Professional learning is in a constant state of transformation due to an ever-changing educational landscape. Great educators are finding innovative ways to learn and connect with others in order to expand a repertoire of their possible selves. They are bridging the distance and shattering the walls of isolation by way of various technological platforms; no matter what time zone or part of the world they live in, they can instantly be in the same virtual learning space; all they have to do is have the desire and intrinsic motivation to want to learn from others, be open to new and better ideas, be interested in finding out what they don’t know, and seek out the perspectives and voices of others.
A Global Learning Experience
Recently, global educator Naomi Toland, founder of #Empathetic_Educators seamlessly brought great educators together from around the world by creating 12 hours of LIVE professional learning during the 1st #EEConQuest event. Sessions were facilitated by educators who shared their expertise about a wide range of topics and engaged in meaningful dialogue. The trend in all of the conversations over the course of the day was clear: Educators are looking to expand their impact and influence over the most precious stakeholders in education – their learners.
I had the privilege and opportunity to co-host a Q & A with Naomi, featuring special guest John Hattie, Professor of Education and Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia. The magic of technology brought educators from 4 parts of the world including New York, Japan, Thailand, and Australia together in one space. As a result, this event stretched my thinking and invited new understandings into my approaches to teaching and learning.
Quotes that Ignite Discussion
I am grateful to be able to share a short clip and a collection of John Hattie quotes that emerged from our global conversation. Consider using them to pique curiosity, ignite discussion within your professional learning communities and beyond, and reflect on what it means to be a teacher AND learner:
Video quote to think about: “How do we stop looking for failure and trying to fix it and how do we instead look for success?”
#EEConQuest John Hattie Quotes to Ignite Discussion – CLICK HERE to print discussion card
Some Questions I’m Thinking About as a Result of this Conversation
How can we create learning spaces that encourage productive struggle and empower learners to be their own teachers? What resources can we continue to utilize to meet learners where they are, accurately assess their progress, make them aware of the standards, learning targets, and their personal learning goals? When can we create time and space to give learners ongoing, cyclical, relevant feedback to move their learning forward? How can we ensure that learners are processing the feedback educators provide, understand it thoroughly, and implement it in their everyday learning? How can school leaders create protected time for educators to come together to regularly reflect on the innovative practices they have learned over the past year and discuss how they plan on utilizing those practices in their physical spaces? What effects do poor grades on transcripts have on learners? How can we focus more on what learners can do and not what they can’t do? Are we making sure that there is active learning transpiring in our classrooms that leads to deeper learning and transfer? Are we utilizing the gradual release of responsibility at the right times?
Unlocking the Joy of Discovery
We cannot overlook the opportunities that have been afforded to us through technological advances. As we navigate a global society that is saturated with people who bring their personal experiences, knowledge, and curiosity to learning spaces, we recognize the value of powerful conversations. These are the conversations that unlock the joy of discovery and create learning zones that continually shape our identities, belief systems, and reveal new possibilities.
School districts who place an emphasis on valuing the teacher induction process understand that there is a huge return on investment for committing time, passion, and dedication to our newest teachers. In turn, this will develop social and professional capital, build teacher efficacy, and open learning portals of potential; these portals pave the way to growing solid educational foundations that influence the eternal impact on the most precious gifts in a school system, our students. The careful pairing of mentors and mentees is a critical component to ensuring that great teachers are retained and are destined to embark on long meaningful careers.
Bridging Knowing Gaps
Great school districts also recognize that new teachers come with their own unique gifts. It is an obligation to collectively work together to recognize and cultivate those areas of expertise so that those practices can be shared within their own educational communities and beyond! In the Mentor Program I facilitate in my school district, I always discuss that the partnership between the mentor and mentee is symbiotic in nature. Although veteran teachers have so much knowledge to impart on their mentees, the relationship is mutually beneficial as the mentor and mentee can both dedicate time to share their strengths, bridge generational lenses, and fill respective knowing gaps with fresh perspectives.
*Before exploring the Reverse Mentorship experience, it will be important to meet with your mentor/mentee pairs to explain what Reverse Mentorship is and why it can be valuable for the growth and development of educators within the organization. Having continuous follow-up meetings to reflect on the experience will be an important part of the process as you work to refine it over time so everyone involved can reach their maximum potential!Realistically, this pivot from the traditional mentorship approach may only take place in dedicated slots of time within the mentoring experience.
Thoughtful Pairings: The Mentor Coordinator can work with administrative team members who have a pulse on the organization to thoughtfully pair new teacher mentors with a veteran teacher who would be open to embarking on this unique experience of mentorship. In order to make sure the match is right there must be chemistry and genuine enthusiasm for leadership development. For Reverse Mentorship, you may consider pairing the new veteran teacher with someone who has different perspectives than their own.
Develop Norms: Consider finding a place to meet in a comfortable location and agree that your conversations will be confidential. If you are the mentee (in this case the more veteran educator), you may want to discuss what you plan to learn from the experience. For example, the senior teacher may inquire about how to better use technology to elevate their instructional practices or how to use digital portfolios to track student learning over time.
Share Stories: There are many facets to who we are as people. Being an educator is only one part of our life. Share who you are, what you have in common, your goals, hopes for the future and pivot toward talking about things that make you different from one another. Your stories will bind you as people, illuminate who you are at your core, and shed light on pieces of you that may be important for the other person to know.
Maintain Roles: In order to give Reverse Mentoring a real chance, try to remember that the newer staff member should be the one doing the mentoring in those specific conversations. Realistically, it may be an approach to take during dedicated slots of time. If this happens, remind one another that the senior staff member is there to receive the advice that is targeted towards the goals that were established when norms were developed. These are the moments where the newer teachers’ insights and contributions are highlighted in the conversation.
Revisit and Reflect: We know that education and learning is an infinite process. It is essential to make time for reflection. What are the key takeaways from each session? Use the time at the end, use follow-up emails, and/or send video reflection videos to one another with the progress that has transpired to meet the learning goals. Revise your course if needed!
Give Credit: In a traditional mentoring relationship, giving recognition to the mentor and mentee is valuable to the growth of both parties. In reverse mentorship, it is also important to give the senior teacher credit for taking risks, opening their minds to new ideas from the newer teacher, and disrupting the status quo. Furthermore, the newer staff member deserves credit for having the confidence to lead and share their expertise with the senior staff member. This is a win-win as both the mentor and mentee will feel valued!
The Benefits of Reverse Mentorship
Some of the benefits of exploring Reverse Mentoring are that organizations have an opportunity to build a strong culture of learning, develop leadership skills within new team members, close generational gaps, understand different perspectives, embrace inclusivity, enhance communication skills, and elevate the confidence of all stakeholders. Gordon closes her Ted Talk by sharing, “Forward thinking organizations use reverse mentoring as one of the tools to help them build a more inclusive environment and studies have shown that when organizations embrace reverse mentoring members of those underrepresented groups feel more confident sharing their perspectives.” We have an opportunity to leave a legacy within the organizations we live in by disrupting the status quo, touching people’s hearts, and empowering them to believe in themselves despite how long they have served in their roles.
Over the last year, every educator on the planet has learned a great deal about themselves, their students, and new ways to teach and implement instructional practices. During a global pandemic, they have graciously rolled up their sleeves, taken risks, and have connected with learners in innovative and meaningful ways. They have mined a variety of digital learning management systems, discovered new technological tools to elevate instruction, and have truly “showed up” for their students, colleagues, families, and communities! As the world shifts back to some sense of normalcy, educators across the country and beyond are beginning to reconnect with learners as they acclimate to the physical spaces they have always called home.
