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Writing Together in Remote Spaces

One of the many changes brought about by the pandemic, whether we are returning to school in-person or remotely, is the ability to gather together in close proximity to learn and write together. As a school coach-leader and staff developer, I have been thinking a lot about this: How might we as teachers replicate or create an emotionally safe and supportive space, normally held by a warm, close classroom, in a digital space?

Earlier this summer, I became fascinated by an idea presented in a blog post written by Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul. In the post, I remember Dr. Cherry-Paul suggesting an alternative to sending kids off to write independently after a lesson by signing off of a synchronous meet to go write on their own. Instead, the teacher holds the writing community together for independent writing time – right there on the Zoom or Google meet – conferring in real-time and remaining available for support.

Again, fascinated with this idea of keeping writers together virtually, I decided to try this out with a group of middle school teachers I was working with remotely this summer. Interested in trying the idea out in a few different ways, I wanted to see what possible benefits and downsides might emerge with this remote technique. Allow me to describe my experience:

Placing the teachers in the seats of the learners, I taught the teachers a minilesson that lasted around 8 minutes or so. I then invited each teacher to: (1) create a personal work plan (“Give me a thumbs-up when you’ve got your plan!” I said), and (2) begin working while remaining on the Zoom meeting.

On day one of teaching this way, everyone worked for a sustained period – as a whole group – while I conferred with individuals. Afterwards, we all debriefed together. “How was this for you?” I asked. Some teachers really liked remaining together and with me. One commented that it not only provided a community-like feel to the work time, but if she had a question or needed to touch base with me, I was right there. Others, however, found it difficult to concentrate while I was conferring with others. For those students, we discussed perhaps lowering the volume of devices to mitigate distraction, but we were not exactly sure how writers might be pulled back together for a final share? Maybe ask writers to use a timer? Perhaps a brightly colored sign or post-it waved in front of the teacher camera could work?

On day two, following the minilesson, instead of holding all teacher writers together on the same screen, I sent them off to write with a partner in a breakout room – a micro-community, if you will (breakout rooms are now also available in Google Meet with this extension). I then popped into various breakout rooms, conferring first with individuals (partner 1), then transitioning to a partner conference by offering the same tip to the other partner (partner 2). This is a way of conferring I had practiced often in physical classrooms and wanted to try in a digital space. While this way of working did not quite replicate a “whole-class-working-together feel“, teacher writers did find themselves reacting positively to both the writing time in the company of a partner, as well as a shared conference. At the end of independent writing time, I first broadcast a message that time was nearly up, then closed the breakout rooms so I could bring everyone back together for directions for the share.

While perhaps not for everyone, these two options do provide a framework for connection. Last spring it became widely understood that many kids do not feel at ease in the online classroom; but if these ways of working were to become routinized, perhaps an important goal of mitigating isolation might be accomplished.

Furthermore, these ways of working also place the teacher in the role of Communication Guide, teaching kids how to communicate and collaborate through a screen. This is distinct from the open format of online gaming or facetiming, and it aligns with experiences and skills kids are likely to both encounter and need in their future work lives. Many industries now use digital interfacing to meet and get work done, and this is likely to continue even after the effects of the current pandemic wane.

While extraordinarily challenging, this moment may be forcing many of us to educate in a format that has more direct application to kids’ futures than does the traditional format of a classroom. It may also be expanding our view of what we can and need to accomplish through our online instruction beyond delivering content-based lessons.

I am certain working synchronously this way will likely present other challenges (than the ones I have mentioned) for teachers as we work to navigate this uncertain time. But I want to continue thinking about ways we can forge, create, and maintain human connectedness across this divide placed before us. Because it is through connection that caring is possible. And when kids know we care, they grow more skilled, more confident, and more empathetic.

