DISTILL, DESIGN and DOCUMENT: Remote Learning in 3-D)

By Dan Ryder, CCIRA 2021 Featured Speaker

The stress is real. 

Whether we teach kindergarten in pK-3 Reggio Emilia- inspired elementary schools or run library cum makerspaces for young adults in expeditionary learning programs, we are feeling the strain. We are balancing the needs of our students against the expectations of our curricula while responding to the concerns of our communities and challenges of the moment. And if those two sentences weren’t word soaked enough to overwhelm the most verbiage-resilient amongst us, add the terms “hybrid instruction” and “fluid public health conditions” and grab hold of something sturdy.  

And yet, I am hopeful that we may yet manage and — dare I dream — thrive in the rapid response remote learning environments into which we’ve been thrust.  As my good friend and stalwart Pacific Northwest educator, Darren Hudgins points out, Spring 2020 was not a time of distance education.  It was a time of emergency teaching.  How might we reframe the start of a new school year as a place of possibility and potential rather than pessimism and peril?

Because education loves a good acronym and who doesn’t adore a retro-futurism mnemonic, I’ve worked up a 3-D frame through which to look at remote learning instructional design.  It doesn’t require any special glasses or goggles.  (However, lesson planning at the drive-in can be a wonderful way to support local theater owners.)  The goal here isn’t to break new ground but instead to find a more peaceful pathway to planning quality instruction and deeper learning.  And if the alliteration hasn’t driven you from this blog yet, consider how this distill, design, and document framework might benefit you as well as your students and other stakeholders.  


What really matters? 

When face-to-face instruction went on hiatus during the spring of 2020, many educators started their planning by looking at their typical spring plans and attempted to retrofit the activities and lessons to remote learning conditions.  Other folx dropped familiarity entirely in favor of creating all-new assessments and extended learning opportunities aligned to their students’ current realities.  Both approaches met with success and struggle, with the latter tending to focus on the meaningful now and the former holding tight to the meaningful always.  

What if we just pause for a moment, examine our curricula, survey our students’ world, and ask, “What really matters?”  What if we were able to take our scopes and sequences and simplify them in the service of ensuring screen time is purpose-driven time? What if we were able to prioritize the habits of work valued highest in our communities and the social emotional learning outcomes students’ families need help with most?  And then asking that first question again, “Okay, what really matters?” 

For example, we might throw our hands up and say, “Well, we have to throw away the drama unit.  We can’t get all of the kids together online at the same time and even if we do half of their connections are lousy and I just want to eat cake.”  For the record, there’s nothing wrong with cake.  (Though I’ve learned recently that hugs last longer than cake.) 

Instead we might ask, “What are the skills and understandings students takeaway from the drama unit?”   Memorization.  Tone and inflection.   Relationship between speaker and audience.   Communicating emotion.  Creating a reality.  Collaborating with peers. 

Once that distillation occurs, opportunities emerge.  What if students composed monologues for their peers to deliver, record and publish?   What if those monologues told the stories of undervalued or under appreciated minor characters from well known works? What if those monologues portrayed emotion that character experiences in the story, but the audience doesn’t realize it?  How might such an assessment meet curricular goals and then serve as a bridge to discussions of under-represented voices in our communities and world?  

I’m not here to cast judgement on your conclusions about what really matters — visit my Twitter feed if you want to know how well our edu-values align.  I’m suggesting that the act of paring down helps all of us feel that much more calm and confident in our work during a time when those states are in short supply.  And I’m also suggesting that doing so fuels deeper learning, rather than diminishing rigor.  

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Photo courtesy of Unsplash


How might we meet the needs of students, school, family and community?

Perhaps now more than at any point in recent history, schools are being called upon to meet the needs of stakeholders both in their immediate communities and beyond.  Engaging students in their instruction may have much deeper stakes than good grades or successful achievement of learning outcomes.  Heightened student engagement may well translate into reduced familial stress and increased community involvement.  Providing more real world problem solving experience for students  contributes to the value added and return on investment arguments for supporting schools.  This may be even more true in a time of remote instruction substituting for face to face learning.

