More about what I’m thinking while teaching under COVID-19

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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’s Four 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.

What I’m learning: Reflecting on teaching under COVID-19

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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.

Home workspace. Green screen, table with laptop, camera, pens and pencils, and books.
Workspace

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Teaching through the inexplicable

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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.

I can dream.

Groundhog Day

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Groundhog Day
Deja Vu

I giggled at this commercial during the Superbowl, and since I was working I decided to watch the OG version after the game. One of the perks to being on Pacific time.

As I was watching I got to thinking, what would I do if I repeated the same day for 12,383 days and was able to retain all the information from each one, what would I do? I mean, Phil mastered ice carving, piano, and French. He also discovered at least seven ways not to die. And he spent quality time with pretty much everyone one town. (Interestingly, no one aged, but no one seemed to be reliving the day day, either.)

Back to my mindless wanderings. 12,383 days without the actual passage of time. I can retain anything I learn from day to day, so I can build on that. I can form relationships with people who remember me for marvelous acts of service. Basically, I can do anything without losing anything I already have. The only real limitation seems to be I can’t leave where I am on the day the cycle begins; Phil never leaves Punxsutawney. So, here are my top priorities:

  1. Learn Spanish. I told a student last semester that I was tired of being monolingual. She laughed, but seriously, I would love to be able to switch between languages effortlessly. I’d need about 600 days to do it; I’m a slow learner. I’d need people around to practice with. That’s my primary hiccup now; I learn some through a website or a class or a study abroad, but I lose it because no one around me wants to speak it with me.
  2. Learn piano. I read music. I know the keys. I need practice and instruction and discipline. And right now, a piano.
  3. Get a degree in Theology. I know, I’m a nerd. But I can’t help that I love learning. The PhD taught me how to research and study and write. I’d like to expand my expertise beyond English Education, and there are so many things to learn in Theology. Maybe I’d focus on social justice and Christianity, or how Christians can support each other instead of judging. To have any sort of actual credibility, I think an earned degree is necessary.
  4. Eat whatever I want! Phil never gains an ounce in the movie.

That’s a good start. What would you do?

Thanks to Simon Gallagher for doing the math.

#NCTE2019 Transactional Semiotics

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#NCTE2019 Transactional Semiotics

This is the slide show from a round table presentation at the National Council of Teachers of English convention (NCTE) that I didn’t get to do. I had a conflict with a panel presentation at the same time. I know, I’m that cool. I’m putting it here now as a reminder that I need to flesh it out and submit a manuscript for it.

Why writing? an addendum

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Last October I wrote about why I write for National Writing Day:

I write to think. I write to process information. I write to learn. I write to explore. I write to understand. I write to encourage. I write to teach. I write to implore. I write to celebrate.

I write because I am a writer.

However, as a writer, writing is my nature. An astute student in class last night wanted to know what to tell her students who DON’T write why they should. What is the purpose of writing for non-writers in the real world?

A really good question.

Sepia toned image of an open journal, a pen a lamp base and flowers.
writing to reflect

I think writing is essential for communication. The type of writing may vary, but writing clearly ensures that your ideas, needs, plans, and instructions are understood, whether you are a mechanic, scholar, or game designer. I can’t tell you how many IKEA builds have gone wrong without actual written instructions. Writing reviews for annual evaluations are a necessary trial in most professional jobs; writing well may determine the raise you get. Testimony is more powerful in writing. My car was rear-ended and I wrote a detailed explanation of what happened before I could forget the details. I didn’t need it (the other party paid for repairs), but if I had needed to work through insurance and police reports, I had a well-crafted, detailed, and timely written explanation.

Writing is a practical way to ensure that your words are not misconstrued and it leaves a trail of conversation that can be useful. The reason I use e-mail for all my student (and parent) exchanges outside of class is so that I have the documentation of any conversation– just in case. Texting offer the same thing, as do any of the video-chat apps that let you keep the recordings. (I love Marco Polo for that.)

Mostly, though, I think we all need to write in order to fully tell our stories and be heard. We learn better when we are uninterrupted in our listening. We can be more explicit in our descriptions of our world views and how we came to develop them. Through our writing we can express what it means to be human in ways no other medium can. Writing matters.

Catching up

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Well, that went fast! It was just October, wasn’t it?

