Talking to Teachers: Gift of Remote Learning, Flipped Classrooms, and Differentiation

I have heard numerous teachers say that although the end of last year was crazy, the start of this academic year is crazier. With even more uncertainty of what the year as whole will look like, teachers are navigating unexplored territory. Yet, amidst all of this (along with the increased tension of a pandemic, politics, human rights issues, etc), some of my teacher friends said “yes” to adding even more to their plates and joining me in conversations about teaching and learning.

My previous post was an introduction to my focus for my posts during this academic year…but here is a little recap:

I am going to connect with a few friends/colleagues from various schools around the world to see what they are thinking about writing this year—how it is the same…and (hopefully, more so) how it is different. I hope to have 2-3 conversations throughout the year with a group of teachers from a variety of grade levels and subject areas. It is my intention that these will be authentic conversations between educators who are just trying to be a little better at their craft.

In this post you will meet Caitlin Wingers: a grade 3 teacher in Jubail, Saudi Arabia. Caitlin is full of energy and you can feel her sense of continual “being betterness” through the 2D screen — it is infectious. Since the video is over 17 min., below is a breakdown of the main topics we covered so that you can zoom in on a specific topic. After the video I reflect on the conversation and link to some of the resources mentioned.

  • Caitlin’s journey of seeing herself as a writer: 1:18
  • Power of the flipped classroom: 4:00
  • The gift of remote learning (conferring time): 7:00
  • Resources Caitlin is finding useful: 9:40
  • Student choice and differentiation: 11:53

Reflection Point #1 — Process of Writing First!

Caitlin noted that the professional development she attended with her colleagues over the summer focused on Matt Glover’s book Craft and Process Studies, and that it was critical to how they started this academic year. Caitlin’s approach to her grade 3 class this year is to dig into the process of writing first. In doing so, she is allowing for student agency to be at the forefront of the learning context.

And this was a BIG shift. And there was some nervousness around this decision. I asked Caitlin about the decision to have less constraints around the what and how of the summative deliverable. Her response:

I want students to figure out who they are as writers, and I want them to do that early. Telling them what to write in the beginning and saying ‘this is how we do writing everyone’ is just not authentic. By starting with figuring out who [they] are as a writer, and then build off that.

— Caitlin Wingers

A Wondering…

I look forward to checking back in with Caitlin as the unit progresses and find out: (1) If engagement remained high? (2) How starting with a process of writing unit transfers into a genre based unit?

Reflection Point #2 — Flipped Classrooms

The phrase “flipped classroom” and “more work” are synonymous in my mind. However, I also think this is a matter of perspective. Moving to a flipped classroom is like playing the long game—is a lot of front loading, yes, but it might just be worth it. Caitlin and I talked about three things that flipping her classroom has provided…and part of this discussion revolved around a “mini-lesson menu” that she developed:

A. Differentiation: Caitlin describes how in her first writing conferences each student was in a different place in their process. A main reason for this is that she gave them access to the mini-lesson menu from day one. This meant that she had one student who was spending a lot of time in the pre-writing section trying to find a topic and she also had a student who was already far into the drafting stages. Even with all the differences in their process there was one thing that was the same: they were all engaged in what they were doing.

I asked Caitlin how she was keeping track that they were all actually doing the work. She noted that although she is giving a lot of trust over to her kids, she wasn’t bogged down with daily pictures or messages of what they were working on. Through the consistent conferring and use of synchronous time to share with their peers, students were making their way through the unit.

Caitlin’s students are covering a vast array of topics, deliverables and audiences.

B. Self-directed learning: Yes, we have these little (and sometimes big) humans sitting in our classes expecting to learn about English or Science or History or Design or or or…but we can also build in the expectation that they will learn how to be a better human, too. What they learn is important, of course. But HOW they learn and how they APPROACH learning is equally (some may argue even more) important.

Caitlin is helping her students to learn how they learn (metacognition) by providing them with space to explore the writing process—where do they need to spend more/less time and what type of brainstorming/drafting/revising strategies work for them? In allowing for this discovery of how they learn, students develop the ability to navigate their academic lives more effectively.

C. Effective use of synchronous time: Let me first preface that there is definitely still a place for teaching skills and content during synchronous time. However, there is also DEFINITELY a place for lessons to be pre-recorded so that F2F time can be spent socially constructing learning, engaging in peer feedback/editing, and participating in student-teacher conferences.

Depending on the age group, the type, length, and numbers of mini-lessons during a unit will differ. And once a bank of recorded lessons are built, then tweaks can be made in successive years. Thinking about having lessons revolve around standards being assessed on transferable skills and not on specific content will help with this long game plan of making a flipped classroom work FOR you.

A Wondering…

If there is evidence to support that students are given more agency and that their metacognitive skill sets are nurtured, does forcing them to go through the writing process at the same pace hinder them?

Main takeaways

There were two ideas that I came away with after talking to Caitlin that we didn’t really touch on directly in our conversation:

A. The necessity (especially given our current context) of providing a space for social/emotional learning to come first. Caitlin is building this into her first unit by allowing her students to choose their topics, to talk about something or create something where they have some confidence. Through this process, Caitlin also gets to know her students on an individual level and she will be able to leverage this throughout the year.

B. I warned you at the beginning of this post that Caitlin has a ridiculous amount of energy for teaching and learning, but what I also realized is that she sees challenges as opportunities. Ryan Holiday, in his book The Obstacle is the Way, discusses the importance of perception:

Too often we react emotionally, get despondent, and lose our perspective. All that does is turn bad things into really bad things. Unhelpful perceptions can invade our minds—that sacred place of reason, action and will—and throw off our compass. …through our perception of events, we are complicit in the creation—as well as the destruction—of every one of our obstacles.

— Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle is the Way

One of the things I appreciate about Caitlin is that she hasn’t lost her compass. Yes…there is so much uncertainty and, yes, it can be difficult (and sometimes impossible) to think beyond the next hour let alone the next class. Yet, at the core of everything is still the students—their needs still need to come first. And Caitlin demonstrates how she is able to focus on the positive and keep her motivated and creating.

If you would like to see more “Talking to Teacher” conversations, visit my website!

What gifts has remote learning given you? Where could you use a perspective shift? What is a topic you would like me to talk to my teacher friends about? You can connect with me on Twitter @readwritemore and my website

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