Meaningful Learning Experiences: Teaching the Student and not the Content

By Dr. Towanda Harris

Along with the rest of the education world, I have been thinking a lot about the accessibility of meaningful learning experiences for all students. And by all, I mean all, especially our black and brown students. In the past, I have asked teachers to share their definition of “meaningful learning experiences” and majority of the time the definition started with the content and how it is used to ignite the student’s learning.

Making learning meaningful means that we must acknowledge the value of students’ life experiences and prior learning and begin with the student in order to connect the content throughout the process.  I work with schools on the most affluent side of town and schools on the poorest side of town and I keep coming back to this thought: “What if we believed that our students were brilliant in spite the pandemic?” As I reflect on my time in the classroom, my first year was filled with a lot of talking and a lot of listening. Unfortunately, I must confess that the talking was mostly me and the listening was mostly my students. It didn’t take long for me to learn that I had it all wrong. My definition of meaningful learning was steeped in teacher-centered protocols and routines, which all depended upon compliance. If my students were going to experience meaningful learning, I had to change my definition. It was NOT completing the assignments first. It was NOT answering questions before wait time was given. And it definitely was NOT scoring a hundred on an AR test. Meaningful learning was about gaining new knowledge that enabled my students to engage with each other and the world around them. It was about being emboldened to challenge and reflect on new information. It was about being able to look at life through the lens’ of multiple perspectives and experiences from others and also making connections to their own lives.

I recently read an article in the Washington Post entitled, “Can we stop telling the ‘corona kids’ how little they are learning?” by Valerie Strauss. During the past few months, I lost count of the number of times I heard words like learning loss, COVID slide, deficit, and so on. What if we are wrong? What if it wasn’t our structures, routines, and procedures that increased their learning after all? The decisions that we make are reflections of what we believe about our students and what they can accomplish. It determines how we plan for our students. In Dr. Gholdy Muhammad’s book, she reminds us that “it is critically important to push back on standards and practices that are not aligned to what students need most.” In this untraditional school year, it means that the curriculum scope and sequence must be built with our students, especially our black and brown students, in mind as we journey through the highs and lows of the ever changing factors that prevent us from being in a mask off, non-“social distance” zone with our students.  

As educators, we can begin with reflecting on the physical and virtual spaces that we build. We can build a compliant classroom that is filled with rules and procedures or we can build one that is filled with student agency that is driven by students’ interest and is often self-initiated. As educators, we have had lots of time to see learning in a variety of settings. In students’ bedrooms, at the kitchen table, on the couch, and even with younger siblings joining our read alouds. Cameras ON or cameras OFF, we have been creative in our efforts to engage the learner. So, what would that look like in our classrooms? How do we ensure that we value students’ voices, their perspectives, and their contribution to the learning, regardless of the learning environment? We must start with us being thoughtful around the resources, questions, and opportunities we use to engage students within learning spaces.

How do I choose the best resources?

First, let me release you from the notion that there is one best resource. Choosing resources begins by knowing our students and continuously taking note of what is working and what is not. We have to ensure that our choices are not one sided or targeted for one audience. It should be beneficial for a variety of learning styles and representative of diverse perspectives that exist in our world. Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself when deciding:

  1. Do the resources provided allow students to reflect and connect with their identity?
  2. Are there specific students not benefiting from the use of the resource? Why or why not?
  3. Does the resource help to meet a goal that has been set for individual or groups of students?

How are you facilitating meaningful learning?

In a recent Education Week blog, Dr. Bettina Love boldly proclaimed that, “when schools reopen, they could be spaces of justice, high expectations, creativity, and processing the collective trauma of COVID-19.” Reiterating the point that learning is not meant to be a sit and get or a lopsided experience, with one person giving and others receiving. Learning evokes change. Are we probing students, especially black and brown students, to challenge each other’s thinking about the injustices that exists in the world around us? Questioning is a big part of the process. When we ask questions and encourage them to ask questions of themselves and others, we help students to reflect on their new learning and become changemakers. This creates an environment in which all voices and perspectives are valued and heard in order to deepen their understanding. Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself in order to foster that type of environment:

1. What opportunities do you provide during instructions to invite students into the learning space?

2. Is feedback 2-way, in which students engage in conversations among teachers and peers? How do you know?

3. During the new learning, what resonates with students as they reflect on their life experiences? 

How can I co-create more opportunities for student engagement?A group of people sitting in a room

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No more “sage on stage” in classrooms. Opportunities for engagement yields a growth mindset. For example, asking students to read a passage and answer the comprehension questions, is not engagement; however, selecting themes to explore and allowing students to choose groups and share personal connections through discussion is engagement. This is the difference between passing a summative assessment and changing a perspective on a topic based on the rich conversation that a student experienced. Here are some helpful questions to ask yourself in order to foster that type of environment:

1. What opportunities are we allowing for students’ two worlds to meet in daily discussions (school life AND home life)?

2. Which voices overshadow the other voices in your class? Are there multiple ways that students can engage in learning (i.e. blogging, speaking, posting, etc.)?

