We Survived Summer School

My students and I all suffered this school year, as did millions of others. Returning to the physical classroom bolstered our spirits. We are more optimistic about school year 2021–2022 now.

One of the students in the morning English class wrote, “I was mortified at the thought that I had to attend summer school. I always assumed that the kids who attended summer school were either not very bright or just lazy. Then, I arrived for the first day and saw some of the smartest kids I knew, and they were also taking summer classes.”

As her journey through summer school continued, she realized how much online learning and working in the evenings had dulled her enthusiasm about school. Additionally, she took responsibility for what happened and asked herself an important question: “How does someone fail a class that has always come easy to her?” That reflection ended up being the topic of the essay, which was part three of the final exam. In three weeks, she had her issues figured out and had a plan for the upcoming year.

This student was not alone. Several students showed personal growth during the short time we were together. I am so proud of them.

How We Began, and How We Ended

When they started the session, almost everyone wanted to point a finger at online learning as the reason they did not pass English. Granted, “learning through a screen,” as one student put it, was difficult. Each class was presented in a hybrid fashion, with students online for the experience and students in the classroom. Teaching and learning that way did not get any easier as time went by. After the first couple of weeks, the online students’ enthusiasm waned, and the ennui was palpable, even “through a screen.”

From Thanksgiving until February, we were all online, and that made things worse.

By the end of the session, students were more thoughtful about their performance. They acknowledged their motivation had disappeared during the school year. They had felt depressed and disconnected. Most of all: school did not matter to them. However, they were less inclined to point the finger at online learning and more inclined to thoughtfully process how they lost their sense of agency and self-advocacy.

How We Navigated the Middle

Teaching and Learning for Mastery

The students learned about agency and self-advocacy the first day of class. We read an article about teaching for mastery, instead of test scores. This article resonated strongly with the students. The article, sourced from a service called CommonLit, was a transcript of a TED talk by Sal Khan.https://www.youtube.com/embed/-MTRxRO5SRA?feature=oembed

After reading the transcript, we talked about what teaching for mastery meant to us. For one thing, we all agreed it meant not leaving any student behind. Instead, all students should move onto the next, more complex topic with confidence. Most of us also had a story or two about being left behind, feeling abandoned and nervous, while our classmates plowed through the next concept. We all knew there were gaps in our knowledge in one subject or another, holding us back from being successful.

Yes, that includes me. I told my story about failing Geometry in ninth grade. I traced the gap in my knowledge back to fifth grade. Each year, something would fall through the cracks, so to speak, until finally I encountered a subject that mystified and terrified me. I gave up. The students told me their stories too, about feeling lost and confused.

“You have to be your biggest fan and your strongest advocate.”

That is when I drove home the point about being one’s strongest advocate for one’s education, and for building agency, that drive and will to be successful. To illustrate that point, I told another story about “conquering” College Algebra in my 30s. Although I dropped the course the first semester, I spent that semester studying on my own and returned to try again a few months later. There had been a breakthrough: I realized I was capable of doing well in the class with the right support. I was determined to do well. Because I had an excellent teacher and supportive software, I passed that class with an A.

Combining Inspirational Messages with Standards-Aligned Instruction

The articles we read served two purposes. First, the information in them helped the students to restore or build their confidence. As I planned the summer session, I knew students would struggle unless we faced learning issues and made connections to their experiences. Second, each of the articles addressed standards related to informational texts. They could practice finding the main idea and supporting evidence using texts relevant to them and their situation.

After reading the article about teaching for mastery, we read other articles about learning, including reading stamina and decision-making. The article about teaching for mastery stuck with them throughout the course, however. Many students wrote about learning for mastery, or finding the drive and determination to stick with something confusing until they figured it out.

I hope that determination drives them in the Fall to find their voice, ask for help, and stick with the challenging content and concepts.

Diagnostics and Data Drove Instruction

While the first couple of lessons were based on a hunch, the students demonstrated where they were academically with a diagnostic drawn from retired items on the state test called the Keystone Exam. We evaluated their performance by having each student complete a Google form by checking the item numbers from the diagnostic that they answered incorrectly. Then, I shared the class results with them.

It turned out that many students struggled with finding the main idea, citing evidence from the text, finding bias and propaganda, determining facts versus opinions, distinguishing essential from nonessential information, and determining how point of view functioned within an article. Some also struggled with text organization and components, like headings and graphics and their function.

Although I could not touch on all these issues during the three-week session, I did supplement the workbook I created with exercises for finding the main idea, citing evidence from the text, essential versus nonessential information, and fact versus opinion. My best guesses regarding their needs were correct, for the most part.

Other Concepts Every English Speaker Needs

We also worked on writing skills: sentence structure, commas, and semicolons and colons, among other things. At the end of each class, the students wrote an exit slip recapping what they learned that day. One student wrote, “Today we worked on stuff that we all should have nailed in eighth grade, but we didn’t. So it was good to work on it, and I learned a lot.” Two other students mentioned they were amazed by how much they had forgotten and enjoyed the refresher. One student wrote, “I have a lot to learn about semicolons.” Don’t we all?

We also completed two drafts of a final essay while reviewing the structure for essays, thesis statements/focus statements, paragraphs, and transitions. In my opinion, you cannot practice writing enough. Even as I wrote this post, I felt a bit rusty because I have not created a post in a while.

The Final

Each day was productive, in our opinion. I say “our” because I monitored the exit slips and assigned an essay for the final that addressed this topic:

What I knew about English before I came to summer school, what I learned while in summer school, and what I want to learn more about English in the future.

The exit slips showed me their progress. Their essays demonstrated reflection and growth. Again, I was proud of them.

The essay was part four of the final grade, which included a binder evaluation, two text sets, and the essay. I evaluated the student binder to ensure the student had participated in class by completing the assignments while the students worked on the first text set.

Each text set included two informational texts that prepared them for the fictional text they would read. Multiple choice questions followed each text. The students could make two attempts, and to encourage them to take the first attempt seriously, I averaged the grade. Normally, I would use the highest grade, but have found students will choose random answers during the first attempt to finish quickly.

The good news is everyone passed, and I could see improvement and growth in their essays. This school year, they should be more successful, especially since we are returning to in-person instruction.

We survived summer school. Now, we have a chance to thrive and grow.

Originally posted by Heather M Edick on  in Teachers on Fire Magazine.

Let Them Write!

It occurs to me that one way for students to better understand poetry is to write it. I had this epiphany this morning as I scribbled “Irrelevant.” As I was scribbling, I noticed a rhyme scheme and a pattern emerging, and they changed my thought process.

