TRT Podcast#23: Tips for teaching writing virtually in K-3
Raise your hand if you can’t wait to teach your students face-to-face!
Until the pandemic has passed, many of us find ourselves teaching our students from a computer. It’s less than ideal, to be sure!
But you can still take everything you know about teaching writing and adapt it for the virtual classroom.
In this episode we will:
- Look at different options for teaching mini-lessons
- Learn how to support parents as they become their children’s writing coaches
- Consider a unique way to approach sharing time
Listen to the episode here
Full episode transcript
You are listening to Episode 23: Tips for teaching writing virtually.
I'm really hoping that this podcast episode is going to be listened to a lot in 2020, and then, maybe never again.
Teaching writing virtually is not easy! I know that you're doing it because we are in the middle of a pandemic, and many schools have mandated that children must be learning from home. And so, teachers are teaching via Zoom, through the computer, and it's just NOT the same. My heart goes out to you (big virtual hug) because it's required you to learn a whole bunch of new things that you maybe didn't want to learn. It's creating a new kind of exhaustion. I know that you are doing what teachers are doing everywhere - you are doing your very best. I thank you for that.
This is going to be released in November, which means a lot of you have already been doing virtual teaching for a couple of months.So I won't be able to tell you how to get started, but I do hope that this will give you some things that you could improve or change that will make things go better for you and your students.
I should also say, that like you, this is my first pandemic. I've never done this before either and I'm not actually doing it now. However, I can do research and strategize about what I think will work best. So take my tips with a grain of salt, but I do hope they will perhaps give you some new ideas and a new perspective on teaching writing virtually.
Tip number one: Give yourself grace. Maybe you've heard that a lot in the last few months. Maybe it's getting annoying, but it's just something you need to do. We weren't meant to teach writing virtually. We were meant to be able to be in the classroom WITH our students. Where we can go right up next to their little shoulders and look over their writing with them, let them read it to us, and where we can make suggestions or ask questions. We weren't meant to do this over a computer screen. The fact is that teaching writing, while incredibly rewarding, is not easy even face to face! So it's not going to be easy on the computer either. However, this is the situation we find ourselves in. If you have an indefinite period of teaching virtually, or it's more than a month or two, we do have to think about how to do this in the best possible way.
Besides being patient with yourself and giving yourself grace, my second tip is to have a routine when you teach writing virtually. It is similar to the routine you have when you teach it in person. So for me, that would be a mini lesson, an independent writing time, and sharing time. I would work very hard on building that into your writing lessons so that your students know what to expect, because routine really does help. If possible, have writing time EVERY day, even though you're teaching virtually. That may not be something you want to do, but if possible, I would do it. Kids really need that practice and that daily expectation that they're going to write.
My next tip has to do with your mini lessons. I would say, teach the same mini lesson that you would teach if your students were in the classroom. What you might want to do is pre-record it and you can watch the recording WITH your students! You can even pause it to ask questions about the recording. The nice thing about recording it is that it may be easier to model yourself doing the writing.
Since my teaching tips are pretty much up through third grade, I would model physically writing, not writing on a computer screen. I actually think that kids up to third grade, at least, should be doing their Writing Workshop time on paper and not on a screen. They need to puzzle out spellings; they need to have this experience of crossing out and changing things. Also it allows you to see a record of what they've done. If they're typing on a screen, all you can see is the final product. I would make sure that you're modeling it by recording yourself writing on a dry erase board or chart paper. If it's easier for you to do that in advance, rather than live, then go for it. The nice thing about that too, is that you can batch produce them. So, maybe on the weekend you record three, four, or five writing lessons. Then you're ready to go the following week.
As you're giving these mini lessons, you're going to have to find a way for your students to be able to interact with you. I know that's hard, it's just not the same as being at school! So, if you're pre-recording those lessons, you might want to build in some questions where kids maybe put their thumbs up or their thumbs down. A lot of times when I'm giving live trainings to teachers about teaching writing or teaching reading, I like to build in questions just to keep people's attention and to have them participate. They can put their answers into the chat box. You can do the same thing. For example, "Boys and girls, today, I'm going to write a story about my pet cat, Grover. It will be about the time that she stayed out all night. Do any of you have a cat? Put a thumbs up if you have a cat."
The nice thing about this is that it's different than in the classroom where they're all talking about their cats and then you can't move past it! If you're doing your writing mini lesson virtually, they can just give you a thumbs up! They get the satisfaction of knowing that they told you something about themselves, and you can keep the lesson moving. That's one very small benefit to teaching virtually.
