Cleveland Teaching Collaborative

Moving Walls

Charles Ellenbogen

Language & Literature Diploma Programme I

Campus International High School

78 11th graders

ZoomGoogle Classroom

Charles Ellenbogen recently completed his 27th year of teaching. This includes 9 years of working with the International Baccalaureate program. He recently published a teaching memoir called This Isn’t the Movies. . He taught at Baltimore City College High School from 2002-2005. From 2002-2004, he and Jason were in the English Department together. He is a self-proclaimed Luddite.

The unit of study here is the last part of a semester long-study called, ‘Nevertheless, She Resisted.’ Prior to “Antigone,” the texts that were studied were Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and In the Time of the Butterflies by Julia Alvarez. The students were preparing for their Internal Oral Commentary which had to be postponed because of COVID-19.

English 9 / Composition

English Department

Da Vinci Design High School

Jason White

65 9th graders

ZoomGoogle Classroom

Jason White just finished his 22nd year of teaching, including stints at 5 different public and charter elementary, middle, and high schools in three different states.  He is completely unpublished, although he has probably written enough on social media in the past 10 years to fill volumes.  Charles mentored him during his successful quest to earn a National Board Certification in Adolescence and Young Adult / English Language Arts.  He has enjoyed the transition from chalkboards to Smartboards, and is constantly incorporating new technology into his teaching practice.  

There are two units of study included in Jason’s portion of the article.  One was the tail end of a unit entitled “What Would Shakespeare Do?” in which students read Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”  and then wrote and performed their own modern adaptations of scenes from the play.  The second unit was called “Telling the Story of the Year” and took place entirely in the virtual learning environment, as students read a variety of short stories, narratives and poetry and then wrote their own personal narratives, short stories, and poems which told about their own experiences over the past year.

Introduction: How We Got Started

A mutual colleague gathered the members of the 2002-04 Baltimore City College High School English Department for a virtual book club to discuss Charles’ book. As the discussion proceeded, it moved – like book club discussions so often do – away from the book to the way we were all scrambling to make the shift to teaching online. Jason and Charles noticed that they had a lot of similar thoughts and questions and made arrangements to talk at another time.

Charles in Cleveland

I had plans to take the students to see a production of “Antigone” at the Cleveland Playhouse; however, the show was canceled once the guidelines for social distancing were enforced.The theater did offer a Behind-the-Scenes look at the production, which was useful, but it was no substitute for a live show. Thanks to a contact on social media (which has, in its way, simply removed communication walls), I learned of a recorded version of Theater of War’s production of “Antigone in Ferguson.” and announced to my students that I would be showing it during our assigned class time. In addition, I contacted Bryan Doerries, the company’s Artistic Director, about joining the class after we had finished viewing the production. Though apart, we still had the communal experience of watching a play together. The Artistic Director  agreed to join our class after we watched the play, and the students asked great questions both about the specific production and the company in general. After it was over, several students remarked on how much easier it was to understand the play when it was set in such a familiar modern context and discussed how powerful art could be, even if it is thousands of years old. The production, which resets Antigone in Ferguson, Missouri, features many people who knew Mike Brown, and was staged in the auditorium where he graduated high school, has become a touchstone for the class as they’ve navigated their responses to the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breona Taylor, and George Floyd as well as the subsequent protests.

Scene from “Antigone in Ferguson” (Wellspring Church, St. Louis, MO, 2016)

Normally, students go into a school building that is surrounded by walls and into classrooms that are contained by walls and then the teachers close their doors. COVID-19 forced all of us to move outside of those familiar walls. Rather than trying to dwell on this as a crisis, Jason and I talked about how we can move considering our physical classroom as our sole learning environment. What if, Jason asked, we started thinking about virtual learning environments? Prior to “Antigone in Ferguson,” I had pretty much limited myself to the virtual learning environments established by Zoom and Google Classroom. Based on the students’ engagement with both the production and discussion of “Antigone in Ferguson” and in keeping with the semester’s theme of women and resistance, I asked my  students to attend a live stream of a discussion of women’s suffrage led by Virginia Kase, CEO of the League of Women Voters. The City Club of Cleveland, which hosted the discussion, provided the audience with an opportunity to text their questions and, using the Question feature on Google Classroom, students discussed the forum in real time. I was able to reflect on this experience and our virtual attendance in a blog post published on the City Club’s website). Since the City Club archives their forums and makes them publicly available for free, students who did not watch during the assigned class time were still able to complete the assignment in an asynchronous manner, an element all teachers will have to consider moving forward.