Yes, I know; it shocked me too.

I wondered to myself, post-scribbling, if what I experienced was like what “real poets” experience as they are writing a poem. What did I learn about the writing process by writing? What can my students learn about literature by writing?

In AP Literature and Composition, we spend so much time reading and analyzing literature in search of nuggets of wisdom regarding the human condition. I’ve been missing an important piece of that exploration, however: Creation. Therefore, next year, we will spend more time exploring the creation of literature and creating some ourselves. Perhaps creating texts will help the students (and me) better analyze and tease from the texts those important messages that can help us live our best lives.

How Might This Be Implemented?

Good question! These are my nascent thoughts.

Take a Basic Project Management Approach

In my previous life, I was a team lead for an internal training team. I tried a basic project management approach to initiatives, following an acronym I came up with after taking a college class in project management.

  • Plan
  • Execute
  • Analyze
  • React

The Project

For literature study, we could implement the project with these steps (I think).

  • Prepare: Read several texts and about their historical context, their authors, and their authors’ writing process; students choose an author to focus on, one who speaks most to them.
    • Review key questions after each text, and write paragraphs to answer those questions.
    • Create one-pagers about the historical context.
    • Create charts about the author and author’s writing process for each text.
    • Choose an author to focus on.
  • Evaluate the author’s process: subject choice; themes; drafting, revision, and editing; response to the world.
    • Create a one-pager about the author’s process.
  • Author: Students create a text after choosing a subject and theme; students draft, revise, and edit their text; students respond to constructive feedback from peers.
  • React: Students evaluate their writing process and whether knowing something about the writing process for literary writers helped them as they created their text; students re-evaluate the texts we read during the “Prepare” phase for greater understanding.
    • Sentence stems for the first part could include:
      • As I was writing, I noticed I stopped when…, and this is like / different from what I read of _____’s experience.
      • As I was creating ____, I noticed…, and this is like / different from…
      • My [setting/character/language/structure/theme] reminds me of…
      • I read about ____’s writing process. While I was writing, I noticed [similarity/difference] in my writing process.
      • ______ used [his/her] experiences with ______ to create _____. Similarly, I used my experience with ______ to create _____.
    • Return to the texts and write about how the interpretation or understanding has changed in light of the personal writing process.

This project is best served by reading texts like short stories and poetry. It would be difficult, for example, to consume several novels and then dive in. Additionally, texts from authors who have either written or spoken about their writing process are better choices. Writers from The Lost Generation and Harlem Renaissance immediately come to mind.

In AP Lit, standards and key questions exist for short stories, poetry, and longer fiction; these standards and key questions should be aligned to a creation project like this. The twist occurs when the students synthesize their experience with what they know of the author they studied. Did they notice anything while they were creating that was similar to the author or diverged from the author’s experience?

Culminating Activity

I think the most important piece of this is to write about whether creation helped interpret other texts, if the act of entering a writing community provided a key to unlocking the mysteries of great literature.

Another question, one that is central to the course: “How did this exercise help you better determine how a text speaks about the human condition?”

Reimagining the Study of Literature

I am sure that there are literature teachers out there who already do this type of project. In other words, this idea is probably not new. However, I like to share instances in which I stumble upon ideas because it is important to be part of the conversation. In this post, I am starting to reimagine the study of literature for myself. My goal: to make learning as meaningful and useful as possible.

In a previous post, I wrote about “Writing to Learn.” My goal then was the same as it is now. If you look back at posts I’ve written over the years, you will notice that I strive to answer the question, “Why do I have to learn this?” The best way, I think, to answer that question is to bring the students closer to the concept, skill, text, or whatever it is. Bring them into the community. Welcome them. Assure them. Let them write.

Thank you for reading this post.


If you are interested in learning more about a poet’s writing process, this interview with Billy Collins is helpful.

Writing to Learn

In my research on writing-to-learn, I found the following explanation from Colorado State University. 

Generally, writing-to-learn activities are short, impromptu, or otherwise informal, and low-stakes writing tasks that help students think through key concepts or ideas presented in a course. Often, these writing tasks are limited to less than five minutes of class time or are assigned as brief, out-of-class assignments.

That’s not what I’m talking about here.

Instead, consider writing-to-learn, for the purposes of this article, as a longer, sustained process by which a writer probes the mind in the dark and musty places to gain insight about the human condition and the self.

Philosophical Ramblings

Elsewhere, I have written, “Writers are drawn to writing to explore their lives and their world view, but accessing the part of the mind that makes it possible to explore to the depths of one’s soul is often just too much.” That is true, and that is why so much writing falls flat.

Writing is hard. Writing-to-learn is harder. It requires the writer to acknowledge something: cognitive dissonance, conflict, mistakes made, pain – and committed writers are often depressed as a result. From those acknowledgements, themes emerge, as does greater understanding, but sometimes at a considerable cost. Going deep to discover what you believe and think can be brutal.

Look, we are not born with a tabula rasa – a mind that is a clean slate. That’s my opinion. Instead, the generations of evolution that have taken place are present within us. We cannot articulate them at first, but it’s my opinion that we are born with understanding. Then nurture takes over and tramples certain aspects of understanding, while leaving others intact. Nurture – tradition, culture, history – teaches us to view the world in ways that might be counterintuitive to nature.

There comes a point in one’s life during which we question how we were raised, and our nature begs us to reconsider certain truths. That’s when we experience depression or angst.

So, if we are all born with this understanding, probably more evolved than what nurture offers us, why aren’t the nurturers of the same mind as us? I figure it’s because traditions are long-standing and humans are loath to change.

Think about “movements” in our collective history. They are called movements because they are instigating change, overcoming cultural inertia. They get push-back because humans hate change. Meanwhile, evolution – by definition change – marches on.

It is within that space between stasis and definitive change that we as individuals often find ourselves as we confront nurture with nature for the first time. It’s exhausting, especially after years of conditioning, to assert thoughts and opinions that diverge from common knowledge.

And yet, this is what we must do. We must confront common knowledge and either accept it or reject it. Sometimes, rejection is received by the community without question, and the community marches on, declaring the individual different, but not a “problem.” Sometimes, the individual is declared unworthy of inclusion. Sometimes, the individual is declared outright dangerous.

In all cases, people need to question the status quo. It’s in our biology, even if society wants to maintain stasis. I question why that is.