3. In what ways are you making students’ social well-being a priority and using it to further their learning?

Students learn more than content at school—they also learn from the ways we teach and the ways they are invited to participate in their learning. If the day is filled with students spending all of their reading time independently filling in worksheets or watching videos, without any opportunities to immerse themselves in books, what are we teaching them about what it means to read and connect with the world? At a time when we face intense pressure to achieve and address the so-called “learning loss” it may be tempting to adopt materials that claim to promise results and turn our backs on practices that make school joyful, engaging, and meaningful for our students. “It’s just for a little while,” we might think, “just until the state test is over.” However, if we want students to make gains that outlast a single assessment and lead to a lifetime of learning, we can’t sacrifice the kind of meaningful learning experiences that we know children need. 

Bio: 

Dr. Towanda Harris has been a teacher, staff developer, literacy content specialist, and an instructional coach. Currently an Instructional Leadership Coordinator and an adjunct professor of reading and writing in Atlanta, Georgia, she brings almost twenty years of experience to the education world. Towanda is the author of The Right Tools: A Guide to Selecting, Evaluating, and Implementing Classroom Resources and Practices. You can follow her on Twitter @drtharris and IG @harrisinnovationcg.

Bibliography

Hammond, Z. L. (2015). Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Thousand Oaks: Corwin.

Harris, T. (2019). The Right Tools: A Guide to Selecting, Evaluating, and Implementing Classroom Resources and Practices. Portsmouth: Heinemann.

Love, B. (2020). Teachers, We Cannot Go Back to the Way Things Were . Education Week.

Muhammad, G. (2020). Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy. New York: Scholastic.

Strauss, V. (2020). Can we stop telling the ‘corona kids’ how little they are learning? Washington Post.

Sharing Our (Anonymous) Narratives Draw Us All Nearer

By Paul Hankins

October 2nd: 9:52AM: A Tweet from shea martin: 

“maybe my job today is just to tweet the things that teachers want to say but can’t because they don’t want to get fired. DM me your best “I want to say this but can’t” tweets.”

I might have shared collage work. I might have offered a poetry lesson using Jenga blocks. Maybe something out of the new “Letter Press” series I am creating. I might have talked about how an LMS is affording us the ability to continue to offer read-alouds to our students in the room and at home. But, none of these felt right. Or “write.”

As I draft this piece at the invitation of the curators, I wondered, “What might I offer?” 

I found what I really need to share. I’m centering it here. 

As I draft this piece at the invitation of the curators of the CCIRA Professional Development blog, I have been reading along as scholar shea martin (@sheathescholar) collects and curates the quiet concerns and holdings of classroom teachers all across America presenting them with a signing off that reads, “-an anonymous teacher.” 

After observing how martin’s efforts built over the course of the day, exhausting them by the end of the same day the work had started, my wonderings shifted:

“What could I center if I had an opportunity to write to a larger audience than the one I might otherwise experience?”

The intent and impact of shea martin’s efforts bring intent and impact together as a teacher like me coming to the thread with my identification markers begins to take a closer look at what classroom teaching looks like right now. For other teachers. For my colleagues. For the teacher next door. For the teacher on the other side of the building.

Photo courtesy of Chris Yang at Unsplash

We’ve come a long way from blowing on embers to ignite the morning fire. Classroom teachers are fighting against the extinguishing of their own light. It is not my intent here to showcase or to highlight responses from October 2nd. Rather it is to related the impact it has had upon me: a white, straight, cis, able, Christian male. I might suggest that I know that my story is not THE story of teaching in the classroom today. Or I could point readers to where real narrative is living presenting real fears, concerns, and needs right now. 

