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Alternative Assignments and Assessments during the COVID-19 Crisis and Beyond…

Bike Monologue 2 – July 22, 2020

The first four miles of today’s bike ride was devoted to discussing alternative assignments and assessments; helping students learn how to question themselves, each other, and the world around them; and some flowery comments about how we can protect our nation’s precious First Amendment.

If you don’t want to watch the video, see the following paragraphs for the highlights.

We Need Alternative Assignments and Assessments Now and in the Future

I said before that if necessity is the mother of invention, then it is going to reinvent the nature of assignments and the notion of assessment during this crisis because we need, desperately, to redefine what good assignments are and what good assessment is. I mentioned in the video that cheating is already a big problem, but with virtual learning it can become more common (if that is possible). Therefore, we need to eliminate the opportunities to cheat as much as possible.

Yesterday’s post delineated the suggestions I am posing. They included portfolios, projects, essays, design-your-own products, research papers, seminar development, and quiz design. I discussed them briefly in today’s monologue, but veered off onto another topic: the importance of questions.

Help Students Learn How to Ask Good and Great Questions

Think back to high school. Did you learn more about how to find “the answers” or did you learn more about how to ask the right questions of the text in front of you? It was a mix for me, but I learned more about questioning from rigorous electives like “Contemporary World Conflicts,” in which we wrote our hands off every day, than I did in U.S. History II, in which we took Scantron test after Scantron test. In English class, we spent most of our time finding answers in the text or copying the answer down that our teacher gave us. Research papers afforded us the opportunity to expand our thinking, but they were assigned once a year. In the late ‘80s, education looked dramatically different from what it does now.

In the core courses, there were few discussions, no Socratic seminars, little differentiation, no personalized learning… You get the picture, I’m sure. Today, these teaching techniques are used regularly to help students deconstruct what they knew, integrate new knowledge, and build a new knowledge base. Constructivist principles are more prevalent today, for which I am thankful.

We need to spend more time helping students learn how to ask good questions, and the techniques mentioned above DO help. Yes, it takes longer to “grade” the work product that results, or the “grade” might be more subjective than the results of a multiple choice and short answer test, but that forces me to question what the purpose of education is. Is it data collection or student development? Data collection is important, but student development is more important.

Help Students Have Difficult, Yet Constructive, Conversations

When students are able to create good questions, they can engage in conversations with others that might become difficult but can remain constructive. We need to be able to do this today, in this polarized, politicized, environment, or we will continue to see videos of Karens who have lost their grip on reality. We will continue to see protests devolve into something decidedly NOT peaceful. We will see more Federal officers descend on cities to “maintain law and order.”

We will see this happen because people cannot control themselves.

They cannot control themselves because they do not have the confidence and the tools to support their position.

They cannot engage in nondestructive confrontations because they do not have the confidence and tools to be restorative.

When people have the tools: questioning expertise, restorative practices principles, deescalation techniques, and confidence girded by deep thought about their values, then we will no longer need “officials” to manage our behavior. We can manage it ourselves. We can protect our First Amendment rights.

Teachers can help students learn how to protect their First Amendment rights and the First Amendment itself. Teach them how to ask good questions and have constructive conversations. Teach them to check their impulses to lash out at those who disagree with them and instead engage in peaceful dialogue. Teachers can partner with other adults in this effort too: parents and other older family members, clergy, community leaders, and behavioral health professionals.

Necessity is the mother of invention. We NEED help.

Education Essays Learning Teaching

Curriculum and Instruction During the COVID-19 Crisis

Bike Monologue 1

Today, I used 5 miles of my 20-mile bike ride to record a video of my thoughts about curriculum and instruction at this time. I’m calling it the first “bike monologue.” It’s an experiment, which is an aspect of learning to teach and teaching to learn I wholeheartedly embrace.

If you don’t want to watch the video, here are the highlights.

We Don’t Need to Do What We Did March – June

…and We Shouldn’t.

Instead of doing what we did before, which was akin to flipping the light switch on a bunch of gremlins, we teachers and students should take the lessons we have learned and apply them to virtual teaching and learning this upcoming quarter. For example, when we are in “class” – either virtual or brick-and-mortar – we should be doing something as often as possible.

  • Flip the classroom so they come to school prepared to work in class and we are prepared to help them.
  • Engage the students right away with activity.
  • Avoid passive learning as much as possible.
  • Encourage active learning as much as possible.

The COVID-19 Slide Exacerbated the Summer Slide

Since it is true that students may have regressed during the last quarter of 19-20, it is also true that it was a mistake to cancel summer reading and other enrichment activities this year. All we can do now is try to help students rediscover the love of learning we are all born with. Now is not the time for drills that kill that love of learning. Now is the time to help students explore their world and interests and develop their confidence as self-directed learners.

Alternative Assignments and Assessments

Now is also the time to consider alternatives to traditional assignments and assessments. We could even consider letting students design their own assessments. How will they demonstrate mastery of key skills they need? With our help, they can learn how to design their own assessments (and assignments) that will prove they understand the material, have mastered the skills, and are ready to take on the next challenge. Here are just a few alternative assignments and assessments.

  • Portfolios
  • Projects
  • Essays
  • Research Papers
  • Quiz Design
  • Seminar Design and Delivery
  • Presentations
  • Infographics / Posters
  • Videos (Documentaries!)

I want to thank you for reading this. Being able to write out my thoughts has helped me put words to my perspective and my fears. It is my hope that my words help others as well.

