Has it really been a full year since the last National Day on Writing? October 20, every year.
I still write for all the same reasons as last year: to think, to process, to learn, to explore, to encourage, to teach, to implore, and to celebrate.
But the more I ponder, the more I wonder whether there is more to it. Maybe I write because the sky is azure with a hint of cerulean where it touches the trees. Maybe I write because sunflowers have faces that turn toward the sun, just like mine does. Maybe I write because fall smells of umami, earthy and rich. The sweet florals have passed, and the sharp bitterness of winter has yet to arrive. Fall feels safe, even in its decaying leaves and molding stalks. Maybe I write because leaves crackle and crunch under my running shoes or because my granddaughter’s laugh comes from deep in her belly and echoes across her yard and into my heart and mind. Maybe I write because I know it is possible to create a perfect German Chocolate cake without gluten and without dairy. When the baker, eyes sparkling as she presents it to her daddy, knows that love is in more than the decadent coconut-pecan frosting, although it is there, too.
There are pictures that speak a thousand words, but there are also words that speak of pictures. Words that become images that lead to memories that recall feelings that carry us away from the conflict of daily living. Words allow us to escape into the deep recesses of imagination and wander there, undisturbed until we find other words to return us to the surface.
I write to find those words. The ones that make magic of the mundane. The crafted compositions of creative curations cry out to become content in a context of something other than the chaos.
I write because, at the end of the day, I am a writer.
I have been an admirer and friend of Buffy Hamilton since we met in 2014. She is one of the most creative teachers I have ever met, and her commitment to her students in unparalleled. I have wanted to write with her for years, and finally the perfect call came from the NCTE journal Voices from the Middle. It was a short notice collaboration, but since I had studied Buffy’s practices for so long, I was able to take her ideas and teaching practices and compose an article that was published September 2020.
This article is about how classroom design that reflects student needs can help students feel good about their learning. The space put them in a mindset where they weren’t “doing school” as much as they were learning by choice.
I am excited about the article, written before the pandemic, and hope to write a follow-up with how Buffy has maintained her creative voice during the pandemic.
In 1999, David Bowie predicted that the internet would change the ways in which people communicate, create, and consume content. Twenty years later, we are living in the world he imagined.
Bowie said, “the actual context and the state of content is going to be so different to anything we can really envisage at the moment.” He went on to describe a collaboration between creator and audience that would lead to unimaginable genres of art and thought. And, here we are, or could be.
And then, pandemic
Before anyone had heard of COVID-19, academics, educators, and researchers were clamoring for new ways to assess student learning; the overwhelming evidence of standardized testing’s failure meant seeking out better ways for students to demonstrate learning. Publishers, often heavy-handedly, presented slick brochures of the next perfect solution or program or curricula. Teachers, who often have multiple college degrees and who know the student in their classrooms better than anyone were so often reduced to curriculum proctors and data providers that the profession suffered. New teachers quit. Veteran teachers passed the days to retirement without passion or even interest. Young adults eschewed the idea of becoming teachers altogether. When state mandates replaced teacher agency, the profession became largely unappealing.
When schools closed in March of 2020, suddenly teachers were heroes again. They got creative. They found ways to harness the power of the internet and used it to drive student educational experiences. Standardized tests were canceled, and teachers were able to focus, not on mandates, but on students. It was both terrifying and exhilarating, but the most imaginative teachers made it work the best they could with the resources they had. It was hard. It was also often satisfying for many teachers.
From hero to zero in 120 days.
Fast forward to summer of 2020. The uncertainty of the early Spring gave way to fear of what Fall might bring. Districts and states debated: face-to-face classes in spite of the physical health risks or remote education in spite of the emotional and psychological risks. Teachers’ voices were generally ignored as parents and officials demanded both/and instead of either/or. So teachers, who were hailed as heroes in April, were reduced to pawns in a political game of my-way-or-the-highway. Testing may be stalled another year, but publishers, quick to see an opportunity, started promoting even more prepackaged (and often expensive) programs to schools, districts, and parents. Like in the time before the pandemic, teachers were told, “you must” instead of asked, “what do you think?”