Challenges are Opportunities
During the most challenging times, educators have also found creative ways to rally learners, structure meaningful conversations, leverage intentional dialogue, and create a sense of psychological safety in their virtual and physical learning spaces. As educators and learners transition back to traditional learning environments, more than ever, it is recognized how the impact of human interaction can influence connection and elevate the social, emotional, and academic growth of students. Educators will continuously look for ways to create purposeful learning opportunities that strengthen relationships, cultivate connection, and manifest greatness within every learner they encounter. Life’s unexpected challenges are windows of opportunities waiting to be explored. That being said, “How can educators foster meaningful communication, reconnect with learners and create spaces where students experience deep, meaningful learning?” For me, dialogue journals have been a powerful way to tap into my students’ hearts, learn more about their passions and interests and monitor their learning in purposeful, intentional ways.
What Are Dialogue Journals?
Dialogue Journals are low stakes written conversations between two or more people. It is an authentic way to get every learner ‘talking’ regardless of their introverted or extroverted personality types. This experience holds all learners accountable to connect with peers and teachers, promote thinking and discussion about various content and topics. Additionally, learners build writing fluency and stamina by informally writing in note form more often about many topics with a partner or group. This practice supports the development of relationships and builds stronger connections between teachers and peers. Teachers can utilize literature, informational text, video, podcasts, illustrations, photographs, science phenomena and/or free writing prompts to get learners to actively participate in this process. Learners will start with a question, comment, and/or thought about the topic by including content knowledge and content-specific vocabulary. They will respond to one another and should keep the dialogue going. I call this fast and furious writing! This is when you write for a long period of time without stopping! Learners should not worry about grammar or spelling. They should be able to get all of their ideas out freely.
Benefits of Dialogue Journals
Builds connection and relationships between teacher to students and student to student.
Levels the playing field because all writers (teachers and students) are viewed as learners.
Fosters circles of psychological safety and trust within the classroom community.
Creates inclusive spaces where all learners voices and perspectives are heard in a written format.
Develops writing fluency and stamina since students are writing for a longer period of time during the back and forth conversation style writing.
Writers can respond to various print and digital content while they explore and show their knowledge about various content areas.
Formative Assessment: Although it’s not suggested that teachers grade dialogue journal writing as this can prevent writers from writing fast and furiously and develop the confidence to get their ideas out, teachers can notice trends in writing and plan instructional moves to use at another time (whole class, small group, one-to-one).
Teachers’ and other students’ writing becomes a mentor text for the students.
Teachers use this opportunity to provide on demand feedback and personalized instruction (i.e. a student is capitalizing proper nouns, using punctuation at the end of a sentence, adding details).
4 Ways to Spark Written Conversations with Dialogue Journals
Literature and Informational Text
Students can actively engage in reading, listening, and responding by utilizing a variety of diverse texts. Educators can use dialogue journals as an opportunity to read aloud or have the students independently read a plethora of novels, short stories, picture books, and articles that serve as launchpads for meaningful discussion. These written conversations about literature can evolve into talking more deeply about story elements such as character development, theme, setting, conflict, plot, and resolution. When writing about informational text, the conversations can develop around different topics in history or current events. Students may notice various text features and structures that help them make meaning of the text.
“A picture is worth a thousand words” is a common expression many of us are familiar with. Visual media allows learners to analyze the details in images, talk about them, make observations, inferences, and generate questions. These images tap into a range of historical information and allow learners to make comparisons with the present and describe historical changes. They can also take on the perspectives of people in the past and develop their own wonderings. This can lead to inquiry and researching various topics in history in groups or independently.
Short Video Clips
Video clips can be an engaging way to introduce new information, concepts, and often frame learning for students in a multi-model visual way. Videos are a great way to amplify and support understanding for all learners. Teachers will have to search video clips that are connected to students’ interests, pertinent themes, and topics that are relevant to the class. Video clips can be up to 7-10 minutes in length, but should not take too much time since the purpose of the clip is to inspire written conversation. Teachers can be selective as they want the video to make an impact and set the purpose for watching the video. Turn on closed captioning for learners too! This helps them access the digital content in a different way and invites them to read as they watch!
When embarking on this experience, it is important to ground choices in the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) because more than ever before, science education is central to our lives. Science literacy is critical to making sense of complex topics that affect our world. Science is at the heart of designing, innovating, and creating jobs for the future. Read here for more information on why Science Standards matter.
For a scientist, phenomena is an observable event (i.e. a fall/autumn day, slip/fall, organisms eating, seasonal patterns). By using phenomena, learners are motivated to use written conversation to explain a topic. The focus of learning shifts from learning about a topic to figuring out why or how something happens. The focus is not just on the phenomenon itself. It is the phenomenon plus the student-generated questions about the phenomenon that guides the written conversation.
Dialogue journals give every student an opportunity to make meaningful contributions in safe spaces, share their voice, and develop an empathetic lens when learning about different perspectives within their classroom and school communities. One-to-one written conversations are invitations to peel back layers of the heart and mind; they uncover beautiful personal stories learners are awaiting to be acknowledged and shared.
When you think back to your fondest memories of school, what experiences do you remember most? I am talking about memorable moments that have wrapped around your heart and hugged your soul. These memories are so vivid that when your thoughts wander back in time, you are the starring role in vibrant mind movies that leave you feeling incredible pride, joy, and gratitude for those opportunities. These memory moments have become part of the fabric of the person you’ve become and will continue to be on your course of life.
Snapshots in Time
For me, these snapshots in time are what made learning fun, creative, and applicable to real world interactions and experiences I’ve encountered. I can assure you that when my own children, students, and colleagues ask me about my favorite parts of my schooling timeline, it is not about the standards, assessments, skills, strategies, and/or particular lessons that were taught. It was the times I performed in the school musicals and dramas, participated in Battle of the Classes, and worked on passion projects I actually cared about. It was the educators who unlocked those moments that sparked my interests and ignited my passions. Those educators created personalized experiences that kept learners at the core of the work and viewed them as human beings first. The social interactions I had with peers illuminated the most relevant parts of learning. Together we laughed and navigated our way through successes and failures, sought solutions to conflicts, explored new ideas, and pushed our limits of learning, discovery, and growth.
Great Educators CAN Make a Difference
In order to make a difference in the lives of our learners, great educators must create experiences that tap into learners’ hearts so their minds are open to critically consuming information to create new and better things that are relevant to them and the real world. Meaningful learning sticks when great educators focus on the right things first! In Innovate Inside the Box, George Couros says, “We have to acknowledge that our students come to us with a unique mix of experiences, strengths, weaknesses, and passions…Our calling or task is to expose students to numerous pathways and provide them with the skills to be self-directed and goal-oriented so they can choose or create a path that allows their brilliance to shine” (p.32). I’ll admit, at the beginning of my career, I was so focused on delivering the curriculum that I rarely leveraged the moments where I could have listened more and developed deeper connections with my students to make learning matter. I always cared about them, but I thought that the primary way of showing it was by “covering the content” instead of making investments in their emotional deposit boxes and continuously giving them the choice and voice they deserved. In the book Personal and Authentic, Thomas Murray says, “Expecting children to walk through our doors and desire a “standard” model of education completely ignores the vast differences in interests, passions, and strengths of our learners. Providing opportunities, both small and large for these learners to explore areas that are meaningful to them recognizes who they are and reaffirms to them that they matter” (p. 107).
