Making it work in Tough Times: Distance Learning & Workshop

Well, this certainly isn’t the way I envisioned my first year of diving into workshop ending up. Our COVID-19 building closure came suddenly and left us scrambling to roll out distance learning quickly. We had one PD day to come together, agree on expectations and plan our next three weeks. The next day, we were teaching our students remotely. It was a whirlwind.

All that feels like a lifetime ago, when in reality it has been “just” 4 weeks. We’ve wrapped up 3 weeks of distance learning and are on our last day of spring break today. It’s only April 10th, and as of now, we are doing distance learning until at least May 4th, but I think we all know that this will likely go on through the end of the school year.

So, what does this mean for my classes? For the first 3 weeks, I kept the basic structures in place and just slowed my pace to a crawl. We had quick writes about twice per week and writing mini-lessons about twice per week. I assigned a video check-in on Flipgrid and we started working on our theme analysis essays. Since we were no longer reading together in class, and many students did not have books, I reduced independent reading expectations from 2 hours to 1 hour. We were approaching the end of 3rd quarter, so I had students continue adding 5 vocab entries to their personal dictionaries each week.

By the time we made it to the end of our third week and the start of our spring break, I was weeks behind in grading and completely overwhelmed. I’ve talked here about my anxiety before; I’ve never felt so anxious in my life! I was doing everything I could to maintain the relationships I’d spent all year cultivating. That meant writing individual responses to each student. With 120 students, it was too much! But, it felt (and still feels) extremely important. I realized that what I wanted and needed to do was not provide less personalized responses. I needed to have less work coming in to respond to.

One factor I haven’t mentioned yet that I’m sure many of you can relate to is the other type of distance learning: that of my kids. I have three school-aged children, ranging from 1st through 6th grade, and they have a good deal of work to complete each day. My oldest struggles mightily with executive function skills, so I have to help him make a plan for each day and then stick with it. My youngest is in first grade and all of her work is on an iPad. She is fairly independent and self-directed but still runs into issues and immediately starts whining when she does. And my middlest (as we affectionately refer to him) is getting extremely overwhelmed and anxious by the quantity of assignments he sees in his portal each day. He has meltdown after meltdown. Yesterday he spent the whole day on one relatively short test that would have been quite easy for him on paper. On the chromebook, however, it literally took him hours, with many breaks to scream, cry, whine and just generally feel miserable.

So… I’m busy. I’m frustrated. I’m overwhelmed. This week I realized that this isn’t working. Not for me, not for my students, not for my kids. I emailed my amazing principal and instructional coach and told them as much. I outlined a plan to go forward. They were both incredibly understanding and reasonable. This shouldn’t surprise me, because they are excellent leaders. But I think my anxiety got the best of me and I was convinced they would think I was a whiny, terrible teacher.

I did not intend for this post to be this long. So here is my back to basics, super super basic plan. Until distance learning is over, we will have exactly two assignments each week:

  1. Quick Writes/Journals
    Students will complete three journal entries each week. They should total a minimum of 1.5 pages double spaced.
  2. Independent Reading
    We will continue to read 1 hour per week. I have provided a list of digital reading resources for students who have finished their books.

My wonderful school leaders, recognizing that we launched quickly and need time to think, adjust, and regroup, have added 3 PD days on to the end of spring break. So I won’t “see” my students again until next Thursday. To re-launch my course following my new plan, I went all the way back to day one and wrote them another letter outlining how I’m feeling and what I want for them.

I put together this presentation, which I will use to record a video where I read my letter aloud and explain these changes to my students.

I came up with these suggestions to help students plan out their week and manage their time.

I’ve been trying to remind myself and my students that this is one moment in time. It feels enormous now, because it is, but someday it will be just a memory. We will get through this. So I’ll end with the same reminder I’ve been sharing with my students each day:

We can do this!

How are you holding up in all of this? What are you doing for distance learning?

5 thoughts on “Making it work in Tough Times: Distance Learning & Workshop”

  1. This is fantastic, Jen. Do you have any fixed online video time with them? Like an actual “class time”? Do you actually give them time on the screen with you do write, journal, etc? Do you do your reading together?

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    1. Thank you, Chris. These are good questions! So far we haven’t had any synchronous classes. I’ve had 2 optional Zoom office hours. Of my 96 sophomores I had 12 in one and 6 in the other. I do like this idea, and while I don’t think I can do mandatory synchronous classes, I do think I’ll do more frequent zoom sessions and set them up to be writing or even reading time.

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