Today on the podcast we’re talking all things remote teaching. Marie Morris of The Caffeinated Classroom and Amanda Cardenas of Mud & Ink Teaching are here to share their top tips and best practices after the last three months of experimenting in two very different school systems. I think you’re going to love hearing their insights on routines and processes that work, how to get a productive discussion going with your students online, and how to build community with your classes across the distance. Plus, they’re sharing their plans for their first units of the year come fall. Amanda and Marie are amazing people, bringing so much energy and creativity to their work, which you’re about to hear!
Listen in to today’s episode on the podcast player below (or on the platform of your choice), or read on for all the details.
What worked well for you and your students during distance learning?
For Amanda: The number one practice that helped Amanda and her students was for her to record a check-in video on Loom every day. In this video, she was able to walk through the calendar and talk about what the class had been up to, where they were headed, and what they were going to do that day. These quick videos reflected their usual practices in class, translating routine into the digital space and helping the kids feel more comfortable in the new arena. (Her students reported back to her with this information!). The only tricky thing was for students who would fall behind; it was a lot for them to go back and watch all those videos, so Amanda is planning to organize them a bit differently come fall if her classes are still online. The other most important element for Amanda was to keep her usual high expectations for her students even though her district was making choices she didn’t agree with about grading policies. This is an important priority for her as she approaches next year as well.
For Marie: Marie’s biggest takeaway from the spring is that flexibility is the key. Don’t let what you try become set in stone as you adjust to your different classes, different situations, and different material. She tried daily videos and found that her students were overwhelmed. So she tried less frequent videos and the kids dropped off in engagement. But she kept searching for the right blend, and in the end she went with a weekly video, office hours two days a week, and a live class meeting on Monday in which the class held a discussion. While she did offer an alternative assignment for those who could not attend live, Marie found that most kids felt it was easier to show up and this weekly meeting on Monday really helped her keep her students engaged.
Best Practices for Distance Grading
For Amanda: Amanda’s biggest advice when it comes to online grading is to think about assessment types first. Online assessments just aren’t going to look exactly like assessments when you can walk students through it face-to-face. So ask yourself, what are the types of assessments that line up really well for a distance agenda, and which might best be saved for time in person during blended learning or later on when students return fully to class?
For Amanda, project-based learning worked really well at a distance. Her seniors did a research project in podcast form that was super successful and felt GOOD to grade. She felt she was with them in the process and could grade their process effort rather than some specific standard of excellence since they were all learning as they went. Unfortunately, her district adopted a “do no harm” grading policy which was not helpful at all for her in motivating engagement. She feels the leadership and the teachers need to have more conversations about how they can be equitable without abandoning students to low expectations.
Engaging with Face-to-Face Discussion (and how to do it)
For Marie: Marie experimented with several discussion forms online, but she eventually found one that seemed to work beautifully. Each Monday she started having a thirty minute live virtual class meeting. She told her students exactly what they’d be talking about ahead of time, watched a 3-4 minute Ted Ed Talk, and then pulled everyone together on the screen through Google Meet. At first she tried to let people just talk when they had something to say, but it was a disaster. Students were muting and unmuting at the wrong times, talking over each other, and generally the discussion was too chaotic.
So she moved toward the simple strategies she uses in class and had the kids either raise their hand in the chat feature or actually just raise their hand on the video. This transition made the meetings a lot like their usual class discussions and that worked. They got credit for appearing, they stayed the whole time, and they specifically told her it felt more like going to school. At first, 2/3 and then 3/4 of her students were showing up. If they didn’t come, they could watch the Ted Ed video on their own and answer questions on Flipgrid, finally responding to someone else’s response. But it was easier and more engaging to attend live than to do the Flipgrid assignment, and that showed in students’ choices.
Marie’s experience was that written discussion boards didn’t feel as engaging and class-like to the kids. She also thinks they responded to having choice in how they participated, since choice boosts engagement like nothing else. It helps students feel autonomy, so letting them choose between synchronous and asynchronous was really good for them.
Plans for Fall
For Amanda: Setting routines and expectations at the start of the year is huge in her classroom, and that will be her number one priority for digital learning too. Putting that time in at the start to set up the rules and processes makes a big impact. Also, setting expectations high. Amanda’s first unit will be their last unit from the end of the year last year, so they’re just going to move around their order. (A note from me – isn’t that genius? If you created a wonderful digital unit to end last year, make it your first unit this fall!). Amanda’s first unit will be on “Why do relationships matter?” The core text is Catcher in the Rye, thoughAmanda’s trying to get it changed. They will look at attachment theory, anxiety and mental health, and what healthy relationships are like as they explore different texts.
For Marie: The element that breathed life most back into Marie’s classroom was having that live meeting where they could see each other’s faces. Since it’s pretty clear that they’re not going to be back fully in person, Marie wants to find a way to use discussion effectively both in and out of class in a blended scenario, drawing on all the formal discussion training that she had early on in her career. So her plan for fall is lots of talking. Formal writing in the distance setting is so hard, it feels like lots of needless wheels spinning, but the critical thinking and communication can still be there in another form.
Marie’s first unit for her seniors will be themed, “Journey into Adulthood.” They’ll use The Alchemist and use smaller form writing to reflect on connections to the book and key quotations, and students will also focus in on real-life skills they want to have to bridge their journey from high school into adulthood. Students can choose skills like cooking or bicycle maintenance, figure out their questions, research the answers and teach this new skill to themselves, then reflect back on their learning. No right or wrong, this research project is all about the process of learning and growth mindset. It’s a great way to open up a year.
Building Community in a Virtual Setting
For Marie: Make sure that students feel included and comfortable enough to use their authentic voice. Ask questions. Real questions.
- “What are your questions about whatever it is that we’re doing?”
- “What are your questions about how to find information? “
- “How do you get assignments done, what works for you?”
Really talking about their processes of learning and sharing ideas around that can help build community at the beginning. You don’t have to focus on deep critical thinking questions right out of the gate. Start with the little things and then the harder inquiry-based units become a lot more rich with student interactions later on. You don’t need games, it’s about talking.
For Amanda: Amanda is thinking of starting with “I am From” poems to make virtually and then put up when the kids return so they’re already there to welcome them (you can learn more about this idea in my episode about the first unit back in the fall). Poetry can be a great community builder. Check out this fun “I am from” collaborative video poem Amanda made with some teacher friends! When it comes to community building, Amanda suggests leaning on creativity and fun at the beginning of the year. That could mean trying a scavenger hunt, experimenting with Zoom backgrounds, or taking “Sporcle” online quizzes. Sometimes things that are silly and irrelevant are helpful to build community.
Connect with Amanda and Marie
Did you know you can learn about all your wish list ELA strategies on your daily commute or walk with The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast? Explore one-pagers, escape rooms, sketchnotes, creative annotation options, research projects, poetry workshops, and much more through over a hundred quick episodes waiting for you on your favorite podcast player!
Then follow along with my Distance Learning board for lots more ideas.