Successes & Challenges: First Quarter Remote Learning in Heritage Classes

(Also covers: How to Modify Workshop Minilessons for Remote Learning)

Hello amigos, amigas, and amiguis! (I’ve been practicing using inclusive language, but that’s for another post.) Whew. It’s been a minute. Well, actually it feels like years since I’ve had both the bandwidth and the desire to write a blog post. Thank you for all your support this summer and fall, and keep your feedback on the amazing #HeritageTeacherSummit coming!! (Side note – if you want to present at the summit next year, or know someone who would be amazing, please fill out this form!) We were lucky enough to have had Friday off, and I feel caught up and refreshed for the first time since August. 

I wanted to share some thoughts from my first quarter this year. I fear they are a little bit scattered, but I hope they might be helpful to you 🙂 First, we are all in some very different boats this year in the ocean of COVID. Here is some information on my context to keep in mind as you read this post: 

  1. We were fully remote first quarter (something that is changing TOMORROW as we transition to hybrid).
  2. To minimize exposure and maximize cohorts, we have shifted to a full block schedule, meaning students only have 4 classes each day, for an entire semester, and complete a year’s worth of material in one semester.
  3. My district has thankfully recognized the significant unique challenges of teaching and learning online and has given us Fridays as fully asynchronous days; my admin has allowed us to decide if we’d like to assign additional work for that day or to allow students to catch up on the week’s work. I’ve decided to allow students to catch up on Fridays, and not assign anything new (this effectively means I’m losing one day a week of instruction on block, or two days a week of instruction on a year long schedule).
  4. We use Google Meet, not Zoom, and Google Classroom.
  5. We are supposed to hold synchronous/live classes at least half the class time..
  6. Students were expected to be present the entire time of the synchronous/live class to be counted present.

I just posted my grades from first quarter tonight (basically, first semester grades because we’re on the full block). I feel pretty happy with the grades, all things considered, especially compared to what a disaster things were in the spring. That said, though, there is still a lot of room for growth 🙂

Free reading during remote and soon-to-be hybrid learning

Free reading at the beginning of class has been a staple in my heritage classes for years. I have spent years, and lots of money (both mine and school/district), developing a robust classroom library with books that appeal to many different interests and levels for my heritage learners. My main concern when thinking about being fully remote was making sure I could continue free reading. Before the year started, we counted all the books in our FVR libraries and realized we had enough books to check out a free reading book to every student at check in (when they came to check out textbooks and computers). I was extremely lucky to check out free reading books to nearly all of my students, as well as give them a notebook, before school even started. If you’re curious about starting an free reading program, and the why/how, you can read my post here

In the fully remote model, I met with my students every day at the beginning of our class time, and we read together for 10 minutes (each person reading their own FVR book). At the beginning of class, they filled out a quick attendance and check in form that I would drop in the chat, then we would read for 10 quiet, uninterrupted minutes. Then, I would drop a short form in the chat where they would record what book they read, what pages, and what was happening. At the end of the week, I would sort the form by last name and award 10 points for each day of free reading.

Now, as we think about transitioning back to school (students will come two days a week), it still makes the most sense for students to have their own books. They will bring them to school and read at the beginning of class, and read the same book at home. If they get quarantined or we transition to fully remote again, they’ll still have access to their book. I can check out a new one to them if they need one on a day when they’re at school (and quarantine their used book for at least 24 hours). 

How I modified the beginning of the year

This year, I modified what I usually do the first few days of school. Because remote learning makes it so hard to get to know the students, I knew I had to work extra hard to be vulnerable right off the bat and encourage vulnerability on my end and make the space feel safe. The first day of class, my school did this thing called “no backpack day” where you really seek to build relationships. I shared my life story in about 10 minutes, complete with pictures, and there were lots of games and icebreakers. The second day of class, I read to my students a letter I’d written to them about my hopes and dreams for our class and for them (*heavily* modeled after Jen López’s letter and lesson described in her blog here). For their assignment, they were asked to brainstorm a person that was important in their life and then write a letter to that person. They could choose the same style I used (10 things I want you to know) or a simple three paragraph model. I learned SO MUCH MORE about my students from reading those letters than I did from all the typical beginning of the year surveys and pretests, and I will definitely do that every year from now on, COVID or no COVID. 

Modifying workshop model for fully remote learning

I usually start off with a unit on personal narratives, and this year, I knew that would be super important. It would help me get to know my students, it would help them start to get into the habits of writers and seeing themselves as writers, it would help them realize they have stories to tell and that their ideas, their stories, have power. Even though it would be easy to skip narrative writing for more “academic” topics, I’m so glad I resisted that urge!

If you’ve been reading our blog for a while, you know I use workshop model pretty consistently. You can read this post about the personal narrative writing unit I usually do. This year, I had to modify writing workshop for distance learning. I watched a video from Teachers’ College in the spring to get some ideas on how to do the mini lesson remotely, and that’s pretty much how I ran my classes this quarter.

