In the Time of Corona: Teaching Writers in Uncertain Times

As I write this*, thousands of educators and administrators — as well as students and their caregivers — are all settling into a new reality. It is a reality that means they will likely not be back in physical classrooms in the foreseeable future. It is a reality in which they do not know for sure whether any kind of online learning will be able to replace mandated hours of classroom time.

That said, some practices for teaching writing can be of help to writers at any time, and especially now, in these uncertain times. I offer these suggestions, knowing that my K-12 colleagues are facing a different reality than my colleagues at community colleges and universities, and that issues of equity and access are still pressing across many educational contexts. Not all students have access to technology, and others face different challenges. 

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Teaching Online During a Crisis: Danger and Opportunity Ahead

When John F. Kennedy was on the campaign trail, he was fond of pointing out that the Chinese symbol for crisis is a combination of the words for danger and opportunity. In reflecting on the coronavirus crisis and its impact of American public education, let’s first honor the flood of complicated feelings that educators themselves are experiencing and perhaps feeling overwhelmed by: fear, sadness, anger, helplessness, distractibility, and most of all, uncertainty.

In juggling family needs and work expectations, everyone is feeling the anxiety that comes from a most unusual emergency. Nothing is the same as it was. Our relationships with family, friends, co-workers and students have all been disrupted by the self-isolation that is occurring around the country and around the world. The climbing infection and death rates can’t help but make everyone more than a little edgy, depressed, and fearful. As many states move public education online, there’s never been a greater learning curve for educators and school leaders who now must embrace a full-fledged focus on online learning.

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STEM: “Career readiness” in elementary school—really?

“When do we get to be engineers again?” is not something you would expect second graders to ask. But when Woodland Elementary School in Ohio completed a grade-wide engineering unit, that’s what teachers reported hearing for weeks afterward.

Even as a novel part of their school lives, engineering lessons can make a mark on kids’ imaginations and shape their desire for what to learn. And even without anything like the kind of training they get in language arts and math, elementary school teachers can make engineering work with the right program and a bit of professional development.

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STEM: Leveraging SEL Skills to Improve Science Instruction

Let’s begin with a conversation among fourth graders. These students were sitting in a group of four and discussing structural and behavioral adaptations in plants and animals.

DeVon: Hawks have sharp claws that kill their prey.

Casey: What is this? (looking at a worksheet)

Reshma: Bear?

Diamond: A artic fox has…

Reshma: Insects are shaped like a leaf so predators think they are real leaves.

DeVon: A rosebush has thorns to…where’s this go [inferring the question: is this a structural or behavioral adaptation]?

Reshma: Frogs have long strong legs to hop really far.

At first glance, this sounds like a conversation. The students are talking about the science topic and they are facing one another around the table. But, unfortunately, this isn’t a conversation at all. To qualify as a real conversation, students need to talk to one another, listen carefully to each other, and take turns in the discussion so that one idea builds upon another. This scenario falls short. Although it is terrific to see students actively engaged in a science activity, there is so much more that is possible and necessary in a science classroom so that students get the most out of the instruction. High quality science discussions require students to use social and emotional skills (Hunt, Rimm-Kaufman, Merritt, & Bowers, in press). Without those skills in use, students remain focused on their own ideas. The quality of their answers reflect individual, not collective knowledge.

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STEM: Pi Day and Other Irrational Math Ideas

Pi Day is an annual fun day when people employ a homophone connection and celebrate the day with pie. Irrational? It has taken me by surprise a few times. The most notable was when a popular breakfast restaurant publicized that they were honoring Pi Day. My family begrudgingly put on the Sweetie-Pi and Cow-Pi t-shirts I had purchased at an NCTM conference and wore them to the restaurant. Not a single employee of the restaurant even noticed we were dressed for the occasion (I had to ask a waitress to notice them). Still, I am a fan of Pi Day. In 2015, in fact, I had quite an irrational party, in which we all toasted with champagne at 9:26. (If you are wondering why, consider that Pi is infinite and look at its digits beyond 3.14) But wouldn’t it be great if we could celebrate a little bit of the value of Pi and other mathematical ideas? At the very least, can we take on some of the irrational ideas that people hold about today’s mathematics and replace them with more rational ideas befitting the 21st century? Here are my top three irrational ideas I regularly hear from lay people and educators, and my suggestion for what is a more rational perspective.

