Many students are experiencing high anxiety without the usual relational supports like seeing teachers and peers in person. Many students have been impacted by death this year—from disease and racist violence— and the resulting fear for their own safety and the safety of family members can be overwhelming. There is much to do to resolve these larger issues of systemic racism and a pandemic, but let's think about how we can support students to manage their anxiety in the moment.
As a teacher, sometimes I forgot to teach coping strategies as part of a lesson, but it’s important to do so. Not all students have coping strategies, or they may have coping strategies that are unhealthy or ineffective. So, it’s up to us to explicitly teach students a variety of strategies they could use to cope with stress, thus enabling each student to make an informed choice about what works best for them.
Encourage students to move their bodies. Research has shown that physical activity can reduce anxiety and depression. Some students may have physical limitations on how they are able to move their bodies, so provide a range of options here.
If students have a phone, they can track their steps over the course of a day or a week. They can exercise by running, doing bodyweight activities like squats or pushups, or following along with an online fitness video.
Help students take mindful moments. Some students may want to use a simple strategy like breathing deeply for 60 seconds. Others may need more structure. Here are some options you could offer:
Suggest a breathing strategy like smell the flower (inhale), and blow the bubbles (exhale) or balloon breathing (lifting arms over the head on an inhale to “blow up the balloon” and bringing arms back down on an exhale to “deflate the balloon”).
Tell students about guided meditation sites like Stop Think Breathe (there’s one for older students and one for younger students), Calm, or GoNoodle (this one’s typically for young students).
To help bring mind and body back into the moment, take a minute to experience each sense. One at a time, focus your attention on your sense of sight (e.g., identify 5 objects in your space), then sound (e.g., notice what you hear around you), then touch (e.g., touch 2-3 different textures around you), then smell (e.g., notice what you smell), and finally, taste (e.g., if you are eating or drinking).
Create spaces for students to talk. If you have the time and emotional capacity for this work, this space could be facilitated by you as the teacher. However, recognizing that emotional labor takes its toll on the facilitator, you may also want to suggest other places for students to go. This might be a school-based resource like counseling, or an anonymous online space like ADAA’s online support group.
Set up new school initiatives. How could we think outside the box to dream up innovative ways to support students’ mental health moving forward. Is it possible to partner with a local organization to offer animal therapy at your school? Is it possible to designate a room as a mental health break room where students can take some deep breaths or even a quick nap? Could you help students start a club to raise awareness of youth mental health?
Facilitate reflection. You may want to set up a reflection space (either private or public to other students) for students to record how they felt before the activity, what strategy they tried, and how they felt afterwards. This way, students can identify trends to increase their own awareness of their bodies and moods. If you set up a community space for your class to share these insights publicly, some students may benefit from the additional accountability and/or learning from their peers’ strategy uses or “aha” moments.
Taking time to teach these practices and help students identify the ones that work best for them is investing in students’ lifelong abilities to be more present and resilient. This is especially helpful for students who have experienced trauma, which research tells us, is the case for most of our students.
Earlier this week, I mentioned Morningside Center, a restorative practices organization in NYC, which creates community circles for teachers that are responsive to current events. Since I published that post, Morningside Center put this circle up on their website. Educators can use the listening circle to facilitate class discussions of the police killing of George Floyd.
Inside the resource, there are several options for how to open the circle, questions to ask during the listening portion of the circle, and several options for quotes to close the circle. Read through the options, and choose what feels right for your students.
In addition to sharing the circle lesson itself, I also want to share some additional things to consider as you prepare to have (or continue to have) conversations about racism and police brutality in your classes.
Process as a staff. If you are an administrator or teacher leader, facilitate a staff circle so educators can discuss police brutality with their colleagues. You could even do the same listening circle with staff that you do with students. There are a few reasons for this. One, staff members may benefit from processing their own emotions and being able to listen to others. (Read the section below to ensure you are mindful of how Black educators’ needs will differ from educators who are not Black.) Second, teachers may be better equipped to facilitate conversations with students once they’ve talked as a staff—it may prepare teachers for specific ideas that may be shared (and how to respond), and it may be helpful for teachers who have not facilitated a circle before, to see circle practice modeled and experience circle participation first-hand.
Consider the different needs of your students.
If you have both Black and non-Black students in your class, be mindful of how Black students would like to participate. Black students do not need to carry the additional emotional weight of their white peers or act as spokespeople for the Black community. Don’t force students to participate in a way that is uncomfortable, and offer Black students a separate space to talk with one another if desired.
If you have a class of all Black students and you are a white teacher, be mindful of that. Recognize your privilege, listen, and make a commitment to anti-racism by stating what action you will take to address system racism in your community.
If your class is all white, bring in Black voices (either live, if someone has expressed a desire to talk to your class, or by selecting an existing video, article/text, or social media posts). Help your students recognize their white privilege and provide them with examples of white allyship and anti-racist activism.
Remind students of your community agreements. Likely, you set agreements or “norms” at the start of the year. You may have revised or rewritten then during distance learning. Remind students of them before you start. You may need to update them again before you begin. It’s important to establish an anti-bias class culture that is conducive to listening and values empathy before you start discussing any difficult topic.
Facilitate with intention. As the circle keeper (facilitator), you are not speaking very much. You honor the talking piece, and only speak when you have it, like all other members of the circle. However, you will speak at the start to frame the conversation, and at that point, you may want to define important terms (e.g., systemic racism, police brutality, white supremacy, white privilege). You will also want to frame the current event as one moment in a long history of racist oppression. It’s important to contextualize the conversation and highlight that this is not an isolated incident. Finally, consider using your final circle question to help students, particularly white students, identify an action they can take to be better allies to the Black community. You may want to do some research beforehand, and read what Black activists recommend white allies do, so you can offer some examples and also model with your own response (if you are a white teacher).
Adapt for distance learning. Circles may be slightly more challenging to facilitate on Zoom or Google Meet, but they are still possible. I’ve found it logistically easiest for the facilitator to read off students’ names (either from a class list or in order of how they entered the room) so that everyone knows where the virtual “talking piece” is. Then, the students can unmute and respond by answering the prompt question or saying “pass.”
If you want to use the Morningside Center circle as a jumping off point or create your own circle from scratch, I’ll reshare my simplified circle template below. Just make a copy, and add in your own content.
If you feel comfortable, you can share the finished product in the comments section of this post or in our Time for Teachership Facebook group to support other educators in anti-racist work.
To be clear, I, as a white female educator, am in no way claiming I know how to do this work perfectly. I’ve facilitated conversations about racism and oppression with students for 7 years, and I still have a lot to learn. I’m sure there are things to add or adjust here, so please, let me know what else educators should consider as they implement circle discussions.
The killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd are just the latest in a long history of racist violence in the United States. As teachers, we may feel uncertain as to how to address these events in our classrooms or unprepared to have conversations about race with our students. But, we have to have these conversations. We have to talk about racism.
Educators and non-educators alike have told me throughout my teaching career to keep my curriculum “neutral,” but there is no such thing as neutral content. Silence reflects an acceptance of the status quo. As Jamilah Pitts, writing for Teaching Tolerance says, “Students pay attention to everything we say and do. They particularly pay attention to our silence.”
Black children need to know their teachers believe their lives matter, that their teachers see their humanity and will speak out against actions that violate that humanity. Children who are not Black need to see compassion, courageous conversations, and anti-racist activism modeled by their teachers if they want to be able to do these things themselves.
So, where do we start?
Self Assess. If this is unfamiliar territory to you, start by self-assessing where you are on this cultural proficiency continuum or take a look at various theorists’ stages of racial identity development. Identifying where you are in these progressions can be a start. It shows you a path forward and may highlight some ideas or practices that you may not have previously thought about.
Learn More. Educators who seek to learn about the problem of racism will be more likely to highlight racism when it happens and be more prepared to thoughtfully respond to racism in the moment. There are many amazing resources out there. Books I’ve found helpful include: Understanding EveryDay Racism by Philomena Essed, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, by Beverly Daniel Tatum. There are so many more.
For white educators, be an ally. White educators, we need to recognize our white privilege. A short, but powerful article I continue to use in my teaching practice is “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh. Also, we need to push past our discomfort in talking about race in order to be better allies to the Black community. The book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo does a great job of breaking this down, and this podcast episode provides a great summary if you don’t have access to the book. As a white woman, I struggle with the fear of being labeled “racist,” and I am continuously working to overcome this fear that inhibits me from engaging in uncomfortable, but necessary conversations. I’ve found Jay Smooth’s dental cleaning metaphor to be helpful in accepting that we are all steeped in racism. It’s not about “not being a racist,” it’s about accepting feedback and working to “clean your teeth” everyday to remove the racism that pervades our culture.
Find resources to share with students. This “web package” of resources from Teaching Tolerance on teaching racism and police brutality is filled with ideas for your own learning and for student-facing content. Look through the resources and find something that fits for your context. This New York Times piece also includes links to texts and resources to help students start to think about race in your class.
