Thinking Smaller

Photo via Paul Skorupskas on Unsplash

Teaching is choreography. We plan our moves, seek to influence the moves of our students, and arrange physical space within our writing workshops to support this.

I never thought about this metaphor until COVID-19 made the lyrics of “Big Yellow Taxi” run through my head on repeat. “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”

At present, I have far less control over the dynamics that influence our daily “dance” in the classroom, and at first, everything felt wildly out of balance. With shortened class periods, simultaneous hybrid teaching, and social distance — all of which I am grateful for because they keep us safer — I realized that when I tried to cram the lessons and workshops I loved into this new space, they felt rushed, clunky, and disappointing every single time. It challenged my perceptions about myself as an effective teacher. It left my students feeling edgy and confused.

I am proud that under normal circumstance I can choreograph a lot of “movement” into a single class period, but for this year, I am learning to embrace the fact that I cannot. I need smaller, simpler moves in a writing workshop that we can learn together and execute well. Otherwise, frustration will prevail.

This became obvious as I launched into my unit built around Romeo and Juliet. Gone were the shouts of Elizabethan insults between half a class of Montagues and half a class of Capulets, the staged swordfights with yardsticks in the front of the classroom, the students’ creative interpretations of the balcony scene staged in modern settings.

I had to determine a single, focused writing assignment that I could bring to this unit as part of their assessment. I decided to focus on irony.

Throughout the play, we studied the definitions of three different types of irony, and we discussed examples as we read. The visual aid below served as an anchor each time we discussed ironies in the play. And with a cartoon from The Far Side and a cat meme, what’s not to love?

In class, we discussed the question, “How does all of the irony affect the audience of this play?”

Our school district has been urging teachers to try more frequent, small-scale summative assessments this year. I balked at this at first. But to give it a try, I decided to create one of the assessments for the unit with only two questions. It required students to transfer their skills of recognizing irony to two other stories: their independent reading book and a favorite TV show.

Here are the questions directly from the assignment:

Since I still miss the choreography of a normal year, and I can’t bring myself to oversimplify, I added one small skill and modeled how to balance summary and analysis. I demonstrated how I would answer the assessment questions using my independent reading book and some of my favorite TV shows. These models only took a few minutes to draft, and I shared them with students online, color-coding the difference between summary and analysis.

I asked students to color-code their final work as well, green for summary, blue for analysis. Oh you noticed . . . these are calming hues, colors of the earth. That was my little grading treat to myself.

There were two other small summative assessments in this unit. Students recorded an oral interpretation of a short scene in lieu of my usual performance component. They took a short quiz that emphasized cause and effect and grilled them on iambic pentameter. But surprisingly, my favorite of these mini-assessments and the most revealing, was their pair of short writing responses about irony.

My beat on Moving Writers this semester has been “happy accidents,” the discoveries I make as I teach writing through a pandemic. My discovery this month is this: When we think smaller and sharply focus some of our students’ writing tasks, we accomplish several good things.

  1. We remove some barriers from writers who struggle. Two short answers are not intimidating, and when the questions embed choice, they become more enjoyable to write about. Students demonstrated the same skills I would see in a longer essay, but in a shorter form, less intimidating for many.
  2. We can emphasize transfer. Instead of asking students to write an essay that dives into a play we had already read and discussed, these shorter pieces allowed me to tell whether they learned one key concept well enough to apply it elsewhere to a new situation.
  3. We can get to know our writers better. In this case, I learned what TV shows they love. But more broadly, a short, focused writing assignment like this helps us never to lose “the trees” of what our students can actually write about with authority through “the forest” of many, many words. Assigning frequent, short, sharp writing pieces that I can read closely and quickly has become my most cherished pivot in an exhausting year that has mostly taught me to loathe the word “pivot”.

What might thinking smaller look like for you? What choreography in your classroom can be temporarily streamlined and simplified so that all students can find the rhythm, show what they know, and experience joy in their writing?

I’m no expert on teaching in a hybrid setting yet. But in spite of all there is to mourn this year, I am grateful for this month’s epiphany. It will help me to move writers more effectively, not just through the pandemic, but in the future as well.


What “choreography” usually works well but has been getting in your way this year? What are you working on right now to balance the demands of the day and still make forward progress with your writers? You can connect with me on Twitter @theVogelman or engage on Facebook at to continue the conversation.  

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