  • Why can’t we question without push-back?
  • Why can’t we be Socratic? Why did Socrates have to drink the hemlock?
  • Why don’t we learn from history?
  • Why are philosophers and writers considered dangerous, and teachers not treated professionally?
  • Why do some submit to the collective will, even when they know the collective is wrong?
  • Why do some persist, even when it endangers them?
  • Why does it take so long to bring about change?

Writing-to-Learn Activity: Exploring Banned Books

Through writing-to-learn activities, we can address these questions. While these activities are important for any subject, I’m an English teacher, so my ideas are informed by my experiences in the ELA classroom. I welcome you to contribute your ideas for other content areas.

WtL: Literary Analysis and Response

Great literature beckons us to question everything about it: characters, setting, language, style, theme… We explore our prior knowledge within its context. We find evidence in the text to help us interpret what the author is expressing about its themes. We build knowledge in this process and bounce it off what we knew before. We then either know something new or reject the author’s premise; this decision-making process is a sign of maturity.

Although younger readers might need time with the canon of “accepted” literature, more mature readers should learn about books that make society uneasy. Just as they are starting to question their nurturing, they should be allowed to read texts that help them question. As a teacher, I think it’s my job to curate those texts and present them to my students. My gift to them is an opportunity to experience the discomfort that comes with exposure to inconvenient truth.

Why Discuss Banned Books?

Books are banned because their authors dared to raise certain questions in “unacceptable” ways. Themes emerge from those texts that are anathema to society. Those books, however, hold the keys to human evolution. Where is society hiding the keys? Some may be in a dusty library closet, probably, or a corner of a professor’s office.

As humans develop cognitively, they may find the keys; it’s a “Where’s Waldo?” game with themes. There are clues left by those who disagree with banning books, for example. They are there, and we need to identify them to find them.

At the very least, there should be a discussion about banned books. The American Library Association helps us with “Banned Books Week” each year. The association is promoting the freedom to read. Indeed, reading and freedom do go hand in hand. Consider the audacity of Martin Luther to suggest that ordinary people could – and should – read the Bible! My word! What was he thinking? (That was meant to be sarcastic.)

On this page, you will find the Top 10 Most Challeged Books each year from 2001 – 2020. It is truly amazing to me that last year Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas made the list. In other years, I noticed titles that shocked me as well.

The reasons for banning books also saddened me, especially those LGBTQ-themed books. At a time in which society needs to understand LGBTQ perspectives, to ban the books that express them indicates that society considers the community dangerous.

“Anti-police” books are banned because society doesn’t want to have the conversation we so desperately need to have about police reform. One book that falls into that category, All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely, allegedly addressed topics that were too “sensitive” to consider “right now.”

Not now, honey, we’ll discuss it later.

Unfortunately, tomorrow never comes.

This year, Banned Books Week is September 26 – October 2. I plan to address this issue with all my classes that week, and to ask them to write-to-learn about their reaction to banning books. We will also read and react to Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, because that book addresses the notion of banned and destroyed books as the destruction of knowledge itself. We will write-to-learn about our reaction to this theme, whether we agree with it or not.

The New York Times’ article, “The Banned Books Your Child Should Read,” by Perri Klaus, M.D., ends with a perfect reasoning for allowing your child to read banned books.

As a parent, I was dazzled when my daughter’s high school summer reading assignment was to choose a book ‘out of your comfort zone,’ however the student chose to define it. Because that is, of course, what literature does, and part of the glorious freedom (and human right) of literacy is the opportunity to journey with words well beyond your comfort zone.

Yes, indeed.

Thank you for reading this post.

Why Do We Accept the Negative Aspects of Education?

As we round the bend toward the end of a challenging school year, we educators hear so much about the negative effects of remote and hybrid learning on students and families this year. Is there anything positive that has come from it? Yes.

At the very least, we have qualitative and quantitative data available to help us address the issues inherent in our education system. With such data, we can change priorities and eliminate policies that do not work.

After this year and the final quarter of last year, it is not enough to say, “This is the way it has always been done.” We need to add to that statement, “This is the way we are going to do it from now on.”

Follow the Data

In previous posts about the hidden curriculum and questioning everything, I emphasized the opportunity to reimagine educating our youth. We can learn much from our recent history. What worked? What didn’t?

What Can We Learn from Project Management Practices?

In project management, reviewing what worked and what didn’t is called a postmortem. The team reviews the project’s progression, changes process and procedure to support continuous improvement, and builds new processes and procedures to function more effectively next time. Although schools are not businesses, project management principles are so logical and methodical that I highly encourage adopting those that would work for education.

Teachers are born project managers, in my opinion. We adjust each lesson and unit to “meet the students where they are,” within the guidelines set forth by administration, the district, and departments of education – for example, state standards and Common Core considerations. We know that each new group of students will require accommodations and modifications to what we have planned. What worked in the past might not in the present. As we approach a new unit, we ask ourselves, “How will this group of students manage this unit? What can I add or take away to ensure success? What type of instruction will work best?” Let’s extend that process to the entire education community.

Since teachers do strive to “meet the students where they are,” I argue teachers have adjusted their instruction for pandemic teaching, whether it be hybrid, fully-remote, or another method. What was “tried-and-true” in the past (with adjustments, of course) was put aside for methods we thought might work. This school year was one long, complicated, and exhausting experiment for all concerned. Next year should not be. What did we learn?

Teachers Need More Support. How Can We Get the Support We Need?

Teachers need more time for effective and timely professional development, and more just-in-time support. If there is anything we can learn from corporate personnel development, the delivery of PD and JIT support should be among those lessons.

How can we support that? We need to hire more teachers and instructional coaches. We need more co-teacher arrangements and more constructive feedback from observers. Our PD, which sucks up precious time, needs to be worth it and needs to address our current predicament. We also need more time, a commodity that always seems to run out just when we need it most.

How Can We Finally Address Inequity?

Teachers have not only struggled with new and complicated technology to benefit their students, many had to struggle to help students who were unfamiliar with the technology too or could not access that technology.

Many districts implemented several solutions for students who do not have tech at home with help from corporations, but it wasn’t enough. For example, Internet providers made Wi-Fi free for those who needed it, and students in need were provided personal hotspot devices. Devices that did not normally leave school made their way home, too.

Still, many, many students were technology deprived. The problems exacerbated what was already a significant disparity in education. What did we learn?

School Districts Need Equal Funding. How Can We Achieve That Goal?

School districts need equal funding. Period, full stop. Every student in this country should be funded at the same rate, no matter where they reside. Every student should have the same technology, resources, etc. The minimum threshold for funding should be equal to the richest district in the country, not the poorest. We need to redefine what FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education) means to specify that each student is equally funded.