Invite conversation. While set up for an in-person class, this circle developed for teachers to discuss the shooting of Philando Castille with students provides a list of questions and concepts that are still relevant today. Morningside Center, the creators of this circle, often produce new circle lessons based on current events, so keep an eye out for new circles as well. [UPDATE: This is the circle Morningside Center developed in response to the police killing of George Floyd.] Let’s Talk from Teaching Tolerance is a 44-page guide you can read for free to support you in effectively facilitating difficult conversations with your students. For administrators and teacher leaders, it’s also helpful to create spaces for conversation among staff.
Consider the difficulties of having tough conversations at a distance. The Teaching Hard History podcast (from Teaching Tolerance) recently shared an episode a few weeks ago about the difficulties of hard history with students while we are in a distance learning setting. The episode, “Hard History in Hard Times – Talking With Teachers,” shares many tips and resources that are also relevant for discussing racism in the context of current events. For one, you don’t need to share the traumatic videos. Lauren Mascareñaz writes, “Witnessing the seemingly constant horrors that are happening in our society is a call to action for many people, young and old. But we have to be aware of the potential effects of what we—and the children in our schools—are seeing.”
For young students. Research has shown kids as young as 5 years old hold many of the racist attitudes adults in our culture hold, and they “associate some groups with higher status than others.” If we don’t interrupt these messages at a young age, students will continue to internalize the systemic racism that pervades U.S. culture. How you address racism with students may look different at age 5 than at age 15, but it should still be addressed. This post shares ideas for bringing Black Lives Matter into classes at various grade levels.
I chose education as a profession because I thought (and still think) it’s one of the most powerful ways to address systemic racism, xenophobia, and gender bias. I’m certainly not perfect in how I facilitate conversations about race with my students, but I have a responsibility to try my best and commit to constantly improving my practice. Let’s all help each other do the same.
Depending on your school calendar, you may be closing out the year this week or preparing to close out the year in a few weeks. No one knows what school will look like in the fall. (Will we “back to normal” with school resuming the way it ran pre-COVID? Will we still be doing what we’re doing now—purely distance learning? Will we have a hybrid model that blends occasional in-person classes with online tasks?) However, we can make a plan to prepare for whatever school looks like at the start of the next school year.
Quick side note: I know thinking about the next school year before you’ve even had a taste of summer break may have zero appeal. If that’s the case, bookmark this article or add the link to your calendar for a date later in the summer as a reminder to read it when you’re ready!
If you’ve already been thinking about Fall 2020, let’s dive into some things we can do to prepare ourselves for the various possibilities.
Teachers, especially if you’re still teaching, ask yourself what you can invest time in now that you can use later. Check out my recent “opportunity” series (posted from mid-April to early May) for examples. Generally, this could be a protocol (activity) or a tech tool you’ve started using or resources you’ve been curating and can re-use next year. The through-line could be even more general like a mindset shift or a new approach (e.g., promoting student ownership) that you’ve adopted in the virtual space and could continue to use next year.
Leaders, we’ve talked about this in a previous post. Communicate a clear vision that encompasses steps you’ve taken to adjust to distance learning now and the things you want to see next year and even further into the future.
Plan Your Budget
Teachers, this is not a call for you to spend your own money, although I know many of us do, out of necessity. I’m talking about your use of Teacher’s Choice money (if you have a similar program) or what request(s) you want to post on Donors Choose.
Leaders, if you’re still putting together your 2020-2021 budget, there is so much to consider. Of course, for most schools, funds are likely to decline either as a result of declining enrollment or COVID-related state budget cuts. Consider what you absolutely need to support students. If there’s a chance we’ll still be doing distance learning or a hybrid model, technological infrastructure like student devices and wifi access will be critical, but you can probably avoid spending money on software and opt for free versions of tech tools. You may want to consider reaching out to a school who recently received a tech grant to see if you could take or borrow their older devices they are no longer using. After you’ve covered all of the “must haves,” determine your priority for the remaining funds. (Do you want to invest the money in distance learning training for your staff this summer? Do you want to hire or contract someone to address mental health concerns? Do you want to pay people to run virtual clubs or sports practices to maintain the extracurricular elements of school?)
Invest in Summer PD
Teachers, seek out your own personal PD. This could be listening to educational podcasts or reading educational blogs or books. (My favorite educator podcasts include: Cult of Pedagogy, Truth for Teachers, and for tech—Google Teacher Tribe.) I’ll be holding a free masterclass on curriculum design in July, so keep an eye out for that!
Leaders, you too can seek out personal PD. The podcast recommendations I mentioned above are good for instructional leaders as well. Here are two leader-specific podcasts I like: Better Leaders Better Schools and Transformative Principal. With this knowledge, you can design your own PD for the staff, facilitate a staff success share (i.e., staff-led PD) or find external PD providers to work with your staff.
Teachers, I would prepare for at least a hybrid model of teaching (some days in person, some days online). Consider how you want to adapt your curriculum and pedagogical approaches for this possibility. If you’re excited to design new curricula or feel overwhelmed by the work involved—or feeling a bit of both—I’m launching my self-paced Curriculum Boot Camp course in July. Get excited!
Leaders, make time for teachers to connect as departments or grade teams so they can collectively brainstorm curricular and pedagogical approaches for the fall. Also, connect teachers with PD on this topic (again, hosted by you, your staff or an external provider). Enroll your department leads or grade team chairs in my self-paced Curriculum Boot Camp course in July or reach out to me to schedule personalized, live boot camps for each of your teacher teams!
As always, I’ll close the week with a free resource to get you started…
Curriculum writers, I’m re-sharing this Backwards Planning Template freebie from several weeks ago. Click the button below and plan to your heart’s content!
The immediate priority was to figure out how students would engage in learning. Now that we’re a couple months into distance learning, you and your teachers likely have a better handle on that question, but another issue has emerged: Zoom fatigue (or Google Meet fatigue).
At this point, students, teachers, and leaders are a bit worn out by constant video conferencing. While in some states, schools are wrapping up the year at the end of the month, other school districts, still have a month of school to go! Which presents a new question for leaders, similar to the one we’ve been helping teachers answer: How often do I hold live meetings and how much information can be shared asynchronously?
Leaders have been supporting teachers as teachers have been supporting students, so let’s consider some of the same concepts we apply to an online class. Below, I’ll re-share some suggestions I shared with teachers, but with a focus on staff communication.
Asynchronous tools with a synchronous feel. To maintain that sense of staff camaraderie, invite teachers who want to check in to post a video on Flipgrid. Help teacher teams set up group Voxer channels (or if your school is small, set up one Voxer channel for the whole staff). This way, you can hear and respond to colleagues’ voices without the possibly overwhelming visual stimuli or the need to be “on” at a particular time—you respond when you can.
Use a live chat. You may have office hours in the same way teachers have tutoring or conferencing with students, but you can also address staff questions through chat-based tech tools. You could set up a staff page on your Learning Management System (e.g., Google Classroom, Schoology, Canvas). Post a question and be ready to respond in real time for a predetermined time span (e.g., 30 minutes). If teachers have questions about a particular document, have them add comments to the doc so you can respond. (You can do this immediately by scheduling time to be in the doc. Or, you can have teachers tag you by typing “+” or “@” followed by your email address in the comment. This way, you can respond when you have time, and the teacher will be notified of your response via email).
Structure the asynchronous tasks. The same Define-Explore-Build framework I suggest for asynchronous classes, I use for teacher meetings as well. That might be: read the announcements, explore 1 distance learning article or tech tool tutorial from a list, and share out (i.e., what you learned, a question you have) on Flipgrid, in a discussion board, or in a shared doc/slide deck. As with students, keep the format the same. This is actually a great way to model for teachers what they can do with students, so be strategic here.
To further support teachers with structure, you may want to offer a model of a sample educator schedule for working at home. Modeling scheduled breaks and how to set up your day for maximum efficiency could be helpful. (For example, I generally try to use mornings to create and afternoons for meetings or more menial tasks. Knowing this is the most efficient use of my energy, I try to avoid scheduling meetings in the mornings. I also need a brain break after the creativity-intensive mornings, so I try to use a walk outside as a way to reset before the afternoon tasks and meetings.) Model purposeful scheduling and boundary setting for your staff!
Record live meetings. If you do have live meetings that are not super interactive, make them optional! Share the recording after you end the meeting. People can still get the information, see familiar faces, and have the option to watch it on 1.5x speed to save time.
Add audio to asynchronous tasks. Record your meeting updates or staff memos using a screen sharing app like Screencastify or Screencast O'Matic. This way, you can explain something that may be confusing in writing. You could also annotate a website using InsertLearning (also modeling how teachers could do this with students). You could use the Talk & Comment Chrome extension to add a voice note in any conversation on any platform where you can add text. This also saves you time typing everything out!
Optional synchronous sessions. Your live meetings could be purely social gatherings. So, extroverts who want that connection can attend and introverts who are meetinged-out don’t have to worry about missing important information.