4 Fun Ways to Fire Up Learners
How can great educators create conditions that bring out the best attributes of every learner who enters the school buildings and classrooms they live in? I’ll tell you what has worked for me… fire them up and make them a part of the learning process! Empower them to listen, think, discuss, and choose the way they want to learn. Create opportunities where learners freely share their ideas, listen to others’ perspectives, and talk about what’s on their hearts and minds. Use those moments to influence their learning and plan instruction that’s tailored to their needs; give them the starring role in vibrant future mind movies that they can recall and later share with pride, joy, and gratitude! With that being said, I want to share what my students think are 4 fun ways to empower them and fire up the learning that transpires in classrooms! These are learning experiences that they request we revisit regularly:
Picture of the Day
I discovered Picture of the Day from Hello Literacy consultant Jen Jones many years ago. I have found that using pictures is a low stakes, meaningful, purposeful way to observe, think, promote critical discussion, and honor other perspectives about anything you choose! In author Ralph Fletcher’s recent keynote at the Spring Virtual Long Island Language Arts Council Conference on March 25, 2020, he discusses how the world of our learners is increasingly visual. Photos are a universal language that reveal emotions and tell stories about people’s lives. Photos can magically stop time and become a tool for inquiry. They also serve as mentor texts that can inspire learners to take their own photographs and document their own journey. When I introduce the picture of the day, I begin by selecting pictures that are of high interest, relevant to the unit of study I am teaching, and/or mirror the interests of the learners in my class. For example, if I am teaching story elements, I may showcase pictures with a variety of settings, people, conflicts, and resolutions; if I have learners who have a passion for sports, traveling, cooking, etc… I will share those photographs. The students are invited to make observations (list things that can see in the picture) and then make reasonable inferences (using the details from the picture and what they already know) to develop ideas and perspectives about the photo. My students are also encouraged to select their own photographs in the choice boards I will discuss below! Learners can think and respond about photographs in a multitude of ways (i.e. in a writer’s notebook, Google Doc/Slides, Jamboard). I have found that Picture of the Day has supported my learners in previewing and comprehending more complex informational text.
Choice boards are not only a great way to empower learners by giving them choice and voice in what and how they are going to learn, but it also provides meaningful balance between online and offline learning. I have found that providing learners with choice boards encourages intrinsic motivation and a more meaningful desire to learn, personalized instruction, and allows students to respond by using various print and digital competencies. This type of freedom guides learners towards independence. The choice boards I designed below were inspired by Catlin Tucker’s blog and self-paced course on blended learning. Each choice board includes skills/strategies that I have introduced in my own classroom. I revise the learning activities as I introduce new skills/strategies. Revising the options keeps learning fun and engaging! In the book Innovate Inside the Box, Couros states, “When students are empowered to choose how they can best demonstrate their knowledge and skills, they are able to see the relevance in learning the basics and how reading, writing, and math apply to their lives and are less likely to check out mentally” (pp. 62-63).
This is an authentic way to get students to informally write about any topic with a partner or group while supporting the development of relationships and building stronger connections with teachers and peers. Teachers can utilize literature, informational text, video, podcasts, and/or free writing prompts to get learners to participate in this process. Learners will start with a question, comment, or thought about the topic by including content knowledge and content-specific vocabulary. Learners respond to one another and should keep the dialogue going. I call this fast and furious writing! Learners should not worry about grammar or spelling. They should be able to get all of their ideas out freely. Dialogue journals are a low pressure way to tap into students’ interests and passions, to learn more about each other, develop writing fluency, stamina, and build confidence. Teachers can participate by sharing their own experiences through writing, by giving feedback to the learners and/or participate in the writing process.
There have been several opportunities for my learners to create inspiration boards that exemplify and illustrate who they are as people. Allowing them to utilize a digital space such as Google Slides, enabled them to express their creativity and illuminate their passions and interests by using quotes, words, phrases, colors, and images. These activities have helped me to initiate meaningful conversations with my students and have supported the development of future lessons that are relevant to their lives and the world. In Innovate Inside the Box, Couros says, “If we don’t understand the learners we serve, even the best ideas for teaching and learning will not be as effective if we don’t learn about our students and connect with them first” (pp.77-78). In the example below, shows how learners responded to the book Love by Matt De La Pena by creating a board about what Love means to them! See the slides for more information about P.S. I Love You Day (the impetus for this learning experience).
Educators have been afforded a magical opportunity to impact and influence the lives of every learner they encounter throughout their careers. There is no doubt in my mind that this is a tremendous responsibility that rests on the shoulders of every interaction and experience we shape on the journey. You see, education is not just a career, it’s a calling; it’s a chance to create memorable moments that touch hearts, inspire learners to dream, and provide them with purposeful supports as they manifest their hopes for the future. Educators have the power to create spaces of psychological safety and tap into the emotional drive that will propel learners towards success. They have the ability to leverage intentional dialogue in their environments, provide learners with equitable access to their education in meaningful ways, and establish a sincere set of values and beliefs they can continuously put into action. This is a belief system that will model high levels of integrity and commitment to those they serve. In the book Unlocking Unlimited Potential by Dr. Brandon Beck, he beautifully states, “It’s the ultimate goal of all educators to unlock the unlimited potential in all whom you serve… your purpose as an educator has to involve your belief that you can guide all students to understand their potential is unlimited” (pp. 6-7).
Moving Beyond Our Locus of Control
Amidst a global pandemic, educators have been faced with challenges that are beyond their locus of control. According to the article, Locus of Control and Your Life by Kendra Cherry, “Locus of control refers to the extent to which people feel that they have control over the events that influence their lives.” People who have an external locus of control don’t believe they can change despite their efforts. This has placed unsurmountable pressure on educators who prefer to be in control of all of their professional outcomes and may believe that they must cover all of the standards and content in order for learners to be successful. However, the article continues to say that people who have a strong internal locus of control have more confidence when they are faced with challenges and have a strong sense of self-efficacy to be flexible and embrace change while reimagining learning in the new educational landscape we are living in. This has made educators question how they are going to unleash the talents in every learner that enters their learning spaces. If we are asking learners to engage in various learning activities in physical and virtual spaces, take risks, and put forth effort while embracing the infinite mindset, shouldn’t educators be modeling the same actions?
Where Do We Invest Our Time?
That being said, there have been various barriers including a lack of continuity of instruction that have gotten in the way of the engagement and empowerment learners need to thrive. In the book Learner Centered Innovation: Spark Curiosity, Ignite Passion, and Unleash Genius by Katie Martin, she asks the following questions: “Why do some students willingly engage in academic tasks? What makes learners persist in challenging tasks? What compels learners to want to learn more and improve?” (p. 76). Martin goes on to talk about Camille Fallington’s deep research about creating cultures that develop mindsets for deeper learning to occur. “The following mindsets have been identified as critical to student motivation and willingness to persist in academically challenging work.
I belong in this community
I can succeed at this
My ability and competence grow with effort
My work has value to me
…As learners, teachers, and leaders, we must cultivate and model these mindsets too” (pp. 76-77). Throughout my teaching experiences, I have come to realize that before learners are able to feel empowered to engage in deep learning, educators must make an investment in the emotional deposit box by developing strong connections. In Unlocking Unlimited Potential, Dr. Beck brilliantly states, “It starts with educating students from the inside out in order to find the Sweet Spot” (p.48). So I ask, how can educators level up learning to create relevant, meaningful learning experiences that will leave an everlasting impact on the hearts and minds of the students they serve?
Here are 3 Ideas to Level Up Learning:
Stories are windows into our experiences. They are small moments etched into our memories. They are the ammunition that pushes us down the path of discovery. In an #InnovatorsMindset podcast, George Couros says “Stories are the fuel for innovation, they inspire us, they give us pertinent ideas, they get the work we are doing out to people in a really compelling way that goes beyond what a score could tell people about our students.” Beneath the façade of every human being lies personal, unique collections of stories that reveal reflections of who they are and who they want to be. How can we intentionally create spaces for learners to share how they view the world through stories?
WHO YOU ARE: Tell YOUR story and share the reason your journey led you to where you are in right now! We all come from various experiences that shape who we are. By sharing those experiences, you are showing learners that they have the power to write their own narratives and change their course as they evolve as human beings!