What about Bowie’s vision?
The internet still waits for education structures ot catch up with the possibilities. Many, even most, teens access the internet every day, playing games, mashing up songs, perfecting Instagram posts, and becoming Youtube stars. They are learning. They are curating and creating content unlike anyone could have imagined in 1999 (except, perhaps, David Bowie.) Teachers are taking advantage of a marketplace for their ideas, selling products to supplement a salary that does not represent their expertise or experience in any meaningful way, for the most part. Education is happening on the internet. Audiences and creators are collaborating on remixes, fan fiction, and software designs (or hacks). Teens are specializing in things that interest them – and traditional school is not an area of interest for most.
Education is missing a tremendous opportunity to reinvent itself during this pandemic. Rather than push to return to normal, educators ought to be seeking out new ways for meaningful learning. We have the technology, but seem to lack the vision. We need to look forward, not backward. There are challenges of access and equity that should be addressed, but a school or district that seeks the next-best-program can shift those funds from publisher pockets to resources for the people in their communities. (It’s not like packaged programs meet all the issues of access and equity anyway.)
A 20/20 wake up call
Hindsight is said to be 20/20, but the actions of the current education powers-that-be (from the President of the US to the local school board) seem to have clouded the realities of the recent past. Educators, teachers, and parents need to insist that student needs must be the focus. Student interest can drive learning. Student creativity can show mastery. Clear away what doesn’t work. Step into what 21st century education can be.
COVID19 has done a lot of damage. It has devastated the economy, wreaked havoc on schools, and caused unparalleled harm to people around the world. COVID19 quarantines meant the spring semester finished online, and I felt cheated out of my one-year adventure in Las Vegas.
My contract was only for a year, and I knew that I couldn’t stay even if I was offered a second year because my family was still in Georgia. I loved Nevada. I never thought I would, but I did. My colleagues at UNLV were welcoming and made me feel immediately at home. I was part of the Teaching and Learning community from the first day. It was special. I loved the student body, with all its true diversity. I learned about more cultures than I imagined possible in such a short time and small space. My classes were places of discovery and dialogue, connection and community. Of course, there were a few people who didn’t love me or my teaching style, but for the most part, student comments were positive and their critiques genuinely useful for my growth as an educator. I was truly sad that I would only have a year there–and then that year was truncated by a pandemic.
A hiring freeze further killed any hopes of continuing my career at UNLV. I applied for several jobs, and interviewed for one not far from me, but was passed over for other applicants whose skills better served the needs of those universities. I started to think about alternatives to the academy. I wasn’t entirely sure what those looked like, but I was open to pretty much anything.
And then I started to hear questions from my colleagues. Would I be interested in remote work? Would I be available for online classes? Would I be willing to host live Zoom sessions of evening classes on Pacific time? That last one gave me pause, I’ll admit. 7-9:45 classes are hard enough, but when the actual time for me is 10p- 12:45a? I’m a night owl, but…
Finally last month I had conversations with the department chair about a one year visiting assistant professor position that would be fully remote. It would require a pay cut, but since I wouldn’t have to maintain a separate home, that was not an issue. The offer came, I accepted, and I’m pretty sure people in Las Vegas heard my shouts of joy. No one saw my happy dance, but it was exuberant.
So, my new home office (perks of being an empty-nester) is buzzing with new ideas, preparations for classes, both new and familiar, and plans to make the best of a new school year filled with challenges and possibilities.
While I wait to learn where and what I’ll be teaching in the Fall, I do know that a good portion (if not all) will be online. So, to prepare, I am teaching myself how to create good videos. I can lecture, but I prefer interaction; I think it goes back to my acting/directing days when I much preferred a live audience to anything else. However, with the constraints of bandwidth, access, and Zoom fatigue, I need to keep my synchronous sessions focused and interactive and use asynchronous communication to do the heavy lifting.