On this 12-minute Bossed Up podcast episode, Emilie Aries shares 10 tips for reducing Zoom fatigue. I addressed many of Emilie’s leader-based tips above, but there are a bunch of suggestions that staff members could benefit from hearing as well. Give it a listen, and if it feels helpful, share the episode with your team!
As a preview, here are just two of Emilie’s tips and my thoughts on how they apply to leaders:
Finally, to support your staff with this last piece, direct them to my last blog post so they can read some working from home scheduling tips and get the free template and sample schedule.
That’s a wrap on the tips for today. Go forth, and defeat Zoom fatigue, fearless leaders!
While some schools may require teachers to be on video for most of the work week and some schools have told teachers not to teach live classes on video, most schools are somewhere in the middle. For most teachers, that means more flexibility than usual in how and when you get your work done. To be clear, this does not mean teachers have less work by any means, but the structure of the school day is less than usual.
So, how can we effectively structure our days when we are working and teaching from home? Here are 5 tips (and a free template) to help you think this through:
Tip #1: Set boundaries. Working from home is tough because it’s easier than usual to just keep working. You never leave your place of work! (If you can, designate a space just for work or put your work-related papers out of sight at the end of the day.) Scheduling-wise, try to limit yourself to 40 hours a week. That means 8 hour work days and no-work weekends. I know this is hard—I’ve launched an entire course around this premise, but the goal here is to set boundaries, so choose boundaries that work for you.
Tip #2: Schedule in alignment with your energy. For me, that means tackling creation-based tasks in the morning when my energy is fresh, and saving my meetings and menial tasks, like email, for the afternoon. Your energy may be the opposite, so you may want to make time for lesson or activity creation towards the end of the day. We’re all used to a school day that starts early in the morning, but if you don’t have live classes to host or meetings to attend at that time, start your work day later if you’re more productive later in the day!
Tip #3: Batch your work. For those of you who attended my live masterclass, you’ve heard me say this before. Batching your work is productivity gold. My preference is 4-hour chunks of time, but that may not be realistic if you have scheduled times you need to host a live class or staff meetings to work around. I recommend spending at least one concentrated hour on a task (aside from something like email or short “check the box” kinds of To Dos). Batching is great because once you get in the zone, you are far more efficient than when you first start a task. We often restart when we’re interrupted (by ourselves or someone else) to do an unrelated task.
Lately, I’ve been trying to limit myself to 2 big goals each day: 1 creation goal in the morning (e.g., create x number of lessons) and 1 task-based goal in the afternoon (e.g., check in with students I haven’t heard from this week). Having just 2 big goals instead of a laundry list of To Dos makes me feel less overwhelmed and really productive.
Tip #4: Take breaks. Get up and move. Get away from the screen. In her podcast episode on Zoom fatigue, Emilie Aries shares the expert recommendation for breaks: 10-15 minutes of break time for every 2 hours of work. When we batch, that productivity can sometimes go into overdrive (I’m speaking from experience here!). Sometimes, we can roll with it and take a long break afterwards, but this should be the exception, not the rule. I’ve been scheduling at least one mid-day walk break for myself to make sure I get up and move around and get out of work mode. Full transparency? This is still a struggle for me. I often listen to educational podcasts during this time so I’m still doing research for work, but this is how I convince myself to take the break!
Tip #5: Put it on the calendar. Let’s imagine you are staring at a long To Do list with no hope of getting it all done. A colleague emails you and asks you to do something for them, and you say yes because what’s one more thing on your To Do list? Later, you read an article about self-care and decide exercise should go on that list too. The To Do list continues to consume your life and few things get done. Here’s what I do to keep my To Do list small and my completion rate at 100% (while also reminding myself to take breaks): I put my To Do list on the calendar—I eliminate the “list” part. I have my big goals for each day, but the specific tasks I need to accomplish? They go in as events on my calendar. I estimate the amount of time it will take to complete the task and add it to my calendar. Once the day’s filled up, I know I can’t do any more tasks on that day, so I’ll need to add it to the next day. If something comes up that absolutely has to be done today, I move the tasks that got ousted to open slots later in the week. Notice that I do not delete them (unless they don’t actually have to be done) and I don’t lengthen my work day to get them done (at least, I try not to do that.)
Feeling ready to implement these tips? I have a free scheduling template to get you started. Two, actually. One is set up for batch mode, but there’s a basic template if you want to make your own batching slots. There’s also a color-coded sample teacher schedule I created in case it’s helpful to adapt that.
Being a school leader or an instructional leader during this pandemic is challenging. There are so many expectations being heaped upon you—addressing the academic and emotional needs of your teachers and students, getting students set up with meals and devices and internet access, providing a clear vision and having all the answers while also determining what to share and when to share it, all while maintaining hope and calm. Phew!
How do you do it all?
You don’t, at least not perfectly. You do the best you can. Give yourself some grace, and recognize perfection in an emergency is not possible. You know this! You’re likely telling teachers this same thing. Make sure you’re in a place where you have what you need to lead effectively. Check out my post, “How to Be Well When Teaching from Home,” which also applies to leaders!
Establish a Through-line
I say this a lot to leaders because it is critically important: have a clear vision. Sure, we are throwing band-aids on problems left and right, and we need to do that. However, as leaders, we also want to keep in mind where we’re going. What are the things that we can continue to do and build on after we’re out of this emergency situation?
I recommend choosing one area of focus that serves as your through-line. By through-line, I mean it’s at the forefront of your efforts now, and it will remain a focus post-pandemic. This continued area of focus is the thread that connects what you do during COVID-19 and what you do after.
For example, your through-line may be student engagement through student voice. What tools or strategies are you using now to amplify student voice and increase student engagement? How might these tools and strategies continue to be used when we’re back in physical classrooms? For specific ideas around this through-line, check out the “Opportunity” series of posts I’ve shared over the past few weeks.
For other ideas on what your through-line could be, consult your school’s mission and vision statement. What piece could you focus on? To get more specific, look to your teacher evaluation tool. For example if you use the Danielson rubric, perhaps one of the 6 clusters (or a subtopic within a cluster) could serve as your through-line.
Why establish one through-line?
It offers a strong why for teachers (and students) who need one. If everything is centered around this one area of focus that the community knows will be useful later on, there’s more buy in to focus on it now. Focus can also reduce overwhelm in teachers. In virtual classrooms, you may be encouraging teachers to focus on a few key things at a time (e.g., concepts, tools, activity types) so that students are not overwhelmed. This is true for leaders working with teachers too.
It’s also good leadership practice. Research on Massachusetts turnaround schools found the schools who did not succeed in turning their schools around lacked prioritization of a couple key areas. Instead, they tried to focus on too many things at once (DESE). Ideally, these one or two goals should be data-informed, high-leverage, and co-created with stakeholders or a representative stakeholder team, so if you have time to look at the data and consult with teachers, students, and families about what to focus on, that’s going to increase buy-in! Manderschild & Kusy (2005) write about vision, citing Kouzes and Posner’s finding that a clear vision leads to “higher levels of [employee] motivation, commitment, loyalty, esprit de corps, and clarity about the organization’s values, pride, and productivity,” (p. 67).
If you’ve found your through-line, share it with others! What work are you doing now that you’ll be able to build onto this fall?
In my last post, I talked about the benefits of synchronous (i.e., real-time) and asynchronous (i.e., not real-time) learning experiences during distance learning. If you haven’t read that one, I recommend going back and reading that post first.
This post is for teachers who are looking for more flexibility than the dichotomy of “Live Classes vs. Asynchronous Tasks” provides. While there are limitations to each, this post is a series of ideas to work around those limitations to try to find the best of both approaches.
Here we go...
Asynchronous tools with a synchronous feel. To foster a sense of class community, you could use a tool like Flipgrid for students to check in or discuss content by posting a video of themselves. This way, students see each other’s faces and hear each other’s voices, and they have the freedom to post and respond when they are able to do so. Voxer is another tool for 1:1 check-ins teachers may want to use to contact students or families. It allows you to send a voice note without using your phone number, and folks can respond with a voice note when they are able. This eliminates the need to be on the phone at the same time while retaining the human connection element of voice.
Use a live chat. If you designate a time to be online and working in a specific tool (e.g., a shared Google Doc, a Padlet, a discussion thread on your LMS), you can still achieve the synchronous benefit of getting immediate answers, but students don’t need to use up as much bandwidth because they’re not using video.
Structure the asynchronous tasks. You may want to provide a sample schedule for students who struggle to structure their days. You could also create routines that emulate routines you would use during a live class to structure the learning. For example, I structure my live classes using a Define-Explore-Build framework, so I try to set up my asynchronous tasks in the same way: watch my mini lesson here, choose 2 resources to explore from this choice board, respond to these questions on Flipgrid. Keeping the same routines in the asynchronous space (though they may be slightly adapted in form), can help students adapt to the transition to distance learning.
