I have heard quite a few teachers say recently that although the end of last year was crazy, the start of this academic year is even crazier. With even more uncertainty of what the year as whole will look like, teachers are navigating unexplored territory. Yet, amidst all of this (along with the increased tension of a pandemic, politics, human rights issues, etc), some of my teacher friends said “yes” to adding even more to their plates.

My previous post was an introduction to my focus for this academic year…but here is a little recap:

I am going to connect with a few friends/colleagues from various schools around the world to see what they are thinking about writing this year—how it is the same…and (hopefully, more so) how it is different. I hope to have 2-3 conversations throughout the year with a group of teachers from a variety of grade levels and subject areas. It is my intention that these will be authentic conversations between educators who are just trying to be a little better at their craft.

In this post you will meet one of my colleagues from my most recent teaching post at the American Community School of Abu Dhabi. Matt Foss is very open and reflective as he discusses his IB Language and Literature classes. Below is a breakdown of the main topics we covered so that you can zoom in on specific topic at your leisure. After the video, I reflect on the conversation and link to some of the resources mentioned.

  • Matt discusses his journey of “writing beside” his students: 0:53
  • Matt talks about how he is switching up his methods of writing conferences : 3:18
  • Matt’s biggest hope for his students as writers…that “their voice matters”: 6:18
  • Matt started the year by making a podcast with his kids by emulating an ode to New York City that The Daily podcast put out…and he explains why and a bit of how: 7:55
  • Matt shares his thoughts on the benefits of remote learning: 9:52

Reflection Point #1 — Focus on the Positive

Matt notes that: “Dialoguing about a student’s work during online conferring sessions has been the single best thing about remote learning.” Although remote learning may have disconnected us physically AND significantly decreased the opportunities for the social construction of learning, Matt uses this new context to connect with his students one-on-one (or in small groups) to discuss their writing. In shifting his perspective, Matt took what may have seemed like an obstacle to student learning and turned it to his advantage—he opened up space to connect with his students on a more personal level. And in doing so, he saw a shift in how he gave students feedback:

Matt’s feedback used to be focused on writing comments on students’ physical papers, and this feedback was heavily based on what to fix, what was not working, what to improve on. However, in moving to digital conferences and dialoguing with students about their work, Matt noticed that he was focusing more on the positive and that he was asking more questions.

In recognizing that he has moved to more of a dialoguing and feed-forward approach to his feedback, Matt started to use the app Vocaroo (integrated into Google Classroom) to leave voice comments on a google doc, instead of just written comments. And he noticed that by using Vocaroo, his feedback is more positive and specific.

A Wondering…

Matt noticed that in a remote learning context he is able to confer more effectively with students 1 on 1. And so I wonder: (1) Are students also noticing this shift? (2) Will this carry over when students head back into the classrooms?

Perhaps if a flipped classroom framework is implemented, conferring time can remain a high and time for the social construction of learning can also be given priority.

On a side note: Matt also has students fill in a google doc at various points in the formative process to help direct his feedback. Students engage metacognitively with their piece of writing by taking notes on (a) what is going well, (b) what they want help with, and (c) what options/strategies they might use to help them move forward. Not only does this put the students at the center of their learning process through the assessment of their progress, but it also helps teachers to:

  1. Engage more purposefully with a student and their writing: When we allow the student to be a part of the process in directing what they want to work on in their writing, this can increase self-directed learning skill sets and confidence.
  2. Assess a student’s level of understanding of a task: Does a student know what they should be focusing on? Does a student show the ability to access different tools/strategies to help themselves move forward instead of always relying on their teacher?
You can make a copy of this doc here!

Reflection Point #2 — Your Voice Matters

Matt’s biggest hope for his students is that they feel that their voice matters. He started this year with a collaborative poem/podcast activity where his students listened to a podcast by The Daily (New York Times) and then created their own poem/podcast for Abu Dhabi. This was published to the ACS Facebook Alumni group and the students received numerous responses from previous students and parents as they shared their own nostalgic memories. Matt was able to show his students that they could create something that, once put out into the world, could have an affect on others. And this activity only took a couple of classes — a solid way to start the year by connecting students to each other and a larger community.

Click here to listen!

Matt and I discussed how he could keep this thread going throughout the year? How was going to ensure that from the start of a unit his students would know that what they were creating mattered more than earning them marks on a rubric? And Matt was very forthcoming in his response: “I don’t know how I am going to do that?!”

Two words stand out for me in this context: Authenticity and Relevance. A blog post from Thoughtful Learning breaks down how to increase authenticity and relevance at the front and back end of a unit. Matt is on track with this type of thinking as he provides spaces for two main concepts:

  1. He focuses on who the audience is of every deliverable a student creates. He notes that students have a hard time jumping into a piece of writing without first knowing who the audience is: “If they can’t answer that first of all, then we shouldn’t go anywhere [further].”
  2. He ensures that there is an opportunity for students to publish their work—whether they end up doing it or not is up to them.

A Wondering…

What is important to front load in order to get students to really FEEL that what they are about to embark on creating will actually matter outside of their academic life?

Main takeaway

As I was talking to Matt, I thought back to a webinar I attended about Global Perspectives in the English classroom and near the very beginning the following statement gave me pause:

Curriculum is not a checklist — we need to keep the humanity in the humanities. This is about what we value as a society…we value people, we value culture. And it is writing that helps to get us there.

Jennifer Webb

And that is what I see Matt doing. Yes, he is teaching his students in order to help prepare them for their IB exams, but more so, he is showing them how they can contribute and how they can be heard once they are out in the world.

Of course he doesn’t have everything dialed in yet, and he will be the first to admit that…but as he fumbles and refines his practice, Matt is also modelling real life for his students. As they watch him be vulnerable and invest in helping them be better, they in turn will (hopefully) trust in the process he is presenting and create some beautiful writing along the way.

Not only do I thank you for visiting this site and reading my thoughts…but I would love to hear your thoughts and wonderings, too. Please, leave a comment below, email me at readwritemore@gmail.com or find me on Twitter @readwritemore

You can also see more of my writing (along with the writing of some other brilliant and beautiful minds) at MovingWriters.org

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