It’s always a challenge to balance learning preferences and making sure the content is mastered. Adding distance further complicated matters. But this is the current reality. Some students will thrive, some will be frustrated. I know how to put together a solid online course, so I will work to my strengths. Video editing will add a level of watchability that I didn’t need to think much about five or six years ago. I want my students to feel connected; I think good video helps with that. How many of them feel like they know Instagram influencers even though they will never meet them? The connectivity of students has changed, so my teaching methods must adapt.
Hmmm…Instagram. As a teaching method? Insta-stories with polls as lectures? I may have to figure that out- or mimic it somehow.
I hate grades. There, I’ve said it. Grades, particularly in the humanities are often arbitrary and subject to the grader’s mood, the weather, fatigue, and any number of factors unrelated to learning. It’s always been true, but it seems like the pandemic has made many students hyper-sensitive to numbers and some are using quarantine as a convenient excuse for missing assignments, poorly written work, and incomplete tasks.
Don’t get me wrong; I know this semester has been a nightmare for a lot of people. I have students dealing with job loss, health issues, family issues, balancing working from home with making sure their school aged children get their work done, too. I implemented a grace-before-grades mentality for the final eight weeks of the 15-week semester: no late penalties, options to resubmit after corrections, fewer assignments, alternative assignments, and extended office hours (as in you-tell-me-when-and-I’ll-be there-for-you). But now that grades are due, I am hit with a larger-than-usual barrage of late assignments, many of them from January and February, well before quarantine. Few of these students were dealing with pandemic stressors; they just didn’t do the work when it was assigned. It’s finals week and many of them are dealing with the repercussions of procrastination, not COVID19.
Part of the issue is my fault for not being clear. When we went under quarantine in the middle of March, there were some semester-length assignments that could not be completed because they required interaction with students. Half of the work should have been done by the end of February, but when I offered an alternative assignment, I neglected to spell out the exact terms for what that alternative actually covered. I should have indicated the alternative only covered the length of time we were actually in quarantine. Several students assumed the alternative covered all four sections of the semester-long assignment. I assumed they would understand that the work due before the second week of March was not included in the alternative. My fault, so I spread grace and mercy like rain over the semester. Others, however, had no intention of doing the semester-long assignment and also assumed that any alternative would cover all the missing work. I will say that most of the students found creative ways to just do the work as originally assigned, so I know it was possible to do.
One thing I do love is giving feedback. I write pages of notes for assignments to that my students will know that I read (or listened to) their work to the end and that I want them to master the material and practice of becoming reflective teachers who put students first. So, when I get a response back from a student who turned in a missing assignment late and poorly done telling me that the work was A quality (not the very generous 58 it earned), I am reminded of why I hate grades. Other students want to do make up work so they can get an A in the course– even though they are missing assignments from the third or fourth week of the semester.
Doing just enough to get (not earn) an A in a course seems to defeat the purpose of education, especially for people who plan to be teachers. So, I’m rethinking how I want to handle grades. Numbers don’t mean anything except as how they translate to a letter grade, which also doesn’t actually demonstrate critical thinking, creativity, ability, or mastery.
I am pondering taking a page out of academic publication submissions as a way to make grading a better reflection of student work and potential. I’m quite familiar with rejection, revise and resubmit, and reviewer feedback. I’m thinking major course assignments could be treated similarly.
Accepted without revision (A): The work submitted represents publishable quality, meets or exceeds the objectives of the assignment, and demonstrates mastery of the material.
Conditionally accepted (CA): The work submitted nearly represents publishable quality but may be lacking in form, mechanics, citations, or other minor elements of style. The work may meet the objectives of the assignment, but can be improved. May be resubmitted with corrections based on provided feedback.
Revise and resubmit, moderate revision (RMo): The work submitted may be lacking in more than one area: mechanics and style, meeting objectives of the assignment, and/or demonstrating mastery of the material. Details for improvement are in the comments. May be revised and resubmitted, but resubmission must be accompanied by an explanation of measures taken to improve the work based on provided feedback.
