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Building blocks for online learning

This school year will be my 20th year in the classroom.

For the past 19 years, summer months have provided necessary respite—the quiet pause—I’ve needed to refuel for the coming school year. To refill my cup so that I can arrive well and whole for my students in September.

But during a pandemic that continues to rage—and with racial inequities (which have always existed) laid glaringly bare yet again—this was not that kind of summer.

Instead, much of my summer has been spent in constant, alternating states of fear, anger, and anxiety, as many school reopening plans ask teachers to put themselves at risk by returning to potentially unsafe buildings and working conditions. How can schools enforce physical distancing? Will students be required to mask? Can they wear masks for hours on end? What about ventilation systems? What happens if someone gets sick?

And how can I teach under these conditions?

Like many teachers, I spent this summer, losing sleep, trying to answer this question. And for many of us, this also means figuring out how to teach in entirely new or modified schedules. Based on conversations I’ve had with teachers across the country, these schedules may also not be in the best interest of kids or supported by research. Compounding all of this is the fact that delayed reopening decisions have left many teachers with inadequate time to fully prepare.

We are going to have to save ourselves.

A few weeks ago, as reopening plans started to roll out, educator Val Brown shared this simple and clear truth in a Twitter thread:

“No one is coming to save us—in fact, it feels like the exact opposite—so we are going to have to save ourselves.”

I stopped when I first read Val’s words—and then I exhaled. I let out the deep breath that I didn’t even realize that I’d been holding in. Because at the time, I’d still been holding on to the slim hope that somehow, somehow we could still turn this horrible situation around, that schools and districts would err on the side of caution and act to put the fewest lives at risk.

And because teachers are problem-solvers, I tried to figure out how to make things work. But it was hard: there were a lot of things I couldn’t figure out, couldn’t reconcile what I knew based on almost 20 years of experience and what teachers were being asked to do.

One thing, any  thing

But with school only a few short weeks away, I knew I needed to do something—one thing, any thing—that might help me catch my footing. Like other districts, my school adopted an alternating-day, “block” schedule. And like other districts, our school is starting the year 100% online. In my case, that means going from eight 43-minute periods, in-person, daily, to four 85-minute periods, online, every other day.

Last year: 8 period day, 43-min/period, IN-PERSON; This year: 4 period day, 85-min/period, ONLINE

With 19 years of teaching, I know the beats and rhythm of a 43-minute period. I know when to move from the front of the room to the back, where to stop to talk with students formally and informally, how to make space for whole-class and small group discussion. Moving to a longer period, online, and with alternating day schedule will be a challenge: How much can I do in that amount of time? How should it be organized? How much synchronous and asynchronous instruction will that allow? What about screen fatigue?

So it’s with these questions in mind—and with the still sinking recognition that we’re going to have to save ourselves—I spent some time coming up with some structures for an 85-minute block for the ELA classroom. Mostly, this was my attempt to get my own head around this challenge, and to humbly and possibly help other teachers who, like me, are just trying to find one thing, any thing, to make this impossible year a little more manageable. Because let’s be clear: for many teachers, the following year feels like a trap in which we’ve been set-up to fail.

What does ‘block’ teaching look like online?

When I began researching teaching in a block schedule, most of what I found assumed in-person schooling, like this great post from Cult of Pedagogy. But as we know, online learning comes with its own challenges. There is no way to simply replicate an in-person schedule in an online environment and expect the same outcomes. This is not cut and paste. Even if the in-person schedule is a block period, adapting this for online learning requires additional considerations.

In no particular order:

  1. Screen time. Research has consistently shown the detrimental effects of heavy screen time for children and teens. Building in as many screen breaks and non-screen-based activities as possible will be helpful.
  2. Cognitive load. There are limits to what students can manage effectively in an online environment. Without the physical movement of in-person school that helps shift to new learning, online learning in long, extended blocks of time will be difficult. Thus, chunking learning into smaller, distinct blocks will be key.
  3. Community. One of the hardest things about moving online last spring was trying to sustain and rebuild relationships with students and between them. I know I need to find as many ways as possible to build community and make space for student-to-student connections within each block period.
  4. Consistency. During in-person schooling, routines and rituals develop a sense of security and safety in the classroom. While longer blocks of time require some variety to keep students engaged, dependable and expected routines are also needed. After all, the time and energy students spend learning how to navigate learning could be better spent on learning itself. Consistent openings and closings can be one way to help.

24 Structures for Block Teaching

When I created these structures, I tried to identify the key reading, writing, and discussion experiences I’ve used in the past and that I know I want to make space for in an online lesson block.

For example, here are a few focused on reading:

Screen Shot 2020-08-11 at 6.57.48 AM

Copyright Tricia Ebarvia

Others on group work and discussion:

Copyright Tricia Ebarvia

And some based on writing workshop:

Copyright Tricia Ebarvia

But regardless of the focus, some instructional principles that guided me:

  • Time for guided and direct instruction (mini-lessons and mentor texts)
  • Time for small group work (teacher-to-students and student-to-student)
  • Time for conferring (teacher-to-student(s) and peer response)
  • Time for independent practice in reading and writing
  • Time for self-reflection and notebook work
  • Time for sharing

NOTE: These structures assume a 100% remote learning environment in which all students are in the same learning space online together.

Evolving and Responsive Structures

As you consider block teaching, here are some additional tips from Dawn Finley, as well as an important post on NOT requiring students to turn on their cameras from a trauma-informed perspective.

Of course, since school hasn’t yet started (as of the date of this posting), I won’t know exactly how effective some structures will be over others. As with all good teaching, letting kids lead the way and asking them to tell us what’s working—and what’s not—will be essential to successful online learning and to remaining flexible, especially in a year ahead like no other.

And critically, no matter what block schedule or structure we have, none of that matters if our pedagogies aren’t culturally responsive, sustaining, and antiracist

We are going to have to save ourselves.

And this means leaning on each other to provide support wherever and whenever we can.

So in that spirit, here is a live link to the rest of the structures, which may be updated as the year unfolds and I get feedback from students. (If you share this resource with others, please share this blog post and not the direct link.)

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REQUEST

Some people have requested to compensate me for this work—and I’m grateful to them for asking! I recognize that I could put these structures behind a pay wall, but I believe deeply in learning and sharing publicly, especially for the collective good.

That said, if you find these structures helpful and would like to pay what you can for my labor, you can Venmo me at @tricia-ebarvia or Paypal at paypal.me/triciaebarvia. And no matter what, regardless of payment, please cite my work as necessary. I do not authorize any other sharing or use of this material.

 

3 Comments

  1. Thank you for this, Tricia. It’s helpful to see how others are conceiving the work. No one is coming to save us but maybe we can help each out along the way.
    Kevin

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  2. This is positively stellar. 10 year, pre-pandemic hybrid teacher checking in. Thank you for making this excellent resource available. Taking your brilliant outline from above, and translating it into a virtual playlist for students to work through asynchronously (and synchronously, for peer exchange/writing conferences/group work) is how I’m going to approach my first time teaching block this year.

    Like

  3. Pingback: Designing Breakout Rooms for Maximum Engagement – Digital Writing, Digital Teaching

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