Ask First, Teach Later

By Julie Wright

Last week, I ordered my daughter a “Zoom University” tee-shirt. She’s gonna get such a kick out of this, I thought, as I put it on the counter where she was fixing her breakfast, getting ready for another day of distance learning.

My daughter smiled a little bit when she glanced at it. 

“You can wear it for your chem lab Zoom this morning!” I said.

“Maybe,” she said, as she headed off to the basement, where she is now finishing out the school year. 

Screen Shot 2020-04-21 at 10.00.30 AM

Then, it hit me. I had made a misstep. And, if you are reading this blog, I bet you have made a few, too. Teachers are blithering, open-hearted rescuers, empaths, cheerleaders on steroids. Combine that with being a parent and the miscalculations are exponential. 

We care so much about the well being of our kids and students, that we want to make it better. This new moonscape of distance teaching and learning has us all hyper and forgetting the basic tenet of effective teaching:  Step back. Take measure of your students. Ask questions.  

Had I asked my daughter directly what she needed right now, her answer would not have been a  pandemic-oriented t-shirt. My gut says that adults are buoyed by social media jokes, but not kids. They don’t have the long stretch of experience. For them, this particular  time is many things, but it’s not funny. 

My misstep is ironic, given I’m an educator, and fortuitous in that, as a literacy coach, I’ve spent the last few weeks supporting administrators, coaches, and teachers in designing distance learning experiences. When I saw the Zoom U. gift land, it confirmed for me that I need to slow down in giving advice, and ask questions first or risk making assumptions.  Assumptions are short cuts, when we fill in the blanks with information from our own past or similar experiences. In short, what we think will work for distance learning based on the hazy memories of our own student psyche, won’t work now. At all. We are all in uncharted territory.  

Lean Into Being a Newbie

Ask questions. Start by brainstorming with colleagues questions that we might ask ourselves before we ask students. THEN build learning plans based on what we hear.  Here is a list to get you started; but, by no means is this list “the right list” or a complete list.

  • How are students doing — social-emotionally, academically, physically — and how do we know? 
    • What can we see/hear based on our interactions and what can’t we see/hear?
    • How should we find out what we need to know to better serve our students?
  • Are students “showing up” for the learning opportunities we are providing? 
    • If not, why not? 
    • How can we figure out what’s getting in their way and what can/should we do to support them?
  • Have students figured out how to use or structure their time? 
  • Where are students working at home?  
    • Have they found a quiet, productive place to complete their work? 
  • How have our plans changed from short-term digital plans to longer-term digital plans? 
    • Do students feel and understand the changes? 
    • Where do they / will they need support?
  • Do students know what counts? 
    • Are we grading assignments and if so, have our grading practices changed?
    • Are we providing feedback and if so, can students respond in independent ways to our feedback from a distance?
  • How are parents doing?  
    • What’s going well?  What’s not?
    • What do parents need?

Next, Ask Students

  • How are you doing? 
  • How do you feel?
  • What’s going well? 
  • What’s clunky?
  • What’s agitating you?   
  • What do you need?  
  • What do you wish or want?
  • Have you figured out your schedule?  Your pacing? Tell me about it.
  • Where do you do most of your work at home?  Do you feel productive in that space?
  • What are you doing by yourself?  With others remotely?
  • What are you doing for yourself?

Now, Use Students Responses to Design

So much of the feedback students give will depend on geography, age, socio-economic status, access, connectivity, not to mention the stress associated with these changing times.  The heartbreaking part of course is that the students you want to reach most and who may need us most might not be reachable. I can’t presume to know what your students will say, but I can say it might be helpful to organize the feedback you hear into a kind of assumption/solution format. Here it goes: 

Assumption:  Students can easily type with fluency and accuracy.

Solution:  Investigate and offer voice functions [such as voice typing] so that students have options. 

Assumption:  Students brought home all the needed materials from school.

Solution: Take stock of what ALL students have and what they don’t have.

Assumption:  Students have the hardware and software available at the point of need.

Solution:  Ask students (and possibly family members/caregivers) what they have available and when (what time, how often) they can access it.

Assumption:  Bedtimes are similar to that of face-to-face school days.

Solution: Offer choice and flexibility in timing of assignments, due dates, video conference sessions Reminder–some families / caregivers might need or want kids to sleep in so that they can get their own work started / done.  Additionally, some may not be available to help with school work until evening.

Assumption:  Family members / caregivers understand the current methods students are being taught as well as the intended learning.

Solution:  Be creative in ways to teach / re-teach content and when in doubt, ask students what you can do to make the content more understandable.  Communicate with and family / caregivers.  

Assumption:  Someone is checking in or sizing up students’ social-emotional, academic, and physical well-being and helping to make needed adjustments. 

Solution:  Create reflection-oriented surveys or protocols so that you can learn first-hand how students may or may not be connecting with friends, completing assigned work, and getting enough exercise.

Assumption:  Students are completing their own work.

Solution:  Ask students or family members / caregivers if work is being completed independently or if support from home or peers is needed.

Assumption:  We are providing the “right” level of support for each student we serve.

Solution:  Use student work products and reflections to gauge the students’ needs and, if possible, collaborate with colleagues to brainstorm possible support mechanisms and structures.

Assumption:  Students are able to successfully read all of the digital information coming at them efficiently and effectively.

Solution:  Provide recorded options as a support for anyone who needs or wants it.

Assumption: Students are able to seperate and prioritize the work coming from multiple teachers and content areas.

Solution: Collaborate in teams to coordinate your efforts, making things clear and consistent.

Assumption:  Our digital assignments take into account students’ insecurities and/or experience levels (e.g., recording yourself singing for music class, seeing yourself and sharing ideas via video).

Solution:  Create choices so that students have more than one way to make their knowledge, skills or understandings visible to others.

Assumption:  Content and messaging are being received the way they were intended.

Solution:  Ask students to share back with you in their own words what is being asked (e.g., restate the assignment, explain these directions in your own words)

Assumption:  Students’ eyes can handle (and are not being impacted negatively) by the number of hours spent via digital learning.

Solution:  Ask students and family members / caregivers to take stock of device-related eye fatigue (e.g., blurred vision, double vision, dry or irritated eyes, redness, eyestrain, headache, neck pain, stiff neck).

Two Takeaways

  1. Explain changes to students and families / caregivers.  Explaining the WHAT and WHY is important.
  2. When we make a misstep, which will certainly happen, let’s apologize.  “I’m sorry”goes a long way. Everyone will understand because everyone is making missteps right now.

Each week brings about new celebrations and new challenges.  We are bound to make missteps. It is not about the misstep but how quickly we recover.  We can ask important questions about the assumptions we might be making so that we can reflect and make adjustments. 

On behalf of all students and the caregivers and educators we serve, thanks for all you do!

JULIE WRIGHT is a teacher, instructional coach, and educational consultant with over twenty-five years of experience in rural, suburban, and urban education settings.  She holds National Board Certification as well as a B.S. in Education, M.A. in Language Arts and Reading, a K-12 Reading Endorsement, and extensive school leadership post-graduate work, including a pre-K through grade 9 principal license from The Ohio State University. Julie serves as an Adjunct Faculty Member at Ashland University and is the co-author of What Are You Grouping For? How to Guide Small Groups Based on Readers–Not the Book (Wright & Hoonan, 2019). Follow Julie on Twitter @juliewright4444 or for more information on how she can support your efforts, visit


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