Course: Language and Literature, Middle Years Program
Department: English Department
Institution: Campus International School, K-8
Instructor: Marcy Perry
Number and Level of Students Enrolled: 98 students in 6th and 7th grade
Marcy Perry has been teaching 6th and 7th grade Language and Literature at Campus International School in Cleveland, Ohio for 4 years.
In the spring of 2020, all CMSD schools closed their doors, and I was faced with the opportunity and challenge to design and enact remote learning experiences for middle schoolers. The context of teaching and learning had changed suddenly, however, incorporating synchronous and asynchronous learning models enhanced remote learning.
Some pedagogical approaches that sit well in traditional classroom settings inside of buildings, conform nicely to cyber classrooms inside of homes. For example, we know that learning experiences originating in the classroom gain depth when they extend beyond the behavioral pedagogy of Pavlov’s dogs and Skinner’s rats. Providing students the opportunity to explore content and make connections in different spaces and at different paces can improve understanding, inspire empathy, and help teachers and students uncover conceptual and contextual misunderstandings. Providing these types of constructive experiences in a home-based virtual learning environment can yield some of the same benefits.
The key to providing a constructive virtual learning experience lies in combined synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities. Synchronous learning is based on common events and/or materials to which all students are introduced and use, and can include copying notes from the board in a classroom, listening to a lecture or attending a live video conference during fixed times and in fixed locations. An asynchronous learning task has variable expectations for how and when students process information and their experience. An example of an asynchronous opportunity is an interactive discussion board on which students respond over time, and at their own pace. The hybrid of synchronous and asynchronous learning models provide the familiarity of routine and expectation, while offering students the flexibility needed to grapple with time, technology, text and their own thoughts on the topics and instructional materials.
The City Club of Cleveland is one of our nation’s oldest freedom of speech forums. Their programming, typically hosted in front of a live audience, includes forums on a range of locally and nationally significant topics. Their platform, which is rooted in democratic discourse and conversations, transitioned to virtual forums after the state of Ohio shut down, cancelling all non-essential publicly held events. Having students attend their live virtual forums is one way to implement hybrid synchronous and asynchronous learning models during cyber school. Students who attend the live forum online are in a virtually different space and share a common moment with other attendees. They respond to accompanying text, and reflect on and connect to the content of the forum and other texts at their own pace. This hybrid of synchronicity models using the virtual forum as its base experience emphasizes the need to develop these types of lessons as a complementary literacy practice.
My class was already scheduled to attend one of these live forums before the shut downs. In lieu of the in-person live event, students attended two live virtual forums. The first City Club of Cleveland event, The “Great Equalizer” Myth: Race, Class, and Coronavirus with Dr. Rashawn Ray, took place on April 21st. The second event, Love, Resilience, and Survival: Lessons from War and Tragedy with Loung Ung, took place on April 24th. Both forums were directly related to the current events, the novel studies of Refugee by Alan Gratz and Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai, and the related texts we were studying in class before schools were shuttered.
The components of the lesson are FOCUS, THINK, RESPOND/REFLECT/CONNECT:
FOCUS Introduce the focusing question(s), any accompanying readings, the speaker and topic details as an assignment on Google Classroom.
THINK Students begin to explore the contents and organize their thoughts on the topic. They read and take notes on the accompanying text, reflecting on the focusing questions, and generating questions for the speaker. Questions for the speaker are recorded in Google Classrooms and submitted to the City Club of Cleveland prior to the speaking event. Students may use graphic organizers to uncover connections between facts and ideas.
RESPOND/REFLECT/CONNECT Students write a response to the focus and text-based questions on Padlet.com or Google Classrooms. Students join the virtual live event via a link posted on the Google Classroom assignment, and/or view the recorded event to help process the content. Students who missed the event live may watch the recorded event or listen to the podcast. They write a response to their peers’ reflections, and reflect on new or interesting information that can be shared with the classroom community. These reflections can be recorded on Padlet.com or Google Classroom.
Hybrid synchronous and asynchronous learning models in virtual classes are (at their best) student centered and empowering. The still burgeoning executive functioning skills of many middle schoolers, however, have not been groomed for the type of agency needed to function independently of the support that students regularly receive in the classroom. For example, the preliminary readings and submission of author questions needed to be completed prior to the virtual event. Some students submitted questions after attending the forum, which is a good way to process information. Still, submitting questions before the forum is necessary to guide student focus, and to reflect on learning.
Students are not always in the best of spirits and may affect others by typing snide or inappropriate comments while attending an online forum. In the well managed traditional classroom, subtle kinesthetic cueing delivered by the instructor is often enough to stop behaviors that violate classroom and school essential agreements. In the home-based virtual classroom, contacting a parent once the infraction is observed is a recourse.
In both of these scenarios, the benefit of traditional school house education where teachers can provide feedback and guidance in real time is lost in a 100% remote learning class.
Recommendations For The Future
Interactive communication between students is a premier form of engagement and an essential component of constructive pedagogy. Getting students to explore content and make connections interactively with their peers requires a great deal of trust in each other and in the learning process. Taking time to build community between peers is important.
Providing real-time feedback to students that reinforce appropriate behavior is necessary in the traditional classroom, and when possible, in virtual settings. Perhaps even more important than adults redirecting inappropriate behaviors is that students learn and apply classroom etiquette, or self-regulating behaviors in favor of those that reflect empathy and productive participation. To this end, a course in which students develop essential agreements for expected behaviors in virtual spaces (netiquette) is necessary, too. The consequences for breaking the essential agreements in the cyber learning community should be aligned with the consequences that occur for violations in the traditional classroom setting.
The rise of digital media and the salience of social media platforms necessitate students understand the power these mediums hold, and use them to create and/or participate in democratic discourse and conversations of their own. Students can use online forums as models or as sources of information that they could then use to lead their own discussion with their peers. Students could hold their own forums to promote and explore their passion.
Mandating the use of graphic organizers, note submissions and responding to the reflections of your peers is necessary for students to demonstrate the thinking and learning process. Also, including multimedia and diverse response options for responding to any asynchronous tasks give students more intellectual agency and space to process information.
Resources and instructional materials
Forum: The “Great Equalizer” Myth: Race, Class, and Coronavirus with Dr. Rashawn Ray
Accompanying Reading: The new coronavirus affects us all. But some groups may suffer more.
Forum: Love, Resilience, and Survival: Lessons from War and Tragedy with Loung Ung
Accompanying Reading: From the memoir First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung, students read from chapters Phnom Penh: April 1975, and Labor Camps: January 1976