YOUR WHY/PURPOSE: There is nothing more powerful than telling your learners why you were placed in a position to teach them how to maximize their social, emotional and academic potential. Simon Sinek says, “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it…there are leaders and those that lead. We follow those who lead, not for them, but for ourselves. Those who start with their ‘Why’ have the ability to inspire those around them.” What we value and how we share “why” we value those things, changes the culture of the classroom/building.
PERSONAL AND STUDENT STORIES THAT CONNECT LEARNING: In Richard Gerver’s book Change, he notes that people can, “Use stories as tools to build momentum in others.” Sharing educator and student stories will inspire the learning community to have empathy and understanding for one another. Stories are real world examples that can breath meaning and life into learning. That authentic connection can give the content more meaning and motivate learners to see it’s value and build deeper understanding of the classroom community and curriculum.
According to the Miriam Webster Dictionary, one of the definitions of a bridge is, “a time, place, or means of connection or transition.” One of our critical roles as educators is to help learners build bridges that connect the heart to the mind. Throughout this journey, we are learning and thinking partners who provide the right scaffolds that help learners walk across the bridge with intention and purpose and grasp the new learning that exists on the other side. However, it’s the actual process of walking on the bridge, the productive struggle; those moments where as educators, we get to say, “I’m here for you, I care about you, and let’s have fun while doing it!” that will nurture the heart and make it easier for learners to open their minds.
ASKING QUESTIONS: When beginning a class in virtual and/or physical spaces, I have found that asking questions to launch a lesson and/or embedding them over the course of the day will set a positive tone for learning. I have asked questions as simple as “If you can eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be and why? Who is someone that has been an inspiration to you and why? What are the 3 most important things in your life, why?” I also love “Would You Rather” questions such as “Would you rather be invisible or fly, why? Would you rather be Batman or Spider-Man, why? Would you rather fly around the world for free for the rest of your life or eat at any restaurant you want for free?” Learners can respond orally, in the live chat, or in a digital tool such as Google Jamboard or Mentimeter. These questions are fun way to connect and the classroom community gets to learn more about one another.
SHARING FEELINGS: A critcal part of being an educator is checking in on your learners emotional state. It is an opportunity to “read the room” and see where learners hearts and minds are during their time with you. In Unlocking Unlimited Potential, Dr. Beck states, “,,,it should be the unspoken truth in all schools that understanding your students’ emotions first and foremost is at the forefront of everything you do” (p. 49). He goes on to say, “Students are not robots programmed with all of the same software, they have many different dimensions and unique identities. Not providing SEL opportunities consistently is equivalent to trying to fly a plane without an engine. You aren’t going anywhere fast” (p. 51). It is a good idea to provide learners with emotional language to support them in expressing their feelings.
MUSIC/DANCING: One of the best parts of the day is when I incorporate music and dancing into learning. Sometimes it is music that I choose and other times I let my learners be the DJ. Moving and listening to music creates a fun, light-hearted space. This opens learners up to tackling the skills and strategies that will be taught that day. In a CNN article by Kelly Wallace, titled Move over, ‘sit still’! Why kids need to move in school, Dr. John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says “When you move, you stimulate all the nerve cells that we use to think with, and when you stimulate those nerve cells, it gets them ready to do stuff.”
CULTIVATE CONNECTIONS: The heart of teaching and learning is rooted in the connections and relationships we develop with the learners we are lucky enough to serve. Cultivating strong relationships, understanding the learners’ strengths and areas for growth, tapping into their passions and interests, and providing equitable access to the curriculum for ALL learners are cornerstones to any worthwhile educational journey. In a recent Equity in Education Panel at #NCTIES2021, Sean Gaillard shared his working definition of equity, “Limitless opportunities for all-ALL the time…it’s relentless, it’s sustainable.” Without truly caring about the social-emotional well-being of every student, learning will not be as productive or meaningful. If we want to see the positive, lasting impact we are hoping for, we have to make it our obligation to get to know all learners as human beings first and give them what they need to thrive.
LEARNING SURVEYS: I created a Google Form Learning Survey for both learners and their families inspired by Catlin Tucker. I used similar questions for both because it was important for me to get to know the learners in my classes from both perspectives. This was also a way for me to introduce Google Forms as I have used this digital tool in a multitude of ways. I embedded a welcome video for the families right into the form so they can learn why filling out this form was important to me. This was also a way for me to connect with them, show who I am and what I value as an educator. My learners complete this survey 3x a year so that I can see how their thinking has evolved.
5-MINUTE MEETINGS: I schedule five-minute meetings with all of my learners. This idea was inspired by Dr. Mary Hemphill’s book The One Minute Meeting: Creating Student Stakeholders in Schools. The idea of these meetings is to check-in with my students, learn more about them as human beings, and then utilize the information to elevate their emotional literacy. There are three simple questions to ask:How are you today? What is your greatest celebration? What challenges have you had recently? After asking those simple, open-ended questions and having those personal conversations with each learner, I feel even more connected to each one of them. I now have a deeper understanding of what is happening in their world. Some had really cheerful, positive stories to share, while others were expressing that they are going through challenging times. The responses were collected in Google Forms. This qualitative data is used to drive planning and instruction.
1:1 CONFERENCES: 1:1 conferencing is a key ingredient to having learners practice, improve, and elevate learning. This sacred time spent with students can be messy as the learner guides the direction the conference will take. In turn, the teacher should be able to notice and name a learner’s strengths and areas for growth and adjust the direction and goals of the conference accordingly. In a conference, the teacher and student are both learners, except, the student is doing most of the work while the teacher coaches in and offers thinking prompts to lift the level of the work. In virtual spaces, these vital interactions take place in Zoom or Meet breakout rooms. This is a more personalized space to connect, interact, and personalize learning. Katie Martin confirms this in her blog titled, To Engage Students, Focus on Connection Over Content, “Scheduling time with each student to connect, learn more about their circumstances, their goals, and ideas, created a different dynamic that built empathy and allowed for more personalization and meaningful connection.
Have you ever experienced moments of wonder? To me, it’s a moment when the world stops around you and you are walking towards a path of discovery. It’s that moment when you see or hear something that pauses your heartbeat and stretches your mind. It’s that moment that clouds extraneous noise and magnifies the awe and curiosity within. It’s that moment that causes you to step back, observe, listen, and create roadways and bridges to new learning. Recently, I had been hoping for another moment of wonder. But, I know that life just doesn’t work like that. Through my experience, moments of wonder happen when we least expect them. They happen when we are living our lives with passion and purpose; if we are open, flexible, and willing, we can stumble upon those moments and appreciate their value.
Learning About Liveware Recently, I experienced a moment of wonder when I decided to listen to Brené Brown’s podcast, Unlocking Us with special guest David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and New York Times best-selling author. From the moment he started talking, I was captivated by how relatable he is. I was enthralled by the way he eloquently and simply described the human brain and its functions. He has the natural ability to communicate in a way that resonates with people who are not living in his world. He paves a path to do the important work of studying the brain and then shares the information with people who are not in the medical field. He describes the brain as liveware; all of its experiences reshape the brain. “It’s a living, dynamic, electric fabric that is constantly changing.” Every time we take in new information and are evolving as people, our malleable brain is perpetually reconfiguring. While listening to this podcast, I immediately added Eagleman’s new book Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain to my Amazon cart. Another moment of wonder is when I began reading his book. One quote that struck me was, “As we grow, we constantly rewrite our brain’s circuitry to tackle challenges, leverage opportunities, and understand the social structures around us” (p.3).