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The Elephant in the Classroom: Nature-Inspired STEM Approaches Go Global

At this very moment, I am at a workshop with educators from the United States and all over Europe, the theme of which is Nature-inspired approaches to teaching STEM. It’s gratifying: some 14 years ago, when I first started teaching educators about this pedagogical approach, Nature-inspired STEM in schools didn’t even exist. Today, hundreds of primary and secondary school teachers in schools all over the world wouldn’t think of teaching STEM any other way.

But for some of you STEM educators out there, I may have just said something a little surprising. Nature? What does the natural world have to do with teaching STEM? The short answer is: everything.

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Trending in 2020: Mindfulness for Adolescents

Twenty years ago, “mindfulness” was nearly absent from conversations in the education world. Fast forward to 2020, and we’ve witnessed an incredible surge of interest in integrating mindfulness from teachers, administrators, policymakers and researchers.  What accounts for this interest?

We suspect one key reason is that under the stress of expanding classrooms and standardized assessments, the teacher-student relationship has suffered. Sharing mindfulness helps reclaim the emotional poignancy of learning, which is, in the end an exchange between two people. The following excerpt from our book about teaching mindfulness to adolescents focuses on the power of self-disclosure by both teacher and student as they build and navigate an authentic relationship that facilitates deep learning.

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Trending in 2020: To Teach or Not to Teach “Triggering” Texts

I confess. I still teach Sherman Alexie’s books. I value the quality of his work and the power it has on adolescent readers too much to give it up. That declaration has created confusion, consternation, and even condemnation by some fellow teachers who heretofore thought I was at least passably “woke.” How can I be a feminist and teach the works of such a serial abuser?  You probably still watch Woody Allen movies, they sneer.

Similarly, despite the reasonable reconsideration of the dominance of Shakespeare in literature curricula, I am not swayed by the argument that his plays shouldn’t be taught because they are “triggering.” From my perspective, both the rise of trigger warnings and the #MeToo movement have reshaped and perhaps diminished the landscape of the politics of teaching literature.

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Trending in 2020: Will Artificial Intelligence Replace Teachers?

Just after high school and before my first year in college, I taught mathematics in a rural village in Kenya. After a few months, the mayor of the town invited me to his home.  I sat in an anteroom that had a swept dirt floor and freshly whitewashed walls.  He left me to sit alone with a small battery-operated radio.  The radio played loud static.  There were no radio channels available.  After 5 minutes or so, he returned to ask me what I thought of his radio.  Being polite, I said, “Very nice, Mr. Mayor!” 

Why did he do this?  He had be aware that it was only noise.  To this day, I think he was showing me that he was looking towards the future.  The technology was an aspirational symbol. “I am taking this town into the future!” 

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Trending in 2020: Recognizing Teacher Professionalism and Expertise in Trying Times

Almost daily, it seems, our social media platforms blow up with yet another story about why teachers are leaving the profession. We read reports by think tanks and policy centers, personal narratives from discouraged teachers—both new and veteran—and calls for change from professional organizations. Teachers are leaving in record numbers for many reasons, these sources tell us, but prime among them is this: Once respected as professionals, many teachers now feel as if their voices have been silenced—that their education, experience, and diligent commitment to students no longer have a place in the conversations about education. Standardized tests lead to standardized curricula and standardized teaching practices in far too many places. They create “teacher proof” approaches that ignore teacher creativity and contradict research based practices.

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