Teaching Writing from a Distance

Hey–happy Friday! How was your week? Mine was productive. Very productive. And productive feels so much better than just about anything else right now.

I just wrapped my first week as an Instructional Designer at Daemen College, and I am loving it. I mean, talk about serendipity. There may be no better definition of just-in-time professional learning right about now. I’ll try to pay as much of it forward as I can. My first recommendation? Visit Quality Matters if you are not yet familiar. I’m also working closely with a handful of school districts who asked me to facilitate my professional learning programs across the distance over the next several months.

And here’s what I’m learning: Regardless of who I’m showing up to serve each day in K-12 or higher education, I’m hearing that a disproportionate number of writing teachers, in particular, are floundering with the shift to distance learning. This what my close teacher friends are telling me, it’s what their administrators are reporting, and it’s what parents are saying, too.

Teaching writing this way is hard, and because it’s hard, it’s not really happening for some.

These posts, my newsletter, and the Zoom meet-ups I am planning are intended to be of use to all of you who are finding yourselves here. Like you, I’m designing in triage. None of this is my most elegant work, but it’s good enough to share. Make it better and share it back. Pass it all around.

We’re going to get through this. We’re going to grow through this, too. We already are, even if we’re not noticing just yet.

I’m trying to be intentional about paying attention to what works and who is helping.

For instance: These are the three things I find myself considering and reconsidering as I’m designing, assessing, and coaching the development of so many different distance writing and learning experiences for so many different kids and teachers right now.


Teaching Writing from a Distance: Three Considerations

 

1. How will we attend to alignment? What does that even MEAN?

I’ve been a long-time proponent of emergent curriculum design, and if there are any silver linings around the cloud of this crisis we’re in, it’s knowing that SOME (not all, but some) of the teachers who chose to create agile, learner-centered curricula with me in recent years are pivoting to distance learning with far greater ease. These people are helping their colleagues do the same, and I am grateful to know this.

If you’re interested in learning how that work began and scooping up some of the very first tools we used, read Emergent Curriculum Design: Beginning with a Shared Vision. 

As our work continued, we defined shared learning targets as well, and we co-designed curriculum with students, to greater and lesser degrees, depending on the systems that I served.

I’m thinking about the concept of alignment more and more often now. These are some of the questions I typically ask of myself and others here, and they still matter right now. Maybe more so.

  • What kind of teachers do we hope to be?
  • What kind of learners do we hope to shape?
  • Which learning targets really matter, relative to those first two things?
  • How might we engage students in the work of finding those answers?
  • How might this help them meet academic standards in a personally meaningful way?
  • And how might we do this from a distance?

So much of what feels appropriately aligned inside of our proximal settings unravels when we move to distance learning. And while I can say much about the irreplaceable intimacy created through face-to-face instruction and the basic, human need to be in community with others in this way, I think it’s worth noting that we lose something else when we move to remote or even blended models: control. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Really.

All of this is reminding me, once again, that hyperalignment doesn’t really serve anyone as well as it seems to.

What doesn’t bend breaks.

And um…who.

Yes. The teachers are breaking, and it isn’t just their curriculum or their practice or their schedules or their commitments to their own partners and families and oh…their sanity…that need to bend. Everyone imposing their pre-COVID-19 expectations on teachers right about now needs to bend.

Let’s re-imagine that, maybe.

But, I digress.

You will find more beautiful questions, powerful principles for learning, and guidance from Carlina Rinaldi in Re-Imagining Childhood: The Inspiration of Reggio Emilia Education Principles in South Australia. 

You also don’t need to be an early childhood educator to read it. These are the principles that have long inspired my own work at the high school, middle, and elementary levels as well. This principles can help all of us, especially in New York State, re-imagine education.

 

2. How will we create engaging distance learning experiences for writers?

In last week’s post, Four Ways to Go the Distance, I said a bit about differentiating tools based upon our purposes as teachers. Many are now discussing the benefits of synchronous and asynchronous learning in this new world that many are just entering for the first time. This matters. It can make or break engagement.

I’m also wondering: Are you paying attention to what kids ARE showing up for online right now?

“Well, the tests have been cancelled and grades don’t really count, so why would any of them show up online to learn?” a friend recently asked me.

Because they want to.

If they don’t want to, they won’t.

What might make YOUR students WANT to show up as learners right now?

That’s the question I’m asking myself about the learners I’m designing for, and maybe that question is needling you, too.

I’m noticing that many people–adults and kids alike–are showing up online to be delighted. They want to laugh. They’re looking for hopeful stories. They’re seeking light.

Why not have writers create that stuff right now? What not invite them to share it?

And my STARS, why not get them off the computer to do that?

I’ve begun sharing planning tools and protocols that easing teachers’ minds, lowering their work loads, and inviting kids to make real stuff for real people that really…truly…appreciate it.

If you’re interested in learning more about this and brainstorming a bit more with me, just subscribe to my newsletter. You’ll get a peek at this Sunday’s edition below.

 

3. How will we remain agile?

What doesn’t bend breaks, and if we want students to show up as learners, we might need to de-center ourselves as teachers. But we also have to know how to maintain quality control while relinquishing creative control. We have to be ready to pivot on a dime, too.

Yeah, that’s not easy.

Here’s a brief overview of how I’m facilitating that shift inside of the systems I serve:

  • We’re defining the load bearing-walls inside of our best blueprints: the writing units and lessons that matter most. What matters most? Revisit point 1 above, if you need to.
  • We’re building with elegant tools. Not splashy tools. Not impressive tools. Elegant tools. You know: Tools that are familiar to learners, dynamic, easy to navigate, and friendly. They play nice with other tools and systems. I like much of what Google has to offer, for instance. Your mileage may vary here. In short, it makes sense to use fewer but better tools. Less glitz and switch and more heft.
  • We’re using agile lesson and unit planning frameworks too, as I mentioned before. We’re learning that when we design really well for distance, it elevates what happens face-to-face. We can’t reinvent the wheel every time we pivot. Our plans need to flex with us. I’m sharing some incredible thinking around this from others in the field in this week’s newsletter, too. Learn more about that below, and have a great weekend, everyone!

Subscribe to My Newsletter for More Resources and Tools

I’m hosting a Zoom chat Sunday night, all. I know–it’s Mother’s Day. I wasn’t thinking of that when I planned this event, but I’ll be there anyway, and perhaps a few of you will hang out with me, too. I plan to start some conversations around agile planning and the tools that are helping all of us get that done. I’ll share mine, and I’ll offer some context around them, too. We’re meeting at 7pm EST, and I’d love to see you. If you’re subscribed to my newsletter, you’ll get the invite.

I’m also giving away a copy of Amy Ludwig Vanderwater’s latest release, Write! Write! Write! I can’t wait to receive my personal copy in the mail very soon as well. One newsletter subscriber will receive this book, too.

And I’ve heard such incredible things about MasterClass that I was inspired to join myself. I have a one-year all-access pass to give away as a result. One subscriber will be named the lucky winner on Friday, May 15th. If you’re subscribed, I’ll reach out to you through email.

I have some big announcements about my Pace Yourself courses, my new book, and professional learning offerings for the summer and next year, too. I’m starting to feel excited about the future again. I hope that you are, too. If I can lend a shoulder or an ear, you know where to find me. xo

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