My colleagues and I recently had a conversation about the rest of the year and what we could do to keep our students engaged. We discussed the challenges of teaching hybrid and remote and acknowledged that we would need to think differently about writing assignments.
It will be up to us to create a memorable year. We want them to look back on this year and be able to tell a good story about what going to school was like during a pandemic. In the conversation, a senior teacher told a story about how her child in elementary school baked gingerbread cookies on Zoom with the rest of her class.
When I was a first-year teacher, I remember asking my supervisor about how to keep my seniors engaged in the second semester. She gave me a look, sat back, and said “You have to get creative.” So I guess this situation requires double creativity.
There will be obvious challenges. How do we allow students to connect with each other and have real experiences and conversations when they are behind a screen? Normally, most fun activities involve students working together, sometimes outside of the classroom. I’ve been trying to think about the few advantages that come with remote learning, including the fact that there are other people at home and the fact that our students can take their learning outside.
1. Recipe that represents story and character
Instead of a traditional essay that asks students to interpret the behavior of a character, we could instead have them create a recipe that represents the internal conflict, personality, and decision making of a character. We could also ask them to talk in metaphors and similes about the atmosphere, irony, tension, conflicts, or sensory imagery of the story. It’s also possible to have students take a close look at an important passage of the novel and transform each line into the peeling of a potato or the roasting of edamame. Combining multiple ingredients with sautéing, boiling, or mixing could parallel how the characters interact with each other or feel about each other. And then, of course, we could have the students create their dish during class (the teacher could ask different students what they’re doing) and then present their recipe and food to the class.
2. Quarantine journal
Last spring, a few of my students said they created a quarantine journal to stay connected. They shared a google document and loaded it with images, links, and text to document their experiences, thoughts, questions, and emotions. We could give them a topic or directions related to literature, or not. Maybe we collect it and grade it, maybe we don’t. Maybe it’s just there, like a hallway in a school, a place to talk about what happened and a place to laugh about it all.
3. Photo essay
This option is a great way to get students away from the screen, and in the fresh air. Students first go to a place outside where they can take a deep breath and soak in the world. They then take a picture that represents a moment in the story. Or the photo could represent an experience they had during quarantine. They then take all of the pictures and write or record their explanations of what all of the pictures mean. This could be a document if it’s a typed essay or a movie file created with PowerPoint or iMovie if a student includes audio recordings. Students could also share their screen in a live virtual class to present and explain their images.
4. Write and perform virtual play
I’ve done a similar project – a movie adaptation - in person before remote learning. My students created a movie adaptation of one short story in James Joyce’s Dubliners set in a modern-day high school or town. The short films were hilarious and truly showed a deep level of thinking about the characters and story. They take the framework of the story or the basics of the plot and imagine characters that live in today’s world that might face a similar dilemma or problem. For instance, for the story “An Encounter”, my students left my class (I played the teacher reviewing some boring material: “the routine of school”) and left the school to encounter “the spectacle” of reality and embark on “real adventures” that “must be sought abroad”(Dubliners). Instead of a short film, students could work in breakout rooms to write a script for a play they could record or perform live in a virtual classroom. I will encourage students to actually perform their play whenever possible, instead of just reading the lines. We might need to have a close up to see the emotion of the character, or see them walking around a room in anger, depending on the situation.
5. Poetry walk
Instead of walking and taking pictures for a video essay, students could walk and write small poems about the various places they visit. What do they see in the place they stopped to write? What do they feel? What does the place represent to them? What is the atmosphere of the place? Who do they see – who are they and what are their dreams and life experiences? This activity will rely heavily on the imagination of our students to find a place worthy of poetry and will rely heavily on their ability to endow that place with meaning and stories.
6. Quarantine or literary soundtrack
In this project, students select songs that represent the situation or point of view of a character. They could select specific passages from a novel that correspond to the lyrics of a song or pick a song that connects to the climax of a story. Instead of playing to the entirety of the song for the class, a student could play the music in the background while they talk about how the song connects to the story. Last year, I asked students to share a link to their favorite song in a discussion board – I told them the song could be a good song for quarantine, about graduating, whatever. I had SO much fun playing the songs and it really made me feel better about everything going on.
7. Dance that represents plot and characters
We’ll need to force our students out of their comfort zone a little here. But seriously, my daughter dances multiple times during her remote learning sessions. She loves it. It gets her moving and it gives her the energy to think clearly. We could combine this project with the soundtrack project and ask students to come up with a dance that expresses the emotions of the character in a particular scene in the story. Why would they dance that dance at that moment? If these kids can TikTok all day, then they can create a short dance for English class while making sense of literature at the same time.
8. Video essay
This will most likely be an individual assignment, but I can imagine ways to make it a group project. Students first write an essay, record a reading of the essay, and then upload images and videos that correspond to the audio file. Every year, I ask students to talk about how it feels to graduate in a video essay. I also assigned a video essay on Night, by Elie Wiesel when I taught sophomores. Students read a passage from the memoir out loud, interpreted it, reacted to it on a personal and emotional level, and discussed its real-world implications. I told them they could include historical images, but also uplifting and positive images of their family or symbols that connected to their audio recording.
Students can create podcasts by recording the audio in virtual breakout rooms or by sitting down and conducting an interview with their parents or guardians. For instance, after studying The Namesake, I had students create a podcast about the origins of their name. The structure of a podcast is very similar to an essay – introduction, quotes and commentary, and conclusion.
10. Guest speakers
Let’s not forget that many students have parents/guardians or siblings around the house that might be able to contribute to our conversations. We might bring them on screen to respond to a philosophical question about a topic like love, joy, fear, family, or identity. They could tell a story that’s similar to what a character experienced in a novel like feeling uncomfortable, excluded, or excited.
I want to look back on this year and not just say … I survived. I want to believe I tried my absolute best to create real experiences that my students will hopefully someday value. I’m trying to avoid doing anything that feels like a classroom routine and I’m trying to take advantage of any circumstance that might actually make remote or hybrid learning special and exciting.
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