By Guest Blogger Christy Mathews, Veteran ELA Teacher & Leader

End of Year Reflections

It wasn’t all bad. 

I mean, it was REALLY bad for a bit. And then, once the administration told us we would be in this [distance learning] environment for the duration of the semester and that we could finally use Meet to see our kids, it was so much better. Emotional, but better. As we settled into that new normal, my partners and I knew we needed ways to meet the social-emotional needs of our students AS WELL AS to continue learning with them. After that, I was able to settle into a pattern with my kiddos and got my groove back a bit.

Let’s Start From the Beginning

Let me back up a bit. I’m a “try-er.” I lean more toward comfort when it comes to content and assignments that have gone well in the past because sometimes that’s easier, but I have an awesome English II partner who wants to shake up EVERYTHING. So we compromise and overhaul one major unit a semester and then sprinkle in new activities here and there based on the needs of our Honors English II students. My administration supports my fail-forward philosophy, my students and I grow and learn by trying new strategies while also learning from our mistakes as well as our successes. Students know that anyone from the district level down to aspiring educators could be in our classroom at any given time to check out what’s happening to ask them questions and sometimes to participate. My kids know we are experimenting all the time, and this environment seems to intrinsically motivate them. As well, I tell them at the start of the year that they’re not the only ones learning, but that each year, I’m learning to be a better teacher, and they’re the ones teaching me. I tell them when I think something’s not working. They tell me when something’s definitely not working. We solve the problems as a community of learners. You get it–there’s an openness in my classroom alongside a willingness for all of us to stretch outside our comfort zone. 

My students were already very well used to using technology and receiving feedback from me. We continued this after the first shock of going virtual.

But here’s the thing–I’m also ÜBER organized. Like the Type A of Type A people. Before we had Google Slides and projectors in the classroom, I still had my daily plans–our agenda items, activities, mini-lessons, learning targets, and homework– typed up in Word. On white paper with colorful markers, I wrote all this out, posting it on a wall in my room so students could see what was coming and what had passed. Fast forward 10 years and I have shared Slides with my students that I add to as we go. They know anything “coming up” can change, but they still get a unit-by-unit idea of where we’re going and where we’ve been. I hyperlink group work and rubrics and videos onto these slides. Our notes are added in along with links to handouts. I add funny memes. I sneak my Bitmoji Waldo-style into art and images that match with what we’re studying. These slides are my everything. 

During a normal school session, the agenda slides are pinned as a “material” at the top of Google Classroom and are the first thing I load after setting up my Classroom. Why? A student was absent? What’s on the slides? A student has a concert they’re traveling to next Friday? What’s on the slides? Missed the notes during your 23 minute “bathroom” break? Slides, my friend. It’s how I organize. 

Going Virtual

But then we went virtual. The kids were fine with the slides, but now my lessons didn’t “work”  the way I wanted and parents needed access so they could help out and students thought, “Yay–FREEDOM!!!” and started to check out because they weren’t continuing learning in some of their other classes. So, I shifted to a more graphic looking document which included our schedule in one column with the days and dates. The next column included the power standards. The final column included the most basic agenda information. Sometimes it included links to the Classroom activities. Sometimes there were links to a new Jamboard or a shared Slide deck on which the students would collaborate. If we were meeting, it reminded students of the join code for the Meet and how they could contact me. If I needed to include more information, it was on the assignment link on Classroom, not junking up the anchor document. I wanted that as concise as possible. 

A graphic shared with student & parents to help stay focused & organized.

Communication was KEY. This anchor document was shared with parents so they knew what was going on and could see it all outlined. I emailed my students and their parents, at the very least, weekly. Emailing them approximately every 2-3 weeks was already a practice in my classroom; I included what we’d just finished, what we were working on, and what was coming up next. I shared our essential questions so they could have a starting point for a conversation with their teen. I shared something funny that happened or some news from the class. Most of them appreciated being kept in the loop. They REALLY appreciated that I kept up with this, and that I increased the rate, when they were virtual. Of course, there were some parents who asked me not to email so often and I suggested that they could choose not to open the email, but that when I send out a message, I send it to all of my students and their families so everyone is informed. I’ve never had a parent respond back negatively after that. 

