Creative Table Conversations: A Water Cooler Approach To Online Learning

I had an epiphany this week. Strangely enough, it connects with Doug Peterson‘s blog post from today. Since distance learning began for us on April 6th, my teaching partner, Paula, and I have offered daily online meetings with our students. Our meeting format continues to be tweaked, with small group versus full class options, various approaches to content, and different platforms to meet student needs and our Board‘s directive. Online learning for us isn’t just about this synchronous option. In fact, we have a lot of asynchronous possibilities for children, and try to provide similar learning options if kids choose to join in or not. Usually though, our online meetings are popular, and we normally have 23-26/28 students join us each day for at least part of the meeting time. And while it’s been great to have these numbers, Paula and I are still finding our online groove. Then 21 days in, after everything from show and share sessions, to modelled lessons, to topic specific discussions, to interactive activities, I think we’ve finally got it … and maybe it was a change in style that made the biggest difference of all!

During these many times of starting, stopping, and trying again, Paula and I have had numerous conversations around what would make things better and why things weren’t working well. We tried to observe our students, listen to parents, hear ideas from kids, and put these different ideas together to figure things out. In the end, I wonder if the biggest problem was that we were seeing our online classroom in the same way as our regular classroom, and maybe our meeting time views needed to change.

We started to meet with more success when we made our time together interactive. Knowing what our students have at home, we got them to bring paper, writing/drawing materials, and sometimes scissors to our daily meetings. Paula led them in an interactive activity that had everyone doing something during the meeting. As I mentioned in this blog post, it was the open-ended nature of the activity that still allowed for multiple entry points and some specific feedback, even if we were somewhat doing the same thing together. Maybe though, in addition to what kids were creating, there was also a more open way in sharing this learning with others. Some children wanted to talk about their work, while others just wanted to hold it up for their friends to see. A few students left the meeting without showing us what they drew or wrote, but then shared it with us later. In the past couple of weeks, as we’ve tried a variety of interactive lessons together, I began to notice something. It was after Wednesday’s online session though that I really started to see these group meetings differently.

Tomorrow is Mother’s Day, and in the classroom, this would be one of the few times that we would really encourage everyone to make something special for mom. We might provide some choices, and would certainly allow for an independent spin on any lesson, but every child would be leaving the classroom on Friday with a gift for mom/step-mom/grandma/an aunt. What now? While we know that many moms join us in our online meetings, we wondered if we could lead the kids in creating a drawing/card/special present for mom. We saw this wonderful directed drawing by Amy Lemons, and loved how she made it open-ended while still providing a little structure. Adding the words along the side also allowed for some reading and writing possibilities. On Wednesday, we decided to play the video during our online meeting and make these drawings together.

We couldn’t believe how well things went. Children told us when to pause the video. They held up their drawings throughout the process to show each other the evolution of their sketches. They even generated some words to describe their moms, and we sounded out words together. For the first time since distance learning began, we had a group of kids sounding out three- and four-sound words online, and even doing some syllable counting with us. Phonological awareness skills were now alive and well in our distance learning classroom. How did this happen?

When Paula and I discussed this together afterwards, Paula again noted the strangeness of having everyone doing the same thing at the same time. This is not what we would do in our kindergarten classroom during a group meeting time … or really, ever. But then I wondered, is our online meeting time like a group gathering around the creative table? Often Paula will sit down and create with kids in this space. As she does so, she offers them feedback, facilitates mini-lessons, and extends learning. 

Even with our Mother’s Day activity, while most students drew themselves or their moms, a few children decided to draw something totally different. One child thought about the card idea, and chose to make some “concentric hearts” on a Mother’s Day card. While she listened to the video and participated in sounding out a few words, she never drew her mom … at the time. The next day though, she showed us the mom picture that she made inside her card along with a note for mom. She commented on the connection between her picture and the video from the day before. I wonder if for her, this online classroom space is like being in a different play space in the classroom. She might be able to see and hear those conversations that Paula’s having over at the creative table with some kids, but she’s off to the side doing something different and will make it over to that table soon enough. I like the idea of reframing this online classroom as a “play gathering”: many kids might play along with us, some might play beside us, and a few might even move away and have us as background noise. On this first day when everything seemed to click, we had a child that also moved FAR away from us — over to the side of the kitchen next to a wall. We saw him like a little speck in the background. Just as the meeting was ending though, he came back to show us the rainbow that he made for his Mother’s Day card. He found an entry point and got to use our online meeting as quiet whispers in his home classroom space. This child chose to “play alone,” and in a group gathering, I have to also applaud those who find these needed independent spaces. 

Seeing our online classroom in this play way, makes me see more parallels to our regular classroom style. I will admit though that I’m still trying to figure out my own style. When meeting with our class, I find myself talking more than I ever would in our regular classroom. There’s almost a “sage on the stage” feeling to this online learning space, and I have to tell myself to stay quiet and just watch and listen for a while. I’ve started doodling on a paper beside my computer to help me with wait time. The silences seem longer online though, and sometimes when I wait for someone to say something and nobody does, I find myself, like Doug, filling this void. Maybe though it doesn’t need to be filled. Maybe I just need to learn to be okay with quiet. Another online learning style change perhaps?!

I’m definitely more aware though of the bigger grouping — even if it’s in a small group — when problems arise. After our success with Amy Lemons’ Mother’s Day video lesson this week, we thought that we would try Cassie Stephensmom artwork idea. We’ve spent a lot of time looking at bubble letters recently, so this could build on that and some of the line art that we did before the Break.

Something unexpected happened though. A child became noticeably stressed when she couldn’t get the letters to look as they did in the video. Then soon, another child started to worry about his line work. You could hear the stress in their voices. It was almost contagious, and we knew that we needed to support them — and others — that might be feeling this same stress. How do you do this in a big group though? Showing different approaches to the lettering, highlighting the “wonderful” in making it your own, and promising to share the video link later with parents, seemed to help. In the classroom though, I think about how a quieter voice, a whispered idea, or even a gentle touch to say “it’s going to be okay,” would have quickly solved the problem. When a class of eyes are staring at you though, and big feelings for a couple of kids need to be soothed in the midst of a larger group, you quickly realize how much your style has to change. Getting better certainly doesn’t mean perfect, but it does hopefully mean going in the right direction.

There is a part of me that would LOVE to have every child doing their own thing, playing together, in this online classroom space, and somehow being able to facilitate that play as we do in the classroom. Imagine if all microphones could be on without static, if kids could talk easily with each other as well as with the whole group, and if we could somehow jump into play as smoothly as we do in our classroom. Maybe in a small group this would be possible, but with all eyes going towards the front of the room and the little video images on the screen, it’s hard to facilitate a relaxed conversation. I wonder if having a shared experience — as we do through these interactive activities — and the permission to veer from this experience — as some do when they try other things — help replicate a creative table conversation in an online learning platform. Does this make meeting times feel a little less formal and learning feel a little more real? I continue to wonder as we all figure out the intricacies of our online learning style. What’s yours?


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