Revise and resubmit, major revision (RMa): The work submitted does not reflect a thorough understanding of the assignment objectives, nor does it demonstrate any mastery of the material. It is also deficient in form, style, and/or mechanics. The work may be resubmitted, but must be accompanied by an explanation of measures taken to improve the work based on provided feedback AND at least one peer-review by a colleague in the class.
My hope is that this kind of grading system would discourage procrastination, since revisions are possible. I know I give good feedback, so I am confident that students who utilize it could produce the level of work expected of college graduates. It means I must improve my practice for clarity and be explicit in my directions. I will also have to limit how much time is permitted for revisions;; I’m thinking one week for CA and two weeks for RMo and RMa would be enough, particularly since the work of the course doesn’t stop. I also have to think about how many times the same assignment may be resubmitted. No more than twice for the revise-and-resubmit, I think.
I’m still thinking, and I know that somehow even this system must translate to letter grades, but I have more work to grade right now. It’s just a few days until I have to submit final grades for everyone, and then I’ll have time (and maybe headspace) to think.
Having more robust, creative, and rich in-school educational experiences should have been a priority before the widespread shut-down of schools, but it will be even more important to prioritize when schooling resumes some semblance of normalcy. To do so will mean that focusing on tools that attempt to quantify student learning – such as high-stakes tests – will have to be put on the backburner, or eliminated entirely (which would, in the process, help with budgeting issues too since tests are expensive).
Jones, S (May 1, 2020)
Teacher have argued against high stakes testing for years. Research is clear that these test accurately measure only how well a student takes a test, not whether they are learning content. The tests absolutely can’t determine imagination, creativity, or problem solving. Decades of high stakes standardized tests have led to narrowing the curriculum, decreased student motivation, and no evidence of improved student learning. Adding in the implications of implicit bias makes the tests even more meaningless. The anxiety and stress for both students and teachers caused by heavy reliance on test scores for determining “success” is also well documented.
If the USA is committed to superior education, then the powers that be must give teachers the power and the tools to do the work. Money spent on empty promise by publishers would do FAR more good for students if it were to be devoted to smaller class sizes, teacher support, and basic student needs (e.g. breakfast and lunch, school supplies). Post-pandemic reconstruction of education could potentially include a paradigm shift from publisher-driven curriculum to student-driven learning.
I’ve been drinking a lot of coffee with my hours of Zoom meetings and online school and family video chats. My eyes complain that I need more screen breaks, but the work still needs to be done. I have been working and teaching in online spaces for years. If I have screen fatigue even though I have extensive experience in this digital realm, how much more do those whose lives prior to COVID-19 resounded with “put that screen away and go outside?”
All the coffee coincides with thinking, especially in the wee hours of the morning when I should be sleeping. So, as I brew another cup, I will attempt to make sense of things I’m pondering.
Clarity matters, but change is constant.
When chaos is the order of the day, decisions about assignments or deadlines or grading become flexible. Most of my students, however, thrive on routine, planners, and fixed schedules. I know I can continue to improve how well I communicate expectations from assignments, and I need to regularly reiterate that the syllabi for my classes are philosophically sound, but practically fluid. My goals, objectives, and rationales rarely change during the course of a semester, but very often current events or unexpected information require adjustments to individual assignments and deadlines. This current pandemic exacerbated the need for multiple adjustments, but the combination of need for routine collides with the reality of change and has led to confusion and a plethora a panicked emails, even though the changes have largely been in the students’ interest.
I answer the emails understanding how overwhelmed people are, and I remind them that the most recent information is correct, but subject to changing again. When COVID-19 meant a shift to remote instruction, there was no way of knowing whether it was for weeks or months. The initial changes assumed we would be back in the classroom before the end of the semester. When the decision was made to stay away from campus, I made another change. I ultimately made my way home to be with family, but that left me in a different time zone than my university. And then a number of students went to be with their families, which meant synchronous classes could not be realistically cover the hours of the face-to-face courses. Now that the end of the university semester is near, I don’t think there will be new changes, but I won’t guarantee it.