As you're giving these mini lessons, I would also be sure, when possible, to read a mentor text. A mentor text is a picture book or something that you've written yourself, that illustrates an example of what you're trying to teach that day. So if you're teaching personal narrative, you might read a personal narrative children's book. Again, this could be something that works really well being recorded in advance. Then you can pause the recording as you're watching it with the students, to ask questions and allow them to interact with the story.
So far we've talked about giving yourself grace, having a routine, and teaching the same mini lesson that you would teach if you were teaching person to person. Number four is to have your students write independently every day. This is where it's a little tricky, right? Because, what are you going to do while they're writing? How's this going to work? Are their parents going to do all the writing for them? How can you make sure that a child is ACTUALLY writing? This is where you're going to have to put on your problem solving hat, which I know you have, and you've used it a lot lately. But you have to put it on again and talk to your students about: what they're going to do, where they're going to do it, how they're going to show it to you.
After I've given a mini lesson about writing about something that's happened to me personally, I might say, "Before we go, I want each of you to tell me the one thing you're going to write about today." You might say, "Tell it to your mom or dad." It depends on if they've got parents there and they want to put a thumbs up that their child has an idea. You want to check in and make sure that they're ready to go. And then what you might do is keep the computer on, maybe put on some music, and everybody just writes for a certain period of time. You might expect them to write three sentences if they're in first or second grade. If they're in second or third grade, you might say, "Today, I want you to write a little bit more than you wrote yesterday." They could compare what they wrote yesterday to today. That's not what we really want to focus on; we're not trying to focus on quantity. Sometimes if you're just trying to get accountability in here and you just want them to produce something, you may have to start with that.
Ideally, in the classroom, you are moving around and offering support to individual writers, but that's going to be really tough to do during virtual teaching. So, you're going to have to enlist the parents to help as much as possible. I'm fully aware that some parents won't be capable of doing this because their lives are just too busy. Or for whatever reason, that just isn't something you can count on them for, but I do hope you have a fair number of students' parents who want to help. What you don't want them to do is tell their child exactly what to write, or tell them how to spell everything. Because then they're undoing the things that you're teaching, which is independence.
I'm going to include in this podcast episode a freebie for you! The freebie is tips for parents, as in, what to say when. I'm going to include them for different grade levels. You can take them and share them with parents. They'll be things like: what to say to your first grade writer when your child doesn't know how to spell a word, what to do when your child doesn't know what to write about, what to do when your child isn't using periods, etc. It won't be long, but I'm hoping that this little guide will help you support parents as they support your students.
Of course, the final phase of the Writing Workshop is sharing time. In a classroom, I know we often want to skip it. I know I always wanted to skip it because I didn't understand at the time, that sharing time isn't just sharing, it's teaching. So really what you're looking for, is something that can teach the rest of the class. Now you can do this however you want, but here's what I would try. I would ask parents to snap a picture of what their students did for writing that day and share it with me somehow (however you have that set up). Then, I would display a child's writing the next day during sharing time. Now I'm guessing you'd probably want to get permission. So maybe, email the parents and say, "Could you ask Johnny if I may share his writing with the class tomorrow?" Then you can use that child's writing to celebrate something the child did based on your lesson.
Let's say that I'm teaching about personal narrative, writing about something that happened to you. Let's say Sarah wrote about the time that her little sister chewed on her new stuffed animal. It doesn't have to be anything earth shattering here, but she did what you said. She wrote about something that happened in her life. Even if she wrote just one sentence, if she did what you wanted her to do, then share it with the class, talk about it, and celebrate it!
I think that displaying someone's writing on the screen and talking about it for two or three minutes can really go a long way to helping students participate better in the hopes that THEIR writing will be chosen. You'll want to try to choose everybody's writing, right?
It will also teach them something. Remember that sharing time isn't just this annoying five minutes you have to add to writing time. It's actually a time for them to learn, so that they can apply what they learn to their writing the next day.
That was our podcast episode about teaching writing virtually. I know I did not to solve all of your problems, and I'm sorry for that. I sure wish I could! My hope is that you got at least a couple of nuggets in there that are things you can try that will help improve your virtual teaching experience. I hope it will help you and your students look forward to writing time.
You can find the show notes for this episode, including those tip sheets for parents at themeasuredmom.com/episode 23. Next week, we'll be talking about what to do when your writers just won't write. We'll see you then.
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