A Connection to Education
After reading just a few paragraphs of this blog, your brain has already changed. At the end of chapter 1 in Livewired, Eagleman says, “Just a handful of pages into this book, your brain has already changed: these symbols on the page have orchestrated millions of tiny changes across the vast seas of your neural connections, crafting you into someone just slightly different than you were at the beginning of the chapter” (p.16). This moment of wonder catapulted me into a state of reflection about the current state of the educational landscape we are living in. Here is a moment of wonder: If our brains are changing by reading a few paragraphs of a blog, then how much have they metamorphosed since the beginning of a global pandemic? When people ask me if teaching in virtual and physical spaces simultaneously is hard, my answer remains constant: Yes it is hard, yes it is challenging, and yes, the educators who are living this, well their cognitive capacity is being stretched beyond what anyone could have ever imagined. Another moment of wonder … when I realized I have learned more about teaching and learning in the last 9 months than I have learned in my 15 years in education while putting the learner at the heart of decision making, responding to what they need to know, thinking about how they should get there, and figuring out ways to track their learning. And since technology is second to the learner, then I incorporate digital tools to support the process. I have tested my limits in multiple ways and have perseverated over what I can do better. These moments of wonder made me realize that you can learn and achieve anything you want to if you embrace flexible intelligence, the willingness to collect the important details and create experiences that make the learning process worthwhile. Have you ever experienced a moment of wonder? To me, it’s a vessel of curiosity and awe. It’s the way we perceive the world and take in information. It’s that moment when you realize that there is so much more to know and learn. Moments of wonder are spaces and time that question our beliefs, who we are, and push us to places that make us better versions of ourselves.
Stories are windows into the soul. They are hidden treasures that are buried beneath a sea of hopes, wishes, dreams. They are small moments of time that pass you by. They are memories that enrapture your heart and wrap around your spirit. They are the hidden paths to who we are and what we will become. Every piece of who we are, are invisible stories strung together and concealed by our external being. There are moments in time where our masked stories are unearthed amidst the creation of the new versions of ourselves. Stories bind us to people; they are entry points to connection, collaboration, conversation, and contact. Our stories are a learning journey, our core identity, they are a reflection of our values and what we stand for. What if we do not like the way a story is unfolding in our lives? Did you know that we have the divine power to choose our own? What can we intentionally do to shift the narratives we are creating and write the stories we want to be a part of?
Stories are windows into our experiences. They are small moments etched into our memories. They are the ammunition that pushes us down the path of discovery. They live in mind memory boxes waiting to be courageously unwrapped and gifted to people who use them to discover ideas and recognize their own passions. In a recent #InnovatorsMindset podcast, George Couros brilliantly says “Stories are the fuel for innovation, they inspire us, they give us pertinent ideas, they get the work we are doing out to people in a really compelling way that goes beyond what a score could tell people about our students.” Beneath the facade of every human being lies personal, unique collections of stories that reveal reflections of who they are and who they want to be. How can we intentionally create spaces for learners to share how they view the world through stories?
Layering Stories into Learning
Here is a simple and authentic formula to consider following when thinking about how a classroom community can intentionally embed stories into their learning lives:
Personalize – The teacher links a personal story to learning by saying.
I was thinking about…
I remember when…
Let me tell you a story…
Connect- Learners connect their own stories to a learning experience.
This is making me think…
I’m realizing that…
Share: Learners share connections with peers to form new ideas.
Your story is making me think…
Your story is making me wonder…
Stories are lenses that formulate perspectives and cultivate community. They are sound bites, and short episodes of our lives. They are opportunities to personalize classroom experiences, make connections to new learning, and a bridge that connects us with people to form new ideas. In chapter 3 of the book Personal and Authentic, Thomas C. Murray passionately wrote, “Weaving together our experiences creates our story, makes us who we are, and determines the context in which we each learn.” Understanding the stories within our school organizations forges deeper connections that lead to deeper learning. Understanding stories values the uniqueness of each individual and brings purpose to authentic work. Understanding stories helps us shift the narratives we want to create in our classrooms, honors people who live in our world, and nourishes the feeling of empathy in the spaces we choose to create.
On a Mission Educators who are reimagining and implementing the workshop model all over the world are on a mission. They are on a mission to provide powerful literacy instruction to every single student who enters their physical, virtual, hybrid, and/or hyflex spaces. They are on a mission to rally learners, cultivate communities, build partnerships, voluminously read, write, talk about books, and guide learners towards independence. They are on a mission to make learning stick, honor the framework and give effective, impactful, brisk minilessons that will empower learners to effectively and efficiently transfer relevant skills and strategies into their reading and writing lives. In the book Leading Well, Lucy Calkins states, “When teachers lead effective minilessons, those short bursts of instruction will mobilize the whole community to be on fire as readers and writers and will immerse the kids in an understanding of the important work they are doing. Although small group instruction and conferring are critically important, when teachers are skilled at giving minilessons, that teaching can drive a huge amount of progress” (Calkins, Ehrenworth, & Pessah, 2019, p. 69). Workshop educators know what the workshop feels and sounds like; they are committed to making the experience feel like an “all-hands in” group huddle, pulling the learners in close, leaning forward, teaching their hearts out as they demonstrate with brevity, have learners collaborate and share ideas, and then reconvene the class to share some incredible thinking work. With all of that being said, educators were propelled to reimagine the structure and components of the minilesson in new physical and virtual spaces with intention and flexibility. They have constantly asked themselves, “How can I honor the workshop model framework, reach all learners, and provide short bursts of instruction that will ignite passion and an innate yearning to want more?
When convening for a workshop minilesson in physical and virtual spaces, learners congregate in spaces that look and feel very different than the traditional rituals that usually include a meeting area with a rug, teacher’s chair, and a purposefully positioned anchor chart. In traditional learning environments, classroom spaces were arranged so that learners could transition from intently listening to the minilesson on the rug to turning and talking with partners, to independent practice in flexible seating or back at desks that were grouped together to encourage peer collaboration. Now, learners in physical spaces and virtual spaces are sitting with their 1:1 devices, logging into Google Meet or Zoom, and congregating in virtual community spaces. The transitions are now from the main room to breakout rooms and are typically used for small group work collaboration or individual breakout rooms for independent practice and 1:1 conferencing. More than ever, educators are proactively organizing social-emotional check-ins during the course of instruction. Learners need to know that educators care about them as humans first. They need to feel safe and connected because the screen can be viewed as a barrier, but only if you let it become one!
There are several ways to do this:
Use the chat feature to ask questions.
Polls: Use Google Meet, Zoom’s poll feature, or a digital tool like Mentimeter for the social-emotional status of the class.
Put students in individual breakout rooms. Have a social-emotional check-in before 1:1 conferencing with learners.
Purposefully embed the check-in during instruction; ask students to answer questions orally or in the chat that relate to the text, but also to their own lives.
Minilesson Although the content of a minilesson will change almost daily, the structure will remain the same. The framework of a minilesson is predictable and usually is completed in 10 minutes or so. If educators are able to master the architecture of the minilesson, learners will know what to expect in both physical and virtual spaces. For the current educational landscape, it is important to consider putting a special emphasis on the “Connection” component of the minilesson. It is going to be worth the investment of time to “hook” learners into the lesson with passion and purpose. Look into those small moments of your life and share those stories with students. In a recent Future Ready virtual conference, Brianna Hodges reminded educators that “The shortest distance between a human being and the truth is a story. With stories, we find a connection to people and then they have a reason to care. According to A Guide to Reading Workshop: Middle School Grades by Calkins & Ehrenworth (2017), the traditional components of a minilesson can be found on the left side of the chart below. On the right side, the minilesson has been reimagined for new physical and virtual spaces. Many of these ideas overlap.