If you know the workshop model, you know class pretty much revolves around a mini lesson at the beginning of class (about 15 minutes max), and then conferencing with students while they write (or read, if you’re doing reading workshop) independently. So, here are the modifications I made so I could do a mini lesson during remote learning:

  • Most students had cameras off, so I relied very heavily on the chat. With Google Meet, the chat is saved at the end and becomes a searchable Google Doc that you can refer back to later (helpful while taking attendance to see if a student was engaged). So, when I asked a question, students were expected to respond in the chat every time
  • At the beginning of the mini-lesson, I would remind them what they did the day before and ask them to share something in the chat. I might say something like: “Yesterday, we learned about two strategies to think of ideas for our narratives, either thinking of a special person or thinking of a special place (refer to anchor chart where I’d written the strategies from the day before). Which strategy helped you think of more ideas yesterday?” (Wait for all the answers to appear in the chat.) Then I might say, “It looks like most of you preferred the strategy of thinking of a special person! That’s the one that’s easiest for me, too. Yesterday, you had to write one story. What was your story about yesterday? Write one sentence in the chat.” (Wait for the answers to appear in the chat and respond appropriately).
  • Instead of using anchor charts on the wall, writing each strategy as we learned it, I started using mini anchor charts and a document camera: the anchor chart is actually just a piece of paper with the list (or you can use post it notes with each strategy, which is a teeny bit more fun). Here is an example of our completed anchor chart from Personal Narratives (unit by Heinemann).

  • For the direct teaching, I would share my screen and use a document camera to show what I’m writing in a notebook. In a way, it was actually nicer than in my classroom because I could share mentor texts easily (in my classroom I would have to run copies of the mentor text and try to help them figure out where I was reading from ) and also it was really nice that I was recording the mini lessons for students that were absent or needed to see it again.
  • The guided practice/engagement part of the mini lesson was challenging. I really struggled with breakout rooms in Google Meet (using the extensions and not using the extensions) because they made my computer overheat and overload and something weird happened every time. I found the best options for the active engagement part of the mini lesson were to ask students to respond in the chat (pro tip: ask them to type in the chat but not hit enter until you say go so that there is wait time) OR to have students type their answers into a shared google doc that I dropped in the chat (make a table with two columns, name and their contribution, then tell them to skip several lines so they don’t all type in the first box…and watch the magic happen!). These are particularly helpful because students who are struggling can see what others are saying before they add their ideas. AND this is a great way to get formative feedback…if students respond quickly with answers that are in line with what you’re looking for, you can feel confident they’re ready to move on.
  • Finally, I would send students off to write with a particular assignment for each day. I would meet with about 5 students each day (they knew the week before), and everyone else could leave to go do their writing in their physical notebooks. Instead of meeting individually with the students assigned to meet with me that day,  we would meet as a group and I would pull up each student’s work and we could talk about if they’d completed the assignments and what they were doing well/areas of growth. This helped my workload enormously because I only had to open each student’s digital notebook once (where they kept photos of the pages from their physical notebook) and I could check several assignments. I also put the points for completed assignments directly into gradebook during this small group time. Ideally these groups would be groups of partners (which they chose) because it can be hard to share your writing, but in all honesty, that got hard to do; I started to strategically choose which kids to meet with when based on which students were falling behind the fastest and when would be the best time to check in with those kids. It also was really hard to actually  give feedback on writing because we got really bogged down on due dates and assignment completion. But, I do think meeting in groups was helpful; I usually asked who wanted to go first, and it would typically be a kid who had done most of the assignments and was pretty on track, and it was good for kids who were struggling to see. I would like to leverage the power of these group conferences back in the classroom, perhaps meeting with students in pairs or small groups; but, that will have to wait until social distancing is no longer required.

Remote expectations

There’s been a lot of discussion about “zorms” and required cameras, etc., lately on social media. I admit, it was super hard to strike a balance between encouraging my students to have their cameras on and also honoring their decision to have their cameras off. At the beginning, my expectation was: Please have your cameras on, and if that’s not going to work for you, just let me know (privately), and I’ll always say it’s fine. And that worked for some kids, they always let me know. Probably about a third of my kids had cameras on. And the rest of my kids, nearly two thirds, did not have their cameras on and did not want to tell me why, or didn’t feel like they could. My honest feeling is they probably did not want to tell me why their camera was off because they did not feel like it was a “good enough” reason; and it’s made me think, what even is a good enough reason? Really? I am a guest in their home. If they don’t want to turn on their cameras, they don’t owe me an explanation. Alas, I’ve really let go of that expectation. However, as you can imagine, there has been that peer pressure of the ⅓ of students that did have their camera on…they feel kind of weird; no one wants to be the only one with their camera on. And somehow, it didn’t feel fair to expect them to do so. So even though I hate teaching a sea of black boxes, all I have to ask is one question to see the chat fill with their ideas and their voices, and that’s enough. I know that they are able to engage in class being comfortable and being themselves, and I’m not going to ask them to change that just because it makes me feel more like a teacher. 