How Can We Regain Students’ Interest?

Each year, some seniors in high school suffer from senioritis. They want out. They’re done with school. They need to move on with their lives. They’re planning to decorate their dorm rooms in October, as soon as they have asked for the recommendation letter. Some already have jobs to go to once they have that diploma in hand.

This year, senioritis has infected some students at every grade level. The symptoms are recognizable: disinterest in content; a belief that nothing they are doing in school matters; disengagement; and even rudeness. The students stop saying good morning, or decline to acknowledge teachers and staff in the hallway. They go into their shells and their friend pods. “Just get through the year,” they seem to say.

The hardest part of teaching those with senioritis must be facing the hostility from some students. It’s a bit mind-boggling.

This is boring. What’s the point? How is this going to help me with the job waiting for me, because I’m not going to college and I don’t need to know about theme, characterization, setting, etc.? How is this going to help me, because I’m going to major in business and no one in business cares about literature? (That’s not even close to true, but they don’t believe me.) This is supposed to be an easy year.

You’re “harshing my mellow.” Kids probably don’t use that phrase, but it was the first to come to mind.

Despite my valiant efforts to answer the question, “Why do we have to learn this?” some students have not responded the way I hoped they would. I’ll keep trying.

On a yearly basis, I wonder why some students are so anxious to get out of school. My senior year was full of so many challenging and intellectual experiences that I did not want it to end. I felt like I was finally hitting my stride that year, so I can’t relate to the anxiety and, yes, the anger I sense coming from them.

This year, I’m still perplexed, but also more understanding. The fact is that some students cannot imagine having an experience like mine, and this year of pandemic teaching has only heightened their dislike of, and disdain for, schooling.

What can we learn from what is happening this year? These questions might help us ground our investigation.

  1. Why do some students dislike school? Specifically, what happens to students along the way that leads to them disliking it?
  2. How curious and risk-taking are children when they start school, and how does the curiosity and likelihood to take risks diminish for some as the years go by?
  3. What messages are we sending year-on-year, by way of standardized tests, grades, and competition? How do those messages reflect our values related to learning? How do these messages affect the students?
  4. Why are so many kids afraid to be wrong? What messages are we sending to students about being wrong? What messages should we send to students about being wrong? How do we change evaluation systems to reflect the value of learning from mistakes and taking risks?
  5. What aspects of the curriculum should change to reignite curiosity and the need to know something in some students?
  6. Does personalizing learning, as it has been implemented, actually work?
  7. Are we listening to students? Are we really trying to meet them where they are?
  8. How large should classes be? Are we doing our students a disservice with large class sizes? (Y’all know the answer to that one.)
  9. How many classes should students take in a given semester/marking period/trimester? Are there too many classes on a student’s schedule? Have students run out of bandwidth because their schedule is so heavy?

It is my contention that students are telling us what they need, even when they seem to have “checked out.” That act alone speaks volumes. This year, some students are telling us not to accept the negative aspects of education anymore. They are telling us to re-imagine education.

How Can We Change the Way Society Treats Teachers?

To be fully effective, we need to be taken seriously. Teachers are dedicated professionals. Many do not consider this just a job, but a vocation.

Unfortunately, some of these dedicated teachers now find themselves at the end of their teaching journey and are moving onto other fields because the state of our educational system is in dire need of repair. They are exhausted, emotionally and physically.

This year has been brutal for teachers in so many ways. I shake my head daily as I read about how teachers are being treated. It needs to stop. It is not enough to preface the criticism with, “We all know teachers want to be back in the classroom.” People don’t hear that part; they hear everything that comes after it.

I have been fortunate thus far, supported by an administration that accentuates the positive and works tirelessly to get resources to its students and staff as its default position. Many teachers, however, have not had the same experience. Many of them are saying, “This is not what I signed up for.”

When I signed up for this position, I knew I might have to take a bullet or sustain other life-threatening wounds to save my students. I signed up willingly, and without hesitation. I have had desks tossed in my direction, watched students punch holes into my classroom walls, broken up fights, been cursed and laughed at. I’m still teaching.

What I did not anticipate was being fearful that I would bring a virus home to my family that could kill them. That responsibility is way above my pay grade. So, if folks want to be upset with me or any of my colleagues for not wanting to risk their loved ones’ lives, so be it. It’s terrible, however, that society is demonizing teachers for loving their families and wanting to protect them.

How Can We Finally Feel Safe?

Follow the data, if you would like to understand why teachers are still concerned about going back to full classrooms. You will notice that surges happen just when everyone thought it was safe. It’s the worst horror movie I’ve ever seen, in which the character opens the door while a chorus of other characters cries to keep it closed, over and over again.

The Bottom Line

Instead of accepting the negative aspects of education, we need to start actively listening to all stakeholders involved to effect change. Others need to start actively listening to all of us, too. Everyone needs to do better. All of us deserve it.

Speaking Your Truth

I teach a creative writing class by the seat of my pants. Why? Because each student who experiences the class is a unique individual. Creative writing is a personal endeavor; pre-established expectations should not hamper creative writers. Therefore, while the skeleton of the course is there, each item in that “curriculum” – such as it is – has the goal of helping students understand themselves better and find their voice.

To find their voice, creative writers explore their truth. What is it about the human condition they know, deep down, in the bones of their experience? What themes do they turn to, perhaps without knowing it? I don’t think my students are expecting such freedom or challenge when they start the class. It’s jarring to consider one’s metacognitive processes and to examine what they know to be true, especially if they have never been asked to do that before.

The activities of this elective class can only help them become better writers and readers, ultimately leading to self-actualization and increased self-confidence. As I have written many times before, we study literature to better understand the human condition and our place in society. Well, we write to learn the same things.

The First Magazine Post

That brings me to a project we worked on this past week. While our literary and arts magazine had been in print for years, due to COVID-19, I moved it to a WordPress instance last year. Every creative writing student is invited to contribute to the magazine. This week, I asked the students write their first post for the magazine.

The name of the assignment is “Speaking Your Truth.” We explored the concept of theme – a message or statement about the human condition. Usually we are asked, as readers, to find the theme of a work, so I decided to ask the students to determine what theme they would like to express in their post. What is the important message they want to send to their readers at this point in their lives? What do they know to be true about how humans interact, how they live, human nature, and society?

After creating a theme statement, the students created a discussion post on the LMS (learning management system) in which they expressed their theme statement and explained why they know this to be true. The discussion was phenomenal. As I had hoped, granting students freedom and challenging them to think about their values and experiences opened the flood gates of creativity.