Whether in physical or virtual spaces, learners will need access to print and digital texts to read in order to deliberately apply the skills and strategies that were explicitly taught during the minilesson. Book access, voice, and choice are more vital than ever before. Learners can do the thinking work by reading a short story, watching a short video clip, and/or reading their independent reading book; they will need whatever it takes to empower and engage them in the process. Students have to feel like they are owning their learning! Once learners make a plan for their independent reading and have an understanding of what goals they are working towards, they will independently read in both spaces. If learners are in the physical space, they will read at their socially distant desks; if working synchronously, virtual learners will be placed into an individual breakout room to independently read. Additionally, teachers may decide to place readers in partnerships to support and guide one another’s reading and thinking work. Here’s the bottom line, since the 1980’s there has been a substantial amount of research that the only way students get better at reading is READING! Also, you may consider embedding “catch up” days when there are no new minilessons taught. These days, will give learners an opportunity to revisit and apply a multitude of skills and strategies they have previously learned during independent reading time. These days will also allow the teacher to catch up on small group instruction and 1:1 conferencing. Providing learners with choice and voice about how they can show their thinking during this time will empower them to take ownership over the experience! Check out this Offline Choice Board inspired by Catlin Tucker that may be utilized during this time.
Here’s a big question…”What is the rest of the class doing while the teacher is conferring? In the workshop model, here’s the answer…READING! In the book A Teacher’s Guide to Reading Conferences, Serravallo says, “Instead of spending time at the Xerox machine running off worksheets or spending countless hours creating materials for centers, get books in students’ hands and let them read” (Serravallo, 2019, p. 4). Understand that you will NOT get to reach EVERY physical and/or virtual student every single day. However, it will be possible to talk to 3-4 learners during independent/collaborative practice time. This gives the teacher an opportunity to join each breakout room, work with a small group or 1:1, and check-in on the learner for accountability and understanding. If the teacher assesses that there are learners who need a double demonstration, it may be decided to keep them in the main virtual room to reteach the necessary skills/strategies. It is crucial for the teacher to also revisit the digital anchor chart and say “When I come to confer with you, I will be asking you how you are applying the strategy we learned today! If you doing other thinking work, such as working on a strategy you previously learned, be ready to share that!” As the virtual learners are working, it is also critical for the teacher to pay attention to the breakout rooms as a reader may press the “help” button for support.
There is absolutely a time and place for a mid-workshop interruption! When conferring with students and/or working with small groups in physical and virtual spaces, look for common trends in strengths and/or areas for growth. Bring all learners back together in the main virtual room. It is best to set the timer in breakout rooms in order to give the students some notice that you will be pulling them back together shortly. This gives them an opportunity to finish up some thinking work. When everyone is back in the main room, you may consider sharing your screen to highlight a strategy a reader was successfully or unsuccessfully using. It may be that you are revisiting the anchor chart, thinking aloud, using a portion of a mentor text to highlight a learner’s success or struggle (if it’s a struggle, this can be done anonymously and in a tactful way). You may use these prompts: “Readers I noticed that….Readers I was listening to…Readers I observed…” Additionally, you may ask a learner is they are comfortable sharing their own screens and briefly have them share their success or struggle if they choose to do so. This enables learners to refocus on the learning task and gives them something new to think about!
Teaching in physical and virtual spaces has made it more challenging to fit in all of the components on the Workshop Model. It is important to note that educators must give themselves grace and not be so hard on themselves if there is a struggle with pacing. There is a whole other layer of complexity that has been added to teaching. Do you know what that might be? It’s the complexity of managing multiple spaces at once while navigating technology. It’s not always easy and things will not always go as planned (just like it happens in traditional classroom spaces). There are times a teacher may not get to “share” the learning because they were busy checking-in with a learner who needed the extra support. There are times the teacher may not get to share because the transitions with technology were taking too long (from the main room to breakout rooms). There are also times when you will find the time to share the learning. Sometimes it will be at the end of the workshop and sometimes it will be the next day. The fact of the matter is that our brains process information by thinking about the new things we’ve learned and how we’ve applied them. The point is that as long as you are giving students opportunities to reflect on their learning and are providing them with the feedback to take their learning a step forward, you are adding power to the work! Students tend to put more cognitive energy into the independent/collaborative practice when they know they could be sharing with an audience. Being prepared, encourages them to share their screens and voices with all of the learners in the classroom. This also empowers other learners to work more productively during future workshop experiences. Making time in physical and virtual spaces to share learning with the classroom community adds value and brings purpose to the work!
Recently, the educational landscape we have always known has been challenged and has shifted faster than we could have ever comprehended…way beyond our imaginations. It’s as if we have instantaneously soared into a virtual learning universe that seems faster than the speed of light. Did you know that the speed of light in a vacuum is 186,282 miles per second, and in theory, nothing travels faster than light? So, if we were actually able to travel at the speed of light, you could go around the Earth 7.5 times in one second. This seems incomprehensible, doesn’t it? Well, wasn’t there once a time where many of the practices we employed in education seemed light-years away? The fact of the matter is that education has always evolved and changed, yet, those deviations seemed much easier to consume and digest because they happened more gradually. On the other hand, in the spring of 2020, educators were urgently launched into another dimension of teaching and learning. We were left questioning whether or not the instructional practices we have always held close to our hearts would still be significant in virtual and physical spaces. We were left questioning whether we could connect with learners and develop meaningful relationships. We were left questioning whether or not we could honor the teaching frameworks that have historically impacted learners in positive ways. We were left questioning if the resources we have worked so hard to curate throughout our years of teaching would still be compatible virtually. We were left wondering how we could monitor and track learning through meaningful formative and summative assessments.
What I Know Now
For me, the first question that stirred within was whether or not educators would be able to keep the magic of the workshop model alive in our new physical and virtual atmospheres. As I continue to question, reflect, revise, and shift how I approach cultivating relationships, analyze curriculum, deliver instruction, and administer assessments, I know now more than ever that no matter where our learning spaces exist, it is up to us, the educators to embrace it. I know now, it is up to us to own it. I know now, it is up to us to navigate this new territory with open hearts, flexible minds, and positive spirits. I know now that it is up to us to take the instructional practices we know have always worked, and fine-tune our techniques to meet the needs of ALL learners throughout the process. And since I am knee-deep into the experience of Hyflex teaching, the philosophy and implementation of the Workshop Model can be achieved by keeping these 6 non-negotiables at the core of the work.
(Click on the link above for access to the infographic)
Connection Before Content– When you place cultivating relationships and building community front and center, it is likely that you will leave a lasting impact on the learners you encounter throughout your educational career. I am pretty sure that the legacy we choose to leave is not in the time we took to plan and execute a lesson; it is not in the homework or assessments we assigned or graded; I am positive that it is in the time we took to get to know our students as human beings first. If you commit to leading with passion and empathy. If you take the time to find common ground. If you create inviting, safe, nurturing learning spaces for ALL learners, you will see a big return on your investment. In a recent Future Ready podcast titled Universally Designed Connection and Reflection with Brianna Hodges and Dr. Katie Novak, Dr. Novak brilliantly and simply states, “If you can connect with students, then that’s a good enough tool right now.” Learners have an emotional compass and will use social referencing to take cues from adults they admire. With that being said, by connecting and sharing your authenticity and passion, students will believe in and be an integral part of the magic in the important work that lies ahead.
Honor the Architecture– When planning and executing a minilesson, keep in mind that the content, focus, and/or space may change, but the architecture of the minilesson and it’s components don’t! In the book Leading Well: Building Schoolwide Excellence in Reading and Writing by Lucy Calkins, (written before the COVID-19 global pandemic, but still remains true) she says, “When teachers lead effective minilessons, these short bursts of instruction will mobilize the whole community to be on fire as readers and writers and will immerse the kids in an understanding of the work they are doing” (p. 69). However, keep in mind that since there are new and different learning spaces to consider (physical and virtual) when delivering a minilesson, educators must be flexible with each component, the pacing, and the way learners are engaged throughout the process. According to the Heinemann article, How the Essentials of Reading and Writing Workshop Do-and Don’t Change with Virtual Teaching, “Traditionally, the architecture of minilessons remains largely the same from day to day—and contains a connection, teach, active engagement, and link. For virtual minilessons we keep the “connection” and “teach,” but often combine the “active engagement” and the “link” as a way to set kids up to practice the strategy demonstrated. So instead of kids trying the work during the minilesson—hard to do virtually, especially with recorded instruction—after the teacher demonstrates, we set the kids up to go off to work.” Honoring the gradual release of responsibility, the effective transfer of skills and strategies, and leading learners towards independence will always remain a constant in any learning environment.
