Playful Experimentation: Middle School Faculty Take On Virtual Learning

I have three children, and, despite the fact that it has largely been debunked, I still find the literature on birth order fascinating.  And although middle children often get a bad rap, I have found that my cream-in-the-middle-of-the-oreo son has reaped all sorts of benefits from entering the world between two very opinionated sisters.  He is both laid-back and incredibly empathetic.  He is willing to take risks, bounces back quickly if he fails, and he can negotiate/make friends with just about anybody.  It turns out that a lot of the traits I associate with Zander Rust align with the reputation of our Middle School faculty, the beloved middle child of our St. Andrew’s faculty.

Known to be our most quirky and our most tech savvy body of faculty, this team of folks took on virtual learning in stride, in no small part due to Clay Elliott’s quick thinking in structuring “on” and “off” days and grade level weekly plan spreadsheets.  Due to our middle school faculty’s ingenuity and collegiality and the flexibility of middle grades curriculum, our 5th-8th grade students were more likely than not to be treated with a wide variety of transformed learning tasks and assessments during the past few months.  I’m sure these faculty would be the first to admit it wasn’t all smooth sailing, but the reflections below featuring voices that range from 30 plus years of teaching experience to those that are in their first year of teaching, elucidate the spirit of playful experimentation that is often described as the hallmark of middle school itself.  

What have you learned generally about best practices in teaching during the past few months? 

I have been much more specific in daily and weekly planning and intentional in how I integrate various media resources, learning activities, and assessments throughout the week. . . Without afternoon and weekend responsibilities of productions and tournaments, I have been able to keep up with feedback and grading much more quickly. I hope I will be able to continue this habit when we return to campus as well. (Ruthie Taylor, 7th and 8th grade drama and speech & debate)

I think this virtual learning experience has made me be more conscientious about my own work flow. I have to be even more organized in terms of my files, deadlines, etc. I think that has a net positive for my classes and for my own mental health! (Margaret Clark, MS Latin)

Surprisingly, I have really enjoyed this virtual learning adventure. It forced me into trying some things that I’ve been thinking about trying. In particular, I’d been considering trying to flip some of my PowerPoint lessons, so that we could do more interactive stuff in class, but I had never got around to that before being forced to! (Meriwether Truckner, 6th Grade History)

This past month has made me realize just how much of an impact we have as educators when we’re in the lives of kids every day, physically–in addition to how important students are to us, as teachers. Gosh, I miss them, even in all of their awkward, sometimes (often >.<) frustrating, 7th grade angsty-ness! I’ve also come to realize how important adaptation, change, and professional growth is. Teaching isn’t the place or profession to become “set in your ways.” I have to admit that I DON’T always know what I doing or how to do it best, but I’m learning, and that’s what matters. It’s what I teach, how to keep learning, so I should practice what I’m preaching. (Dean Julius, 7th Grade English)

I have actually learned how to be more hands-off with my students (in a positive way!). In the past, I have had the habit of always jumping in immediately to help a student who I see struggling in the classroom and answering student emails throughout the night. Because we were forced to create asynchronous activities and I couldn’t hold daily classes, I had to let my old habits go – and it was great! Students knew they could still email me and see me during office hours and they knew that I was their biggest supporter, but being able to allow more independent work has let my students understand themselves as learners more: When do I really need to ask for help? How do I best learn? How can I work through a problem that I don’t understand? It has also lowered my anxiety as a teacher (big plus!). (Jan Michael, 8th Grade History)

I have had the strangest school year in all of my 33 years of teaching.  To have spent only one semester in the classroom, stayed home on medical leave, return for two weeks prior to spring break, and then be catapulted into distance learning has blown my mind.  Yet, it has also given me a great patience and flexibility because I never knew all winter long what the next day would bring in my healing.  So, now, when none of us knows what tomorrow will bring, I have found to my amazement that I am keeping that flexibility and patience with the distance learning.  I am truly blown away by myself and my new-found talents in technology.  I refuse to be an old dog learning new tricks, but I am definitely an Old Cat purring with my own pride in what I have learned.  All that being said, what has been important to me has been the ministry to the kids.  I have seen this time as my war work, and sustaining the students throughout, guarding and guiding and reaching out to them, gathering them in, have all been critical to me. The tech is the tool for this human outreach.  (Harriet Whitehouse, 6th Grade English)

