Upsetting the Apple Cart Not Always a Bad Thing

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.” –Maya Angelou

Blank stares fill the conference room, frustration palpable. “There’s no way to do this. Some students are just not going to learn the material,” Sheila laments. The challenges of emergency, remote instruction during the pandemic were clear.

“And what about the emotional and physical trauma our students and their families are experiencing?” Barry says. “Unless that’s resolved, learning isn’t going to happen.

True, but let’s do one thing at a time,” Cortesia responds. “What if we parked buses with the portable WiFi outside the apartment complex for two hours every afternoon? Students could download lessons and assignments and upload their completed work to their teachers.

“Not everyone has access to tech in their apartments,” Jack says, “or, if they do, it’s not at the exact same time as when we would park the bus there. Parents may be using the family’s one computer for their own work. Plus, what about our rural students: Are we going to take our buses to them as well? That’s expensive and time-consuming, but if we don’t do it, how is that conscionable?

“Agreed,” Cortesia replies. “Let’s keep at it.”

They need to get lessons to students in their homes and to get completed assignments back from students so they can assess them, provide feedback, and direct the next steps in instruction. They also need to assist students with the traumatic elements of social distancing before learning can take place. After brainstorming their own suggestions and studying what other schools around the country are doing to bring remote instruction to students, they have a beginning list of possible actions, some more immediate than others, but all providing oxygen to suffocating challenges (see figure 1).

Now, our group pulls the camera back to encompass more of their reality, recognizing the myriad of other difficulties with remote instruction (or blended instruction with in-person learning as schools implement personal protection procedures during the year), responses to which will require significant departure from normal. They wonder:

  • Long-used instructional practices in the classroom don’t transfer well to online, remote instruction: How do we teach now, especially if we’re being developmentally appropriate for the age we teach?
  • Some of us are struggling with new ways to assess students on our course content. There just doesn’t seem to be any remote version we can create that is similar to how we’ve been assessing students, and how do we make sure the work students do at home is truly their own?
  • Zoom fatigue is real: How do we make our lessons via a tablet or computer screen more engaging?
  • Remote instruction, even blended with some in-person teaching, is slower than daily, in-classroom teaching. We can’t get through all the curriculum we normally do. How do we sort what’s worth keeping in the current curriculum and what needs to be left out due to limited time and utility? And what do we do about last year’s curriculum that was barely learned, if at all: Do we integrate it with the new year’s curriculum because it’s important enough for students to learn it?
  • Strong teacher-student relationships are key to student engagement, especially in middle school, but our normal, go-to activities to build those relationships at the beginning of the year are no longer available. As we begin the new year with a new set of students, what can we do to really connect with one another and establish community?
  • What do we do when students simply don’t show up for remote instruction?
  • And how do we stay healthy and effective as teachers when we are required to teach students both in-person and online?

Reinventing Teaching

This is all daunting, seemingly beyond our capacity to resolve. We’re used to being competent, and now we’re floundering, forced suddenly into humility, as nervous as first year teachers. It’s particularly hard, too, when we don’t grant ourselves forgiveness to not get it right at first, or we are averse to re-invention of our teacher selves for fear that we appear less than knowledgeable. As we strip away pretense and accept these truths, however, maybe we can do something extraordinary: Let go of earlier versions of our teacher selves, untether thinking, re-examine long-practiced rarely-questioned strategies, cull complacency, and invite new and provocative ways of teaching into our practice. Could this be a moment to invigorate a previously flagging energy and professionalism, and a chance to find personal evolution?

As so many have remarked, necessity is the mother of invention, and boy, is this the time to question what we do and to reinvent one’s approach in response. Let’s look deeply at what really works in teaching, and whether it resonates with students and results in lasting learning. Let’s see our call to be innovative right now not as a burden to bear, but as a wellspring from which we draw rich ideas and new perspectives for student learning and meaningful teaching.

Student Involvement

We can invite students into the teaching-learning dynamo, for example, asking them to plan or deliver some lessons themselves (really, they can often run circles around us with their tech prowess, and they’re looking for a way to be active and contribute!). We can invite them to think of different ways to assess the same standard, as long as we’re focused on accurate evidence of proficiency, not compliance that they followed a format. They can suggest evocative writing topics and activities that more closely reflect their lives, challenges, and culture, even with controversial topics, that would still enable clear demonstrations of intended learning.