If the reader here were to go. . .right now. . .to shea martin’s Twitter wall, he, she, or they would find a stream of responses to their tweet coming right before 10AM on a Friday morning at the end of the classroom teacher’s work week with about four to five hours still together before they would collect their work to go back to their homes. The thread stretches through the day and into the evening, capturing narratives across district lines, across states, across time zones. This has been the level of response to an invitation to share our story. As I draft this piece at the invitation of the curators, shea martin is moving the collection and inviting more narratives from teachers at a Padlet-based, crowd-sourced initiative, “An Anonymous Teacher Speaks”

What martin has been able to collect and curate within the span of one day is a shared narrative. A narrative in multiple voices. It is the kind of collaborative piece that young slam poet, Adam Gotlieb, might have described as a “poem we all [are writing].” The question now becomes whether or not we can bring in enough readers who might counter that idea that  no one has a need for narrative. Like U. S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser might suggest poetry, it’s not like we can trade our narratives for a tank of gas. 

And, yet, in the past three to four months, we have seemingly traded a narrative of heroism within education for one that pins the profession in at all sides with suggestions of selfishness, letters implying laziness, and insinuations of inculcation within the classrooms. 

I was invited to share some of my work here in being a guest at CCIRA. I hope that I can be invited back for another opportunity to share what we try to do in Room 407 at Silver Creek High School in southern Indiana. 

But, I felt compelled to share this work that shea martin has been doing. Born of a single tweet to invite response, we have an opportunity to read and to observe what is happening at the teacher-heart level of our profession in this moment because of their genuine concern for all of us. The teachers have been invited to talk by them. To share. 

Perhaps this invitation should have come from any one of us.  

Now they are sharing: 

Vulnerably. Bravely. 

Anonymously. 

I am centering martin’s work and their earnest effort here. If only to bring more of you to their work that is actively happening in the collecting and curation of the voices in chorus right now. What might we do today and in the next few weeks that could feel like the right response to these stories? What might feel like the “write” response?

Warmly,

-This Classroom Teacher

Paul W. Hankins is an English Language Arts teacher at the secondary level. A firm believer in inquiry-based strategies and approaches, Hankins believes in most cases that teachers have “questions,” but students have “wonders.” Meeting in the middle addresses the standards while embracing the natural wonder and curiosity our students bring into the room. Follow Paul on Twitter @PaulWHankins.

Four Engaging Structures That Work in Hybrid A/B Learning Classrooms

By A.J. Juliani

This summer as many schools went from going back to school in-person, to virtual, to some mix in-between a lot of teachers were faced with a new reality: Teaching kids in your classroom at school and at home…at the same time.

This Hybrid A/B Model of schooling (also goes by many other names) has a camera on in the classroom for students to watch at home, while students rotate days A/B of being in-person or at-home.

Technology plays a big role in making this happen, and it needs to all work in the classroom and at home for each student in order to pull it off.

Let’s just say that all the technology does work, in that case, the question I’ve been working with teachers on over the summer in PD and training has been: How do I structure the learning experience so kids at home and in-class are both learning?

Below I share four different models that I have seen work and that teachers are using around the country (and world) in Hybrid A/B learning.

This is a long post so feel free to jump around as needed. I share videos, templates, and resources on these structures in my Online Learning Master Course, but this 3000-word article should give you enough information to get started!

1. The STEPS Model (I do, We do, You do with a twist)

This is (by far) the most traditional model of teaching that can work in an A/B Hybrid environment. I usually start my training with this model to show how you can make the jump to teaching hybrid without changing too much as a teacher. Remember, we are all at different stages of the continuum, and in many content-heavy subjects, this model works well to get the students into a consistent flow of what the class will look like (whether they are in-school or watching at-home).

Here’s how it works, adapted from The Reading Teacher’s Top Ten Tools:

S: Set-Up (Practice Review)

You can do this with small groups or large groups, but for the sake of our interpretation, let’s just say you have half the class in front of you in the classroom and the other half at home. You start by setting up the class for the lesson and doing some review of the previous day’s lesson.

An important part of retrieval practice is having the students pull out their responses from yesterday’s lesson instead of providing a review for them. This is also a good time to have students doing some practice or review problems or questions while you take attendance and complete the other beginning of class procedures.

When done well, students will expect to come into class either in-person or virtually with an idea of what the first 5-10 minutes will look like every day. This also helps teachers see whether or not students are grasping the knowledge/skills/topics that were covered in the previous lesson.

