I don’t think I have ever gone so long without writing on this blog. Through job changes, house moves, the birth of our twins, and then the birth of a very premature baby, this blog has been constant. My place to reflect out loud, share the big and the small, and let others see what it means to try to change your teaching one day at a time, from one small idea to the next. And yet, it has been almost a month since I last wrote. 4 weeks since school started fully virtual for us here in Oregon and Madison. 4 weeks of trying to engage these incredible students that have been placed in my care through 35 minute virtual classes. 4 weeks of trying to navigate my own kids learning virtually right next to me without being able to support them at the same time. 4 weeks of my husband student teaching also virtually and co creating tech-ed curriculum with an incredible team of dedicated high school teachers.
Every ounce of energy I have left after our much too long of days seem to go into trying to come up with the next small idea to try in order to create a more engaging virtual learning space for all of my students. And many of those ideas don’t work. Or haven’t yet. So what do you share when you are fully depleted most of the time? What can you really reflect on when the task itself is this exhausting? Because the truth that I face along so many others is just how unsustainable this is.
That I teach to mostly silent students right now despite my many tries of helping them share their voices.
That I feel inadequate every day because I know what our learning can look like when we are face to face and yet that is not what is happening now in this virtual world.
That I have never spent so much time sending and answering emails, messages, video conferencing with students, checking late work and missing work and yet I know how much that one message, that one connection can do.
That I worry so much about the future, that I wake up too early, that I work too much, that I go to bed too late and yet it still doesn’t feel good enough but I am not so sure what good enough is any more.
So in order to not lose my mind completely, I have had to change a few things in my beautifully laid plans from this summer. And perhaps, within these changes, there is a small glimpse of hope for you as well if you happen to be in the same boat. Because while this may be unsustainable right now, I don’t want it to be. I want to love teaching again. I want to be the best teacher I can be for these incredible kids who are showing up in the ways they can and trying to make this work. So what have I changed?
Original plan: Scheduled reading conferences every afternoon for 10 minutes for each student so I would see all of my students within a two week period.
Reality: I need more than 10 minutes, I have to have one afternoon where I can do other meetings, and what happens with the kids who forget or don’t show up?
So now: Every child is scheduled via a Google Calendar invite for a 15 minute reading conference every three weeks. We discuss how they are doing, how school is going, and then how their reading goals are coming – in that order. I have Wednesday off as our collaboration day for adults and kids who miss their check-in meeting can either reschedule with me or do a Flipgrid video where they answer a few pre-determined questions and I at least get a small glimpse into how they are doing. Then we try to meet again in the next cycle.
Original plan: Small pieces of accountability work and reading data collected in their digital reading identity notebook every week.
Reality: Kids didn’t want to do it because it was one more thing to do that didn’t seem meaningful. Also since the digital notebook it is an all-year assignment and thus not being submitted until then, I had to scroll through each page to see if anything had changed. This was 50 pages worth of scrolling for each kid, you can imagine the time that took even when my internet was stable.
So now: The reading data pages and accountability pages are gone from the notebook so we are down to 34 pages instead which also allows for much quicker loading times. Kids do a weekly reading survey on Monday in class where they estimate how much they have read in the past week, they share the current book they are reading, any book titles they may have finished, and also whether they need a check in with me or with a counselor. So far almost every single kid has done it every week and it takes less than five minutes to do.
Original plan: Weekly or twice weekly free writing prompts in their digital writing notebook done during class time.
Reality: The notebook took too long to load so kids ran out of writing time. Some kids didn’t do it so I would once again scroll through empty pages and come up short handed. Kids saw no real purpose in it so many just skipped it altogether.
So now: Free writing has been moved to a once a week assignment with a few prompts to choose from. I want to expand the prompts and also give them free choice if that is what they want to do. They are asked to write for at least 10 minutes but know that the writing is not assessed so I just check to see if they did it. I am hoping this will also ease up some of the fear kids have about writing and whether their writing is any good. This one needs more tweaking, but this feels like a good step in the right direction. As usual their writing can take many forms: journaling, poetry, drawings, stories or if they have another idea to try they just run it by me.
Original plan: Check late work as it is submitted, grade and assess every day so kids’ work is fully updated at all times.
Reality: Hours and hours of work every day. No time for planning better lessons, assessments felt rushed, let alone the fatigue this created.