The other expectation that was a challenge was late work. My school strongly requested we adopt a late work policy of allowing students to turn in work from the week on Fridays at 8PM (so they could work on their missing work on Fridays). The suggested policy also suggested that they be allowed to turn in late work one week late, for half credit, then nothing. In some ways that was more generous than I was used to (I’m used to assignments being due the next class), and in some ways it was more stringent than I was used to (I typically take late work until the end of the quarter), but I agreed to try it. Unfortunately, it was really hard for both the students and me. First, because it was not a school wide policy and just an “encouragement” for us to follow, I felt like there was still a lot of confusion; I don’t think enough teachers were doing it for it to benefit the students in terms of being a clear message. And second, because students thought every assignment was due on Friday, they were falling desperately behind in a writing class. We pretty much turned in two pages a day, so if students waited until Friday, that was eight pages of writing! On top of that, a lot of the nuanced instruction was being lost; they didn’t really remember (or care) what skill we were working on each day, they were just overwhelmed with the pile of work they had to do. We changed the system at mid-quarter, at the end of the narrative unit, to a much easier and more sustainable grading system. Even though there is somewhat less flexibility (because assignments are due the next day), in the long run I think it’s benefiting students greatly because a) nearly all of them are staying on track and b) they feel so much more successful because they actually have the tools in place to do the work assigned that day (ie, they have the work from yesterday so they are able to do today’s work). As I write this, I’m thinking about the argument against homework; this is one of the reasons I’ve advocated against homework, so that all students can start each day from an even playing field. Phew. So, that has been a challenge; the alternative, as I see it, is to require they stay in the asynchronous class while they write and while I meet with small groups of students, but that feels like I’m micromanaging them and also like I want them to be tied to a screen when they don’t need to be.

Loss of instructional days and how I changed my content

As I mentioned before, I feel like I’m losing two days a week of instruction (on a year long class schedule), so I’ve really had to be strategic about tweaking and modifying my content. Here are some changes I’ve made this year to account for remote learning and less overall time:

  • I cut out a few mini lessons on narrative writing to help them think of ideas for narrative pieces; 2-3 strategies was enough. They don’t need extra this year.
  • For the literary analysis unit, instead of having students read several short stories and then pick one, I chose some very short chapters of books (Poet X, El Crossover) and a children’s book (Papi tiene una moto) instead; and, I let them just pick one, I didn’t make them read them all and then pick one.
  • Also, I’m trying to choose mentor texts and text options that are high interest and relatable to make it more relevant during this really hard time (which is I why I chose Poet X, El Crossover, and Papi tiene una moto instead of classical literature like last year).
  • I typically have students turn in a final piece and also take an exam, which is an on-demand piece (for example, turn in a final polished narrative, and then write a new narrative in one sitting using all that you know); this year, because of their bandwidth and mine, as well as reduced time, I’ve let that on-demand/exam go.
  • Last year, I did personal narrative writing first quarter, and then character analysis / reading workshop second quarter. (If you’re interested in reading workshop, you can check out this blog post).  Given that reading is much harder to keep tabs on, I thought it would be better to do literary analysis (a writing unit) while remote and do the reading unit when back in person, at least hybrid. Not that it’s all about policing and compliance, because it’s not. But the reading workshop is a little bit of a lift and I thought it would be better to stay the course with writing workshop while fully remote. It alleviates everyone’s stress level to stick with what we know. 

Transitioning to hybrid learning

I’ve thought a lot about how I’m going to transition to in-person learning with students a few days a week. In fact, it’s been a big debate at school about whether students who are not attending in person will have completely asynchronous work for that day or whether they will log into your live class for the day. I’ve decided to livestream my class each day, just for about 45 minutes (10 minutes of reading, 10-15 minutes of the mini lesson). So, students attending live won’t log into Google Meet, they’ll just come to class, read, and use their physical notebooks to go through the mini lesson, then write and meet with me for their conferences. Students at home will log in to the Google Meet, read for 10 minutes, and watch the same mini lesson, then log off and go and write. I will meet with students who are in class to check in on what assignments they’ve completed and give feedback on their writing; students at home just need to finish that day’s assignments, but won’t need to tune in for any writing conferences.

The technology: I have connected my laptop, my extra monitor, and my Smartboard (I basically have three monitors). I will have the Google Meet open on my extra monitor, and my document camera on my laptop and the Smartboard (under Display Settings, you need to duplicate screens on two of your three monitors). Then, I will be able to share my document camera screen to the kids at home in the Google Meet, and the students in front of me will see the document camera on the Smartboard in front of them. They’ll all get the same mini lesson. And, if anyone gets quarantined (including myself), we can just continue on with the plan, hopefully minimizing any disruption and allowing us to continue the joyful work of writing, sharing, and building our community. Fingers crossed with have the bandwidth (both literal and figurative), to make that happen! 

Whew. I feel like this post is a lof about the nitty-gritty details about the HOW I’m making all this work. I hope to include more of my WHY and of my heart with you in my next post. 

I hope this was helpful for you; if anything, I hope it was helpful to at least hear how one heritage teacher is navigating these uncertain times. How are you doing, my friends? And HOW are you doing it? I’d love to hear from you.

Sending you all the love and good vibes I have on this Sunday night 🙂

Adrienne

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