Record live classes. Of course, some schools do not allow teachers to record sessions, but if you do have permission to record classes, this can be a great way for students who missed a live class to still get the information and see their teachers and peers. Having a recording of the class also helps students who were on the live call, but struggled to focus or just want to rewatch part of the class.
Add audio to asynchronous tasks. Recording a mini lesson using a screen sharing app like Screencastify or Screencast-O-Matic can help students feel more connected to you as a teacher and also support students who struggle to read lots of text or respond in writing. Similarly, you could add your own audio notes to an Edpuzzle or add video directions to a website using InsertLearning. You could use the Talk & Comment Chrome extension to add a voice note in any conversation on any platform where you can add text. If students are able to add the extension on their device, they can use it too!
Optional synchronous sessions. You can hold space on a video call for students to connect with one another and talk about their lives. Live sessions don’t have to be academic classes; they can focus on the social and emotional well-being of students. While it would be great for all students to be able to attend these, the students who are unable to attend will not be penalized for missing required academic content, and it will not negatively impact their grades (if your school is still assigning grades).
If a weekly template would help you organize student tasks, I’ve got one for you. Click the button below for this week’s freebie, which includes 3 templates with different ways to set up your weekly tasks.
As always, please share any other combinations of synchronous and asynchronous experiences you’ve come up with! And, if you try one of the above strategies, I would love to hear how it goes. Keep being amazing, resilient educators.
Different schools have different requirements for learning experiences during distance learning. Some schools require teachers to hold live classes with the same regularity they would meet in physical classrooms. Some schools require 1-2 live classes a week. Others don't have any requirements, and it’s up to teachers if they want to hold daily live classes, never hold a live class, or find some combination of both synchronous (i.e., happening in real-time) and asynchronous (i.e., not happening in real-time) learning experiences.
If you as a teacher or administrator have some flexibility in whether to hold live classes or assign asynchronous tasks, you may be wondering what your ratio of live classes to asynchronous tasks should be. The short answer is there is no right answer because each context is different. But, let’s dive into some of the things you may want to consider.
Benefits of Live Classes
Social Connection. One of the best reasons to hold live classes is to create space for social connection. At a time when students are isolated in their homes and unable to go see friends, opportunities to connect in real time with their teachers and classmates is powerful. If we think of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, many educators have pointed out (even before the pandemic) that belonging is a prerequisite to learning. Learning doesn’t happen until students get to the top of that pyramid.
It’s familiar. For both teachers and students, live classes are probably the closest equivalent to how classes were run in a physical classroom. For teachers, designing a lesson for a defined period of time in which students are (ideally) present in real time makes it possible to do traditional classroom activities like lecture, have a class discussion, or use breakout groups for small group discussion (depending on your video conferencing tool). It’s less work to find additional tools or avenues for students to communicate with you and with each other because it’s somewhat familiar. Students may also find comfort in this familiar(-ish) structure.
Immediate feedback. If a student has questions, they can ask during a live class and get an immediate answer. When asking questions through email, there is typically a delay before receiving a response. Additionally, if a teacher notices students are confused or they have misconceptions about the content, they can correct it in the moment on a live call.
Provides structure. For students (and educators!) who may struggle with the lack of structure during distance learning, live classes add structure to the day. For those who attend, it’s an accountability measure to get them out of bed and into work mode. It can serve as a reminder of work to be completed or questions they want to ask.
Benefits of Asynchronous Learning
Tech flexibility. Some forms of asynchronous learning will not require devices (e.g., reading, journaling, paper-based worksheets). For tasks that do require devices, eliminating the requirement to use a device at a specified time will give students who share devices with family members more flexibility as to when they’re able to get on. Even if students do have their own device, there may be limited bandwidth available for multiple family members to be on live calls at the same time. Asynchronous assignments enable students to get online when they are able to get on.
Time flexibility. For younger students who need assistance using technology, they may only be able to get online when a caretaker is available to help them. Many caretakers are still working—some at home and some outside of the home if they are determined to be essential workers. Asynchronous learning experiences offer more flexibility for students who need caretaker help in accessing class materials. Many older students also benefit from that flexibility, as they may be tasked with watching younger siblings or, in some cases, they may be essential workers themselves, and need to complete school work outside of typical school hours.
Less video conferencing overwhelm. Some students may find it difficult to concentrate during live classes. There are a lot of stimuli: various faces on the screen, multiple microphones unmuted at once, background noise! Also, having to navigate the video conferencing system itself and all of the new features can be exhausting. I see adults in my virtual PD sessions struggle with this on a daily basis. The struggle is real—for youth and adults.
What’s the ideal balance?
Again, it’s up to you. My own approach to this is anything that can be done well asynchronously, should be. In my current college class, I’ve held just two synchronous sessions for the whole second half of the semester (since we transitioned to distance learning). I asked students how they were experiencing this approach and received overwhelming positive feedback. They appreciated the flexibility asynchronous learning opportunities offered, especially as the majority of their other classes were being run as live sessions. That said, you know your students best. Find a cadence that works best for you. Maybe that’s one live session a week. Maybe that’s more (or less). My best recommendation is to check in with your students to see what’s working and what’s not working for them. Asking students is always a good idea!
I hope this run down of considerations will help you develop an approach that works for you and your students. I’d love to hear how you structure your activities and what your breakdown of synchronous and asynchronous activities is. Feel free to share in the comments or in our Facebook group!
In Part I of this 2-part post, I discussed what personalized pathways are and why they’re a good strategy to have in your instructional toolkit. In this post, I want to dig into how you can create these powerful pathways.
Let’s get right to it.
Logistically, what tools could I use to create pathways?
Platforms like Sutori can serve as an organizational space to categorize different activities and expose students to all of their options. I like the simplicity of a Google Doc to create the student worksheet (almost like a tracker/journal) in which they document what they have worked on, their results, and their reflections. You could also use a goal setting template in conjunction with a pathway worksheet or adapt it to take the place of a pathway worksheet.
I’ve created a free Personalized Pathway Tracker template as a Google Doc, so you can take it, edit it, and share it with students. Click the button below to get it.
For the learning activities students will engage with, you could use existing platforms that deliver content and assess within the same platform. This post offers ideas for free online resources by content area. Use whatever resources students may already be familiar with—a YouTube channel like the Amoeba sisters, Khan Academy, Newsela, etc.
You could also make your own resources by recording a screenshare video of a mini lesson and creating a Forms quiz for the assessment piece. For optimal choice, I like including options from both premade resources and platforms as well as something I made.
To save yourself some time: Consider delivering your regular mini lessons as a video. This way, you don’t have to make new videos for the pathway. Instead, you can just re-use your recorded daily mini lessons for this purpose. This practice helps students who may need to rewatch your lessons and students who were absent from class.
How does this translate once I’m back in the physical classroom?
Pathways make great asynchronous learning tasks for a virtual learning environment, but they also work really nicely for independent work during WIN Time. (See my earlier post on WIN Time.) When you’re meeting with a small group of students, this is a meaningful activity students can be independently working on.
Alternatively, if you assign homework, this is a quality homework assignment if students have access to the learning resources at home. Instead of homework where everyone completes the same worksheet, homework can be tailored to fill the skill gaps that vary by student.
I’ve heard of a playlist before. Is a pathway the same thing?
A playlist has many of the same features as a pathway in that it presents learning activities that will help students progress towards mastery. A playlist is a structured list of activities that all students must complete. Sometimes, students are told to go in a specified order and other times, students may be told they can complete the tasks in whichever order they would like. This is similar to a playlist of music. You have a list of songs, and you’re going to listen to all of them. Usually, the playlist will play in order of the songs as they are listed, but there may be an option to “shuffle” songs. Still, the songs are the same.
The big difference with a pathway is that it is less structured. There is more student choice. So you’re leading them in a general direction, offering a clear path forward, but exactly how they get there is up to them. With a pathway, you offer multiple options for learning information and multiple options for how students can assess their progress. Students don’t need to watch every video or complete every form of assessment—they choose the ones that will work for them and they decide when they are ready to reassess and (once mastery is demonstrated) move onto a new skill or standard.
The two keys to remember are: student choice and differentiation. Not all students need the same things and they don’t all need to spend the same length of time on a specific skill or topic. To be clear, playlists are not bad, they are just less differentiated. You may want to start by creating a playlist to get students familiar with the process. Then, as you add resources, you can start to develop a more choice-based pathway.
The last several posts have talked about using this time of increased innovation and experimentation to try out more student-centered learning practices. Another way to center students in their own learning is to design personalized pathways that enable student choice as they progress through course skills or standards.
What is a personalized pathway?
A pathway is a strategy which provides a loosely structured array of activities that students can choose to engage with as they move along the “path” towards mastery. My brilliant colleague at BetterLesson, Tori Todd, has built out a strategy here with implementation steps, things to consider, and examples of what this could like in practice. She emphasizes the importance of goal setting, self-assessment, and reflection as keys to making this strategy meaningful.
Why would I use one?
For one, engagement is stronger when students have a choice in what they do. This is always helpful, but particularly in a time when many teachers have noticed low participation from their students who do have technology access, motivation may be an approach to getting students re-engaged with class activities.