T: Teach – Explicit Model and Guide of New Concepts or Skills

The next stage is direct or explicit instruction of a new concept, skill, or continuation from the previous lesson. This is the “I do” part of the lesson where the teacher explains and shares examples of what to look for, how to do something, and why it matters in the overall context of the subject.

There is little interaction in the “T” part of the lesson with students in class and at home focused on understanding what the teacher is explaining and listening/watching. However, using a tool like Peardeck or Nearpod can allow students to respond to prompts and questions easily throughout the lesson.

Note: This does not have to be the teacher talking the entire time. Bring in videos, manipulatives, pictures, models, and anything else to help guide the student’s attention and interaction with the content. It also does not need to be a long, drawn-out, part of the lesson.

E: Engage – Practice with Feedback

Here is where teacher-led practice comes into the lesson. The “We do” part of the lesson engages students in practicing the skill being taught in the lesson. A few ways you can do this in hybrid situations:

  1. Have students in class partner-up with a student at home. Students in class on their device and students at home on their device. This is a perfect use of a breakout room (in Zoom) and as a teacher, you don’t have to worry about monitoring the breakout rooms as they are happening in front of you.
  2. Students could be doing the practice individually or with groups using online collaborative tools such as Google Docs, Slides, Jamboard, Padlet, etc.
  3. Have students go through this process in-class and at-home with various students sharing on the in-class or virtual whiteboard.

P: Practice Activity – Extended Practice of New Skill

The “You do” portion of the lesson has students practicing the new skill or engaging in the content by themselves. Here is a perfect time to have the cameras off at-home and have students engage away from the device.

Or you can have them continue to use technology and share what they are doing/learning in your learning management system (Google Classroom, Seesaw, Canvas, Schoology etc).

My favorite part of this practice piece of the lesson is the ability for the teacher to work with an individual student or small group who may need some additional help or who could use a challenge.

S: Show You Know – Share Your Questions

At the end of the lesson, you can bring all the students back together on the live-stream (or have them do this individually depending on your circumstances) and end the classroom in a similar fashion to how you started it. Have students showing what they know and understand by answering questions, asking questions, and checking their own (and each other’s work).

The goal here is for the teacher and students to have a formative understanding of their needs and where to go next (what to tweak etc) in the following lesson.

Notice that in the STEPS Model the students are NOT staring at a live-stream the entire time. In fact, the only time they are needed to be on the live-stream asynchronously is during the “I do” teaching/modeling mini-lesson part of the class. You have options for each of the other parts of the lesson on how to structure the learning experience.

2. The Station-Rotation Model

The Station-Rotation Model is one of the most commonly used blended/hybrid learning structures, used successfully by teachers all around the world pre-pandemic. You may have done this yourself with various forms of media and centers in your classroom.

Now, with half the students at home and half the students in your classroom, the station rotation model still works but has to be adjusted accordingly.

The basics are simple to understand: Each lesson has various learning stations that the students work through during the class period.

The easiest way to begin is to have two stations.

Station #1: Instruction with the teacher.

Station #2: Online activity or assignment.

The teacher begins the class by explaining each station, then gets half the class (either the in-person group or at-home group) to start Station #2. The teacher then takes the rest of the class to Station #1 for half the class period, before switching and taking the other half of the class through Station #1.

While that is the easiest way to begin, going into three stations may be the best option for station-rotation lessons long-term.

Catlin Tucker shared a perfect image to explain the three station-rotation model in our Hybrid A/B environments:

The class period is broken up into three distinct sections. For Hybrid A/B learning I would have all of the students at home be in one group (Group 1) while breaking up the students in-class into two separate groups (Group 2 and Group 3). However, if your situation is such that you have at home hybrid students and full-time virtual students that group may have to be split in two.

The Teacher-led Station is what you will be leading (three separate times) throughout the class period.

The Online Station is personalized practice, research, and exploration, or multimedia lessons that students can access on their own using digital tools and spaces.

The Offline Station can be used for some off-screen activities, getting students engaged in reading or other activities that they do not have to be ‘Logged on’ to complete.

The key to the station-rotation model is to set clear time expectations at the beginning of the class and to keep them throughout the period. It also takes some serious planning. Don’t be alarmed if the first time (or 2, 3 etc) students and you take some getting used to this model!

3. The Flipped Model (with needs-based grouping)

As I walk through these steps to “flip” your instruction and set up a working model of differentiation in your Hybrid A/B class, keep in mind a few things.

