By Liz Prather
Here we are.
In the county where I teach, more COVID cases showed up in July than from March through June combined. On Friday, our superintendent and board voted 5-0 to start the year virtually, rolling out a plan that includes giving every student in every school a Chromebook and internet access.
Last week, I completed training in Canvas, the learning management system our high schools will be using this year. As I practiced uploading Screencasts, creating Flipgrids, embedding YouTube and Padlet links, I realized that so much of what drives my in-person classroom is the in-person part.
This pandemic has forced me to pin my process to the wall and examine it. I’ve had to conceive of and write down plans not dependent on a blaze of inspiration or the cult of my personality or the energy of the room. Chiseling down what I do--one part gut to two parts hope--on a Google hyperdoc has required me to seriously look at the value of what and how I teach. So much has been disrupted already by the social and cultural force of COVID, why not dismantle everything at this point?
For the instinctual teacher - and most of us are- teaching is improv, reading the room, changing courses, calibrating for clarity and the phase of the moon. It’s art and craft, mystery and logic.
I’m not a Luddite or opposed to technology. I was among the first teachers in my building to become Google certified, and I’ve used Google classroom for my classes since 2014. But I feel technology is just an accessory, not the main engine of my classroom.
My classroom lives in the back-and-forth of discussion and storytelling, the loose and ranging conversations and debates and questions. Of course, you can tell a story on Flipgrid. Of course, you can discuss on Zoom. But it’s the flow that’s missing. The rush of a room full of kids, buzzing. Even silence in a room like that has energy.
What I do in my classroom has no real substitute in the virtual world any more than a bitmoji substitutes for the real me. For the instinctual teacher - and most of us are- teaching is improv, reading the room, changing courses, calibrating for clarity and the phase of the moon. It’s art and craft, mystery and logic. Like the musician who riffs and jams, an instinctual teacher needs her hands on the instrument of her classroom. And virtual teaching feels like playing guitar in boxing gloves.
But here we are.
I’ve discovered a few things I’ll share with you.
Community is still key:
However I design the learning, creating community will be the first, last, and daily goal of my virtual classroom. Community is built and maintained by students sharing their lives and caring for one another. If the world is a roiling mess, let your classroom stabilize the upheaval for a moment and offer some safety and grace. You can do that by inviting all four-levels of classroom connection: whole group, small group, teacher-to-student, and student-student. Tell stories, share jokes, talk honestly. Meet in a video platform once a week as a whole group and once a week in small groups. Create pen-pals, study buddies, writing partners. Send video feedback to students and Sunday night emails to all parents. Telepath this: We are physically separate, but we are all in this together.
Innovate with texts:
Use the disruption to finally break from the desiccated old classroom sets growing brittle in the workroom. Why not teach with all fresh texts this year? Approach the text as a reader, not as a teacher. Exchange the well-worn short stories and poems of the textbook for contemporary online texts written by living writers, both inside and outside your community. Find new voices that address gender, race, and class. Read fewer texts, but read them deeply. Maybe I’ll swim into texts I’ve never read myself, that I have no worksheets for, letting the insights and observations of the community guide the discussion.
I’m drilling down on the essentials, whittling my standards down to three: does this invite students to think critically? Does this invite students to practice reading and comprehending? Does this invite students to communicate their ideas in writing? That’s it: thinking, reading, writing.
Less is more:
Just because my new LMS has a gazillion bells and whistles doesn’t mean I should use them all. I’m drilling down on the essentials, whittling my standards down to three: does this invite students to think critically? Does this invite students to practice reading and comprehending? Does this invite students to communicate their ideas in writing? That’s it: thinking, reading, writing. One good lesson will hit all three; a series of good lessons will provide practice at this essential triad. Fewer skills, more practice.
Clarity is critical:
Students and their parents will be using whatever I upload to Canvas as a road map to learn something valuable. These maps need to be simple and clear, devoid of the kind of edu-speak that so often passes for rigor in lesson planning. Deliver a complex idea (like assessing rhetorical situations) in one simple way, then deliver it again and again in other, multiple simple ways. Hand your lesson plan off to someone who is not a teacher and ask: can you understand what I’m asking you to do? Lessons should be easy enough that students (and parents) can immediately grasp the shape and expectations of the lesson, even as the objectives of the lesson challenge and stretch them intellectually.
I once heard a principal describe a colleague as someone who taught her first year 27 times. If he meant applying the freshness and ambition of a first-year teacher to every year, this statement might be complimentary, but he was referring to the stagnancy, lack of examination that comes from teaching without reflection the same, exact way every year.
Just as this pandemic finally galvanized our district to address the instructional equity of technology for every student, it has forced me to examine my practice. I’ve had to rethink how to frame learning so that it’s logical and engaging to students without me being there to drop in with an illustration and jazz hands to clarify and compel. Whenever and however I return to the classroom, I will be a better teacher because of, not despite, this moment.
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To learn more about Liz Prather and her book Story Matters: Teaching Teens to Use the Tools of Narrative to Argue and Inform visit Heinemann.com. Click the button below to download a chapter.
Are you a fan of podcasts? List to our conversation with Liz Prather about narrative writing and how narrative plays a bigger role in our story telling than we realize.
Liz Prather is a writing teacher at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, a magnet arts program at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky. A classroom teacher with 21years of experience teaching writing at both the secondary and post-secondary level, Liz is also a professional freelance writer and holds a MFA from the University of Texas-Austin.
Liz is the author of Project-Based Writing: Teaching Writers to Manage Time and Clarify Purpose, and Story Matters: Teaching Teens to Use the Tools of Narrative to Argue and Inform.