The next step was to learn how to use WordPress to create a post. As they are all contributors, that part was easy. Write, click on “Publish,” and then click on “Send for Review.” I will format the post for them. For example, if they want to add media, I can upload their media and insert it for them. If they write a poem, I can ensure the text is in a verse block.

Students were allowed to create any type of text they wanted: poem, short story, comic strip (yes), graphic story (a mini version of the graphic novel), micro-fiction, essay, etc. I believe that thrilled most of the students and frightened some of them.

For example, one of the students asked the age-old chestnut: “How long does this have to be?” in an email. Since no one else knew that this student asked that question, I felt free to comment without embarrassing anyone: “Please do not ask me how long this has to be. It needs to be as long as you need to speak your truth. If that’s one page, cool. If that’s twenty, cool.”

This weekend, I am going to review what has been posted. I am sure that there is some great writing waiting to be read. I can’t wait to learn more about these wonderful individuals and what they know to be true.

Let’s Unhide the Hidden Curriculum

According to The Glossary of Education Reform, the hidden curriculum “consists of the unspoken or implicit academic, social, and cultural messages that are communicated to students while they are in school.” This year, the hidden curriculum isn’t so hidden, which is for the best, because the focus on the academic, social, and cultural challenges facing all stakeholders in education can be helpful. The absence of the hidden curriculum, or the inability to implement aspects of it, has shown how important it is, for better or worse.

What Does That Mean?

This year especially, I have been wondering about why education needs to be so mysterious. Indeed, some mystery has been taken out of learning from when I was a child and teachers didn’t tell us WHY we were learning something. It was awful, spending years wondering why I needed to know anything math-related when all I wanted to do was be a history professor. When would I use math with that?

Aside: If I had known then that I would end up working as an administrative assistant for a couple of years before transitioning into training, and would need to use Excel daily for all sorts of tasks, I might have been more inclined to try harder in math class. You see, the dream of becoming a history professor needed to go on the shelf for a while. Perhaps when I retire from teaching English I will work on that goal.

The point is, we did not get to hear the teacher expound upon the value of anything we were learning unless it was a higher-level class. For example, in “Philology and Linguistics,” Dr. Phillips would lecture about the beauty of investigating the history of the English language, and the development of language within human beings. Those classes were inspiring; each student left class in a deep intellectual fog. It was great, Dead Poets Society great.


I could use a few lectures from John Keating this year.

In other classes, we needed to infer that for ourselves. We did not even know that we needed to infer, frankly. Here’s a book. Read it. Love it. Learn it. Regurgitate its contents for the test. Move on.

Today, we teachers do talk about the importance of our subject area, and we definitely teach the importance of inference and implication. I will not speak for anyone else when I say I need to go further and have been trying to go further, but I don’t think I’ve done enough. I’m not John Keating or Dr. Phillips… yet.

Why Am I Not Like Dr. Phillips?

Time. I never have enough time. “Philology and Linguistics” was an elective, so he had all the time in the world to show us how important the ideas of the course were. There was no standardized test at the end. His teacher evaluation was not contingent upon test scores. (Dr. Phillips was a teacher god, so it did not matter what he did. He was just that good.)

Today, I am beholden to those dumb tests and to standards. While standards-based grading is great in theory, in reality it doesn’t work with all the other demands on teachers.

I also find myself in grade hell. I wish I could get rid of grades altogether and let students build portfolios of their progress instead. For the record, grades are poor motivation to learn anything except how to play the game of school. During this time, cheating has become more prevalent than ever, simply because grades mean more than learning and kids don’t have time to wonder. They are too busy trying to survive a terrible time.

What Aspects of the Hidden Curriculum Need to be Unhidden?

How about all of them? Why not just tell the kids everything? I promise you, they can handle it. They probably crave that information, to be honest.

Do you think students would be more engaged with the content if I said something like this to them at the beginning of the unit?

“We are going to work on a novel for the following reasons. First, to explore its themes, syntax, diction, [insert important elements here], but also to practice critical thinking skills and time management skills. With certain activities, I am stressing the importance of being prepared for class, too, because you’ll need to be prepared for activities for the rest of your life if you want to have a prosperous future. I am going to ask you to take risks while we work on this novel, during which you might even fail. Why? Well, failures are learning opportunities. If we spend our lives afraid of making mistakes, our growth is stunted. If we take risks and make mistakes, we learn and grow. Finally, we are practicing our collaborative and cooperative skills with activities related to this novel. It’s not all about the content, it’s also about the connections you can make from the study of the content to how to manage your life.”

What I should be saying to the kids.

Academic Skills

In the hidden curriculum, the messages sent to students about academic skills and priorities are embedded in what is taught and how it is taught. Another important consideration is what isn’t taught, but that is a subject for another post.

Teachers let their students know what they value through their teaching. For example, if assignments demand a certain level of self-responsibility and independent thinking, we are sending the message that we value the release of responsibility to students and their development of critical thinking and problem solving skills. We may not actually express that (although I don’t understand why not), but it’s true, nonetheless.

This school year, those of us fortunate enough to teach in tech-ready schools have been teaching many technology skills our students need to do well in school (and life) right now. I’m not sure how many teachers are explicitly making those connections for the students, therefore these skills could be part of the hidden curriculum. So many teachers are learning them while also teaching their established curriculum in a strange context. The technology training has been so light, but, again, that’s a subject for another rant…er, post.

That said, here are several examples.

  • We stress digital citizenship as students practice discussion posts.
  • We practice different time management techniques using calendar software.
  • The LMS itself reinforces navigation and search skills that apply to most complex sites these days.
  • Collaboration software, like digital whiteboards and shared documents, help students hone those digital cooperative skills that will lead to success in later years.

When we tell the kids what’s going on, take the mystery out of it, it’s my contention we serve them better. During this crisis, they need that information to re-engage with school, to understand its purpose during a time in which more practical matters seem more important.

Socialization Skills

In the classroom-before-COVID, socialization skills were embedded in lessons, too. Teachers and students enjoyed the time together, working through problems, collaborating in small groups, doing think-pair-share activities, building word walls together, acting out scenes from Shakespeare, figuring out science labs with a partner, and yes – having that time before the second bell to talk.

Then, COVID-19 came along and many of us went home. Those of us who remained had to keep six feet apart and face in the same direction. Masks obscured facial expressions. Until we got used to the masks, it was difficult to understand people when they talked.