Feature Image by febrian eka saputra from Pixabay

Lanny Ball View All

For more than 27 years, Lanny has taught, coached, presented, staff developed, and consulted within the exciting and enigmatic world of literacy. With unyielding passion and belief in the possibility of workshop teaching, Lanny has worked to support students, teachers, and school administrators around the country in outgrowing themselves as both writers and readers. Working first as a classroom teacher, then as a coach and TCRWP Staff Developer, Lanny is now a literacy specialist, working and living in the great state of Connecticut. Outside of literacy, he enjoys raising his three ambitious young daughters with his wife, and playing the piano. Find him on this blog, as well as on Twitter @LannyBall. Lanny is also a co-author of a blog dedicated to supporting teachers and coaches that maintain classroom writing workshops, twowritingteachers.org.

13 thoughts on “Writing Together in Remote Spaces Leave a comment

  1. It’s so helpful to see your research in action. My philosophy about online courses is to bring the seated course online – not create something different. If we believe Vygotsky, we can’t leave students to learn by themselves. Staying true to our philosophy that we learn best with and through others, online teaching has options that can enhance writing, such as multiple ways to confer and provide feedback. Thanks for sharing this!

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  2. I did this when we went remote in the Spring — keeping everyone in the main Zoom chat and then in breakout rooms, but many students said they preferred being away from the screen as they wrote. They found the silence of the screen to be awkward (like me, it felt like. So, instead, I scheduled them for conferences and we “synchronized our watches”. I also told them to drop any questions or thoughts they wanted to share into the chat. We then used the discussion board feature in Eduflow to share what we wrote with each other for snaps/feedback (I only allowed positive feedback in the spring – like which part of their writing did you respond to most and why / which part of their writing gave you ideas for your own writing or made you curious to hear more)

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  3. I hopped over to my email to send a note to our tech person about the Google extension. I will be teaching some remotely and some in person, a juggling act for sure. Thanks for helping me feel more confident.

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  4. Hi Lanny,
    I like this idea a lot. When I tried something similar last year, I had students turn off their video(if they wanted to) and turn off their sound while they worked. They were writing on Google Docs so I conferred via the comments feature on Docs. I was planning on trying out voice comments on docs this year. Then students came back at a set time. Did you confer via the chat feature or did you just talk?

    Waving a brightly colored post it sounds like a good idea too or maybe writing a message in the chat box.

    Tara

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    • Hi Tara, thank you for this! In my conferring I just spoke to the writers as I would normally in a physical classroom. I took notes as we conferred, just as I normally would, too. If it had been an actual class of mine, I like the idea of following up on Google docs with perhaps a comment like, “Hi! Last time we talked about making every detail connect to your meaning…how’s that been going?” I feel like I’m still figuring this out like everyone else. Thanks so much 🙂

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  5. I did this in the spring with a group of 5th graders – we all stayed together after the mini-lesson about a new form of poetry I came across – the nonet. The students were intrigued by the unique form (9 lines with each line containing a specific amount of syllables in descending order. The first line contains nine syllables, the second line contains eight, the third line contains seven, and so on. When we stayed together to write, the students did so easily. A few got my attention and asked for clarification or just wanted to talk through their poem idea before they wrote. Others went off right away to compose. One student finished quickly, and I asked the group to pause while their classmate read her poem aloud. This gave the students who were still writing a foundation from which to revise their poems. And the student who was “finished”. went back to edit her poem and begin another and another, and then also created her own unique syllable form of poetry. I loved the easy flow of writing this way. It seemed like we were actually in the room together. The barriers were down. I can’t wait to try breakout rooms for writing! Thank you for the idea!

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    • Thank you so much for sharing your experience! The poetry session sounds like it really worked, and I loved how you said, “It seemed like we were actually in the room together.” That’s what I was going for when I tried this. Good luck with the breakout rooms, and thanks so much for commenting here 🙂

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  6. We are starting in person this year but I love this idea if we have to go virtual. Our District’s virtual plan has the students coming back on after 15 minutes of writing but I think this would be so much better. Thanks for sharing.

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  7. Thank you. I’ll be teaching a morning section of first graders this year. We did something like this last year with our TC Staff Developer Natalie Louis, and the kids seemed to love it. I want to try the Breakout Rooms this year too. I haven’t done that. Please keep posting ideas for keeping our remote learners engaged!

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