So now: Less work is assigned as we move into October, all late work or resubmitted work emails bypass my inbox and get put into folders where I then access it three times a week: Monday, Wednesday, Saturday. On these days I have more time set off to clean up as much as I can thus freeing me up for better planning and also time away from the computer.
Original Plan: We will kick off the year discussing what we need to feel safe and this will help kids be excited to engage and invest in their virtual schooling because we will finally be back together. This motivation will give us all a boost so participation, engagement, and excitement for the community will build.
Reality: I was fooling myself here (and I knew it but I was hoping…). Kids are exhausted from the screen, they miss their peers and normal life, many have incredibly huge things going on in their lives and are simply trying to stay afloat, being all virtual is strange when we have never been together a s a group, and it takes a lot of courage to unmute and share your voice.
So now: Every child is greeted as they enter and they share their voice as they speak to me in an effort to hopefully help them feel better about speaking in our virtual setting. I ask kids how they want to participate that day. Cameras are optional but encouraged. I do check in-questions throughout the class where I ask each kid to share outloud or in the chat box. We have work-time in class while we stay logged in so I can answer questions.
A few more simple ideas:
Only doing two breakout rooms rather than six. I have amazing co-teachers in my classroom for special education and we can split the kids between us. Or doing no breakout rooms at all as we try to navigate things together.
Asking kids to leave mics on for easier conversation. The whole act of unmuting seems to be a big one for many so those who can can choose to leave their mics on so they can speak like we would in class. I am hoping I will start to see a larger change in participation as we get more comfortable and kids can just speak rather than raise their hand or have to unmute.
Creating an independent study path for those kids who want to be challenged and are in a good space to do so. Students applied to do a 3-week independent study path for personal narrative, they will still be with our live classes for the beginning of class but then have work time as they navigate video lessons and mentor texts on their own. I will continue to teach and give choice to all kids who do not choose this path.
Using the 321 Enter or waterfall method as shared by Alex Shevrin Venet who also was passing on the idea. All students are asked to write their response in the chat box but no one hits enter until the teachers says to. This allows for further processing and wait time and also gives kids a chance to formulate their own thoughts without feeling like everybody else is going to say the same thing.
Inserting video timers on my slides while we are working or thinking of answers. Super simple I know, but having a visual timer (in Google Slides just insert a video timer for however long you want it for) help us all take our time and also stay on track.
Being a lot more comfortable with awkward silences. There are so many of them. I am just embracing them right now until we get to know each other better.
Walking at 6 am with my husband during the week. It is dark, it is getting colder, we are both tired but that weekly 2 mile walk makes the biggest difference.
Eating my lunch and not working. No more quick checking email, the news, social media, whatever thing I could just quickly sneak in. I am focusing on my food and staring out the window or speaking to my kids who are also eating lunch at the same time.
Original plan: As long as I plan enough and bring enough enthusiasm, it will be really close to what it “normally” is.
Reality: We are teaching during a global pandemic in a county where we just yesterday broke the record for how many people have died of COVID-19 in a single day.
So now: I am reclaiming my boundaries and that of my own children. I am exempting work when kids tell me they are overwhelmed and trying to catch up. I am telling my own children to skip work when they have sat in front of their computer for way too many hours. I am trying to give myself grace and realize that this will not be best practice teaching but best practices for now. That the most important focus for me right now has to be the welfare of the children I teach and my own kids as well but that doesn’t mean I need to sacrifice myself in the process. I will raise my voice to discuss how unsustainable this all is. How there are not enough hours in the day for me to create a classroom experience like the one we normally have. How just because I am a teacher doesn’t mean I have to sacrifice everything in my own life just to make it work. And I am sticking to that.
While I am sure there are other things that have changed, all of these minor things have made a big difference. In fact, today for the first time, I was done with all student meetings at 2:30 PM, had an hour to plan for Monday, and I only have 4 pieces of work waiting for me to leave feedback for. The to-do list is still intense, my eyes are blurry, and yet, after hanging up with the last student today, I felt a moment of gratitude that has been buried in stress the last four weeks (or possibly even longer). We are trying to make this work, no this is not perfect, nor great, nor healthy, but small steps have been taken again to reclaim my own life and hopefully still create a decent experience for all of the students.
I don’t know if any of this is shareworthy, but there you have it. Sending love out into the world to those who need it.