What else went well aside from the anchor document? Well, we met on a regular schedule. I used Google Forms to ask about their level of understanding, but also their level of comfort–did they have enough food; did they feel safe in their homes; were they getting rest? Additionally, I set aside a certain time each week to meet with my students from each class. We posted asynchronous lessons and videos twice a week, but only met with the classes once per week. This seemed to be enough for most of my students while we were in the emergency closure. During these meetings, I’d start off asking a question about the material they were working on. If any students had submitted questions, I used those to guide my review for the whole group. Then we just talked. We shared highs and lows. Sometimes I would ask a question completely unrelated to our current experience. Occasionally, my high schoolers had a bring-your-pet moment and showed off their pets. Sometimes things got real and there were tears when I’d tell them “this is really hard” or “I’m scared” or “I miss seeing people,” and then they would feel free to share their worries and fears. Students and parents alike were so grateful that I continued to be real with them and continued to provide a space where they could do the same. We were a community and I wanted to keep that going. 

Modifications

Since we were to cut back from what would have been happening in the classroom, I had a lot of modifying to do, but like I mentioned before, our learning continued. All of the Honors English II students joined together to read The Tempest an act at a time. My teaching partner and I co-taught each of the lessons. She made funny “news” segments on WeVideo for any sections we wanted to highlight, and I provided background and notes, annotating the text like I would have in the classroom, but used Doc Comments instead of my document camera. Student-actors used voices and wore costumes. We included clips from the 2010 version with Helen Mirren. We discussed how colonization during that time influenced the story and what that meant for the experiences of the character Caliban. We researched the Masque portion with the play-within-the-play using  a scholarly article assignment, selecting one article and comparing it with what they know about the play itself. There were some other pieces we wanted to include, like our final project, but in the end, there wasn’t time and we had to decide what we wanted to do more–give time to enjoy the play or read independently and do the project. There are always choices to make, though, right? 

With my senior elective, World Mythology, students had the chance to research any of the topics we didn’t discuss that semester. This project is one students enjoy during a normal semester, so I chose to adapt it by adding a few more mythologies we did not have time for due to the closure, and tweaking the final product expectations. Students could no longer work with a partner, but they also didn’t have to have a 6 minute presentation. They were able to use a variety of media like PowToons, WeVideo, Google Sites, Prezi, or anything else they had access to. Using the essential questions from the course, they applied those to their “new” culture and taught the class about it. Instead of gallery-style presentations in the library with our community invited, they posted their links on a Jamboard with an image, and then their peers added sticky notes to their board providing feedback. Sure, it was watered down, but we tried Jamboards for the first time (realized at that level that Slides are still better), they met the learning objectives, and they created several delightful projects that I’ll use as samples next time things are back to “normal.” This project was still a favorite even with the modifications and students were glad to have the chance to choose what they wanted to learn and how they could show their learning. Student voice and choice are important to my classroom culture: that was even more of a need during a more independent time of learning.

Looking Back…

So really, what was good about it? What went well? Well, because I continued my organizational practices, students were able to move online without much trouble. Because they knew where to find the information, they could keep up. Because they could see how what we did was linked to the curriculum, they were reminded that learning continued. Because I took the time to Meet with them regularly and to just be real with them, we continued our community and supported each other through a really traumatic time. Because my students were used to me trying new technologies or strategies, and they were used to providing feedback on assignments and instructions, they continued to help me be clearer, and I continued to push them. 

Those end-of-year emails were particularly meaningful this year. Students and parents thanked me for continuing to teach and Meet and be. Several told me that the weekly Meet was the highlight of their week and they just loved getting on to see everyone. That community of learners and reachers who were willing to follow me anywhere and help me continue to grow as a person and an educator? They followed me and we persisted together. 

It wasn’t all bad.

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