So, here’s a recap:

In a nutshell? Half-marathon training in two states, family time, NCTE, more family, food, holidays, art, and exploration.

You are officially caught up– on to 2020 and more thoughts of education. Mixed, of course, with family, food, and fun.

#why I write – a post for the National Day on Writing

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I find it interesting that the National Day on Writing is a Sunday. It seems to me a school day would be more appropriate so more people might participate. But I digress.

I write to think. I write to process information. I write to learn. I write to explore. I write to understand. I write to encourage. I write to teach. I write to implore. I write to celebrate.

I write because I can, because I must, and because I am compelled to do so.

I write because I am a writer.

Of content, standards, and humans beings

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I was born to teach. When I am in the classroom with students, I feel fully alive. If teaching itself it a high calling, which I believe it is, teaching teachers is even more so. In my four classes, I have about 60 teachers, some traditional pre-service, a couple of veterans, but mostly teachers completing alternative routes to certification, including Teach for America.

I’m grateful this last group is part of my experience as a new professor. Having gone through a traditional program myself, I have learned from them just how stressful an alternative route can be. These teachers are generally placed in high needs schools with just a few weeks of training. They teach based on their experiences as students, and often miss the theory and research behind WHY certain strategies work. This semester I have tried to give them the back story of English Language Arts education as well as encourage them to start teaching their students rather than focus on the standards. It’s a tricky balance. They are often constrained by a requirement to elucidate a number of specific Common Core State Standards they intend to cover even before they begin to compose their unit and lesson plans.

The Standards themselves are flexible and allow for a degree of teacher autonomy and individuality, but too often administrators require teachers to identify the number of the standard they plan to teach. In my opinion, this is backward. As L’Engle (1974) wrote, “You are basically not teaching a subject, you are teaching children.” L’Engle went on to say that machines could probably teach subjects better than humans, but the result would be the creation of little machine. Nearly 50 years later, we know that machines (computers) are useful tools to instruction in subject matter, but children still learn better from and with humans. Indeed, learning is a social action (Dewey 1916/2001).

The teachers who participate in my classes are so focused on the standards that it’s hard for them to think about anything else. I have constructed class activities to purposefully avoid the official standards, knowing that good teaching will ultimately connect to them. It has been a challenge convincing some of the teachers that they can address the standards LAST instead of first. Some are beginning to see that they don’t have to be rigid, and that they can deviate from a scripted curriculum to better meet the needs of their students. Some are relieved, feeling validated by knowing that they’re on a positive, if unorthodox, track. Still, habits die hard. These teachers learned to write five-paragraph essays, so that’s what they think they have to teach. Never mind that no one ever writes in five-paragraph essay form after high school or early college. Even most of the standardized assessments have dropped that requirement.

I understand the purpose of Teach for America and other Alternative Routes to certification, especially for people choosing to teach as a second career. These non-traditional teachers often bring a wealth of real world experience to the classroom that makes it a rich environment for learning. I do wish the alternative routes included a crash course in theory and research before placing new teachers into classrooms. The focus on assessment, rubric, and classroom management that most students experience dulls them to the human part of teaching. And it’s in humanity that the most effective teachers find their passion. The content of a course is the vehicle for helping teens find their identities, learn how to be in community, and consider the importance of others. Do students need to know how to speak and write in conventional English? Of course. But their thoughts and ideas are where the real learning comes in. CCSS, standardized tests, packaged curricula– these may be easily managed and measured, but they only tell a fragment of the stories in student learning.

My goal for this year is to assuage the apprehension new teachers feel when they try to do creative and innovative projects in their classrooms. I want teachers to feel confident that speaking to student lives in conjunction with literature makes for a meaningful experience that ultimately still leads to the test scores so many school administrators are after. But the students, as humans with individual stories, histories, knowledge, and experiences, have to come first. If the goal of education is to prepare people for global competitiveness (Department of Education), then it seems to me that the most important element is to focus on the people. People cannot be measured solely by a checklist of standards. And teachers must be afforded the agency to direct their classrooms in accordance with their students’ needs, interests, and stories first.

References

Dewey, J. (2001). Democracy and education. Hazelton, PA: Penn State Electronic Classics. Original published in 1916.

L’Engle, M. (1974). A circle of quiet. [Kindle version]. Retrieved from Amazon.com