I fell in love with my content. Teaching is such a multilayered activity, going online really isolated the different aspects of my craft. I love my students and missed seeing them daily dearly, but I have come out of this with a new understanding of my love of lesson planning and content. . . I also think this made me far more organized in my lesson plans and succinct in my instructions and expectations.  (Margaret Taylor, 5th Language Arts)

Definitely value the face to face more. I think this whole distance learning has impacted me in a way to use the classroom time to go over material, and any question, and leave the workbook and extra activities for home as a review of what is done in class. Creating more meaningful conversations in the classroom, and group projects will be the main thing in my teaching in this coming year. . . This has made me value what I do A LOT more! Those kids, my kids are the reason why I enjoy working at St. Andrew’s, I have learned to even be more patient, and understanding, and we really have terrific kids! I think that if we all SA teachers just focus in making great connections with our kids, and developing a fun, engaging, and welcoming environment for our kids, that will minimize the little issues of bullying, kids getting in trouble, etc. We must love them, because once they feel loved and appreciated, they will be more open for constructive criticism. (Simon Barinas, MS Spanish)

Virtual learning has been an invaluable time of reflection for me, and it’s made me really rethink the way I teach English. As a St. Andrew’s graduate, I very much value rigor, as I have always believed it prepares students for the demands of college and the “real world.” However, this time of “slowing down” has made me wonder if there is a better way of balancing in class work and out of class work. I am not an advocate for no homework or even light homework (force of habit???), but I think we can be more intentional about the kinds of demands we place on kids. I was the student who got up at 6:00 a.m. and proceeded through a daily ritual of unending destinations: to school, to varsity track practice, to piano lessons, to club soccer practice, to dinner, to shower, to homework. I believe my grades were more reflective of my energy levels, organization, and time management than of my abilities. And yes, as mentioned, those were very valuable life lessons that I needed to learn. However, I wonder if I would have retained more knowledge and grown my passions more had I had the time to really soak up what I was learning. To me, I think this is less an indictment of the homework load than it is of the short class periods combined with the long days kids have at school, but that’s obviously an entirely other tangent/issue that we are not close to resolving as a country, let alone as a school! The way this translates to my class is about being more intentional about what I do with my instructional time. I now believe that the most valuable use of my time is actually no longer direct instruction but guiding and coaching. A lot of the things I thought I needed to handhold my students through are actually things they can discover on their own if given the proper scaffolding and resources. Virtual learning, I have discovered, goes hand in hand with differentiation and reaching individual students’ needs–something that I fear we all overlook in the mad rush to “cover everything” before the end of the year. Though most of my students dearly miss being in school with their peers, a number of the overloaded kids (like I used to be!) are the ones who are thriving because they can work at their own pace while still carving out time for the things they enjoy/are passionate about. TL;DR–I’ve done a lot of thinking these past six weeks! 🙂 (Hannah Halford, 8th grade English)

What platforms have you tried that you loved?

 I love using Google Slides to create a hyperdoc week-at-a-glance for each class, and will certainly continue to use this tool in the future in addition to my daily class slides that I had used previously for live, in-person class meetings. I had not used Google Classroom prior to this shift and plan to continue using Google Classroom next year. (Ruthie Taylor)

 I used Screencastify to record myself talking through our PowerPoints, and I think that worked pretty well. I guess I cannot say for certain whether the kids watched them or enjoyed doing it that way, but I didn’t hear any complaints from them. Normally we would take about two class periods to get through one PowerPoint because the kids were copying down the information. With this process, I was able to get through so much more material, and for the first time I haven’t had to skip material at the end of the year. In fact, I have been able to add in some material this year. I do feel like it is important for them to learn how to copy down information from a PowerPoint in class, but this process has definitely made me question how important that is. Perhaps the right answer would be a mix of both in class PowerPoint note-taking and at home recorded PowerPoint video watching. (Meriwether Truckner)

