Sidelined but Ready to Get Back into the Game

By Cris Tovani

It’s easy to feel sidelined by this pandemic.  Negotiating everyday life is a whole new ballgame.  It’s hard to know what is true, what to believe, and how to act.  Even grocery shopping proves to be an epic adventure. I put on a mask, believing it will protect me from spreading virus germs.  I vacillate on wearing gloves.  I’ve heard they act like as an extra layer of skin that keep germs from one’s face.  But they make my hands sweaty, so I decide to take a calculated risk and not wear them.  Instead of grabbing a cart from the parking lot like I usually do, I decide not to because I’m sure the handle is a virus hotbed.  I limit what I buy so that it fits into my own bags.  Surely, they are cleaner, but who really knows?  Upon entering the store, I head straight for aisle six and notice several packs of toilet paper AND Bounty sitting on the shelves. I fight my urge to grab one of each.   My head reminds me that there is no longer a shortage and I need to leave what’s there for those who aren’t stockpiled.  Still, my heart tells me that while they are available, I should get one of each. After circling back to the produce section, I head to the baking aisle and I see a man without a mask, coughing all over the spices.  I decide to skip this row even though I need garlic powder. My actions are driven by the belief that the man’s cough has infected the aisle and his germs will linger way longer than I want to wait.  I skip the garlic powder deciding to substitute the recipe with another ingredient.

I am feeling vulnerable in this new reality.  Every aspect of my life is changing. I recognize as I work on this blog post that anything I write has the unintended potential to trivialize what others are experiencing.  I feel like a phony because when the pandemic hit, my work stopped.  Teacher workshops were postponed.  Demonstration teaching lessons with kids were canceled and planning with groups of teachers ended.  I was standing on the sidelines.  Unlike classroom teachers, I haven’t been responsible for trying to figure out how to do the heroic job of helping students learn remotely.  This makes me not qualified to tell those who are, how to do it.  So, with humility, I ask that you humor me as I try to figure out how to get back into the game.

When I’m in a classroom, I’m constantly in the “Hey whatcha doing?” mode.  I watch students interact with other kids, I listen to their sidebar conversations, I talk to them during conferences about what makes them tick.  I use these conversations as resources to keep up with their passions and pop culture.  I ask them questions about music, athletics, video games, anything that I think they care about.  In the classroom, I can peek over their shoulder and see their annotations.  I can listen to their discussions in small groups.  Even for kids who aren’t participating, asking them what they need often leads me to another instructional move.  I share with them what makes learning hard for me and then ask them to reciprocate.  If I know who my learners are, I can find text that they will read, targets they will shoot for, and tasks that they care enough about to do.

But now, what? In a remote environment, where I can’t rely on physical proximity to make connections, look over student’s shoulders, or monitor the time they have their eyes on text, I need to make adjustments.  I ask myself, “How do I get back in there and teach?”

I worry about the kids.  I fret about the ones who don’t have books at home or a place to study.  I worry about the ones who struggle even when they were with their teachers.  I think about the students who have given up on school–the kids who don’t show up for class much less for an online lecture.  I worry about the students who won’t graduate because there will be no summer credit recovery.  So, instead of worrying, I need to pull myself together and join those who started working on these problems three months ago.  How can I help? Could I teach an online credit recovery class? What would a pandemic summer school literacy class look like?  How might I engage our most disengaged learners?

Staying connected to my beliefs has always helped me keep kids at the front and center.  They drive my practice and this keeps my instruction anchored in authenticity and purpose. I reread my list of twelve beliefs, ones I’ve shared at workshops to help others flesh out what they think matter most to teaching and learning.  I’ve kept them close to my planning to remind me of what matters most.  But for a pandemic summer school, twelve beliefs are too many.  I pare the list down, knowing that my top three will help me decide what matters most:

  1. The time that students spend behaviorally, emotionally, and cognitively engaged in reading, writing, and discussing matters most to their learning. My concrete goal, backed by research is to help students engage for 67 minutes per day of reading, and 60 minutes per day of writing (Guthrie, 2004; Calkins, 2006).
Screen Shot 2020-05-19 at 9.11.48 AM
Photo courtesy of Gabriel Tovar on Unsplash 
  1. I need to learn what students care and wonder about in order to get a variety of texts into their hands and to give them a variety of genres in which to write about.


  1. I have to see and hear students’ thinking, even if their thinking is “I don’t know” or “I don’t care.” Learning what they know and need is the only way I can figure out what their next steps are in terms tasks, texts, and learning targets.If I can see what they get and need, I can do a better job helping them to fulfill their reading and writing minutes. Providing the right “Ts” will enable them to get smarter and more skilled each day.