We can look online for how other teachers teach the same things we do and borrow from them, or outright ask students to watch them instead of us. We can consider how to let students build physical/ virtual models with at least one moving piece to demonstrate abstract ideas, and they can create podcast debates between historical figures or a series of postcards or Instagram reflections from specific characters in their novels. Culture, class, gender, and racist intersectionality as originated by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw can be explored and expressed via dozens of avenues in fine and performing arts, as can Boyle’s Law (gas pressure increases as volume of its container decreases), laws of algebra (commutative, associative, distributive), and the Bill of Rights. We can leverage the world of experiential education, often found in physical education and outdoor education programs, to increase engagement and understanding of academic subjects. We can infuse instruction with more suspense, foreshadow, and constructivism instead of mere declarations of fact, igniting the curious minds before us. This is the chance to get truly excited about the “out there” possibilities.

We all feel out of control about what’s happening, students even more so. Let’s move our classes closer to a creative, modified democracy, turning over some learning facilitation to students, integrating topics previously taught in unconnected silos. Students will feel like they matter, that they have choice and voice. Sitting and passively receiving virtual instruction all day in a 24-7, anxiety-filled world exacerbates depression and divestment.

Embrace the Opportunity

There’s nothing about remote instruction that says we give up all we know about effective teaching. When we sacrifice sound principles, we feel lost ourselves, we succumb, losing steam in our own efforts. If we’re principled first, actionable second, we fight just a little harder, last a little longer, as we confront the creative challenges ahead. In this effort, let’s see our forced lesson and assessment modernizations as great opportunities to revisit our core values as teachers, and how we manifest them weekly:

Let’s teach the way students best learn, not the way we or their classmates best learn. Let’s not be beholden to the school calendar or the master schedule if parting ways from it can improve student learning. Let’s think deductively and inductively simultaneously, and let’s extrapolate, experience curiosity, and even awe. Let’s be developmentally appropriate in our instruction and stop thinking we must replicate the policies and practices in the grade levels above us as the only way to prepare students for those levels. Let’s stop perceiving ourselves as the sole arbiters of all there is to know, limiting students to our concept of excellence. And heck, yeah, our students learning from home can still conduct book discussions, mock trials, debates, musical performances, Socratic seminars, poetry slams, group workouts for physical education classes, and dramatic plays so vital to their learning and growth.

And let’s write these operational tenets down and discuss them with colleagues. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but wow, it is cleansing and liberating!

Some of us have let our own creativity atrophy over the years, though, just going through the lessons and motions of years past with each new set of students. When we weren’t looking, we fell into a comforting and familiar pattern, though it be full of ruts: A student with special needs who can’t learn with a given technique, for example, will just have to deal with it because there are no other options to get at the same learning right now—when really there are wonderful ways to do it.

Assessment Possibilities

In another instance, we may think there is only one way to assess the current content, when there are many. In a recent webinar, I asked a school to give me a random school topic and I would brainstorm at least eight ways to assess it substantively (no frivolous or superficial demonstrations) in under one minute’s time. They gave me, “pronouns,” and I drafted these,

  • Define pronoun, antecedent, noun.
  • Identify pronouns.
  • Identify antecedents to which pronouns refer.
  • Substitute pronouns for nouns.
  • Explain why pronouns are important – What’s their function?
  • Ask students to critique pretend classmates’ work with improper use of pronouns and its effect upon the reader, then to explain what the classmate would need to be taught in order to use them properly.
  • Analyze writing with strong and weak use of pronouns.
  • Describe how other cultures handle the functions we attribute to pronouns in English.

Then, I asked for another topic, unrelated to the first one. They chose, “Coding.” Ugh, I hadn’t coded since COBOL, FORTRAN, and BASIC. Nonetheless, here’s the one-minute’s brainstorming, trying to mix in a very limited understanding of today’s coding:

  • Explain the function of each line/element of code.M/li>
  • What algorithms are used in this particular code?
  • Describe the build.
  • Critique others’ code and make recommendations on how to make it more efficient for the task.
  • Describe typical mistakes coders use with this particular code or build.
  • How does block-based programming differ from text line code?
  • Is the code agile?
  • What happened when you submitted your code to the compiler – What was lost in the translation?

