Slice of Life: Listening To Student Voices

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

The School Committee in the town where I teach is poised to vote this week on whether to start bringing everyone — hundreds more students — back into our school building. The committee has been getting an earful on Facebook, apparently, from parents, demanding school fully re-open so they can get back to their jobs.

Meanwhile, numbers of virus cases all around us are rising – two neighboring cities just went up a level in the state’s data map of Covid-19 trends. I don’t see how we would do a full return, to be honest, as in our current Hybrid Model (half kids two days, the other half the other two days, Wednesdays full remote for building cleaning), the desks for my largest class of 11 kids at 6 feet apart take up nearly the entire room.

After the last School Committee meeting, where they discussed this possibility of a full return (meaning about 600 people would be in our building), I waited to see if they would be surveying families (nope); or staff (nope); or students (nope.). It seems to me, on listening to the discussions, as if Facebook is what many are listening to (and that scares me almost as much as anything – in that same Facebook group, some parents have apparently begun to turn on us teachers) as well as emails and letters from interested parties.

It galls me that we don’t regularly ask the very ones who are affected most by those decisions what they think: our students; their children.

So on two recent mornings, I asked my two homeroom cohorts the question of a full return, and what a lively and thoughtful discussion we had on this stop of a full return. Clearly, these sixth graders have been thinking deeply about this topic, but not often being asked.

My general sense is that students are happy to be back in school, even in the current model with all of the restrictions and safety protocols that limit their interactions with each other and teachers, and many want to remain that way until the virus is brought under control. There were some strong arguments in favor of bringing everyone in, however, including socialization and friendship and the pace of education.

I made sure to frame my questions as neutral — neither favoring a full return nor advocating against it — and I opened the floor to anyone who had a point to make, and the back-and-forth and follow-up-questions made me proud of these sixth graders. I just wish the small group of elected officials who only meet remote on Zoom out of safety precautions would find a way to listen to the young people who are in our building, doing their part to stay safe by bringing a level of cautious normalcy to our community.

Peace (listening),

Audio Postcard: The Sixth Week of School

DSC01722 (2) -01 DSC01722 (2) -01 flickr photo by suzyhazelwood shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

This is the sixth and final audio postcard for a research project I have been part of, documenting the first six weeks of school in a Pandemic year through weekly audio postcard. In this one, I mull over how exhausted it feels to be a teacher right now, worries of my students’ well-being and emotional health, and concerns about upticks in the virus numbers and what might happen if we reverse course with our current model (hybrid).

Here is:

Peace (now and forever),

Further Ways to Use #WriteOut in the Classroom (Postcards)

Postcards from the Parks activity

Last week, I shared out how my students were exploring National Parks as part of our Write Out adventure. I even shared my adapted HyperDoc for others to use (I hope you found it useful).

This week, I am having my students continue the adventure with a Postcards from the Park project, that first uses creative writing and park explorations as students write a series of “postcards” while on an imaginary journey across five different National Parks. Then, they will be writing a real postcard to a real park ranger (one who has been sharing prompts with us) that we will mail off.

This link will make you a copy (if you have a Google account) of this week’s HyperDoc activities – You may need to adapt or add a slideshow template component (here’s a link to that template for making a copy, if it helps). Also be sure to look at the Write Out Postcard page for downloadable PDFs of postcards.

We’re also writing every day with the Park Ranger-led writing prompts, as I pull the daily prompts into Google Classroom to kick off my students’ days for our independent learning from home (we are working in a hybrid model, so this is perfect!).

Peace (further explorations),

How I Am Using #Writeout With Students (Week One)

Write Out Hyperdoc

This year, as part of the Write Out project, which is a partnership between the National Writing Project and the National Park Service, I am fully integrating the concept of connecting writing to place into my online learning platform for my students who are not in the school but are at home, doing independent work. I’m tapping into the concept of a HyperDoc as a way to provide instructions and a flow to activities.

So far, so good.