First, realize that this can work in any subject area. In order for it to work successfully, a teacher must come up with clear objectives on what students need to know, and how they will demonstrate that knowledge. You’ll also have to be able to teach the main concept through video, and students will need a way to access that video at home (or at the beginning of the class period).

Second, don’t spend too much time thinking about the resources you use to make the video. Often teachers get stuck in the technical side of things instead of just making it and getting better with production over time. This happened to me for a long time before realizing that it didn’t have to be fancy.

Third, make sure you use this strategy to find out what your students know and what they are missing, then get them to a place where they can demonstrate that understanding. When you pre-assess students, the goal is not to see “who did the homework” but instead how your instruction can meet students where they are at in their current level of understanding.

Getting Started Flipping Your Instruction

Here are 10 steps (some longer than others) to get this model working with your class:

  1. Teachers identify a particular concept or skill to focus their instruction (often dictated by your curriculum).
  2. Teachers create a short video screencast (using Screen-cast-o-matic.com) walking students through the concept, explaining the reasoning and steps, providing examples of the skill in action.
  3. Teachers edit and upload the video to Youtube or Vimeo.
  4. Students watch the video the night/day before class and take notes or answer some quick comprehension questions.
  5. When students arrive at class the following day, the teacher hands out (or gives digitally) a short 5 question pre-assessment based on the video and instruction from the night before.
  6. Students answer the questions to the best of their abilities and then score a partner’s (or self-score their own assessment).
    1. Students end up in three groups based on the pre-assessment score.
      1. Score a 0-1 and you are in Tier A.
      2. Score a 2-3 and you are in Tier B.
      3. Score a 4-5 and you are in Tier C.
  7. The goal for all students is to end up in Tier C by the end of class.
  8. The first third of class:
    1. Tier A sits down and re-watches the video from the night before with a teacher-created handout with new questions.
    2. The teacher gets Tier B into groups (or partners) to work on refining some of the skills and concepts together. They can use the video as a guide and call on the teacher to help during their group work.
    3. Tier C is given a higher-level application challenge.
  9. The second third of class:
    1. Teacher heads over to Tier A after the video is complete to answer any questions they might have on the concept and give the entire group some questions to answer. Then they answer questions individually. They move onto Tier B.
    2. Tier B takes another short formative assessment (individually) to show their understanding after the group work on the concept. Those that score a 4-5 move onto Tier C.
    3. Tier C continues to work on the challenge or completes it and begins to help new students coming into their group.
  10. Last third of class:
    1. Tier B students work in partners or groups and take the next formative assessment when they are ready. Teacher floats between Tier B and Tier C helping and challenging as seen fit.
    2. Tier C students finish the challenge and work to create a challenge for the following class (or next year’s class).
    3. Tier B students are helped by classmates and teacher to move to Tier C before the end of the class.

Let’s recap:

First, you start with some type of work at home or at the beginning of class. Then you assess quickly on base knowledge of that concept. The pre-assessment separates your class into three tiers of understanding. The goal is to move students through tiers and provide different levels of support. With all students landing at the final tier for a challenging activity by the end of class.

The trick to making this successful is to embed choices into the activities during class. Allow students to pick partners and groups. Give students multiple types of questions to answer and activities to complete. Give the second-tier options on how they are assessed before moving to the final tier. Provide the final tier with options and choice to challenge their understanding and move past the application to a higher level of thinking.

I would personally start with a concept or skill that some students typically master quicker than others. In this case, you’ll have experienced the frustration of having students at all different levels of understanding, and know that there has to be a better way to go about instructing the entire class.

Start small with a short video, and quick activities at each of the levels. This way, when you move into bigger units of study, students will be familiar with the process and expectations. It’s amazing to watch the negative “snowball” effect of students falling behind stop immediately. In this model, there is no “falling too far behind” because students are all expected to reach a certain level of mastery by the end of the class.

4. The Choice Board Model

This is a self-paced option for the Hybrid A/B learning environment. The Choice Board allows for various levels of learning to take place and gives students choices in how they access information as well as demonstrate their understanding.