Conferring is a Cornerstone- 1:1 and small group conferencing is a key ingredient to having learners practice, improve, and elevate their literacy skills. This sacred time spent with students can be messy as the learner guides the direction the conference will take. In turn, the teacher should be able to notice and name a learner’s strengths and areas for growth and adjust the direction and goals of the conference accordingly. According to Jennifer Serravallo, in her book A Teacher’s Guide to Reading Conferences K-8, she beautifully conveys, “Conferring is where the magic happens. It’s the heartbeat of the literacy block…. Conferring blurs the lines between teacher and student” (p. 1). In a conference, the teacher and student are both learners, except, the student is doing most of the work while the teacher coaches in and offers thinking prompts to lift the level of the work. Students need to understand the goal(s) of the conference in order to make the necessary progress in their learning and during independent reading. In virtual spaces, these vital interactions take place in Zoom or Meet breakout rooms. This is a more personalized space to connect, interact, and personalize learning. Katie Martin confirms this in her blog titled, To Engage Students, Focus on Connection Over Content, “Scheduling time with each student to connect, learn more about their circumstances, their goals, and ideas, created a different dynamic that built empathy and allowed for more personalization and meaningful connection.” In her blog Using Feedback to Build a Sense of Connection, Purpose, and Ownership Dr. Martin states, “5-minute conferences can be a really powerful way to check in with students and provide timely meaningful feedback based on their needs. Teachers who are remote might use breakout rooms to meet with a few different students or small groups each day to check-in. If you are in person you can call students up while others are working or giving each other feedback.”
Curate Relevant Resources
-Print and Digital Texts
In a workshop classroom, readers should have access to a tremendous volume of books in a mutlitude of genres and topics that spark their interest. As a matter of fact, Richard Allington suggests that schools have a minimum of 1,000 books per classroom! Over the last few years, learners have also been introduced to digital readers. Since we are attending to the needs of learners in both physical and virtual spaces, it is important to provide students with access to rich classroom libraries as well as websites and apps that house a plethora of digital texts. I am fortunate that my school district has provided our students with digital texts on Raz-Kids, Epic, Bookflix, and Sora (just to name a few). In the physical classroom, books are checked out when readers go book shopping, and then they are quarantined for 4 days until they can be checked out again! We must continue to keep in mind that maintaining a classroom library is an ongoing process to ensure that there are high-interest, high quality texts that represent various genres, topics, and series that students will embrace.
-Purposeful Anchor Charts
Purposeful anchor charts that are created with students is an essential part of the workshop experience! If you walk into my classroom, you will see that the walls are adorned with meaningful charts that help learners access skills/strategies that are needed to navigate various texts they encounter. These tools are meant to maximize students’ independence, encourage choice and risk-taking, and celebrate the productive struggle along the way. In the book Smarter Charts by Marjorie Martinelli and Kristine Mraz, they explicitly state, “Charts help to make our teaching explicit and clear by providing step-by-step directions and key tips and strategies for how to do something” (p. 86). For students in the virtual space, I recreate mini versions of these charts and intentionally attach them to a digital notebook of strategies for learners to access when they need the support.
Physical Space Anchort Chart (left) and Virtual Space Anchor Chart (right)
Preserving Independent Reading-Independent reading is the heart of the workshop model. Within the gradual release of responsibility, it is critical to be able to guide learners towards independence in physical and virtual spaces. This is where they will be able to apply the skills and strategies that are taught during the demonstration portion of the minilesson. Independent reading is a routine and protected practice that transpires across grade levels. According to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Position Statement on Independent Reading, “Effective independent reading practices include time for students to read, access to books that represent a wide range of characters and experiences, and support within a reading community that includes teachers and students. Student choice in text is essential because it motivates, engages, and reaches a wide variety of readers. The goal of independent reading as an instructional practice is to build habitual readers with conscious reading identities.” If you are an educator who embraces the workshop model philosophy, it is a professional obligation to model your own reading life and create the time and space for learners to independently read.
Ongoing Assessment & Feedback– Meaningful assessment can propel the teaching and learning process. It is a way to collect information about the learners’ strengths and areas of need. In a workshop model framework, it is important to embed thoughtful assessments that drive daily instruction. Assessments help teachers provide thoughtful feedback, create small groups, create personalized goals for all learners, and structure minilessons accordingly. This includes, but is not limited to formal and informal running records, spelling inventories, checklists, rubrics, and anecdotal notes. When adminstering assessments in physical and virtual spaces, it is vital to plan accordingly. It is beneficial to be transparent with learners and families about the “why” behind each assessment. Learning shouldn’t be a secret! Personally, I always spend time discussing the expectations in rubrics and checklists with learners. We analyze the nuances in language and develop a shared understanding of the goals. In Katie Martin’s blog titled, Using Feedback to Build a Sense of Connection, Purpose, and Ownership, she expresses, “When students are clear about the learning goals and criteria for success, they can self assess their work and take ownership of the process. Checklists and rubrics can be really helpful, especially if they are co created and the students have a clear grasp of what is expected of them. Creating time and building the routine for this practice is critical to understand where they are and determine next steps.” Furthermore, it is valuable to provide learners with ongoing, cyclical feedback that clearly paints a picture of where they are in relation to the learning targets, what the next steps are, and what it will take to get there. Katie Martin goes on to say, “Meaningful feedback is not the same as a grade or an evaluation. Feedback is information for the learner about where they are in relationship to the goal or target to help them get there. If we can prioritize the learning goals and only assign meaningful work, we can make the time for students to go deep, get feedback, revise and do something meaningful.”
Stay tuned for the next blog in this series:Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 4: Honoring the Workshop Model Framework
Special Note: This is blog post entry 2 of a blog series titled: Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model. Blog post 1 in the series can be found here: Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 1: Inviting Change. This blog post series is written from my perspective, as I teach face-to-face and virtual cohorts of middle school learners simultaneously.
The Magic of Then
Entering a classroom that embraces the reading and writing workshop model is like walking into a galaxy blanketed in magic. Each learner is like a shooting star that heats up and glows as new learning orbits through the classroom atmosphere. You could feel a sense of wonder, observation, and exploration as teachers and students delve into a new skill and strategy. You could sense a special thrill as students are empowered to move towards independence. It’s the type of teaching framework that builds community, human connection, and cultivates powerful relationships. The workshop model is strongly connected to authentic literature, various genres, and relevant learning experiences. It’s the type of practice that rallies learners together in safe cozy spaces. It is a universe surrounded by accessible stacks of books in colorful bins and bookcases. It is a place you can usually find an easel with chart paper and your favorite markers (my preference is Mr. Sketch). If you are entering a true workshop classroom, be prepared to enter a world where both teachers and students are viewed as learners.