In case they’re helpful, here is an initial list of complex assessment prompts to keep on hand for use in multiple subject areas:

  • One of these is impossible to answer, figure out which one and explain why.
  • For each multiple-choice problem, explain why your answer is correct and the others are not.
  • Identify four metaphors for this science, math, writing, engineering, art, music, health, government, legal, media, or philosophical concept and a favorite sport or hobby.
  • Here’s how five different classmates responded to this particular question – Who did it correctly, and how do you know? Who did it incorrectly, and what would they need to be re-taught?
  • Given this question, here is its correct answer. Demonstrate two different ways to arrive at this answer.
  • Have a debate between two of these components about who’s function has more impact on the success of the whole. (Alternatively: ‘Between two historical/ literary/scientific figures about a modern debate topic.)
  • Would your answer to the previous question change if you were given this new variable…? Why or why not?
  • Add your own voice in the assessment: If we left your name off the project, would we know it was you that created it? Express your individual voice in at least three elements.

The more we practice building fluency and dexterity with teaching and assessment ideas like this, the faster and more effective are our choices, and they are at our mental fingertips when we need them. This is a great time to brainstorm assessment possibilities, engaging lessons, interdisciplinary connections, how to bring students’ personal lives into their learning, and problem-solving, just for its own sake. When we don’t develop this versatility, it becomes easier to blame students and situations when learning flounders. We give up; there’s nothing in the tank, and worse, students are treated inequitably. Their learning, hope for themselves, and trust in us are jeopardized.

We Can Do This

So, let’s use this time to widen our repertoire and feed our own intellectual selves. It goes back to the, “If all I have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” thinking we want to avoid. In AMLE Magazine’s 2014 piece, “The Intellectual Life of Teachers,” I outline specific steps we can take to re-build this problem-solving, creative capacity.

Humor is deeply connective and creative, too. It releases the dopamine we need to stay attentive and invest in what we’re doing and, when used well, it builds community. Seriously, put occasionally bizarre, humorous, “punny,” satirical, and funny elements into the online learning and assessment experiences. For example, instead of asking students to determine the carrying capacity of a swimming pool, ask them to figure out how many boxes of chocolate pudding you’d need to fill it up, and what kind of fun games you could play with a pool full of chocolate pudding.

If remote learning is not available for some students, take a picture of yourself holding a funny and encouraging sign made uniquely for a particular student, and send it through the Postal Service to the student’s home. Appear outside the front windows of their homes in a crazy costume and offer a personal message of connection and encouragement. At the end of homework or assessment questions on content, throw in a question about something completely unrelated, but interesting to answer. For example, after several math problems ask, “For what do you have more use in your life: parallel or perpendicular lines?” “Describe a time when you laughed so hard that what you were drinking at the time came out of your nose.”

Teach while holding an umbrella over your head, as if it were raining only on you. Don’t say anything about it. If a student comments on why you’re holding it indoors and it’s not raining, tell him that in your reality it is raining and that you’d kindly like him to be careful where he walks as he is splashing through puddles in his own home right and left. Occasionally stick out a hand, palm up, to see if it’s still raining. There’s a child-like playfulness here that catches students unaware and invites imagination.

These and other ideas about using humor can be found in AMLE Magazine’s 2019 piece, “Humor? Yes, Please!”

In difficult times, tennis champion, HIV/AIDS educator, and civil rights activist, Arthur Ashe, often reminded us to, “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” We can do this in the small and larger moments of reimagining and facilitating student learning in the year ahead. In any hard change, though, it’s a process, not an event, so let this all be a progression. Don’t despair over steps that were smaller than we thought they would be or the times we stumble down blind alleys. And as Maya said above, we can’t use up creativity.

Let’s make sure to invite students to walk the path with us, imperfectly navigating a deeply challenging situation as we are—and maybe even lead the way. Just as forest fire can bring new and unprecedented growth to places that were overgrown and strangling all new life, this is an opportunity to renew ourselves, add colors to our palette, and find vitality where it may have waned. And wow, education needs life and color right now, so run with it.

Rick Wormeli is a long-time teacher, consultant and author living in Herndon, Virginia. His book, The Collected Writings (So Far) of Rick Wormeli: Crazy, Good Stuff I Learned about Teaching Along the Way, is available from Fair Isn’t Always Equal, Second Edition (Stenhouse Publishers), was released in 2018 and Summarization in any Subject: 60 Innovative, Tech-Infused Strategies for Deeper Student Learning, 2nd edition (ASCD), co-authored with Dedra Stafford, was released in 2019.

Published in AMLE Magazine, August 2020.