Here is a quick example of what a Choice Board might look like via Kasey Bell:

Novel Unit Tic-Tac-Toe

Here are the steps you can go through to create a Choice Board in your content area:

  1. Identify a unit/concept or skill and what you want students to know/do/make in order to demonstrate their understanding/proficiency.
  2. Create or choose an assessment/performance task that allows students to demonstrate mastery.
  3. List various instructional methods, resources, and strategies to prepare students for the assessment/performance task.
  4. Choose four-six instructional methods to turn into choice-board activities. Each activity should be a similar length in time and cover common material. Here is where you can add different types of technology or hands-on experiences to the learning process.
  5. Create a workflow for the students to follow. Have notes and formative checks as part of the choice-board design process. Allow for reflection during each activity when planning how long students will complete the activity.
  6. Introduce the different choices to students and describe what the goals of the activity are (as well as the assessment this is leading up to).
  7. Let students pick activities based on their interests/needs.
  8. As the teacher, a few of the activities/options might need more guidance than others. Make sure you aren’t just “managing” this activity, but instead truly acting as a guide and expert learner when the opportunity is available.
  9. Once the choice-board activities are complete, put students into small groups to “jigsaw” their reflection. Bring students from different activities together to reflect on their learning experience and share (this can be written, audio, or video reflections – think Flipgrid).
  10. Listen to reflections and check the formative pieces for each activity to see if students are prepared for the assessment. If not, feel free to go through one more activity together as a class or talk about any topics/concepts they did not understand during the activity.
  11. Give the assessment/performance task.
  12. BONUS OPTION: Make your assessment into a choice-board with multiple performance tasks that allow students to demonstrate an understanding of the content and skills.

As you can see, the process takes more time on the front end from the teacher, but you’ll know that students are prepared for a performance task by going through this activity.

When I began using technology in the classroom, these activities also turned into online experiences that could be done at any time. My ultimate goal as a teacher was to see my students succeeding and demonstrating their understanding of concepts and skills at a high level. The simple act of “giving students choice” changed how my students viewed our assessments, and how they prepared for assessments.

I share all kinds of Choice Board examples in this blog post!

What’s Next?

Planning, managing, and teaching in a Hybrid A/B environment can be difficult, but hopefully, these structures can give some options when thinking about how to get students engaged in the learning process. I would love if you shared in the comments some structures you are using in Hybrid learning!

Thanks for all you are doing for kids!

A.J. Juliani is the author, Empower and Launch (along with five other books). In addition to writing, he is the Head of Learning and Growth at NextLesson, and a Facilitator for the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education (PLN). Reach out on Twitter @ajjuliani.

Who Will Sound the Alarm?

By Lester Laminack

September,

Fulcrum between summer and fall,

I have come to count on you

to sound the alarm.

 

I’ve been listening.

 

Where are your rumbling buses,

the hydraulic whoosh,

the inward folding doors?

 

Where is the chatter and the chuckle

of backpacked-children,

that clamber up steps,

the shuffle to find an open seat?

 

Where is that waterfall of youth

splashing onto freshly cleaned corridors,

the squeak of new sneakers,

the squeal of old friends,

the morning bells setting it all in motion?

 

Where is the thunder

of two-hundred-twenty feet

marching in unison,

eight steps to five yards?

 

Where are the grunts and groans,

the slap and thud of muscled young men

clad like gladiators in helmets and pads?

 

Where is the rising and waning roar

of thousands filling seats

escalating upward into the Friday night skies?

 

September,

I fear you have become the latest victim

silenced by this virus,

this crazy, cunning menace.

 

Who will sound the alarm?

—Lester Laminack 2020

I think many of us are feeling like this, like nothing is the way it should be. In mid-March I was working in a school in Parkersburg, WV. That morning I was the visiting author and met with two large groups of elementary school students. I was scheduled to be the speaker for a Young Authors celebration in the district that evening. I returned to the hotel after the second assembly with a plan to relax until the celebration. I had been at the hotel less than an hour when I got a call from the ELA coordinator.  “I’m so disappointed to tell you that we have to cancel our Young Authors celebration this evening. Our superintendent just got off the phone with the governor’s office and all school events have been cancelled in response to this new virus.”  

Screen Shot 2019-03-12 at 4.59.04 PM

It was too late in the day to begin the travel back to North Carolina, so I made a dinner reservation and got things ready for an early morning departure. On the six-hour drive home I received several other notifications cancelling or postponing events scheduled for the remainder of March and April. Over the next three weeks events into May were cancelling and the pattern followed with events toppling like dominoes stacked in a line. Some just cancelled. Others postponed indefinitely. And several went virtual via Zoom. Schools were rapidly moving to “virtual” platforms and it felt as if the whole country was in some sort of pivot trying to right itself in the midst of growing anxiety.  

