Doing School in the Time of COVID–Lessons I’m Learning

How are you doing school this year?  My little school is starting face-to-face instruction.  The administration has done a fantastic job of limiting class size to no more than twelve students (my largest class has eleven seventh graders).  Perhaps I should say that we are a small independent school. The lower and middle school grades remain in the same classroom all day, but the upper school does change classes.  Students are required to wear masks when they enter and leave the building; temperatures are taken as they enter. In the classrooms, the students’ desks are arranged six feet apart for social distance.  My middle schoolers are adapting very well.

I wish I were as adaptable.  I cannot always remember to wear my mask.

I know you’ve read it many times:  teaching is going to look different this year.  What we know to be best practices are going to have to be changed.  I had my “tweens” writing Friday.  To have mini-conferences with them, I had to don the mask/shield before I went to each student. I felt isolated from them even with that small change.  I couldn’t bend down over their shoulders to get close to their writing.  And yet. . . .

I saw my students doing some really good writing (especially for the third day of school).  Best practices are changing into something else.

I discovered two books over the summer that I plan to use to help with writing instruction and with reading, too.  And I rediscovered a third.

The rediscovered book is Katie Wood Ray’s Wondrous Words.  I love her outline for reading like a writer:

  1. Notice something about the text.
  2. Talk about the craft and make a theory about why the writer would use that craft.
  3. Give the craft a name.
  4. Think of other texts you have read.  Have you seen the craft before?
  5. Envision using the craft, and then try the craft.

The other two books are by Jennifer Koppe and Gretchen Bernabei.  I began with Text Structures from Poetry.  After reading the lessons in this book, I felt like I had finally found a strategy to teach students how to read like writers.  The process begins the Katie Wood Ray begins: notice something about the text, talk about it, and give it a name. While we didn’t quite get to step four, we made progress over three days to the fifth step: use the craft in a piece of writing.

Text Structures From Poetry, Grades 4-12     Text Structures From the Masters | Corwin

I haven’t used the second by Koppe and Bernabei, Text Structures from the Masters, yet.

So, here is how we began the three days of writing workshop:

  1.  I introduced the poem “Where I’m From” by George Ella Lyon by having students do some freewriting about where they were from.
  2. I read the poem aloud for them (after they trimmed it to size and glued it into their notebooks). I asked them to underline or mark some things they noticed.  Then we talked about the noticings, and I gave them names, focusing mainly on repetitionparallel structures, and prepositional phrases.
  3. We repeated the freewriting, the oral reading, and noticings on the second day, and began to take notes in our notebooks. We also divided the poem into chunks, and I gave them the term stanza to learn to use instead of paragraphs for poetry.
  4. On the third day, we wrote after reading the poem one more time. I shared my own poem as well.  As I worked my way around the room with my face shield firmly in place, I reminded students that I wanted them to use the structure and the craft and that they did not have to have the same kind of information that Lyon included.

I should add here that our classes are about 43 minutes long. One has to be ready to hit the ground running once class begins.

There is one thing I forgot to take into consideration with this writing assignment: I have two students who are adopted, one from nearly birth, and one who had been in and out of foster care based on the condition of her birth mother. I told each student to use whatever they wanted to in their poems because I wanted them to try the craft and the structures rather than write exact version of the mentor poem.

I will know next week whether these lessons are successful when I get their final copies.

By the way, I have learned a lesson about teaching with masks and face shields:  do not attempt to drink water while wearing a shield. It gets a little messy.

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