This also promotes student ownership of the learning and builds up independent learner skills (like the aforementioned goal setting, self-assessment, and reflection). If we provide students with opportunities to make choices about the best way for them to learn, we’re saying we trust students as learners to make the call that’s right for them.
A note on this: We want to be sure to teach students how to engage with personalized pathways, make choices that correspond with previous assessment data, and reflect and adjust as needed. Sometimes, it may feel tough to let students make choices we see as mistakes, but we can guide the reflection process to help students learn from those mistakes on their own. Of course, we can also step in and offer more guided support as needed after students have had numerous chances to course correct themselves.
How could I use personalized pathways in my instruction?
Once students have a basic understanding of the skills or standards in your class and what mastery looks like for each, they will need to understand where they are in that mastery-based progression. They could get this information through grades or feedback on prior assessments or a 1:1 conference with you.
At this point, you can introduce a pathway template to students (more on that in the next section), and teach them how to fill it out. It’s helpful to tell students why each piece is important (i.e., promoting independent learner skills and supporting mastery of skills or standards). Reviewing the various learning activity options as well as assessment options with students can support them to make an informed choice.
I like to schedule regular check-ins with students. You can do this by commenting or offering feedback on their completed pathway worksheets or you can meet 1:1 in real time to talk about their progress.
You may also want to have some kind of paper or digital student tracker to keep track of which standard each student is working on and where each student is in their mastery of those standards. For teachers who use standards-based grading, this could just be your gradebook. For others, you may need to create something new like a spreadsheet.
For now, consider how you could integrate pathways into your instruction. In my next post, I’ll share ideas for how you can build a pathway for your students. I’ll also share a free template you can use to get started.
As we continue to consider the opportunities we have to try out student-centered approaches to instruction while teaching virtually, I want to talk about student goal setting.
Research tells us that when people set ambitious goals, they are more likely to achieve them than smaller goals, and they are more likely to prioritize “goal-relevant” activities over “nonrelevant” activities to seek new knowledge (Locke & Lathan, 2006). I would love for my students to achieve ambitious goals they set for themselves, and I certainly would love for students to be motivated by their goals to learn more! That’s a teacher’s dream.
Research also tells us that writing goals down significantly increases the likelihood we’ll achieve them, and sending weekly progress reports for accountability makes it even more likely we’ll get to that finish line (Matthews, 2015, accessible on this page). These research findings feel particularly translatable to the classroom, as we could have students write their goals and submit a reflection on their progress towards the goal each week. Sounds great, right?
The question is: How do I support students to set high quality goals?
Goal setting can be incredibly effective, but most students—even most adults—are not prepared to write effective goals. There are a few things I’ve found helpful in supporting students to set quality goals: using a SMART goal framework, lots of modeling, and an intentional inclusion of steps to reach the goal.
SMART Goal Framework
SMART goals are: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound. I’ve found relevancy to be the least problematic component. Students usually set goals related to what we’re doing in class. The concept of setting a deadline by which to meet the goal is usually fine with students, but the achievable aspect of the chosen time frame is more challenging. Goal specificity usually comes with practice, but this will take some modeling.
In my experience, the most challenging element of SMART goal setting for students is setting measurable goals. This requires lots of modeling and often direct support early on. A peer review of goals can also be helpful. Before students finalize their goal, they can share it with a peer and ask: How would you know I met my goal? If the peer has no idea, the student knows it is not measurable. (Of course, you can do a peer review for any or all of the aspects of a SMART goal.)
Lots of Modeling
To support students, we can set our own life/teacher goals. I am thinking specifically of two amazing teachers I coached who shared personal exercise goals with their students (i.e., I will run x miles keeping a pace of x minutes per mile; I will walk for x number of steps this week) because they were examples of goals that were specific and measurable.
You could also set class goals together (e.g., we will spend x minutes on mindful breathing this week). When you’re first getting started with student goal setting, it may be helpful to offer sentence starters or a SMART goal setting template to help students formulate high quality goals.
I also find it helpful (if students are okay with this) to share a few student-written goals and review them as a class, offering suggestions to strengthen a particular aspect that’s unclear or highlighting how each aspect is present in a high-quality goal.
Inclusion of Steps to Reach the Goal
In my experience, the #1 reason student goal setting is ineffective is the lack of follow-up. Students may set a wonderful SMART goal but then have no idea what to do to reach the goal.
This problem can be addressed by including the steps students will take to reach their goal as part of a goal setting template. If there is a designated space for this, students can spend some time really thinking about what they can do to achieve the goal they set.
We can also model and provide examples of what steps students can take to move towards their goals. One way to support students in selecting relevant activities for this part of the template is to provide an activity bank for students. Then, students can circle, highlight, or select from that bank. Over time, this scaffold can be removed or transitioned to an anchor chart on the wall which students could reference if needed. I love the idea of co-creating an activity bank with students by asking them how they might reach their goals and adding to an anchor chart as they share.
To help you jumpstart student goal setting in your classroom, you can use my goal setting template by clicking the button below.
One final note on student goal setting. I’ve worked with many teachers of younger students who have had success with this activity (and with the above template). If you teach young kids, know they are definitely capable of quality goal setting; it will just require a bit more scaffolding.
This post continues the series of blog posts on the opportunities our education system has to positively transform during this pandemic to better serve the needs of our students. Today, I’m diving into a differentiation strategy called: What I Need (or “WIN”) Time.
The basic idea is exactly what the title says—helping students get what they need when they need it. Each of our students are unique individuals who learn at different paces and in different ways. We know that talking at the class for the entire lesson and then handing each kid a textbook doesn’t work, because that one-size-fits-all practice is how we ended up with the egregious educational inequity we have today.
Recognizing the need for differentiation, let’s think about how to set up WIN time…
First, students need to have a few options for what to do during this time. Of course, some can meet with you, but while you’re meeting with a small group, what is the rest of the class doing? I encourage you to check out my post on free resources for self-paced learning, which serve as excellent low-prep activities for students to use independently during WIN time.
Next, to promote student reflection and ownership during WIN time, it’s best to have students choose what it is they need to do during this time. At first, you may find it easier to tell students where to go based on what you think they need, but if you continue to do this once students are familiar with the process, you’ll miss opportunities for student self-assessment and reflection.
Pre-work: Class Data Dive
Of course, students may need some support in determining how to make informed choices during WIN time. I like the idea of creating a lesson just for this purpose. During this lesson, you may want to guide students through recent assessments and help them identify which skills are strengths and which are areas for growth. You can teach them how to read and make sense of your feedback to determine what they need to do next.
I also love the idea of combining a self-assessment activity with WIN time. Having students self-assess their mastery of a topic or skill on Marzano’s 1-4 scale is one way for students to determine the degree to which they have mastered a piece of content or a specific skill at a given point in time. This approach also promotes the concept of mastery as a progression. Knowing mastery takes time and everyone moves through the stages of mastery at different speeds depending on the skill normalizes the idea students have not yet mastered something and need more help. The video at the top of this page is a great example of how this could look in a classroom.
In a Virtual Learning Environment
In virtual spaces, WIN Time can be done on live class calls (via Zoom or Google Meet), asynchronously, or a combination of both. On a live call, you may have students working independently while you go into a breakout session with a few students. Asynchronously, you may provide a list of resources for students to engage with (perhaps organized by Marzano’s mastery levels), and they complete those tasks by the end of a specific time period. A combination might look like an asynchronous task list or choice board with an option to meet with the teacher in a small group. If students choose this option, you could then hold a live group session over video chat (or by phone if a student doesn’t have video access).
As with all of these examples of instructional opportunities, WIN Time can help your students now—by helping struggling students catch up and giving other students a challenge—and it will continue to help differentiate instruction for your students in the physical classroom. Quality differentiation is a difficult undertaking for teachers regardless of where the learning is taking place. This strategy is one way to differentiate effectively.
In my last post, I started talking about the opportunities we have as educators and collectively, as an educational system, during this pandemic to be able to make some positive shifts in our instruction. In the last post, I discussed assessments that involve application or creation and the opportunity to spark more intrinsic motivation in a time when we may not be grading student work. I ended by promising to address how we might amplify students’ intrinsic motivation to learn.
One exciting opportunity for students to have a voice in what they learn is Genius Hour. It’s also been called “20% Time.” This 20% comes from Google’s “Innovation Time Out” practice of having employees dedicate 20% of their workweek to a project they are passionate about. Gmail was created during this 20% time!
This idea has since been embraced by educators and translated into a classroom practice. In short, students get one day a week or 1 hour a day to work on a passion project of their own. This is an incredible opportunity for students to find intrinsic motivation for learning.
When I taught high school, I tried Genius Hour on a large scale. I created a semester-long unit in which students designed and completed their own project-based units. It was a lot of work, but it was really cool. Now, I’m not saying you should do this, but I wanted to share some things I learned from this experience as well as a free resource you can use to support students to get started.