Some teachers experimented with breakout rooms online as a way to develop the rapport that group work used to support. For a little while, that worked in my room. However, it stopped working as more students went into isolation mode, and then we went to a fully-remote model during which breakout rooms just did not seem to work anymore. That was my experience; I’m sure other teachers have found great success. I want to figure out how to build that rapport again while students and I share a virtual classroom, not a physical one. I have ideas.

Many reports have indicated students’ overall socialization skills have degraded or not developed sufficiently this school year. Some children have even regressed in their toileting and have gone back to diapers. More children are spending too much time in bed, not showering or changing their clothes for days. Due to despair, suicide rates have increased, as have reports of domestic and drug abuse.

Some students’ eating habits and exercise habits have changed. They are eating more convenience food and leading more sedentary lifestyles. Obesity rates among young people are up as a result. It’s not their fault. There’s nowhere to go. There’s no recess. Gym class is modified for the COVID-19 era. Athletics is limited. Even being able to walk from class to class daily has ended for most.

We can, and should, address all aspects of the hidden curriculum related to these issues. We could reimagine the curriculum to explicitly address socialization and mental health issues in the time of COVID. Perhaps our content needs to change. Here are some ideas.

  • Our gym classes have been modified to include walking at least 5,000 steps a day. I love this; it’s brilliant. We need more of that.
  • A teacher I met recently, who teaches French, has emphasized getting out of the house and exercising by taking videos of herself on a rail trail and in other places. She explains what she sees and what she is thinking about, in French, at least once a week. She invites the students to explore the same space and to think about what she said during the video. They can even play the video and listen to the audio while they walk, if they have the proper technology.
  • Make virtual breakout rooms work with more explicit directions about how to be successful. Encourage them to take risks, like turning on their microphone and webcam. Many students are still hesitant about doing that. However, turning on the webcam may help get the kids out of bed and into the shower before school each day.
  • Provide students more opportunities to complete assignments using paper and pen/pencil, to get their eyes off the screen for a while. Let them be creative, use colored pencils (or pens, or watercolors), doodle, and receive the credit they deserve for thinking critically and creatively about something.
  • Let students wonder and consider by providing longer-term assignments that afford them more time and the chance to practice time management, like creating a schedule for those assignments.
  • Use software like FlipGrid so students can record themselves tackling the content. This particular idea terrifies me because I would hate it and I think many of my students would as well, but I just mentioned risk-taking, so here it is.

Other Issues


Attendance has been a concern throughout this pandemic. Often, it’s not the child’s fault. Instead, poor attendance can be blamed on various factors, including poor technological resources, the need to help support the family by helping younger siblings or by getting a job, illness within the family that requires the child’s attention, mental health crises, and the list goes on from there. Our need for physical and emotional security will always supercede other pursuits.

That said, there are students who have completely “checked out.” Every year, teachers deal with senioritis, but this year, senioritis has extended across most grade levels. Some are frustrated by remote learning, and those tales are heartbreaking. They give up. Others find learning from home too distracting. Those who have worked from home can relate. I learned recently that there are students who sign in and go back to sleep. It’s too comfortable at home, no matter what guidance we provide about how to set up for remote learning.

Participation Concerns

Following on attendance is the concern about participation in the remote classroom. Those students who sign in and go back to sleep are not participating, obviously. There are others, though, who aren’t participating even though they are present and awake. In the distant past, we chuckled about the black hole into which our classes have fallen at times, or how it’s like a seance, but it became a serious concern shortly after that. In in-person classrooms, we can reach more students through proximity. I’m still wondering how we can do that in the remote classroom in a more effective manner.

Do you have other ideas? I would love to hear from you.

Thank you for reading this post.


“How do I teach now?” – Lessons from the Classroom after an Insurrection

On January 6, 2021, I was working with a student during office hours when my husband came into the dining room to tell me that people had stormed the U.S. Capitol. My mouth dropped open. My student’s mouth dropped open. After my husband apologized for interrupting the meeting, he went back downstairs to his office to watch the incident unfold live. Once my schoolday was finished, I joined him. I missed about an hour of what was happening, but I have since watched many videos that frighten me sufficiently.

Later that evening, I checked Facebook. A fellow teacher had posted, “How do we teach now?”

The responses indicated the resilience and commitment of teachers across this country. Lesson plan after lesson plan was posted by hundreds of teachers. Each focused on truthful and/or positive aspects of this country; none had a focus on violence or rebellion. I chose to do the following with two of my classes.

AP® Lit: “America” by Claude McKay

Thank you, Poetry Foundation

In AP® Literature and Composition, the plan was to write an essay on a sonnet “For That He Looked Not Upon Her,” by George Gascoigne. With what happened the day before, on 1/7, the plan changed to feature Claude McKay’s sonnet, “America.”

I explained to the students: “Yesterday, something happened in the U.S. Capitol that rocked me to the core. We were going to work with a sonnet written by a contemporary of Shakespeare, but now we are going to use a sonnet written about America. Any objections?”

Hearing none, we proceeded.

I chose this poem to illustrate the complicated and complex feelings that many have about this country, this “cultured hell.” It gave me a chance to talk about the Harlem Renaissance, too, and how the artists, musicians, and writers of that movement demonstrated to everyone that Americans are resilient, beautiful, brilliant, and determined.

The turn of the sonnet describes how the speaker assures the reader that although the nation has fed him “bread of bitterness,” sunk “her tiger’s tooth” into his neck, and overwhelmed him with her power, he is not afraid. He stands up to her “cultured hell” as a rebel would face a king. The turn shows us that the speaker is a persistent individual with foresight, one who knows truth.

The last four lines, however, were those I hoped the students would pick up on. My interpretation: If we continue – as a country – along the path we are on, we are in big trouble. The sonnet was written almost 100 years ago, but the message resonates today: We must be vigilant, protect the American Experiment, strive toward improvement of life for all, and not be fearful of those who would prefer the United States fail, even those within our borders.

The students’ responses blew me away. I’m so proud.

Creative Writing: Langston and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In Creative Writing, I developed a final project for which students create a story from a poem. As a sample, I created a draft using “Harlem,” by Langston Hughes as its foundation. A line from this poem provided the title for the play A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, which I had been working on with another English class. Therefore, the poem was on my mind. We had just finished reading “I Have a Dream” in that other class, so it just seemed natural to me to have Langston pay MLK a visit in August, 1963, before the March on Washington.