Virginia Kase, CEO of the League of Women Voters –

I teach at Campus International High School in Cleveland. One of the school’s principles is The City is Our Campus. By re-imagining the meaning of ‘campus’ and using standard digital tools like Google Classroom and Zoom,I was able to honor one of the school’s key principles and provide the kind of academic enrichment that a field trip can provide. Similarly, Jason also shifted walls in order to maintain one of his school’s key principles – that of exposing students to professionals in relevant fields – by reconsidering the concept of walls. And since he could now ignore the physical walls that separated his classroom from the outside world, he was able to welcome other writers, including myself. 

Jason in El Segundo

I work at Da Vinci Design (DVD) High School ( Da Vinci Design High School Website), a public charter school in El Segundo, CA.  My school is a Project Based Learning (  PBL ) school, and it promotes several key practices including Design-Based Thinking, Real World Learning, Collaboration, Fostering Industry and Higher Ed Partnerships, and Interdisciplinary Projects.  There are other practices that are present in many PBL schools, including Exhibition and Presentations of Learning (POLs).  In the school, teachers are given many tools to help support PBL in their classrooms.  Beginning in the middle of March, my challenge was to find ways to transfer the best practices of PBL into the virtual classroom.

I had one driving thought as soon as it was announced that our school would be closing down physically but learning would continue virtually:  teaching and learning must continue.  I had over four years of experience using Google Classroom already and was pretty confident that I could easily deliver instruction and assignments to students using Google Classroom as a Learning Management System.  I was already in the habit of providing students with a daily overview of what we were going to be working on in class each day using a Google Slideshow; I merely decided to provide a new slideshow every day in hopes that it would help students stay on track (and maintain some semblance of the physical classroom experience).

One of many slides from the Daily Slideshows designed to help students keep up with their work.

I also maintained most of our practices ( daily questions of the day, Twenty Questions Tuesday, daily independent reading, individual student check-ins, just to name a few ) although these practices were modified to work in a virtual learning environment.  For example, before the shutdown of schools, I would merely pose the daily questions and then ask each student to respond verbally; I used it to help take attendance, and also to check in with students really quickly.  In the virtual learning environment, I posed a question on Google Classroom that the students had to answer; I was able to still use the questions for the same purposes.  As an added bonus, thanks to one of the settings on Google Classroom, students could also respond to each other and comment on the answers that they gave to various questions.  At times, mini-discussions broke out online that would have been a distraction or a disturbance in the physical classroom Whatever it took, I was determined to make sure that students were not just filling in online worksheets; I wanted them to still have opportunities to be creative in their work, just as they had been doing throughout the school year.

Classroom PracticePhysical ClassroomVirtual Classroom
Daily Check-In QuestionsEveryone gets called on to give a verbal answerQuestions are posed on Google Classroom; students can give their answers and comment on the responses of their classmates.
Twenty-Questions Tuesday (a fun thinking game to start off the class)One student picks the item, and everyone else asks questions, one at a time.Same process, just done in a Zoom meeting; questions were often asked using the “Chat” feature if students had connectivity issues.
Daily Independent ReadingStudents all read for 20 minutes simultaneously and then wrote annotations in their physical reading journals.Students were responsible for reading for 20 minutes per day at any time of day; they filled in an online tracker of their reading with their own annotations.
Individual Student Reading Check-InsThe teacher spoke to 4-5 students every day during Independent reading, rotating through the classroom, speaking with students about their personal reading progress.  It would take about two weeks to rotate through the whole class.Small groups of 4-5 students met in Zoom meetings with the teacher to discuss their reading progress with the teacher and each other.  The groups were on a two week rotation, so they were assigned to a meeting every two weeks or so.

Online Exhibition of Student Work

Like Charles, right around the Ides of March, I found myself in the middle of a unit focused on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.  On March 13th (the last day that our school building was open), my classes finished reading the final act of the play.  Throughout the reading of the play, the students had been working on understanding and paraphrasing Shakespeare’s words so they could translate and understand what is almost a foreign language.  They also spent time considering, discussing and writing about many questions about reading one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays:  Is it still relevant?  Does this story still deserve to be told?  Is the language still accessible?  As the curtain dropped on learning in the physical classroom, my students still had a project to work on called “What Would Shakespeare Do?” where they would have to take what they had learned and apply it in their project: a modern translation / adaptation of one scene (or more) from the play.

