On Monday, my school district transitions from hybrid to a full return. Well, sort of.
Secondary teachers — most of them still unvaccinated in my state — will return to fuller classrooms than they have thusfar as students diverge from hybrid A/B groupings into either a full five-day return to the classroom or full at-home instruction. I will continue to teach both in-class students and at-home students synchronously.
The experience of hybrid writing instruction has been exhausting, no doubt, but like most exhausting things, it has been instructive too. I have learned how to engage students in meaningful writing activities even when they are not sitting in front of me, as so many teachers have this year, and that is no small feat. We must all remember that. Take a deep breath and remind yourself: You have learned to teach students to improve their writing when the students aren’t even in the room. We often talk about how we want our teaching to go beyond the classroom walls. Now, collectively, we can say we have done that in a more literal way than we could have imagined.
After a few more deep breaths and some reflection, I’m ready to think about what I hope sticks from this time period we are all so eager to put behind us. What have I learned to do that I hope I can retain in whatever the “afterwards” of all this looks like? My beat for this year has been happy accidents I’ve discovered while teaching writing through the pandemic. Here are three little ones that I hope to carry with me.
Privacy means a lot to student writers. Our hybrid schedule allowed for one fully virtual day of instruction each week on a Wednesday, and our entire English department marveled at how good our conversations became in writing conferences with students in this context. How could this be in a year where personal connections were such a challenge?
Our online context allowed us to meet one-on-one with students in breakout rooms. This individualized attention in a time of isolation went a long way in helping students feel comfortable. But I always try to give this attention in the classroom too. The major change here was the privacy.
Students could open up and talk freely with their teacher, question and accept feedback, admit confusion or frustration, all without the prying ears of nearby classmates. To some degree, I feel that this helped me get to know my student writers better than I would have in the regular classroom; they opened up more and were willing to talk through their writing insecurities more freely in this setting. I felt freer in expressing my observations too.
So how will I transfer this learning to full classrooms in the future? Recorded feedback in their writing, conferencing via chat in a shared document online, and rethinking the positioning of our conferencesin the room will help keep our future writing conferences less pressurized, I hope.
Peardeck for the win! Our district purchased Peardeck Premium for all teachers and it has been a godsend for efficiently seeing how well students grasp a writing skill. It allows me to share a PowerPoint presentation — student-paced or teacher-paced depending on what I select — and have students interact with it through multiple choice questions, drawing, typing a response, or moving objects on the slide.
Some of my Peardeck slides have sounded like this:
“Here is a sentence based on a picture. Improve it by adding a participial phrase.”
“Describe this scene using at least one word with a hyphen in it.”
“Write a short poem using this line as your first line . . .”
“Move the orange dot to the moment in this scene that best demonstrates dramatic irony.”
Many times Peardeck helped me adjust the pace of my live instruction about a writing skill, clarify a common misunderstanding, or applaud excellence in real time. This became analogous with what I used to do, weaving through the room, peeking at writer’s notebooks as students worked. We still use our paper writer’s notebooks a lot, but when it comes time to look at some of their quickwriting or practice, there is nothing like a Peardeck to let me browse everyone’s work and see a quick snapshot of student progress with a concept or skill.
As I return to a fuller classroom next week, I have a taped-off area in my classroom from where I can teach that will guarantee me six feet of distance from my students. Peardeck lets me see their work anyway.
Ambiguity can be awesome. Nearly every assignment I give in an ordinary year has been reinvented this year, in ways large and small. As a result, my assignments have not always had the clear, crafted directions I try to give, refined and revised through the years. We’ll just call this year’s directions “rough drafts.”
This ambiguity has led some students to create unexpected writing that is different than I intended. It has allowed them to stretch the boundaries of what the finished products could look like. Not all students were comfortable with this, and neither was I, but the combination of blurrier directions and simplified rubrics this year has allowed my students to teach me that there is always more than one way to demonstrate our writing skills.
I have wanted to move away from cumbersome and prescriptive rubrics for a while, but this year actually pushed me to do it, and assignments that read more like invitations than instructions will be my new norm moving forward. When students reached out for support in following directions, I started writing lines like these, found in my recent emails:
“My hope is that each person kind of feels their own way into something to say based on their own observations, not me giving you a formula of what to write.”
“It will be somewhat different for everyone.”
“If you want to send me a messy draft, I’m happy to look at it and give feedback on where you could go with those ideas.”
This reminded me of an important aspect of a strong writing assignment: Students need to find their way into something to say that is truly theirs, unprescribed and original.
Every year, the act of teaching teaches me many new things, and these are just three that I consider keepers as I move forward. I hope that every writing teacher, in spite of all the anxiety, frustration, and division we face this year, will find some too.
— Brett Vogelsinger
What are your “three keepers” from teaching distance, hybrid, or a full-class-during-a-pandemic that you hope stick with you and your practice moving forward? You can connect with me on Twitter @theVogelman or engage on Facebook at facebook.com/movingwriters to continue the conversation.
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