First, I created a series of park explorations in a HyperDoc that has them looking at maps, videos, images and text about all sorts of National Parks. Then, they are choosing a National Park, and creating a presentation about that park, which will get shared with the entire sixth grade. (feel free to get a copy for yourself) This HyperDoc is a remix of another that I found in the HyperDoc community, which I greatly appreciated. Thanks to @kellyihilton and @SARAHLANDIS!

Second, I invited Springfield Armory Park Ranger Scott Gausen to a Zoom meeting, and nearly 20 students showed up yesterday morning to hear him chat about the National Park Service, and his work both at the Springfield Armory National Historic Site but also the Oregon Caves park. It was great. Scott and I have worked together for a few years as part of a local partnership between the Western Massachusetts Writing Project and the Springfield Armory.

Third, each day, I am pulling the Write Out prompts by National Park Rangers into our Google Classroom space, and students are writing responses each day to the prompts, either as creative writing or as informational writing. Some of their writing has been amazing. (see all the park ranger prompts for week one here in a slideshow format)

Next week, we’re going to be doing a Write Out postcard project, but I’ll share that out another day. Oh, and the National Day on Writing is coming next week, too, on October 20. And I haven’t even started to use the many storytelling videos for Write Out, but I will.

Peace (in parks),

Slice of Life/Audio Postcard: Week Five

DSC01722 (2) -01 DSC01722 (2) -01 flickr photo by suzyhazelwood shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

We’re now entering our fifth week of the school year, and I am still taking part in a research project documenting educators’ first six weeks of school through audio postcards. Here, I address how things are going, as we start our fifth week; what’s working so far; and maybe what’s not.

Here is:

Peace (finding our footing),

Audio Postcard: Week Four of School

DSC01722 (2) -01 DSC01722 (2) -01 flickr photo by suzyhazelwood shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

It’s the fourth full week of school. As part of a research study on the first six weeks of educators returning to school, I have been recording weekly “audio postcards” for the project, and sharing out. This week, we were asked to explore how we have been reaching out to families, something that has been more important than ever, it seems to me.

Here is

Peace (talking it up),

Getting Back into the School Building

Missing Colleagues

This morning, my team of sixth grade teachers (along with fifth grade teachers), head back into our school building after two and a half weeks of remote instruction, from home. I am both excited by the prospect of being back in the physical school and a little anxious about all of the health protocols and expected uneasiness of our students.

We’ll get through it, together.

Peace (one day each day),

Audio Postcard: Third Week of School

DSC01722 (2) -01 DSC01722 (2) -01 flickr photo by suzyhazelwood shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

As part of a research project about teachers returning to school, I am recording an audio diary each week for the first six weeks of school. This week, a guiding prompt was to think about how our students are doing, and I have definitely been having conversations with my class about emotional health and anxiety, particularly as we begin a shift next week back into the school after starting the year in a remote setting.

These are being recorded informally on my phone.

Here is the first week of school audio postcard and the second week of school audio postcard.

Peace (thinking it through),

Slice of Life: Accentuating The Positives

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

So, this is not ideal, this learning situation many of us are in right now. I am remote until next week, when we move into a hybrid model. It’s taxing on us all — educators, students, families, administrators. So today, I am trying to make note of the positives of my situation after ten days with my sixth graders on Zoom and Google Classroom.