Learning #1: Students may initially struggle with free choice
I was shocked that many of my students’ initial reactions were a variation of, “Just tell me what to learn.” I realized older students have been “doing school” the same way for a decade! To have one teacher all of a sudden interrupt that was a shock to their systems. They came around eventually, but it took a lot of modeling (What might this look like?) and scaffolding (How exactly do I design a unit?).
This week’s freebie is the set of student worksheets I used for the first days of the unit. Click the button below to get it!
The free planning doc includes: initial brainstorm questions students filled out individually; an outline of the proposed project (unit) to be completed by the group or individual (depending on whether they chose to work alone or with a partner(s); and two examples of a completed outline—one for a Science-based unit and one for an ELA-based unit.
Learning #2: You can require alignment to course standards
At first, I thought if I require students to meet specific parameters for this project, it’s erasing the students’ voices in the project. Then, I realized, students actually wanted and needed some direction (especially for our full-time, 4-month project.) So, I included a section in the outline (see freebie above) for skills, and I told students they needed to select skills from the appropriate grade’s ELA standards.
I gave students a choice of which standards they wanted to include, and I made a cheat sheet for them with all of the standards, examples of each standard, and a “difficulty” rating (based on my opinion). This scaffolded support helped, and students were able to thoughtfully choose to work on skills that not only fit with their project idea, but also that met a need they had as learners. Students impressed me with their ability to deeply reflect on their mastery of the standards and choose skills they personally needed more time to practice.
Learning #3: It’s okay to ask for help
This is a valuable life lesson I’m still learning, but for this project, it was essential. I had 100 students tackling over 50 topics, most of which I was completely unfamiliar with. So, I emailed some friends as well as the staff at my school, shared the list of students’ topics, and asked if anyone had any contacts with people in these industries. I also encouraged students to reach out to their own contacts or find people online.
I am still blown away by the manner in which people showed up for our kids. One student established a professional photography contact who gave her a used camera! Of course, not every student had a professional from their specific field as a mentor during their project, but teachers and adults who simply wanted to be a part of the project offered to act as a general, independent learning mentor.
If you’re interested in starting a project like Genius Hour, I suggest giving students a few questions to think about to support them in choosing a meaningful topic and goal. Feel free to use the template I shared! Don’t be afraid to add in requirements for standards, even if it’s as simple as: I need to see you analyze something by the end of your project. Finally, reach out to your contacts and see who’s willing to support kids during their exploration of new topics and their self-exploration of how they learn best.
In the opening of this post, I framed this as an opportunity. It’s something we can test out in the short term while we’re teaching in virtual spaces, but we can also use Genius Hour once we’re back in brick and mortar classrooms again. Sparking students’ motivation to learn is beneficial in all spaces!
This pandemic has asked a lot of educators. Transitioning to remote teaching at a moment’s notice is highly difficult and overwhelming. To be clear, no one is going to make an emergency transition like this perfectly.
In fact, because this is new, teachers have been forced to teach in innovative, nontraditional ways. Some of these innovative pedagogical practices may have long-lasting positive effects on student learning.
That’s right, I believe our education system has an opportunity for immense growth amidst all of the chaos. This post is the first in an “Opportunity” mini series where I’ll be discussing ways educators can test out ideas and strategies they might normally feel hesitant to try. But, given the “whatever works” attitude many of us have had to adopt in this emergency situation, this may actually be a good time to try something new.
Opportunity #1: Rethink Assessment
Teachers who typically assign multiple-choice quizzes or tests as their primary form of assessment may now be worried about students being able to cheat (i.e., look up the answer) while taking the quiz from home.
One way around this is to create a task in which students cannot cheat. Try an open-ended question where there is no correct answer. Even better, create an application project in which students have to apply the information they learned to solve a problem or transfer the information to a novel situation.
Another big mindset shift to consider is whether it’s actually bad practice for students to look up answers. Tests are assessments that really only exist in academic spaces. Sure, recall of factual information is helpful in life and in many careers, but many projects that adults are required to complete offer time and space to find answers to questions of which they are unsure. Just the process of looking up the information is helpful for students to learn, and by finding the correct answer, they have one more exposure to the content. One solution might be to tell students quizzes and tests are “open book” and tell them why—this is typically how life works. I need you to know this, so do what you need to do to find the answer.
The other shift here is thinking about what we are asking of students when we ask them to answer multiple choice questions as a summative (or some formative) assessment. What do their correct answers tell us about their capabilities? At best, they tell us students can memorize information. Multiple choice test results do not tell us what they can do with that information. Can they apply it? Maybe. Maybe not. A professional in your discipline will need to apply that knowledge, not simply remember facts. Something you may consider doing when thinking about designing assessments is to ask: What does a professional in this field need to do? What will I know my students are able to do when they complete this assessment? Where would I find the skills they are demonstrating in this assessment on Bloom’s Taxonomy or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge chart?
These ideas are valuable now that we are teaching remotely, but they are also incredibly valuable for the long-term as well. Application-based assessments and asking students to demonstrate higher-order thinking skills is a great curriculum design goal at any point in time.
Opportunity #2: Rethink Grades
Many schools and districts have prohibited grading students based on content or assignments shared in virtual classrooms. There’s a great reason for this. We cannot punish students who do not have access to the requisite technology to engage with online learning activities. However, a concern is that students who do have access to connected devices will not attend virtual classes or complete assignments if they are not being graded.
Students have been trained their entire educational careers that they need to work hard to get a good grade. By the time they reach high school, this idea is deeply ingrained. The grade is what we hold over their head—the proverbial carrot (or stick). The problem with students only doing things for a grade is the lack of intrinsic motivation to learn. It’s interesting to think that grades may actually be inhibiting student learning.
It deeply saddens me to hear students say they only care about the grade. I often wish I could get rid of grades all together to help students just focus on learning as much as possible because learning is valuable all on its own. That’s the opportunity we have right now! In many places, grades are off the table. Now, we just need to reignite that inner drive to learn for the sake of learning. (That’s a tall order, so the next several posts will address how we might do this.)
In your school or district, you may still be required to give grades right now, and eventually we will all return to our routines and grading will be required. So, how does this apply in the long term? Reducing the number of grades helped me a lot. Sharing qualitative feedback in place of grades on formative assessments or classwork helped students develop more intrinsic motivation for daily assignments because the only official grade they received was on their final assessment.
For teachers who work in schools that require a minimum number of grades, you will likely need to comply. Although, you may consider asking your administrator if feedback could be given in lieu of a formal grade. (Often administrators have a minimum grade requirement as an indicator that you, the student, and the student’s family can speak to the student’s academic progress. I know many administrators who are open to the idea of conveying that knowledge in ways other than grades.) Another option is if a grade is required in the short-term, ask if that can be overwritten by summative assessment grades when calculating the grade on each report card.
These shifts may feel really big and overwhelming at this time of already high overwhelm, and if this is how it feels, don’t put more pressure on yourself. These posts in the opportunity series are not intended to be a list of things you need to add to your already overflowing to do list. These are merely positive spins on a tough situation that you can choose to try if you want.
I’m excited to hear what comes from your innovative experiments in the areas of assessment and grades. Please share with the community in the comments section or on our Time for Teachership Facebook group!
Earlier this week, I wrote about McTighe and Wiggins’ Understanding by Design (UbD) framework for backwards planning, which asks educators to answer the questions: What do you want students to achieve? How will you know students have achieved these goals?; What learning experiences will best support them to get there? The previous post addressed the first two questions. (If you haven’t already read that post, go back and read that first.) This post will address the third question.
By answering questions one and two, we know where we want students to end up, and we know how we will assess whether (or to what degree) they made it there. Now, we must think about the learning experiences that will help students acquire content and skills, make meaning of the information in a particular context, and then transfer their understanding and skills into a new context (ASCD).
Let’s consider how each of these three components (acquiring content and skills, making meaning, and transfer to a new context) might show up within a unit.
How do I help students make meaning of the information?
It’s helpful to situate content information in a particular context as much as possible throughout the unit, and that starts with a strong, contextualized hook. I like to use hooks that are relevant to students’ lives. For example, this might look like watching a documentary or news clip about a current event that addresses a core understanding of the unit or posing the essential question as it pertains to their personal lives (e.g., “When, if ever, should violence be employed to secure human rights?” may be initially discussed as it relates to an individual fighting to defend theirself or someone else).
Throughout the unit, I like to use case studies to explicitly situate information within different contexts. For example, if I’m using the essential question above on violence and human rights, I might design several historical situations in which violence either was or wasn’t used during the course of a human rights struggle (e.g., examples of non-violent resistance in contexts like the U.S. during the civil rights movement of the 1960’s and South Africa’s anti-apartheid protests and also violence forms of resistance in both of those contexts).
To make meaning of these case studies, I would encourage students to use the information from each case study to make a claim in response to the essential question and defend it. This activity could occur in the form of small group discussion or a class-wide discussion like a Socratic Seminar.
How do I help students acquire the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in this unit?