The Magic of Now
Throughout emergency remote learning and up until this very moment, I find myself in a constant state of reflection. I continuously come back to the questions… How can I hold onto my beliefs and recreate the magic of the workshop model in post-COVID-19 learning environments? Will I be able to rally learners together and build community in physical and virtual spaces effectively and seamlessly? Can learners embrace the idea of the gradual release of responsibility and apply skills and strategies being taught in both physical and virtual environments? Now, if you walk into a room that embraces the workshop model, you may notice that aesthetically, this space looks different; now, you will see limited furniture; now, instead of gathering on a community rug, (there are no more rugs for gathering) learners are sitting at desks that are 6 feet apart and in rows; now, you will see some bookcases that house various genres of books and quarantine baskets strategically placed as a holding place for books when they are returned. Now, learners are relying on having more access to digital texts and are book shopping personal devices. Now, learners are wearing masks and are not encouraged to face each other in close proximity to turn and talk during active engagement and independent practice. Now, instead of seeing the teacher sitting on the corner of a rug or right beside learners and calling them over to the community space with anchor charts, Post-its, and Mr. Sketch markers in hand, you will see the anchor chart in the front of the room facing rows of desks, or an anchor chart slide presented on a screen. You will observe little movement and as little to no transitions as possible. And yes, now you will see lots of screens. Personally, I have three screens on as I teach; one to connect with learners and manipulate my document camera, slides, and/or digital tools I am utilizing during synchronous sessions on Google Meet, another screen is the Smartboard; this is where physical learners can look to the screen I am presenting so they don’t have to constantly look at their 1:1 devices and another screen that allows me to see the virtual learners level of engagement as I share my screen to teach. I hope I painted this picture well for you because I had to think of ways to invite change into the new environments we were obligated to adjust to.
What Remains Constant
If you walk into a physical and/or virtual workshop community here is the magic that will always remain familiar and constant; you can still feel the authentic learning in physical and virtual spaces. The structure and components of a workshop minilesson are being delivered with intention and purpose. Learners are invited to connect previous learning to new learning, teaching points are carefully constructed and clearly show the skill and strategy learners will employ. The teacher is explicitly teaching the skill and strategy by using a carefully selected portion of a mentor text, using think-aloud, and the “watch me as I show you” verbiage. Anchor charts are purposefully co-created with learners and are hanging around the room, while mini-anchor charts are recreated for the learners in virtual learning spaces. Learners are being given the opportunity for active engagement in collaborative physical and virtual spaces, the skill and strategy are reinforced throughout the minilesson, workshop interruptions are transpiring, learners are practicing the skill and strategy in partnerships, small groups, and/or independently while the teacher is conferencing with individual students. Furthermore, learners are being given the opportunity to share their thinking and learning work in safe, supportive environments. A recent Heinemann blog post confirms this, “Traditionally, the architecture of minilessons remains largely the same from day to day—and contains a connection, teach, active engagement, and link. For virtual minilessons, we keep the “connection” and “teach,” but often combine the “active engagement” and the “link” as a way to set kids up to practice the strategy demonstrated. So instead of kids trying the work during the minilesson—hard to do virtually, especially with recorded instruction—after the teacher demonstrates, we set the kids up to go off to work.” Stay tuned for specific examples of each component of the minilesson in future blog posts in this series.
Rallying Learners and Building Community
Before sharing more detailed examples about how I am implementing the architecture of the minilesson and giving you strategies for each component, here are some activities I used to get to know and rally learners while building community in physical and virtual workshop atmospheres.
Learning Survey for Families and Students: I created a Google Form Learning Survey for both learners and their families inspired by Catlin Tucker. I used similar questions for both because it was important for me to get to know the learners in my classes from both perspectives. This was also a way for me to introduce Google Forms as I plan on using this digital tool in a multitude of ways. I embedded a welcome video for the families right into the form so they can learn why filling out this form was important to me. This was also a way for me to connect with them, show who I am and what I value as an educator.
Jamboard to Share Answers From Survey: I wanted to show the students that I took the time to read their surveys and how I value their feedback. I utilized questions from the Learning Survey and had them answer those questions using the sticky note feature on Jamboard. Learners thought this digital tool was very intuitive, fun, and easy to use as a collaborative digital tool. This is also a way to be inclusive of ALL learners in both physical and virtual spaces while developing your classroom community and holding ALL students accountable for their thinking and learning.
Digital Notebook on Google Slides-Passions and Interests Collage: Learners utilized a digital notebook on Google Slides to create a collage about themselves while sharing their passions and interests. They inserted pictures, captions, and colors that represented who they are. This was also a way for them to practice using Google Slides…a digital tool we will be using for various learning activities. I was able to provide learners with specific feedback and use the information they provided to embed into my conversations with individual students. There is such magic that happens when you are able to weave their passions and interests into teaching and learning practices and dialogue. The students light up with excitement when their teacher remembers who they are as a human being and shows they really do care. This investment of time will lead to deeper learning in the future.
George Couros’ 5 Questions: I used George Couros’ 5 Questions to connect with learners. Students got the opportunity to respond in a Google Form with video embedded directions and/or a Flipgrid video. I am finding that video is a powerful way to connect with learners and simulate more authentic learning experiences, especially the ones who are learning 100% virtually. They get an opportunity to see me and hear me as they learn every single day. I was pleasantly surprised by how many students chose to use Flipgrid. Learners explicitly shared that they feel connected to the classroom community using the Flipgrid platform. They love having the back and forth dialogue with their peers and me. Their responses were incredible! I always jot down notes about ideas learners include in their responses. This helps me plan instructional moves that are more targeted to meet the needs of every learner.
Setting Classroom Community Agreements in Physical and Virtual Environments: I do not believe in setting the rules and expectations for my classes. Why? It’s because they aren’t MY classes. These are OUR learning spaces. When learners have an opportunity to contribute to community agreements, they take ownership of the norms and promises they create. We utilized Mentimeter’s cloud feature to brainstorm “What makes a GREAT classroom community?” After sharing their ideas, we wrote a summary of the agreements together. After, I dropped the link to the slides into the Google chat, learners committed to the agreements WE created by signing our contract in real-time and in a collaborative way. Learners were invited to practice how to experience collaborating on a slide with their peers. We will be using this method for collaboration and response this year. See the process below! Make sure you click on the right arrow to see the video of learners collaborating on the Google Slide!
I scheduled five-minute meetings with all of my learners. This idea was inspired by Dr. Mary Hemphill’s book The One Minute Meeting: Creating Student Stakeholders in Schools. I learned about Dr. Hemphill in George Couros’Innovator’s Mindset Podcast. The idea of these meetings is to check-in with my students, learn more about them as human beings, and then utilize the information to elevate their emotional literacy. The responses elicited were powerful! After asking those simple, open-ended questions and having those personal conversations with each learner, I feel even more connected to each one of them. I now have a deeper understanding of what is happening in their world. Some had really cheerful, positive stories to share, while others were expressing that they are going through challenging times. I appreciated every minute with those students. I have always led with empathy, but now I will be able to utilize what I know to personalize instruction in much more meaningful ways. One learner responded to our interaction by saying, “Mrs. Kaufman, it’s really nice to know you care. Your class is more than just turning in assignments.” I plan to use this check-in strategy over the course of the year in order to continuously develop the relationships I have formed. Note that the responses below are from middle school learners in grade 6-8. The responses were collected in Google Forms.
Embedding Meaningful Experiences
I believe that the heart of teaching and learning is rooted in the connections and relationships we develop with the learners we are lucky enough to serve. Cultivating strong relationships, understanding the learners’ strengths and areas for growth, tapping into their passions and interests, and authentic, responsive teaching are the cornerstones of any worthwhile educational journey. Without truly caring about the social-emotional well-being of our students, learning will not be as productive or meaningful. If we want to see the positive, lasting impact we are hoping for, we have to make it our obligation to get to know all learners as human beings first. If we vow to make the commitment to continuously embed rallying our learners and building community into everyday practices and really mean it, I promise you… the magic of the workshop model will magically and naturally come alive!
Stay tuned for the next blog in this series:Reimagining the Magic of the Workshop Model Series 3: Non-Negotiables in Physical & Virtual Spaces
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