social or share things like music or images that are giving meaning to them lately. I want at least 10 minutes of the class to be undirected socializing that could have some focus that is expressive at its heart. Since kids won’t be going to the cafeteria ever, they won’t have time to socialize, and that is just as important to building a community and practicing social-emotional care as listening to a writing share. If 75 minutes is too much, I can use this goal as a “palette cleanser” in between the academic work slots. This will be entirely responsive on my part, seeing how kids handle the schedule. Since my objectives for the curriculum are recursive, I don’t worry about content coverage. This helps me to pace the learning based on the kids.

I also want to give them time to do things like use a planner/calendar and have time to flex those skills. Elementary students are explicitly taught this and we expect high schoolers to have internalized this skill. As an adult, I have to improve this! So, I don’t leave it up to chance.

Day 2:  Basically the same schedule except building on the mentor text we looked at, we would use it to explore a specific technique or see how the same text compares with another text using the same technique in another genre or same genre. I don’t teach by genre because great craft still stems from the space place, in my opinion.

How will I account for the fact that students will not all be in the same physical space, and sometimes at the same time?

I’m essentially planning as if we are all remote with the exception that some students will be remote “together” with me. Aside from knowing technology can never be fully relied on to work, my vision is that students who are remote synchronously will get to do everything we are doing – but via their device from home. The students in the room will collaborate with those peers virtually the same way we did when we were all remote. Problems will arise and I will focus my lessons on teaching into those since living virtually is now our reality and learning to use these tools to learn and work remotely with people all over is an ever-more-necessary skill.

For students who are asynchronous/on-demand:

So, I did/will record lessons using the same mentor text but the organic learning that comes from their peers is what is missing in those videos. So, my plan is to still have asynchronous students as part of a group, and I right now I am going to have those students record themselves using something like Flipgrid so it’s as if the asynchronous student(s) is still involved equally, only at different times.

Most teenagers communicate in various ways with each other using status updates, short videos (Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram Live), and photos., etc., so I want to use those skills to our collective benefit.

My students, whose families are often not here and “back home”, is sometimes a different time zone, are already quite comfortable with this. Depending on where they are from, they know that sometimes you can’t talk to someone because they don’t have electricity or don’t have access to the internet, or are just not online at the same time. So they already have the skills for keeping in touch, even if it isn’t “in the moment”.

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