I’ve tried some interesting new tools and was beginning to try some interesting new tools before we hit COVID. Membean’s online vocab has be life-saving and helpful. Google Sites blogs have helped empower my kids to share their experiences in this social distance nightmare we’ve all found ourselves in. I’m confident that I’ll move in the direction of digital journals from now on. It’s more relevant to how students create content in 2020 already e.g. Snapchat, TikTok, social media. But being with kids, face-to-face, matters. We want to be in contact with other people, even the introverts among us. And I’m more than eager to get back to that. I’m confident we all are. Even the kids who think this model is “better” still want face-to-face time with their peers. (Dean Julius)

Google Classroom has been a lifesaver, and, as I think to next year, I know I want to be able to turn on a dime if we return to distance learning.  First thing out of the box next year:  Google Classroom!  I have also loved the magic of Google Meet.  It seems rather Harry Potterish in that we have moving, living portraits of each other in our own settings.  I am charmed by Flipgrid and the versatility it provides for literature analysis.  I would judge myself to be very much a novice, and these are all baby tools.  Now that I have gained my confidence, I will reach for more next year. (Harriet Whitehouse)

Virtual learning has taught me many new platforms that I, honestly, have been wanting to try but never took the time to pursue them.  The Google Classroom was a huge learning curve for me but a tool I will always use from now on.  The fact that I  can give feedback almost immediately is a big advantage over waiting on a whole class assessment to be graded and returned.  Flip grids will change my assessments in the future, too.  Having a student explain in his or her own words how to solve a problem gives me more insight to their depth of knowledge than any five page test with fifteen problems.  I immediately know  exactly what they know and what part of their solution may need tweaking and then, again, the immediate feedback, either by video or written word, can give students timely coaching, encouragement or applause as needed. (Virginia Buchanan)

Now it’s on to your favorite subject, bragging about your students!  How have they responded to the past few months?

In my 8th grade debate class students continue to submit assignments even though they have earned the 50 points required for the quarter through course work in the first 4 weeks. Their research, speech development, and class discussions concerning philosophy, moral frameworks, and the current debate resolution (Resolved: Predictive policing is unjust) has been amazing! . . . In my drama class, some students who usually contribute less or get into conflict with other students during collaboration have been contributing more through our virtual learning platforms. In particular, it was really great to see everyone creating back-and-forth fictional monologues (kind of like pen-pal Vlogs) responding to their current struggles and creating movement/dance combinations by themselves. We hope to have compiled a final performance film collaboration to distribute to the community by the end of the quarter! (Ruthie Taylor)

Some of my 1st year Latin students did the coolest illustrations of a story. I had them skim (not translate word-for-word) a story about the encounter between Aeneas and the cyclops Polyphemus and then choose a scene to illustrate. They had to label 5 people/objects, including 2 labels of new (neuter gender) vocabulary words and write one line of original dialogue. I forgot to specify that the dialogue should be in Latin, so some of them wrote it in English. There produced some really cute and creative illustrations! (Margaret Clark)

I have been SO PROUD of what my students have created this last quarter. I have lots of pictures of tableaux, castle building, medieval weapons, artwork, Earsketch remixes of medieval music, and Flipgrid videos of persuasive Renaissance biographies. I’ve shared some of the pictures, but I can share more, if needed. I don’t know how to share the Earsketch or the Flipgrid, but can try to figure that out. 6th graders can be pretty self-conscious and can hold back due to fear of how their classmates might react. However, so many of these kids were willing to be brave and create some fun, out-of-the-box things. I think that going forward, seeing how the kids connected to the material will stand out in my mind. It’s easy to get bogged down in the rush to get through content, but I think that giving the kids time and space to connect to the content is really important. And hopefully, connecting to the material in these fun (and sometimes silly) ways will be something that they will remember in meaningful way. (Meriwether Truckner)