Here we are in September, still trying to find our footing. Back in March I believed we would “get back to normal” by June or July and certainly by the time the new school year began. Perhaps you were wiser, but many of my friends held a similar belief.  And now the new school year is underway with teachers, students, and communities scrambling to manage one or another of a variety of “re-entry” plans. No matter what format your school or district has selected, I feel fairly confident that none of it is ideal. Teachers are stressed, parents are stressed, communities are stressed, so it goes without saying that our children are stressed.  

Many of us are suffering from a disruption to routines and schedules that took away our sense of knowing what comes next and altered the we mark the progression of time through a school year. The world feels out of order, chaotic even, for those of us who thrive on routines and schedules and known expectations. After all these months of not knowing, of trying to make the best of less than ideal circumstances and shifting expectations I am feeling the impact of the stress. If I feel it, then I can only imagine that feeling is intensified in our children. 

In times like these I find myself thinking of Fred Rogers who kept the children his singular focus for over thirty years. While he was not a classroom teacher, and he didn’t have assessments, standards, curriculum mandates to deal with, I think there is wisdom to be gained from reflection on what made his program work. From my perspective there are a few simple principles that we can replicate:

  1. Keep it focused—each episode had a central theme that threaded through our visit. 
  2. Keep it consistent—there was a predictable routine to each visit, a set of verbal and nonverbal signals for each transition point. 
  3. Keep it simple—there was no hype, no flash and dazzle, the entire visit was calm and simple involving story, music, a visit with a neighbor, imagination with simple hand puppets, inquiry with “picture picture” on the wall, science or art that could be done at the kitchen table.  
  4. Keep it real—in every visit, Mr. Rogers was present, fully present and not distracted by things around him. He remained focused on YOU sitting there on the other side of that screen. 
  5. Keep it manageable—the pacing was consistent and something that even young children could follow, the content was never overwhelming, examples were supportive.

Lester L. Laminack is Professor Emeritus at Western Carolina University in where he received two awards for excellence in teaching. Lester is now a full-time writer and consultant working with schools throughout the United States. Lester has coauthored a number of professional books including Heinemann titles Writers ARE Readers: Flipping Reading Instruction into Writing OpportunitiesLearning Under the Influence of Language and LiteratureReading Aloud Across the Curriculum; and Bullying Hurts. In addition he has several articles published in journals such as The Reading TeacherScience and ChildrenLanguage ArtsPrimary Voices; and Young Children. Lester is also the author of six children’s books. Connect with him on @lester_laminack.

Poetry Is a Way to Connect Us During These Uncertain Times

By Georgia Heard, CCIRA 2021 Featured Speaker

A good friend emailed me recently about joining my online poetry writing workshop. He said, “I need to be part of something, Georgia. I feel so disconnected and invisible.” My friend was brave enough to express what many of us have been feeling during the past several months. The need to be part of something. The need to connect with people in community. The need to feel like more than a small image on a Zoom meeting screen. Many of the children who look out from their separate thumbnail screens in virtual classrooms have been feeling this way too — disconnected and invisible — despite all the positive ways teachers are working to help students feel engaged and part of a community.

Those of us who teach writing and reading, and also love poetry, know that poetry has always been an antidote for feeling separate and unseen. Poetry can connect us. Poetry can shake the dust off of the stale and the stereotyped. Poetry can inspire empathy for others. Poetry can inspire change. Poetry can beckon us to look in the mirror and see the truth inside.

Elizabeth Alexander wrote: 

Do you want to know each other? [Poetry reaches]…across what can be a huge void between human beings.

That void has grown more cavernous since the beginning of the pandemic. 

In the past decade, the prominence of high-stakes, high-stress testing has swept poetry further into the corner of the classroom. But since the start of the pandemic, the emergence of “soft skills” such as building empathy, “social and emotional learning,”  and “trauma informed teaching” have emerged as essential for educating the whole child. Why did it take a pandemic for us to realize that without attending to children’s hearts and humanity  — education can be a dehumanizing experience for some children as we pour more and more content into a vessel called learning? 

Joy Harjo the current United States poet laureate says, “Poetry tends to hang out at points of transformation.”