While the students were originally going to work collaboratively in small groups to write and perform a translated / adapted scene from “Romeo and Juliet,” I realized that due to their physical separation and social distancing, it was best to give students the option of working individually or in small groups (most students chose the individual option, but there were a few groups that still found a way to collaborate virtually on the project).  Also, all of their work was originally going to be performed live during a school-wide Exhibition (a long-standing practice at DVD) that was scheduled to happen in early April.  As the quarantine and school closure were both extended, and the in-person Exhibition was cancelled, I transitioned to a virtual Exhibition of my student’s work, which was held online (using Zoom).  

Since a live performance was no longer an option, I told students that they would need to produce a recording of their performance (audio or video) which they would share at the Exhibition.  Due to Wi-Fi connectivity issues and interruptions, it became clear early on that pre-recorded performances were preferable to glitchy live readings.  Students also had plenty of opportunities to revise and edit their performances prior to the Exhibition.  During the morning of Exhibition Day, all the students who submitted a finished project came together in a Zoom meeting and presented their work to their peers and family members in a two-hour-long Exhibition.  I served as the MC for the show, as well as the producer and technical director.  In other words, it was two of the longest and most tiring hours of the whole school year.  As we moved from one performance to the next, students turned on their microphones and introduced their performances to the audience.  So while all of the performances were recorded, their intros were not.  That allowed for some brief Q & A sessions (which would be expanded upon in the end-of-semester POLs).  I also recorded the Exhibition and played it again in the evening for another audience of students and their families.

Students took a number of different creative approaches to recording the performances of their adaptations of scenes from “Romeo and Juliet,” including using handmade puppets.

Presentation of Learning Project

Right after the Exhibition was over, we rolled right into our regularly-scheduled Spring Break.  While my students were taking a week off from their studies, I was busy planning out the last seven weeks of the semester.  I decided on a project called, “Telling the Story of the Year” where students would read short stories, narratives and poetry, and then write their own to help tell their stories of the past year.  As I planned out the whole project, I decided to include a critique step (part of our Design process) that would bring published writers together with my student writers for a “professional” feedback session.  There was only one problem:  I don’t really hang out with published writers on a regular basis.  So I went outside my usual walls and tried the crowdsourcing route. I put out a call for writers on my Facebook page.  I tagged a few people who I’m lucky enough to call friends (former classmates, former colleagues, former students) who are also published writers, and some of them agreed to help out with something I’ve never done before: a live feedback session on Zoom with professional writers and student writers.  I didn’t have any authors signed up, and the students hadn’t written a single word for the project yet, but I subscribe to the “if you build it, they will come” philosophy.  I went ahead and put it on the project plan and outline that I gave the students at the beginning of the project.

The Da Vinci Design High School Design Process, along with the professional writers who participated in the feedback sessions with the student writers.

The project contained all of the aspects of our school’s Design Process (Care, Conceptualize, Create, Critique), but the critique step was the highlight for me.    The students had already  read and given feedback to their peers through shared Google Docs and this round with Professional Writers / Writing Professionals gave them an opportunity to get feedback from actual writers,editors, and experienced teachers.  Charles, who had recently published a memoir of his first 25 years of teaching, agreed to be one of our guest writers, and he joined four other writers for 9 different sessions that took place over the course of a week.  During the sessions, students read about three minutes worth of their material (they chose whether to read their short story, narrative or poetry), and then the panel (composed of the guest writer along with a small group of students and myself) asked clarifying questions and gave feedback on the writing.  While the writers gave some really insightful feedback, it was also inspiring to listen as the students jumped in and not only gave really positive compliments (kind and specific), but also gave some very helpful suggestions to their peers.  From my point of view, this was not only one of the best feedback sessions I have been able to facilitate this school year (virtual or not); it was a career highlight.  I also realize that, had the quarantine not happened, I probably would not have planned out something like this. By reconsidering the limits of my classroom and stepping outside of my usual physical classroom walls, I was able to provide students with unique and enriching learning experiences that exemplified some of the most challenging and rewarding work that we had done together all school year.

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