  • We’ve had near 100 percent attendance across our three sixth grade classes since the first day of school. I find this pretty amazing, given the remote nature of things. Each morning, before I start things up, I always wonder: Are they going to show up? And they do, day after day, ready for school. I celebrate my students repeatedly throughout the day.
  • With only a few minor glitches here and there, our access to Zoom for virtual classrooms, to Google Classroom and Apps for other activities, and other technology has mostly been seamless. Some students have spotty Internet at times, but we’ve been able to work through that. I credit our school district technology staff for the summer planning around Mac laptop distribution to our sixth graders — every student has their own Macbook right now. This makes a world of difference from the Spring, when a hodgepodge of devices made it difficult to troubleshoot with families.
  • We’ve done eight writing prompts in ten days, and my young writers have been enjoying the range of creative activities done both in their Writing Notebooks and in Classroom. We’ve done some story writing, some listening activities, and some reflection pieces. And our use of Breakout Rooms has been beneficial, pulling together small clusters for sharing ideas and stories.
  • Speaking of Breakout Rooms, I’ve been impressed by how respectful and collaborative my students have been in those rooms in Zoom. I can only pop around, joining one room at a time, but every time I do, I am so heartened by the positive energy of the discussions and sharing in the Breakout Room, as some students become leaders of the group and others recognize and encourage each other as writers.
  • One example of this is a four-day Fractured Fairy Tale Read-Aloud Play unit that we just wrapped up yesterday, with performances in Zoom in all the classes. I had three plays and three groups in each of my three classes, and Breakout Rooms allowed each group to practice and talk through their play and parts. It wasn’t ideal, but since Read-Aloud Plays are like radio shows, it worked fine. And it gave every student an opportunity to read out loud (for me to hear) with fun stories, as well as collaborate and then present to the full group.
  • I’ve been hesitant to get too deep into our reading/literature curriculum, which focuses in on novels, in this remote setting. We did send home class novels in the summer, along with textbooks, asking them to hold on to them until we needed them. At this point, I may wait until we are back in school and use the outside tents and grassy areas for reading. But we have been doing some short story reading and analysis, and some small non-fiction texts, so I feel as if I am honing in on some skills that will be important this year. Plus, there has been the read-aloud plays.
  • We’ve done a lot of reaching out to students to gauge their emotional well-being, through Zoom sessions and emails (including families) and end-of-week surveys, and I think that effort is paying off in the positive start many students are reporting experiencing. They feel connected, and supported, and heard. That’s so important after the Spring shut-down.

There’s probably more I could add here, but I like that this Slice has forced me to find a positive frame to see my teaching days, and to realize, there’s a lot of good things happening. Next week may be a different story, as we start moving our students back into the building in cohorts. I’ll keep looking for what’s going good instead of what’s not.

Peace (to us all),


Teaching in a Pandemic: Here We Are and Here We Go

Strange Times

We were holding a regular Zoom chat among grade level team members for our sixth grade as a way to check in with each other, do some planning and catch our breath. All of us are veteran teachers who have worked together for more than a decade (and some of us, nearly two decades.)

“I feel like I’m a new teacher again, trying to figure every little thing out,” one colleague muttered, and we all agreed.

The Pandemic, and our temporary shift to Distance Learning before going back in a Hybrid Model, has forced all of us to look at our teaching practices in a new light, and from new angles. Not that we on our team were ever just coasting — we’re not like that — but we realize now that we can’t rely on what worked in the past in the physical space of the classroom to work in the virtual element of the classroom.

Each night, after the school day ends, and each morning, before the first Zoom session of the day, I’m thinking and re-thinking the flow of every single lesson, of the meaning and value of every single activity, of what could transfer from how I used to teach something to how I will need to teach it now, given our current situation. I’m walking around with lesson plans unfolding in my head.

This re-evaluation of practice and pedagogy is never a bad thing, of course. It’s something we educators should always be doing, but admittedly, we don’t always do such intensive examination of practice. That reason is is that it is rather stressful, and demanding, to reconsider and re-evaluate everything, and it takes up a lot of head space. It’s easier to re-use what worked in the past, with some minor tweaks.

No tweaks are minor right now. Everything is always on the table.

And it does, indeed, feel like starting a teaching career from scratch, with all the exciting possibilities and the nervous unknowns — the technology, the range of learners, the social interactions, all of it forever in flux.

What makes it more difficult, in our situation, is the loneliness of it, too.

Working from home, as we are forced to be doing right now while our Internet gets an upgrade, has its benefits (the dogs like it) but there’s no unanticipated bumping into colleagues in the hallway to share ideas or vent frustrations. You can’t open the door between rooms to say hello. There’s no quick dart to ask a technical question or collectively gather to share insights or ask questions or express concerns about a student. Like a new teacher who may have a mentor but often feels like they are on a new journey, nearly alone, with a classroom of young people depending on them to know (or at least pretend they know) the way forward, we are all now navigating new waters.

But here we are … and here we go.

Peace (day by day),