On 1/7, I introduced the students to their final project. I presented my draft to them and read a bit of it. This time, I did not tell the students that 1/6 rocked me to the core. Instead, I focused on the Civil Rights Movement and, again, the Harlem Renaissance. Several of the poems I provided for the students to pick from were from diverse voices, too, and the students have gravitated toward them, especially “Perhaps the World Ends Here,” by Joy Harjo, our nation’s first Native American Poet Laureate.

My message: Our nation is beautiful. Our nation is resilient. Our citizens are brilliant. We will overcome challenges to the American Experiment.

I look forward to seeing what they come up with.

Other Classes

I have a few other classes, and they wanted to talk about 1/6. I did my best to explain how I, as a citizen and an American, had thought I was witnessing the end of our country while I watched “priceless treasures” manhandled and listened to chants threatening the lives of long-time public servants. Until such time as the Capitol was cleared and secured, I worried that Congress would be overrun. I was mourning those who had died in the insurrection, also.

They were somber conversations, but also truly focused on the feelings we have about 1/6 as Americans. Forget partisanship, put aside differences of opinion, and think about how close we came to not having a country anymore.

My Secret Hope

Well, it won’t be much of a secret when this is published, but my secret hope is that these future leaders will reaffirm their commitment to a nation once a beacon of hope and a leader among those who espoused or aspired to democracy. There needs to be, just as every sonnet needs a turn, a turn toward something brighter and beautiful. We need a Renaissance.

Will my “kids” lead us there?

What a Semester!

Semester One of 2020–2021 is either over or almost over. How are you feeling?

Back in September, I created a post asking when we would get used to this new normal. When I wrote it, I thought that surely, by December, our new routines would no longer be strange, and we would all feel better about this way of teaching and learning. At the time, I was teaching in a hybrid scenario. Today marks day 22 of fully-remote learning, round two. It still does not feel comfortable.

It’s Not All Bad

It is better in some ways. For example, I don’t have to deal with the dreaded robotic camera because I am not in school. That is a plus! Next time around, I would recommend making a better investment: Buy every student a printer, ink, and a couple of reams of paper. If students could print materials, they could take their eyes off the screen for a while, which would help many students who — like their teachers — are suffering from eye strain.

The iPad that comes with the dreaded robotic camera could be useful, but I felt odd taking it home without a protective case, so it stayed in school.

Another Plus: A Chance to Reinvent My Delivery

Instead of using that little iPad, I use my iPad Pro as a digital document camera. I can share my iPad to the Google Meet, and with an app called Good Notes, I can bring images and PDFs to the iPad and annotate them live. That has been very helpful. My son showed me how he was using his iPad to annotate the lecture notes his professors shared with him, and that was all I needed to give it a try.

I had forgotten how much the very acts of doodling, circling words and phrases, and annotating texts support my thinking process. Reflecting on my metacognitive strategies, I can say that this addition to my teaching toolbox is significant.

Writing Newsletters Again

When I was in the corporate space, training adults to use software, I wrote newsletters to the staff with announcements, words of encouragement, and “Did you know?” sections. It was quite enjoyable. Now, I write newsletters for students and families.

Included in the newsletters are sections that instruct students and families on how to use our LMS to check their grades, send messages, and monitor their calendars for assignments — among other things. The meeting codes for conferences have featured prominently, as well as the high school bell schedule. I also offer words of encouragement and emphasize communication.

Finally, I usually embed an Easter egg in the newsletter that links to a Google form. Lately, this form has included a quiz they can take to receive extra credit points based on their score. It’s like sending a gift each time I do it.

For me, the newsletters have helped with lesson and unit planning as well. It’s a chance to reflect on what has been and what’s to come. Yet another metacognitive moment! Nice.

Still Needed: New Ways to Communicate in Real-Time

Students at the secondary level had little experience being self-directed before we ended up here. Therefore, they may not know how to plan, and they may not feel comfortable advocating for themselves. Many give up due to being overwhelmed. Trying to reach them seems near impossible.

The other day, a student sent me a photo of her screen so I could “diagnose” an issue she had with a site we have to use for career exploration. I saw her unread email count: 191. Holy moly. Talk about being overwhelmed.

In the business world, whole seminars are devoted to controlling email. Although we aren’t in the business world, this is a crossover topic that we should consider spending time on (a newsletter topic!). How many emails are students receiving a day? With seven classes, possibly eight, there could be up to 10 emails a day.

How else do we communicate with them, though? If we teachers were to call each student every time we needed to share information with them, we would never get off the phone. Should we ask them to install another app like Remind on their phone? What about those students who do not have a phone?

Because my district is a 1:1 district, I’m back to email. (You know, this happens a lot: I write myself into a new topic. Yet again, I am reminded of my metacognitive processes. Hooray!)

Happy Holidays to You and Yours

I hope everyone has a joyful, marvelous holiday. I hope you have a chance to unwind, relax, and enjoy one another. Happy holidays.

Image Credit: Photo by Artem Podrez on Pexels.com

I Don’t Play the Game of School.

I recommend, respectfully, that you don’t either.

My classes are chock-full of competitive students. Some are competitive with academics, and some are competitive regarding sports or extracurricular activities. Either way, grades determine their future. I also have students who really want an education, and I will address them in this essay, too.

For some, good grades fulfill a short term goal. These students are motivated to perform well because they want to do what they love doing. Good grades allow them that opportunity.

“Will I be eligible to play this week?”

– Question from a student who wanted to play in the “big game.”

“Will I get into that college I want to attend? Will I get a scholarship to go there? How can I ‘beat’ the others?”

– Questions that dominate the competitive high-achiever’s mind.

For others, good grades help them to fulfill a longer-term goal. These students are motivated to maintain a 100 percent in a class. They take multiple weighted courses to gain a GPA advantage over everyone else.

The Problem with Extrinsic Motivation

Either way, the motivation is extrinsic, and that motivation tends to tower over any intrinsic motivation, casting its long shadow over any attempt to struggle with new information, make mistakes, and learn from them.

In my experience, extrinsic-motivation dominance leads to cheating. Students need a specific grade and are willing to go to great lengths to get it. That they have actually learned anything is irrelevant.

Extrinsic motivation’s dominance is evident in their work, as well. Some students are quite honest about it, which I respect. Still, the results of their efforts indicate there is one thing on their mind: Get the assignment done.

Yeah… that doesn’t work for me.

“What’s my grade if I don’t do that assignment that I haven’t done yet?”

– Question from a student who was asked about completing a missed assignment, followed by a shrug when I told her that she would still have a passing grade.