Pandemic means keeping your calendar in pencil, not ink. I get it, though. My own planner is riddled with whiteout for canceled meetings, classes, and appointments. I’ve also learned over the years to think on my feet, respond to the actual problem quickly, and compartmentalize tasks. Going forward, I intend to teach those skills to all my pre-service teachers and graduate students. Planning is important, but plans can’t be written in stone when people are involved. If we as teachers have learned one thing in the last months, it’s that we can’t predict the future.
Thinking on my feet comes from my life as a disc jockey and radio journalist in the 1980s. Radio is a medium of incessant change. A story relevant at 8 a.m. is dead by noon, and recorded over by 5 p.m. At least, it used to be recorded over. Now, I suppose it is archived to the Cloud. Still, when information flows fast and furious, the ability to keep moving is a necessary skill. In school, teachers should be able to pivot away from a lesson that isn’t working and improvise a better approach on the fly. That skill comes with learning the students, not the script. It requires knowing the content rather than the curriculum. Even without a pandemic, teachers’ days are filled with the unexpected: assemblies, fire drills, half a class missing for a sporting event or field trip in another class, and a million other little things. Thinking on our feet as teachers is important.
Responding to a problem quickly goes along with thinking on my feet. It’s too easy to look at the overwhelming tower of things that must be done and give up. Anxiety is a real biochemical response to the unexpected, and those of us who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses exacerbated by sudden change have had to be exceptionally vigilant about maintaining our medications, using the tools available to us for meditating or self-calming, and working to recognize what is reality and what is in our minds. It’s hard. Additionally, people who do not have diagnosed anxiety disorders feel especially anxious when they can’t predict or anticipate what the next change might be. Part of dealing with change means focusing on the moment and the next moment. My students who are sending panicked emails are emailing first and then thinking through the problem once I’ve talked them off the ledge.
Granted, this is an unprecedented pandemic (except for virologists and epidemiologists), and a number of my students are suddenly working in an unfamiliar space with their children needing them for their own school work. Some have limited access to technology (a topic for another time) and others have partners whose employment is in jeopardy or who are essential workers with long hours. Still, when I asked my students how many of them were planning their work without the external force of going to school only one said that she was. Most of my students admitted to a haphazard approach to the tasks that were largely unchanged. Work was still due, their lesson plans still had to be done, hours for practicum had to be completed, and their academic lives continued to move ahead. Responding to the actual problem requires being organized and diligent enough to recognize what can be altered or reworked as soon as the changes are known.
Compartmentalization saves me from panic, although it can make me look like I am without compassion. I think it may be the most important think I should teach in the future, especially to the women in my classes. We women are masters of multi-tasking, but it’s not necessarily a good thing. To be able to order dinner while finalizing grades and making sure the kids are bathed before bed may get a lot done, but it is exhausting. If we try to think about ALL the things at once, we’ll likely burn out or paralyze ourselves and accomplish nothing. I like to use Stephen Covey’s philosophies from First Things First as a baseline for deciding what needs my attention. The quadrant of urgent/not-urgent/important/non-important allows me to prioritize what must be done and what can wait. I think prioritizing and compartmentalizing tasks can prevent teachers from being overwhelmed by the sheer number of resources, tasks, demands, assignments, and responsibilities just from their school-based lives, apart from their family and private lives. I’m thinking I may add some of Covey’s work to Ruiz’sFour Agreements to my first two weeks of classes.
There is much to learn from this pandemic, and I can do a better job preparing my students for dealing with the unexpected. While a global pandemic is unlikely to take anyone by surprise again any time in the near future, change is inevitable. Having some tools in place to navigate change may alleviate some of the stress that the unexpected can bring.
I’ve been reflecting on the lessons of this time of shelter-in -place lately, and there are some changes I will make as I teach going forward.
I am well acquainted with online teaching; I’ve done it, or some hybrid version, for years. I even earned an endorsement for online instruction with my Master’s degree. Still this pivot from face-to-face classes to unplanned remote instruction has made me rethink how I can better approach ALL of my teaching practices.