Making a quick list of needs for each of those four domains based on available information can put us into a more empathetic posture for our lesson designs.  Now, authentic empathy only comes from intentional and multi-faceted observation and inquiry into another’s point of view, and few of us have the capacity to do that sort of deep work in such tumultuous times.  Still, we have local surveys and news articles, social media and public polling.  We have conversations with our neighbors and communication with our students.  What if we take a moment to glean insights from those sources and apply those insights to our assessment design?

What if students read from a wide selection of poetry and lyrics related to social justice?  What if they then identified challenges of social justice facing their local communities, whether they be matters of systemic racism, multigenerational poverty, economic opportunity, LGBTQ equality, or such and similar?  What if the class  partnered with local non-profit organizations such as the United Way or community public health networks that work to address those issues?   Students might then compose poetry and lyrics that demonstrate both their understanding of poetic elements and the issues at hand.   Students could then design digital anthologies of their peers’ pieces, illustrate them with original artwork, and then publish those anthologies.   Along the way book editors, self-published authors, and social entrepreneurs might join video conferences for expert perspectives as those anthologies might be sold online with proceeds going to support a local cause.  Consider the layers of learning and understanding that one project might present.

The length of the preceding paragraph illustrates how easily one can get caught up ideating when passion and purpose overlap with pedagogical potential.   However, we should always take what the National Equity Project calls an “equity pause.”   Take a moment to consider our own unconscious and implicit biases, the impact they may be having on whatever work we are doing, and make a mindful effort to challenge those biases.   


How might we track process, provide evidence and unpack intention?

Without our typical face-to-face classrooms, we not only miss out on the rapport that builds from informal interactions with students, we miss out on the nuances we rely upon as we assess their understanding.   The body language that lets us know there is something bugging them and that is why they aren’t willing to share their drafts for a peer writing workshop.   The tendency to look longing out the windows and flip pages absent mindedly during reading sessions, while still logging those pages as “read” in their journals.

During remote instruction, it proves increasingly helpful to implement strategies that build routines and provide similar information about the context of student work.   Consider using color coded spreadsheets where students might track a variety of metrics about their daily reading experience.  To what extent did you feel your mind wander during reading today?  To what extent do you think you will need to re-read when you next sit down to dive into your book?  How excited are you to return to this book when you next get a chance?  

How often do we look at a piece of student writing or answers to a series of comprehension questions and say, “Oh, I know what they were trying to do here.  I get it they just . . . Oh. . . . I can hear them saying this.  I know they get it even if it doesn’t look like it right here to the untrained eye?”  Few of us likely use that many words, but I still believe it is a common pattern of thought amongst my fellow educators.   What if students created podcasts or audio journals explaining the intention and purpose behind each of their choices for a paper or project?   I often suggest the music podcast, Song Exploder, for older students as an example of creators breaking down the choices they made along the way to an artistic product.  For younger students, episodes of Mythbusters Jr. or clips from Master Chef Junior can serve a similar function.  

And if those approaches feel daunting, consider a fairly simple graphic organizer divided into three columns.   What did you do?  Why did you do it?  What might you do it differently next tme?  Ask students to identify three pieces of evidence of learning featured in their product.  This becomes increasingly valuable in projects and creative endeavors as so often students’ visions outweigh their capacities to execute.   When we hear that they were striving to achieve and where their thinking was headed, we often find that the learning is intact even if the demonstration was lacking.  

Remote learning has enough stresses and worries associated with its effective implementation, the last things any of us need is to be fretting about are complicated lesson plan design protocols and expansive curricula.   Try looking at our work through this 3-D lens of distill, design and document.   Despite its relative simplicity, just as much depth and excitement awaits us and our students alike.

Dan Ryder is a high school English teacher by title, idea wrangler, design thinker, improviser and educator by practice, co-author of Intention: Critical Creativity in the Classroom.  Dan has taught for nearly 20 years at Mt. Blue Campus in Farmington, Maine.  Follow him on Twitter @WickedDecent.


Author: CCIRAblog

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