At some point in our lives, whether curled up quietly on a couch, or gathered with friends and family at a wedding, or attending a funeral most of us have had the experience of reading or listening to a poem that touches our being, takes our breathe away, brings tears to our eyes, and affects us in some way that’s deep and, almost, inexplicable. How does a poem do this? 

When we read a poem that stirs us it is a convergence of words humming the same tune as our hearts. The poem whispers I know you. It recognizes us. And in this recognition we also recognize something forgotten in ourselves. Our circle gets wider and connects us to others whom we have never met. It awakens something that may have been frozen inside us. It helps us remember the sky we were born under as Joy Harjo writes in her poem “Remember.”

Poetry is not something you find only in April. Poetry is not a phonics’ worksheet exercise where children circle the double ee and long o sounds. Like a wild horse, poetry resists being corralled in reading test questions: What does the speaker doubt in lines 14-15

Poetry is what is present in the voices of people to whom it would hardly occur that this could be so. The way all speak in unselfconscious moments is the very stuff of poetry. The way we speak to our loved ones every day and night: when you tuck your children into bed; the first things you say to your spouse or partner when you wake up in the morning. When we speak in a voice that’s exclusively ours, that’s natural, when we’re not trying to be anything other than ourselves, that’s the stuff of poetry.

In a virtual poetry workshop, right after schools closed in April, fifth grade poets looked around their worlds with poet’s eyes to try to find poetry. Seeing the world with poet’s eyes is more than just trying to find a topic for a haiku or another kind of poem — it’s about polishing the film of familiarity and approaching life with a wide-awakeness, as Maxine Greene says.

“I use the term wide-awakeness,” Greene states. “Without the ability to think about yourself, to reflect on your life, there’s really no awareness, no consciousness. Consciousness doesn’t come automatically; it comes through being alive, awake, curious, and often furious.”

Poetry shimmered all around fifth graders’ worlds. They found poetry in:

Things that sing a deeper history

Doorknobs are like poems. They’ve been touched by so many hands.

Puzzles because there are so many different ways that things connected

but you don’t know until you look at the picture.

The moon

Laughter

Sadness

After they lived and wrote poetry for three weeks, I asked students if they had any advice for other poets who were embarking on a poetry journey. Here are a few words of wisdom:

My advice to other poets would be that everything holds poetry. You just have to take the time to realize it. You should write from your heart and think about the reason for your poem, and the meaning it has to you.

Poetry helped me during this hard time as it helped me stay calm, and jot down feelings. I wholeheartedly recommend this for anyone feeling stressed. My piece of advice to anyone would be to NOT RUSH A POEM. Let the words come from your heart, not from your hand.

Wise words indeed!

If you’re wondering how to begin with poetry one doorway is to find a poem you love, or have loved through the years. An aha poem.  Invite your students to do the same – to find a self-portrait poem, an identity poem, a poem that speaks to how you’re feeling. Carry it around in your pocket, in your head, in your heart as you go about your day. Paste it on your computer screen so when you need a break your poem can refresh you. Place it by your nightstand and let it be the last thing you read before you sleep. Reflect on it, and write alongside it as Teshager, a student of mine, did with Langston Hughes’ poem “Final Curve:”

When you turn the corner

And you run into yourself

Then you know that you have turned

All the corners that are left

 “Final Curve” awakened this realization, this truth, in Tesagher :

You too might find that poetry is an antidote for feeling disconnected and invisible during this challenging and sad time. A scientific vaccine for COVID-19 will come, hopefully, soon but poetry can offer a different kind of cure — as the last line of Julia Alvarez’s poem “How Will This Pandemic Affect Poetry” asks, What if this poem is the vaccine already working inside you?

Georgia Heard is a founding member of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project in New York City. She received her MFA in Poetry from Columbia University.  Currently, she is a frequent keynote speaker at conferences and in schools around the United States and the world. 

She is the author of numerous books on writing including: Awakening the Heart: Exploring Poetry in Elementary and Middle School which was cited by Instructor Magazine as one of the “10 Books Every Teacher Should Read,” Finding the Heart of Nonfiction: Teaching 7 Essential Craft Tools with Mentor Texts, Heart Maps: Helping Students Create and Craft Authentic Student Writing and Poetry Every Day (forthcoming). In addition, she has published several children’s poetry books including Boom! Bellow! Bleat! Animal Sounds for Two Or More Voices and My Thoughts Are Clouds: Poems for Mindfulness (forthcoming).website: www.georgiaheard.com   Follow her on Twitter:@georgiaheard1