The Spider Web Approach: How to Facilitate Effective Online Discussions

By Alexis Wiggins

Most of us are facing another school year in which at least part of our classroom work will need to be translated to an online environment. Some teachers worry that it isn’t possible in the distance learning environment to have the kind of effective discussions facilitated in the classroom, but I’m here to say that by following some key protocols and staying flexible, teachers can absolutely design for strong online discussions.

I’ve spent the last 15 years immersed in the research, design, and practice of student-led discussions. It began with a job early in my career at a Harkness School and eventually developed into a method I call Spider Web Discussion, which asks teachers to train students how to begin, facilitate, and assess their own discussions while the teachers themselves are mostly silent. (You can see it in action in a ninth-grade classroom here.) In the current environment, I’m getting a lot of questions about how to conduct class discussion online.

Here are my tips for success:

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Getting Started with Teaching Online…Again

By Mary Burns

As we put the never-to-be-forgotten school year of 2019-2020 in our rearview mirror, we turn our attention to the 2020-2021 school year. And though we all wish otherwise, the upcoming school year will likely involve more online teaching. During the initial pandemic outbreak, many teachers focused on learning technology at the expense of instruction. Now that we’ve taken some time to learn new technologies, this school year should be about focusing on effective online teaching. 

Over the last few months, I’ve been helping teachers get started with online instruction. I’ve organized this blog around their most common questions about teaching online.

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Journaling: Creating the Feel of School Virtually

By Christa Forster

I miss the physicality of school. By “physicality,” I do not mean physical education, nor do I mean movement exactly. I mean all the ephemera we leave in our wakes as we sail—smoothly or tempest-tossed—through our daily schedules, together yet apart. Heads tilted toward one another, whispering or chatting, sighing or groaning; nods and waves and smiles during passing period; laughter in the halls during quiet moments in class; the pods of bodies in the cafeteria or library; the forlorn study guides, spiral notebooks, binders, water bottles, hoodies on the floors; lockers slamming shut; empty candy and cough drop wrappers littering the spaces. All of this “stuff” contributes to the feel of school and therefore to the feel of learning.

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Teacher Appreciation: How to Say Thanks from a Distance

By Ronnie Eyre

Teacher appreciation week approached us so quickly. March felt like the longest month of the year, and then April came and teachers and students alike were told to start distance learning. These teachers and kids showed up! They proved that they were able to handle working on their academics while still being kids. Teachers made changes to their lessons by creating their own document cameras. They created spaces in their homes for anchor charts and bulletin boards. Teachers pushed themselves harder than they ever have, recognizing that an education is so important and that it must continue even through distance learning, online video chats, and tons of emails. 

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From our editors: a selection of recently published articles on teaching and learning remotely

TODAY’S LIST OF RESOURCES! And be sure to also take a look at our more extensive list of resources for teaching during COVID-19!

From The Marshall Memo:

Ideas and Resources during the Coronavirus Crisis

From Simone Kern on Edutopia:

Why Learning at Home Should Be More Self-Directed—and Less Structured

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Classroom, Interrupted: Rethinking Assessment in a Time of Pandemic

By Sharon Kunde

It’s now week five of my school’s pivot to online instruction. We’ve weathered the chaos of week one, the understated pleasures of weeks two and three (no commute! teaching in ratty old slippers! baking during intervals!), and the tedium of week four. The time for soothing words and procrastination is over: it’s time for assessment.

If hearing those four words make you feel like this talented music teacher, take a deep breath. As traditional assessments – from pop quizzes to the SATs, from oral examinations to student presentations – become increasingly untenable in terms of both logistics and equity, we can use this moment as a chance to reflect on big-picture pedagogical outcomes. I, for one, want my students to cultivate an ability to engage with the world. I want them to develop critical consciousness, which involves curiosity about why things are the way they are and how they could be different. I want them to realize commonality with disparate people. I want them to develop the capacity to concentrate and to notice, along with the technical skills to develop meaningful responses to what they see. Grades merely index those nebulous capacities – grades are a language I use to communicate the extent to which I see particular habits of mind and technical capabilities manifesting in my students’ work.           

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What About Students Who Do Not Have Access to the Tools that Are Needed for Online Learning?

By Katharine Davies Samway

If we have a computer, regular access to the Internet, and a cell phone with unlimited calls and texts, we may forget that our students may not have the same access to these tools, which are essential for online learning.  In some cases, schools surveyed their students about their technological needs before the schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.  In other cases, teachers have had to use time during the school closure to identify students’ needs. 

Teachers I’ve interviewed comment on the importance of surveying students and families in order to determine which technological tools they have access to.  At Laura Alvarez’s K-8 two-way immersion bilingual school, teachers polled their students by phone, text, and email about their access to a computer and the Internet (as well as their access to everyday necessities, such as food).  Alvarez estimated that she spent one-third of her time in the two weeks before spring break calling, texting, and emailing students and their families.  She learned that most have some Internet access via a smartphone, but none of her 8th grade students had solid access to the Internet.  A couple of her students had a cousin or aunt who had a computer, and some had computers at home, but weren’t sure how well they worked.  Recently, the school has been distributing Chromebooks to students who do not have access to computers, using social distancing when doing so.

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Essential Pedagogical Shifts: Prioritizing Student Engagement and Self-Care during Lock-down

By Ivannia Soto

I have just completed my fourth week of teaching college-level courses online. With each class session I have had to make new pedagogical shifts, which are as applicable in a K-12 online setting as they are in a higher-ed environment. I mostly teach preservice teachers at Whittier College, a small liberal arts college in Southern California, known (for better or worse) for being Richard Nixon’s alma mater. My specialization is second language acquisition and designing equitable environments for English language learners (ELLs) within school systems.  Historically, ELLs in classrooms have been relegated to little or no classroom participation. ELLs have not been required, or oftentimes, expected to speak in the classroom setting. As I oftentimes remind my preservice teachers, the person talking the most is learning the most, so we must require all students to speak and be engaged in the classroom setting. I am taking this lesson to heart as I transition my own classrooms to an online setting, where students can easily become passive and disengaged, whether they are K-12 students or preservice teachers themselves.

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Perspectives From the Field: Teachers Teaching Online

By Mark Whipple

As an Instructional Technology Specialist in a suburban middle school south of Boston, MA, I was curious about the ways teachers might begin to use technology in our new and suddenly-online learning environment. The expectations coming from states, school systems and individual schools vary widely, and teachers’ level of experience and comfort with technology varies just as much. What techniques for in-person classroom teaching can be applied, and what new methods are needed? What are some approaches to meeting the needs of students when not physically with them? What do teachers need to do in terms of self-care to be present for their students?

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The Connection is What Matters Most

By Bridget Vaughan, an ELA and Literacy District Coordinator and teacher advocate

Recently my job has changed. I now support teachers with remote learning. As a part-time online educator in higher education for the past 16 years, and a full-time middle school teacher and administrator for over 20, I thought I had this figured out. I transitioned to teaching online classes many years ago. Back then, college students opted to take these classes and paid for them, so they were eager to learn. For many years, much of this was about helping students learn the technology. But after time, I built in every question or piece of content that was unclear, and students got more tech savvy. Of course, it never replaced face-to-face instruction, but it was pretty much smooth sailing.

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