When our end goal is deep understanding and mastery of transferable skills, we need to give students time to develop both. Which means, our unit may need to be longer than we initially think it should be. Although we may think, “I don’t have time for long units!” longer units enable students to go beyond a mere surface-level understanding and retain that deeper understanding for a longer period of time. So, make sure your unit is an appropriate length for students to move through the phases of learning (the initial exposure, the practice, and the mastery).
I would also try to vary the types of content delivery and types of experiences in which students are engaging throughout the unit. Try to include a variety of activities such as: interactive mini lectures or videos for content delivery, textual analysis, simulations (although, be thoughtful about what to simulate) and opportunities for discussion and collaborative learning. Providing time during the unit for students to work on different things to fill content or skill gaps (or extend their learning beyond the whole class lessons) is also important to ensure each student gets what they need.
How do I ensure students are able to transfer their learning to new contexts?
This is exactly what the summative assessment task at the end of the unit should be— an opportunity for students to apply (transfer) their content understanding and skills from the unit in a new context. This assessment is how you know the degree to which they achieved the goal. If you’re already at the point of planning the day-by-day learning activities, you’ve likely already planned this summative assessment. If you haven’t (or if you did, but it doesn’t ask students to transfer their learning in a novel context), go back and create or adjust your summative assessment now.
The summative assessment should not be the first time students are asked to perform this difficult task of applying their skills and knowledge in a new way. So, once you have the summative assessment set, work backwards and try to think of other contexts (not the same one as the summative task) you might ask students to engage with during the unit as a practice application. Consider scaffolding these formative assessments to gradually build up students’ individual capacities for application.
For example, you may first pose a problem in context to the whole class, so you can help students figure out how to approach the task, highlighting various strategies you see students use. The next time you present a problem in a novel context, have students work in small groups or with a partner so they don’t have to work on their own just yet. Finally, have them perform a similar task in a different context on their own. To be clear, these formative assessments do not need to be in-depth, they might just be a discussion, nothing written, or maybe just some quick notes on a piece of chart paper. You don’t need students to complete the final project three times in full, just expose them to the task of problem-solving in new contexts.
If you would like a template to guide your planning of unit learning activities, click the button below to get my free Backwards Planning Template!
Also, if you a fan of conrete examples, this Cult of Pedagogy podcast episode and corresponding blog post shares one instructional coach talking about how her teachers backwards planned a PBL unit. It focuses mostly on McTighe and Wiggins’ first two questions, but the speaker makes clear how valuable those steps are to ensure alignment with the third question of day-to-day learning activities.
Some schools already know they are not going back to in-person teaching until next school year. Others are still unsure if they will return to classrooms to finish out the school year before summer break. Regardless of whether you’re planning for the last few weeks of the school year or you’re already thinking about next year, it’s helpful to have an approach that ensures you keep the end in mind when you plan.
This ASCD white paper summarizes McTighe & Wiggins’ Understanding by Design (UbD) framework for backwards planning. Simplified, it’s basically: What do you want students to achieve?; How will you know students have achieved these goals?; What learning experiences will best support them to get there?
So, with that in mind, let’s consider what you want students to achieve by the end of the year. Ask yourself: What are the most important things I want my students to know or be able to do by the end of the year?
A couple of quick notes for teachers backwards planning the rest of the 2019-2020 school year:
If your answer is related to something you already began teaching earlier this year, your plan for the last few weeks of school may be to put the finishing touches on that particular skill or content understanding.
If your answer is related to new content or a new skill you have not yet taught this year, try to be realistic in how much content you’ll expect students to understand or to what degree students will be able to hone a new skill, given the short window of time you have left.
I always emphasize depth over breadth. Choose 1-2 key content understandings or 1-2 skills (more or less, depending on how much time you have left in the school year) that will be transferable to next year’s content or to other disciplines. For example, I believe the skill of being able to analyze was one of the most transferable skills for students across content areas. It’s also one of the skills my students struggled with the most, so I would try to focus my attention on that.
If we are getting really particular here, I would then write out a definition of what mastery of this skill or content understanding will look like. I do this because I think it is helpful for me as a teacher/curriculum designer and my students to understand exactly where we are going. I like to do this using one of these rubric templates. Once you have defined mastery for whatever it is you are teaching, you will then need to decide how students will demonstrate mastery via an assessment task.
ASCD explains what McTighe & Wiggins say these summative performance tasks should include, stating the following:
When someone truly understands, they
They also suggest an essential question to engage students in making meaning of content within a particular context. This question will drive your lesson planning and students’ focus during the unit—every learning experience should be aligned with the goal of helping students address the essential question.
An additional note on alignment: it is important to align your instructional priorities (the goals you stated as a result of the previous question) with your assessment. If a major content understanding or skill is not assessed, you may want to ask yourself why you’re teaching it. Remember: less is more; depth over breadth.
Once you have decided on your final performance task to assess student mastery, you can then go back and insert some formative assessments, like checkpoints along the way, to make sure students are mastering the smaller components or steps within each major conceptual understanding or priority standard/skill in the unit.
After answering these first two questions (what you want students to achieve and how you will know they achieved it), you will need to plan out the learning activities you’ll use to help students acquire the content and skills. This third question deserves it’s own post, so to be continued later this week…
Ensuring students get the exact content they need when they need it is difficult when you see them every day in the classroom. It’s even more difficult when you don’t see them every day, and each student has different degrees of time and technology access to be able to engage with the content you share. As teachers, we may not be able to get a laptop and WiFi into the homes of each student who needs it right now, but we can share some resources with students who are able to engage in self-paced learning.
I have heard a lot of school districts say, due to inequitable access to technology, teachers should only be posting review material. The students who could benefit from this are the ones who have been struggling to catch up, perhaps performing several grade levels below where they should be, AND they have access to quality resources they can use to catch up.
By quality resources, I mean (where possible) the resources are dynamic and adapt to what the student needs. Furthermore, if the student struggled to understand the content the first time you delivered it, there may be a benefit to getting the same resource again (e.g., recorded lecture to re-watch, worksheet to complete again), but they are more likely to benefit from a new way of explaining the material or a new type of engagement with the content.
I recognize this is not realistic to ask a teacher to create 30 or more iterations of the same content. As educators, we do not have the time to create all of this from scratch, nor should we, because, again, we likely need people (other than ourselves) to deliver the content in a new way.
So, the question becomes: Where do I find those kinds of resources?
There are so many resources out there, and since many platforms are freely accessible for the duration of the coronavirus pandemic, there are even more than usual available. I curated a short list of resources for each subject to reduce the time it would take for you to sift through hundreds of possibilities. I offer a handful of sites for several subjects and prioritize resources that have always been free, so that after we return to in-person classrooms, you may continue to use these resources at no cost. I was also strategic in choosing resources students would be able to readily engage with. (There are many resources, such as Facing History, that are full of great stuff, but often require an educator to do some extra planning to frame or deliver the content. Therefore, those types of resources that are made for an audience of educators were not included in this list.)
Once you’ve gone through the list of resources, you may wonder: How do I use these resources in my instruction?
The answer depends on the type of resource, but I’ll share a few examples of how you might use these resources in your classroom (your virtual classroom now and your physical classroom in the future).
Topical videos. Let’s say you want students to review a specific piece of content. You may want to share some options with students, so they can choose one resource (or multiple resources) with which to engage. You might decide to offer three choices on a mini choice board: a resource you already gave them (to watch or complete again), a new topical video someone else created from a site like Khan Academy, History.com, or Discovery Education, or a student-created mini lesson (which your students who have mastered this topic could create using a creation tool like Flipgrid or Adobe Spark Video.
Learning pathway programs. Perhaps you would like students to start wherever they are and just keep learning and moving forward. Such a path will look different for each student, so sites or programs that either provide an sensibly ordered playlist (e.g., OWL Purdue Resources) or adapt based on student responses (e.g., Prodigy, FreeRice) or provide a blend of the two (e.g., DuoLingo, which is set up like a playlist but doesn’t let you continue after you incorrectly answer a certain number of questions) handles that work for you.
Once you’ve learned how to effectively use these sites and programs in the virtual learning space, you may wish to continue using them once you return to your typical teaching situation. I encourage you to use them to help you effectively differentiate! Let’s talk about what that could look like.
How might this translate when I’m back in the physical classroom?
What I Need (WIN) time. Some teachers call this independent student work time. Some teachers may include a station rotation element. All it requires is making time for your students to work on whatever it is they need to work on (i.e., to catch up to grade level, to extend their thinking further, to work in a small group with a teacher).
Differentiated homework. If students do have access to the necessary tech at home, you could assign these programs as homework in lieu of whole class homework assignments. (See my previous post, “Should I give homework?” for more of my thoughts on homework.) If students do not have a device or WiFi at home, I recommend using WIN time during the school day to ensure students get the differentiated experiences they need.
As I said, the list of resources I’ve curated is certainly not exhaustive. You probably have amazing free resources you’ve been using with great success. If so, please share them in the comments below so other educators can learn from your brilliance!
