Overcoming “New Tank Syndrome”

Road Trip Mix Album Cover

The Feedback Dilemma

The workshop model is built around giving students high-impact and timely feedback. Instead of writing comments on a graded paper, we get to work with students one-on-one or in small groups during the reading and writing process. As a result, students get that feedback when they need it, and they have time to apply our feedback in their independent work.

In the workshop model, we also GET feedback from students. When we teach our mini-lessons, we can read their body language to see if our words are getting through. When we confer with students, we can ask them to say back to us what part of their feedback they will be focusing on as they continue their work.

The thing is, the feedback loop that the workshop model provides has been all but obliterated by our sudden shift to online learning!

Or has it?

New Tank Syndrome

If you don’t already know, I am married to a scientist who specializes in animal cognition and behavior. As a result, I end up reading a lot of her animal behavior hand-me-downs. One such book, Don’t Shoot the Dog by Karen Pryor, presents a concept called “New Tank Syndrome”, which perfectly encapsulates this moment in pedagogy.

Dolphin trainers (animal abuse scandals noted!), from time to time have to move dolphins to new tanks for a variety of reasons. An interesting thing happens when they do this: the dolphins temporarily forget how to execute many of their tricks. Eventually, though, as they become accustomed to their new environment, their old tricks start to return.

Pryor also gives the example of a baseball player learning a new pitch. Sometimes, as they learn, say, how to throw a sinker, they’ll lose control of their other pitches. Gradually, as they get used to this new pitch, their control returns back to what it was before.

Isn’t that just wild?

It makes me wonder about all the seemingly impossible things about online learning. Are these things really impossible, or are we maybe just suffering from a type of “New Tank Syndrome”?

The more I think about it, the more I realize that it isn’t about learning a new way of teaching; it’s about accessing our old skills and applying them to this new situation.

A New Approach to the Old Approach

My skill set revolves around the workshop model, so what I’ve tried to do is break this model into its components and translate them into our online learning model:

  • Planning: I post students’ assignments for the week on Sunday night. This way they’ll have all their work in one easy-to-find location.
  • Mini-lesson: Each day, I post a video mini-lesson where I examine a mentor text, and model a technique I notice in this text that is connected to that day’s assignment.
    • Life Hack: As days turn to weeks, students may tend to feel like they are going through the motions watching our lesson videos. Mix it up! Sometimes, I record a video on my phone, and upload it to Google Drive, other times, I use Screencastify. Sometimes, the lesson is just me demonstrating. Other times, I recruit my wife to be my student on camera. Experiment! Play with different ideas!
    • If you’re interested, here’s an example of one of my mentor-text mini-lessons: Click here to view lesson!
  • Independent work time: I ask students to use their work time that day (or whenever they do the assignment) practicing that day’s technique.
    • Life Hack: if students struggles with applying ideas you taught in your lessons, make a re-teaching video just for those students. I know some teachers who reach out to talk on the phone or video conference with individuals and small groups.
      • If students are not able to access the internet, think about how you might either record your lessons to a flash drive…or, hey, we’re English teachers, so written communication is one of our strengths, right?
  • Share/Debrief: I give students a place to share and respond to each other
    • At the end of the week, they turn in their two favorite pieces that feature techniques they learned from our mentor texts. Along with this, they write a reflection on how they applied what they learned from the mini-lessons.
    • Life Hack: again, mix it up! Sometimes I have students share and respond on a discussion board. Other times, they share to Padlet, Flipgrid, or…you get it.
  • Conferring: I give students feedback on their work. I point out what I notice they did as writers–both intentionally and on accident–and, I deliver a teaching point.
    • On the following Monday, their first assignment is to respond to my feedback (giving me feedback on my instruction), and set a specific goal for how they want to grow.
    • As they turn in their work the following week, I use their goal as a starting point for my next round of feedback.
    • Life Hack: use Screen-castify to record a video of you giving feedback as you read your students’ writing.

Is it perfect? Probably not? Will my current model evolve as I become more and more accustomed to the “New Tank” that is online learning? Heck yes. That’s how “New Tank Syndrome” works!

What I know for sure is that, right now, teachers don’t need to start over. We aren’t novices. We’re just in a new tank. We need to remember what made our classrooms wonderful places to learn, and, above all, we need to work toward adapting our in-person magic to this new learning environment.

How are you accessing your old skills to teach in this new environment? I’d love to how you are approaching online learning. Share you comments below, or hit me up on Twitter @MrWteach


1 Comment

  1. Thanks Noah. I’m just catching up with this post today, but I needed to hear this. It brings me a sense of optimism looking ahead to the possibility of more distance learning next year.

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