So, with these beliefs in mind, what would I do first?

From recent conversations with colleagues who are teaching, I learn that kids are over this new norm of school.  They need a better reason than an online Powerpoint to get out of bed in the morning.  Now more than ever before, figuring out what makes each student tick before I plan will be crucial.  If what I’m teaching doesn’t connect to their lives, why should they bother?

My plan is to set up a schedule where I call/video chat individual students before we gather as a group on the first day.  On this call, I will spend a little time getting to know individuals to see what they care about most during this time of disruption.  There are so many things I will want to know about my new students.  How are they currently spending their time? What’s surprising them? What’s frustrating them? What are they feeling good about or wishing for?  What do I need to know about them as learners and people to better meet their needs?  What are they curious about?

To build an initial connection, I will share with them a list of questions that I am currently wondering about and ask that they send me a few of their own.  I have no idea what I will get as a response, but I’m thinking that some kids might be curious about:

  • When will things seem normal again?
  • How does human contact and friendship help us navigate learning?
  • How is propaganda used to manipulate?
  • Who gets sick and why?
  • Is the US losing its place of power in the world?
  • Why is there a rise in racism?
  • Can video games teach us about the world in which we live?
  • What are the effects of cancelled professional sports?
  • How do vaccines work?

I am also prepared for snarky responses like:

  • When will this stupid pandemic be over?
  • Why are my parents so annoying?
  • Who cares about your questions?
  • Do we even need school if we can’t see our friends?

Once I get some information from individuals about what they care about, I can then figure out topics, texts and tasks that are worthy of their time.  I will search for texts that will help them answer their questions, making sure that I have different text structures and levels of reading.  I will consider options for small groups because it will be important for students to stay connected and have accountability to each other. Depending on schedules, I will set up a few whole class meetings and then make the Zoom breakouts more flexible.  I will pop into their small group chat rooms in real time to learn more about students and provide individual instruction.  I also want to empower students to decide how they will use group time.  They will need flexibility to schedule their own meetings so they can connect with their group.  When I can’t be present, they can hold their thinking on a simple google.doc to keep me in the loop. I recognize that initially, students may not meet in their small groups.  This will circle me back to my beliefs that it’s my job to facilitate how students behaviorally, emotionally, and cognitively engage in worthy work.

As I notice patterns within the smaller groups, I will use our ten to fifteen-minute Zoom time to do mini-lessons or give kids some input like a short article, to provoke and draw them back to their small groups.  Small groups could be based on questions students have, novels, or topics they care about.  While kids are in their clusters, I can enter different chat rooms to confer or do small group instruction.  Similar to when I’m in the classroom, I will monitor the whole class in between each chat room conference to decide where to go next.  Once I confer with one group, I will pull back and observe the other chat rooms to decide where to go next.  This is just a start.  But thinking about this, has allayed some fears and has made me feel like a participant again.

Last week, I was feeling pretty down.  Fortunately, I had the pleasure of being on a Zoom chat with Cornelius Minor and several other consultants.  We were brainstorming a bit and also bemoaning the fact that we couldn’t be with teachers and kids.  In his patient and wise way, Cornelius very quietly said, “We’ve lost some of our jobs but we haven’t lost our work.”  He’s right.  There is so much work out there to be done.  The trick is figuring out how to do “work” that is helpful to teachers and students.  I’m coming to grips with the fact that I probably won’t ever be able to go back to teaching the way I did in the past.  And maybe that’s a good thing. I readily admit that I am struggling to figure out next steps.  So, I need to get off the sidelines and get back into the game, figuring out with the rest of you, how to do the work of teaching and learning.

This is only a start.  Now, I need to find some takers who I can serve.  Any teachers or kids out there who want a thought partner–I’m all in.

Chris Tovani is the recipient of ILA’s Adolescent Literacy Thought Leader Award in 2017,  a veteran teacher, staff developer, and nationally known consultant on issues of reading, content comprehension and assessment in secondary classrooms. She is the author of  I Read It But I Don’t Get It, Do I Really Have to Teach Reading? and So, What do They Really Know?

Cris Tovani is coauthor with Samantha Bennett of the Heinemann Digital Campus course Adolescent Reading RX, which shows a variety of ways to reach reluctant and struggling readers.


Calkins, L. (2006) A Guide to the Writing Workshop. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Guthrie, J. T., A. Wigfield, and K. C. Perencevich.  2004.  Motivating Reading Comprehension:  Concept-Orientated Reading Instruction.  Mahwah, NJ:  Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Author: CCIRAblog

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