The very first change I will make is to focus on learning for the sake of learning, not for a grade. The primary complaint I hear from my graduate students who are already teaching is that, without the ability to grade work, few of their students are actually doing any kind of work. Students don’t check in, they don’t turn in assignments, and they don’t show up for synchronous meetings. The result is that the teachers are losing steam quickly. Why should they continue to create digital content when the impetus for students to do the work is gone? Why should students do the work when the grades don’t matter?
The lack of participation from students leads to a loss of motivation for their teachers, which means MY students aren’t keeping up with the assignments in their graduate studies. I cut the requirements in half, but the consensus from their Flipgrid check-ins is that they have no motivation to do anything at all.
I know that this crazy quarantine time is part of it. Uncertainty breeds complacency. BUT, several weeks in, I think we all need to find the purpose for learning again. After years of being part of the education system, it’s easy to forget about WHY we choose to follow the call to teach because we are focused on deadlines, due dates, and grades. Why do we learn? Why does learning matter? I have not made a practice of teaching that, so my students may not have really thought about it in years. I need to reinforce early and often that learning is personal, grades are arbitrary. If I model that teaching, then hopefully my students will pass it down to their students and the perception of school as drudgery will change.
One think I have done well as a teacher of adult is to open the semester with Ruiz’s Four Agreements. I think the idea that learning is for the self will flow naturally after 1) Be impeccable with your word, 2) Don’t take things personally, 3) Don’t make assumptions, and 4) Always do your best. I know Ruiz wrote more, but these four are sufficient and I can use them to lead to the understanding that ultimately, learning is for our own edification.
I need to ponder this idea further and decide how to make it the forefront of my classes: face-to-face, hybrid, and online.
On the less philosophical side, I’ve learned some practical things:
If students are required to set up websites for a class (not by me), set specific parameters like most recent post first and dates on everything.
Practice all the technology for the semester early and often and in class: Zoom, Flipgrid, photo/video editing, Hangouts, Twitter and Twitter cats and Tweetdeck, and how to find anything on the web, including YouTube tutorials for all of the above.
Use dates for deadlines, not week numbers! Granted, some of this comes from teaching other people’s classes, so they set it up, but I have learned that abbreviations and numbers are far more confusing than actual words and dates. “WWA #3” – what is that and when was it due again?
I’m sure I will continue to learn more as this semester concludes, but just those three practical things will make a huge difference. I think students will appreciate the reminder that educators do not choose to teach because of grades. Education is a calling as much as a vocation, but it’s so easy to forget that with all the demands of quantitative data, content- driven curriculum, and the need for “rigor.” If we who teach can remember why we learn, perhaps this time of pandemic will have served a useful purpose.
If you had told me that the 20-21 school year would be full of surprises, I would have believed you. If you had told me I’d be teaching online halfway through the spring semester, I might have laughed. And yet, here we are. A global pandemic (yes, I know it is redundant), a cultural panic, a paradigm shift, and suddenly, I have transitioned to online learning.
As long as the technology holds out, I am confident I can make the shift. I am not so sure about my students who not only have to move from face-to-face classes once a week with me, but also have to transition their own classrooms to digital, without the training and resources they need.
I view my job this week as being support for my students and a place where they can express their frustration and fears without worrying about the consequences. The content will eventually take care of itself, but for the new and prospective teachers who sit in my classroom, confidence is shaken. Do I really need to talk about writers’ workshops? Not really. There’s plenty for them to read and experience with later, when this COVID 19 crisis is over. And it will be over.
One bright spot in all this is the suspension of high-stakes testing by many districts. We who are educators know how pointless and stressful these assessments are for everyone, and I can only hope that they will not return once this is over. I am so impressed by the education community and how so many teachers have been able to turn on a dime to keep their students learning. Maybe this will be the beginning of new respect for the teaching profession, and just maybe, teachers will be given their autonomy back so that they can do what they’re trained to do, what they love to do, and what they know how to do better than any corporation or publisher.