I show my students that it doesn’t work for me through their scores and responses to their (sometimes) infuriating questions. For example, I gave an assignment to a class to analyze a poem we had already probed thoroughly for meaning on one level. This time, I wanted them to identify and consider how the poet employed the literary devices in the poem as another way to interpret it. In other words, I was exposing them to interpretation from multiple entry points with several activities related to one poem.

A student dominated by extrinsic motivation asked me, “How many literary devices do we have to find?”

“Oh friend, you’re in AP® Lit. There’s no magical number! Find as many as you can. You’re not going to find this assignment on the Internet, either, by the way. You have to do this on your own, and you may struggle with it. If you don’t like that, perhaps you need to go into another class.”

– How I wanted to respond to this question. However, I took a deep breath.

“Find as many literary devices as you can. Demonstrate an understanding of the devices by finding them in this poem. We have already analyzed this poem for meaning thoroughly, so I want us to look at it in a different way, to try to glean even more meaning from it. There’s no magical number. This is AP® Lit; there’s no absolutely correct answer for anything.”

How I responded.

Again, I respect the honesty and appreciate the question, as I was given an opportunity to demonstrate why I teach. It’s still infuriating, but each time I try my best to show the students that I care more about their education than their GPA.

I live by a motto taught me by a sensei I used to train with: “The amateur practices until she gets it right. The professional practices until she can’t get it wrong.”

I have modified that motto over the years to apply to particular situations. For example, in this case, I am thinking, “The extrinsically-motivated student only works to the point in which the short-term goal is achieved. The intrinsically-motivated student recognizes how successfully completing one activity will help them achieve success with the next, thereby helping the student achieve their goal to become more educated.”

The Power of Intrinsic Motivation

That student who demonstrates intrinsic motivation, or a healthy balance of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation, is going to demonstrate a deeper understanding of what our collective goals are, also. They are also going to score just as well as the student who is churning out assignment after assignment and obviously gleaning nothing from it, even if their responses aren’t as polished as the student dominated by extrinsic motivation. They may even score higher! Why? Because I see the effort they are making. After a couple of weeks, I can tell which camp they are in.

“Hey, I actually like reading good literature, but I’m not that good at analyzing it. Still, I’m going to try, because I want to get as much from a text as I can.”

“I will do better over time because I understand that we are here to learn, not to be perfect all the time.”

– What I imagine intrinsically-motivated students are thinking.

The intrinsically-motivated, or balanced, student may make more “mistakes” but demonstrates a willingness to learn from them. This student understands an important purpose of education — namely, to improve oneself — and that mistakes are an opportunity to improve.

The extrinsically-motivated student understands how to play school. It’s a grade game, and they are playing it, even if they have to cheat. They aren’t learning much, I’m afraid. They are also in for a rude awakening when they get to college. It’s my mission to help them understand that.

You see, my classes are not only about literature; they are designed to teach life skills the students can adopt and take with them. I demonstrate what I value: hard work, developing routines, critical thinking, metacognition, and active listening. I model those behaviors for the students explicitly. At times, I tell stories to explain why I feel the way I do.

I’ve told my students about teachers who gave up on me. I struggle with math, you see. My fifth grade teacher actually told me it was a waste of her time to try helping me anymore. My geometry teacher told me the same thing. It was not until I was in trigonometry that I had a math teacher who did not give up on me. I earned a B+ in that class, and she wrote in my yearbook that I would make a great math teacher.

“I’m sorry, what?” I asked, pointing to what she wrote. She explained to me that since I’ve experienced the struggle and come out the other side, I could help my students through to the other side too.

I struggled with chemistry as well. In that case, my teacher did not give up on me either. She and I ate lunch together for months until I understood what was going on in class. In the end, I earned an A+ in that class.

“I will never give up on you,” I’ve told my students. If that means not playing the game of school, so be it.

Building Community with Breakout Bell-Ringers

AKA – Breakout Bell-Ringers, Part II

Last week’s article was about a plan for a new type of bell-ringer assignment called “Breakout Bell-Ringers.” In that article, I detailed how I was going to implement the idea in one class. This week’s article reveals the result of the experiment.


Let’s start on Friday, because that was the day I asked the students if they wanted to continue using breakout bell-ringers or if they wanted to return to the other type of assignment. It was a pleasant surprise to realize that 90% of the students were interested in continuing the experiment. That meant I had a lot of work to do over the weekend developing the next slide deck! Wait until they see it. It combines vocabulary instruction with poetry.


On Thursday, the students completed a self-assessment using a rubric for Harkness Discussions that I found on Katherine Cadwell’s site. This assessment was for survey purposes only, and I stressed with the students that they should be as honest with themselves as possible.

The responses were honest. Almost every student either acknowledged a need for improvement, or explained in detail why they thought they were successful. While reviewing the responses, something struck me. While many high-achieving students look for affirmation from their teacher, none of the students did in this assessment. They were focused on evaluating themselves. Even though I had supported this idea by saying, “The only way you will improve is to completely honest with yourself,” before the assessment opened, I did expect some kids to write something that sounded like they were seeking some encouragement from me. Instead, they promised themselves to do better the next time. That isn’t a testament to my teaching. That is a testament to their maturity.


On Wednesday, I noticed that the groups seemed to be in a rhythm already. Even before I opened the breakout rooms, students had the slide deck open and were collaborating. I didn’t open the breakout rooms until the second bell sounded so that everyone was in the main conference and could go into their breakout room simultaneously. By Wednesday, the students were taking full advantage of those few minutes reserved for travel time to complete their task for the day.

Note that this was only the second day of breakout bell-ringers, so I find that pretty impressive.


The first day was, of course, a little awkward. Some students did not know fellow group members, but leaders emerged in a couple of groups and took over coordinating the discussion. According to one response to the self-assessment, the group leader for this student’s group used prompting to help the other students contribute. It seemed natural, this student said. The leader came up with a topic sentence, a riff if you will, and then the rest of the group riffed off of that.

I like that word: riff. I know it is used in music a lot, but isn’t a conversation sort of like a series of jazz solos where each musician takes his or her turn, sharing brilliant notes with the world based on a central phrase that supports them all?

I noticed that the two groups were already forming well. During a debrief with the class after this first assignment, I made note of how these groups were forming. On Wednesday, the other groups attempted to work together similarly.

It Worked!

The students were successful. They had the opportunity to meet and collaborate with other students. Hopefully, the sense of social isolation for some was lessened somewhat. Hopefully, we are becoming a team of teams.

We are building a community, one short assignment at a time.

I would love to read your comments or answer any questions you may have. Thank you for reading.