Education Learning Teaching

The 2020-2021 School Year Will Be One for the Books

School districts across the country are scrambling to define what school is going to look like this year. Meanwhile, teachers seem to be exhausted, confused, and – in some cases – angry. All the stakeholders in education are on edge: students, parents, faculty, staff, administrators, and school boards. Powder kegs, also known as school board meetings, are blowing up, lit by the tension in the virtual meeting. Everyone has an opinion. In any other year, under any other circumstances, that would be fine.

This year and under these circumstances, however, we need to be more united than ever in our approach. This is truly a life or death conundrum, not a philosophical debate. People have genuine concerns that need to be addressed.

Health and Safety

The concern that draws that most comment is that masks are not mandatory in schools. If a student or parent of a student says that the child cannot wear a mask for health reasons, that student is exempt and we cannot ask for documentation as to the student’s condition. While I appreciate the regulation, as it protects a person’s privacy, it puts everyone at risk, including that student.

There are students who cannot wear masks for legitimate reasons. Those are not the students of whom I am speaking.

In addition to masks, we have questions about sanitation/disinfection procedures. For example: What are they? (That was not meant to get a chuckle.) Who does what? Will we have enough time to clean surfaces between bells?

Social distancing issues are also a high priority. How are we going to maintain social distancing? There simply isn’t enough room in most school hallways, for example, to maintain social distancing and get students to their classes in a timely manner. The solutions include uni-directional hallways, prohibitions against locker use, extra lunch periods, staggered start and stop times, keeping students in “cohorts,” and teachers traveling from room to room instead of students, among others. Because it seems like it could quickly get “messy,” many school districts are providing an online-only option because there isn’t enough room and because people are genuinely terrified.

The Online-Only Option

Schools had to pivot to virtual (remote/online… just please don’t say distance or e-learning) teaching and learning, starting in March. We learned many lessons during that time about how to teach and learn entirely online. It makes sense to make those lessons learned work for us in the future to keep our students safe.

Asynchronous learning created a feeling of isolation amongst many students. It’s difficult to keep oneself engaged, interested, and resilient if you don’t feel like anyone cares or if you cannot navigate the content and activities well. That has led numerous school districts to embrace synchronous learning.

As an online learner for many years, I immediately thought of us all on the same platform, but not in the same place. In this case, many students would be in the classroom with the teacher and others would watch a broadcast to feel more included in what is happening at school while they are working from home.

That sounds like fun at first. However, there are privacy concerns.

Privacy Concerns

Because necessity is the mother of invention, schools are reinventing public education in real-time. Some schools feel they are competing with the cyber schools and need to provide similar options to their student population to retain those students in their district. Solutions such as robotic cameras have been proposed; online students could then have a view into the classroom, thereby mitigating some of the social isolation that is part of online learning. (I have three degrees from online programs and can say that the feeling of social isolation is difficult. I understand.)

Parents and teachers immediately asked about privacy concerns related to the robotic cameras. Both groups say that they don’t want the kids on video, broadcast into someone’s home. This is a legitimate concern that needs to be addressed. Having this technology in the classroom also creates cyberbullying opportunities. We all have cameras that can capture broadcasts well, and editing software on those phones that can, potentially, ruin someone’s life. Now, take a look at the picture I added to the top of this post. Suppose I were to make a face like that in the classroom? That’s an instant meme. It still could be, but I contributed the picture and it’s not that bad, so I am inclined to shrug off that possibility.

One thing I noticed during crisis teaching is that my students did not want to be on video. Teens are often keen on taking selfies and creating videos, but on their terms. I would say most humans are. We don’t notice the cameras in stores anymore, but I’m old enough to remember being uncomfortable around them when I was younger. For those who say that the kids will get used to it and no one likes change, I agree, but need to ask: Do the kids really need yet one more thing to adapt to at this time?

In the next post, I will address curriculum and instruction concerns. This post addressed what is most important at this time – the health and safety of all stakeholders in education.

COVID-19 and The Five Conflicts

The last time I wrote in this blog, I had no idea how much my life was going to change shortly after I published a post about Moodle. Since then, I have entered the life I have always wanted: I have become an English teacher. This is my first year in public education, and it has been cut short by COVID-19. I offer this blog post as a reflection on that reality.

No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

From Meditation 17 by John Donne

I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

From “Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman

Why Do We Have to Read Literature?

I’ve heard this question so many times. My answer, now that we are in the midst of a crisis, a pandemic: Because we need to prepare for moments like these. We need to prepare for frightening times, for joyful moments, for sad moments… for moments. We read literature to learn about the human condition, to absorb it within ourselves, to emerge from reading more a part of the human community than we were before. We read literature to learn more about our interdependence – not only with other humans but with the entire world, with all the beings, with all of it. We read literature to help ourselves admit our interdependence and to learn how to accept it. Eventually, we get it. It may be long after high school is over, but I hope that most do not have to wait that long.

What about the Five Conflicts?

We read literature for examples of the five conflicts (some might disagree on the number, but I learned of five, so I am sticking with that number) because we need to know how to cope with them. As a history major in 1993, I realized that humans can learn from the mistakes of the past. Our condition is such that we reflect on what has happened historically to make progress. As an English teacher, I have seen that we can use the five conflicts to categorize history within the context of literature (fiction and nonfiction) and make it more manageable.

The five conflicts are: person versus person; person versus society; person versus nature; person versus self; and person versus the supernatural. For each, we can find examples within literature to help us learn how to deal with these conflicts in our own lives.

Therefore, I leave you with this question (because English teachers aren’t supposed to spoon-feed the answers but rather help you to discover the answers within): What examples can you find within your literature treasure chest to address these conflicts? I bet you have read more than you might realize. While we have this time, think about it. Feel free to leave a comment below.

Be good to you, your family, and your loved ones.