As always, thank you for doing what you do for our kids. Let’s keep learning, growing, and figuring it all out together!
As a result of schools closing due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many educators are now working from home. Initially, sleeping in during your typical commute time and wearing pajama pants all day may have been a welcome shift away from your fast-paced routine. Although, by now, you may have realized working from home comes with it’s own unique set of challenges: finding it hard to focus, replying to dozens of messages a day from parents or students asking questions about tech or your instructional materials, and dealing with increased anxiety about the virus, your students’ well-being and your physical confinement. Sure, you love your family, but being in close proximity for weeks on end is challenging!
As an instructional coach who regularly works remotely, I am familiar with these challenges, and I’ve developed a few routines to address them
What does well-being entail?
The National Wellness Institute’s 6 dimensions of wellness are: physical, social, intellectual, spiritual, emotional, and occupational. They state, “wellness is an active process through which people become aware of, and make choices toward, a more successful existence.” This description provides us with a sense of control, which is particularly important in moments of crisis. We can take stock of our well-being in each dimension, identify the areas where we would like to invest more energy, and decide how we want to build up that dimension of wellness. Each person’s wellness priorities and specific well-being practices will vary, but let’s look at some examples of what well-being practices could look like.
As a teacher, I was used to moving my body all day, every day. The transition to largely sitting at a desk each day was challenging. I realized I am not at my best (physically or mentally) when I sit all day. So, I’ve tried to find a way to move my body everyday. I’m a runner, so I try to go for a run every other day. Other days, I’ll stay inside and do an indoor workout—this doesn’t need to cost money. I often do some body weight squats and push-ups (from my knees, no shame here!) or simply shake out my limbs for 10 seconds at a time. Some days, I just walk in circles around my very small apartment or walk up and down my apartment building’s stairwell as I try not to touch the railing. When I was teaching full time, I never hydrated well enough. That’s still true for me today, so I try to combine my movement breaks with my hydration efforts and regularly get up to refill my cup with water.
This is probably the most challenging dimension of well-being for me. I’m definitely an introvert, and I often say no to group hangs. Usually, I say this is because I want to practice self-care and conserve my energy. I’ve been invited to Zoom social hours, and so far, I’ve chosen not to go. At times like this, I feel like my preference to read a book by myself indicates there is something wrong with me. However, I have enjoyed work-related socializing like co-facilitating virtual workshops for teachers. This is solidly more in my comfort zone. I think it’s okay to combine a social well-being practice with another dimension like intellectual well-being. It doesn’t need to be co-facilitating or co-teaching either. It might be a virtual book club that meets via video chat. I have noticed seeing people’s faces and hearing people’s voices gives me a greater sense of connection than texting or commenting on social media posts, but, fellow introverts, we can choose whatever means of connection works for us!
I’m a very goal-oriented person, so each year, I set a goal for the number of books I want to read. Lately, my reading goal has kept me reading more than watching TV (which is so much easier to do!) I track my progress on the Goodreads app, as part of their annual reading challenge. I try to read each day, before bed and sometimes for just a few minutes in the morning to help my eyes and mind adjust to being awake. A colleague asked me what I learned about myself after completing my 100-book challenge in 2019, and it was fascinating to hear my own answer. I discovered I had a passion for reading the memoirs of female comedians. I learned a bunch of new words. Now, I feel like I’m designing a literature course just for myself as I pick my upcoming reads. One hiccup in my plan to read more during the corona virus quarantine is that my local library is closed. So, I rely on BookMooch, a site that lets you exchange books with other readers just for the cost of shipping. If and when I run out of books, I have found watching documentaries, doing online crossword puzzles, and watching old Jeopardy episodes on Hulu has kept my brain feeling nourished.
Spiritual may be religious, but it is also more broadly defined as one’s “sense of purpose” or “meaning in life,” (National Wellness Institute). I’m not religious, but I typically have a strong sense of purpose. Although, I have to admit, during this pandemic, when the parts of my job that include in-person teaching and facilitation have all been cancelled, I have had to do some soul searching about what it is I’m doing here. I’ve had to step back and ask myself why I’m in this line of work, what I can offer in this moment, and remind myself that the struggles I’m facing are strengthening my character. I often refer to VIA’s 24 values or “character strengths”, which I used to use with my high school students, to identify which value I’m being challenged to strengthen during this time. I try to talk to myself as if I were talking to a student, with empathy, but also with encouragement to adopt a lens of resilience or a growth mindset. I’m surviving. I’m strengthening parts of myself that haven’t been pushed in this way before.
I also teach myself to use the same self-regulation strategies or mindfulness techniques I have invited my students to use. Lately, my favorite breathing technique has been: smell the flower, blow the bubbles. When I’m having a serious bout of anxiety, I like to use Stop Think Breathe, which is an app that guides you through breathing exercises. (There’s an adult version, but I sometimes use the kid’s version because I love the simplicity, and it makes me feel like I’m in my own classroom again.) I try to monitor my emotions and energy level as I support my current college students in the transition to remote learning. I’ve decided to set boundaries around how and when I will respond to student questions. I find I’m most effective and empathetic to questions when I check my email only once a day, and offer the option to sign up for virtual 1:1 support during two, 1-hour blocks of time during the week.
As educators, we want to do a good job for our students, which can feel difficult in this time of school closures and potentially transitioning to online teaching. To support you in making this shift effectively, I’ve created a series of blog posts on adapting to school closures, which I’ve been posting for the last few weeks. I’ve used these posts as a way to synthesize my ideas, research, and experiences to help me plan how to support my current students during this challenging time.
The biggest thing I’ve learned throughout all of this, is I am most successful when I make it a routine. One of the hardest things for me to remember is to move and drink water, so I start the day with 6 bracelets on one wrist and gradually move them over to the other wrist as I finish a new glass of water. I also make colorful trackers with paper and markers to track my progress with my other goals. It feels really good to take note of my progress, no matter how small, each day!
Want an example of a well-being practices tracker? Click the button below for a free PDF.
Just as we create and put plans in place for our students to ensure they are well, we can do the same for ourselves as educators! Research indicates teacher burnout predicts student academic outcomes and is correlated with lower levels of student motivation and increased student stress (Lever, Mathis, & Mayworm, 2017). Taking care of our own well-being enables us to be more effective as we support our students.
Trying to figure out how to teach during school closures has been incredibly difficult for teachers for a number of reasons: navigating new technology, accounting for inequitable access to devices and internet connections, adapting to changing messages around whether to teach new content or review, etc.
Yet, beyond our concern for academic instruction, teachers are also concerned about student well-being—and rightfully so.
In the US, 22 million students depend on school-provided lunches. Students and their family members may experience increased stress and anxiety due to the outbreak, and struggle to find effective coping mechanisms. Without being able to leave an unsafe home and go to school, students (and family members who might be home from work) may be at an increased risk for domestic violence. Asian students and families may be dealing with the added stressors of racism and xenophobia.
As educators, we understand our job is to support the whole student. We know that when students are in survival mode, trying to teach them new content is impossible. We’ve acted on this knowledge to support students throughout our time as teachers. Now that we’re not physically in the same room together each day, it is just as important (if not more important) we continue to support the well-being of our students.
So, how might a teacher do this?
Address the racism and xenophobia
Educate yourself on what’s happening, and address it with students. Interrupt xenophobic comments within your virtual classroom if they arise. Check out the article, “Speaking Up Against Racism Around the New Coronavirus.” Despite being written before most schools closed, the suggestions remain relevant.
Make the coronavirus part of the curriculum
Teach about the facts of the coronavirus and its impact by connecting it to your content area. Check out ideas for how you might do this in history or science, math, or (media) literacy.
Share mental health tips with students
UNICEF shared 6 tips for “How teenagers can protect their mental health during coronavirus (COVID-19).” You can share breathing exercises with students. Stop Think Breathe is an awesome app you can use for free—there’s an older student/adult version and a younger student version. You can also encourage students to take brain breaks or movement breaks. Suggest a resource like GoNoodle for guided breaks. (This resource is aimed at younger students, but teenagers and adults can enjoy them too!)
Share additional resources (e.g., hotlines, support chats) with students
You can’t always provide the help students may need, nor should you be available 24/7 for students. You must take care of your own needs so you can show up for your students as your best self. Also, there are professionals for this. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has put together a list of resources including websites and numbers for talking or texting with people who can offer support.
This list is certainly not exhaustive, but hopefully enough to support you in supporting your students’ well-being. If nothing else, even a message to students that shares you are thinking about them and their health as fellow humans (not just your academic students) can go a long way.
However you choose to support your students during this pandemic, I am confident students will appreciate having you in their corner as a champion for their success and a resource to turn to if they are in need. Keep up the incredible work, amazing educators. You are truly inspiring. Thank you for all that you do.
Lindsay is a educator and leadership coach who helps teachers develop engaging project-based curricula, fosters student and teacher voice, and works to advance racial and gender equity and culturally responsive practice.