7th Graders can be vulnerable and sincere if given the time/space. These journals (see here or here) are an excellent example! (Dean Julius)

I think the quality of the work is what has surprised me most. My students are rockstars. They still want to learn, they still want produce good work, they still want to be ENGAGED! I have not had one student miss a class. Plus, I’ve put up extra credit assignments every week and have had lots of students who have decided to do them! It’s been awesome seeing my students recreate famous works of art with household items, create marble races, go on an “artifact hunt,” and write thank you notes. It keeps everything positive and reminds me of what fun creative people I get to work with. . . .For their final project, my students are going to interview a relative about a challenging historical event that they lived through. Part of the idea behind it is for them to understand that people have always had to find a way through difficult times, and today with COVID-19 is no different. I’m encouraging my students to record the conversation so that they have a copy of it forever! The final part of the project involves students writing a letter to their future selves about what life is like right now. I’m very excited about this project and am actually doing it myself – in part to model it for the kids, but in part because it’s an excellent exercise (Jan Michael)

I have loved the way my students caught fire with the literature responses while reading Crispin.  Being home in their safe environments has allowed them to cut loose just a bit while creating their Flipgrid videos, and I have been able to assess their understanding of the deep issues of the book through their vibrant expression. (Harriet Whitehouse)

Oh my gosh the GRIT. I was shocked how well my 5th grades took on the challenge and rocked it. This was a completely new experience for them and all their teachers- but they found a way.   (Margaret Taylor)

My students have really been great throughout the whole distance learning with reading instructions to complete their assignments, they really just come to me for questions regarding material and not on how to do an assignment. My 6th and 7th graders are doing a project using everything they have learned this year, so I am excited to see how those videos turn out! (Simon Barinas)

Students are taking their assignments, class meetings and advisory meetings seriously and coming to office hours for advice or clarity and I am very proud of them!  We celebrated two birthdays in our Advisory hangouts back in March with candles and balloons and music!  They remembered Flip Grid from a very little experience back in 5th grade and have recorded many explanations for all their subjects. (Virginia Buchanan)

The students who have surprised me the most are the ones who have not been performing as well in a “normal” classroom environment but are blossoming under the seemingly unwieldy constraints of virtual learning. This includes the girl who is very shy and has not spoken up the entire year finally opening up during a virtual discussion; the kids who barely ever turn in work on time now submitting everything by the due date; and the students who never took the time to conference with me during the school year joining my virtual office hours and finally understanding a writing mistake that they have been making all year. (Hannah Halford)

Any thoughts as we look ahead to the future fall semester? 

I think we need to be ready to move right back into distance learning next year.  I can’t conceive the shape of next year as yet.  To be discovered and determined!  The more flexibility we begin the year with, the better we will all be, us and the kids together, in the event we all head for the hills again. (Harriet Whitehouse)

All in all, I think this was a great thing to happen in terms of education and the way we think about it. It’s opened my eyes to the resources online but has also made me treasure that in person time with my kiddos.  (Margaret Taylor)

One of my favorite takeaways from these months is the we have had the opportunity to look almost daily at the other classes in our grade levels and see assignments, platforms, assessments, etc. to help balance the learning load of the students.  I have learned so much about the curriculum of 6th grade this year that I probably would have missed in regular time.  I can use that new knowledge to look for ways to integrate curriculum next year and also to relate to students as to what they are learning. (Virginia Buchanan)

None of us are grateful for this global pandemic and the resulting economic crisis.  But I hope it is clear from the faculty reflections above that are middle school folks did what they do best.  . . experimenting and reflecting to push ahead in small and big ways in our commitment to teaching and learning, both face to face and virtually.  Thank you for filling out those reflection forms.  Thank you for being there for our fifth through eighth graders. Thank you for sharing what did and didn’t work with your colleagues in Lunch & Learns and google chats.  Thank you for always being the people in the room that remind us that school is more than academics . . . it is about the socio-emotional, the learning how to be together as citizens in the world. Thank you for all of it, Middle School Faculty.

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