by Amy Smith
As I saw Drew’s cheerful face staring at me through my computer screen, I took a deep breath and thought, ”What do I know that might help me here?”. I knew it wasn’t possible to replicate a lesson, but I didn’t have time to ruminate, reflect, or research the situation. Like thousands of children, Drew was waiting for me to teach him something. But, how and where would I start?
I found guidance in a conversation with my colleague, Jeff Williams, in which we discussed the challenge of relinquishing control and the security of the standard lesson framework. While there is no guide sheet to tell us precisely how to address this, Jeff and I thought about how the principles of Roaming apply to this unfamiliar context. Indeed, Dr. Clay taught us that our starting point for our journey is Roaming and our goals are to promote confidence, ease, flexibility, and with luck, discovery. So, with those things in mind, I started down a new path with Drew.
Confidence, Ease, and Flexibility
Dr. Clay taught us to begin with the known. While we usually use the term to reference what a child knows or controls, in this context, it applies to me as a teacher. In my first online lesson with Drew, the only thing I felt sure of was familiar reading. Even though I wasn’t beside him, I knew I could listen to how the reading sounded and observe the actions he took at difficulty. I was intrigued by the realization the computer screen gave me a different lens as an observer. From that vantage point, I could see his eyes clearly, and was delighted by only one instance of the “eyes off text” habit he worked so hard to overcome. Perhaps more extraordinary, I noticed his facial reactions to the story, something I couldn’t see in the side view. His smiles and smirks revealed his delight in recounting the experiences of these characters. So, instead of launching into a teaching point, I began to talk with him about the stories; and more crucially, to really, really, listen.
In the midst of that book discussion, he said, “It’s not really a great ending.” I suggested we write a new one, together. Although I’ve used that technique many times, it was always constrained by time. While writing always includes conversation, composition, and transcription, the bulk of writing time in lessons is spent on transcription. My pragmatic decision to focus on conversation and composition, aspects that are easier to control virtually, had a payoff. In the end, we generated not one, but two alternative endings. While sharing a Google Doc on my screen, I typed both endings, pausing to allow him to clap and articulate words and offer a few letters and letter clusters. While he was not recording his story in the traditional sense, this off-the-cuff process addressed the most important aspect of why we write, to compose a meaningful message. I shared the Google Doc with his mom and asked him to choose his favorite version and practice reading it with expression. He shared it with me at the beginning of the next lesson. It did not surprise me that he chose the version where James fessed up to his crimes, as that’s very much the type of child Drew is.
In addition to exploring new ways of generating conversations and composing stories, I’ve allowed myself more freedom to read to Drew. He loves being read to, and yet, I almost never do this outside of Roaming. And honestly, I’m probably much too tentative about doing it even then. However, reading higher-level texts to him and engaging in more elucidated book discussions has provided space for robust comprehension conversations. An added bonus, many conversations have resulted in complex, episodic stories we’ve later constructed in writing.
This situation has also forced me to relinquish some control over selecting books for Drew. Thanks to Pioneer Valley Books making their digital collection available at no cost to schools, I have been able to choose new books and give Drew a library of choices he can make on his own. His selections revealed a passion for non-fiction texts that I hadn’t recognized. Giving him that freedom has also opened up opportunities to explore content-area vocabulary in a way I hadn’t in lessons. Most recently, a non-fiction book about dolphins led to a more involved exploration of squid than I ever dreamed I would engage in as a Reading Recovery teacher. And, although a divergence from my typical path, it was time well spent (and, quite interesting).
Making Discoveries About Drew and About Myself
Although I knew Drew before this crisis, I’ve learned things about him that were hidden at school. For instance, his outfit of choice is one of his many onesies, each bearing personal significance to him. I also now know that when he watches his favorite shows, he brings a related figurine or stuffed animal to the living room so they can enjoy it together. Further, he has a vast collection of Power Ranger masks and headgear that he’s modeled and described in detail. In fact, we’ve turned this into a game in which we surprise each other with a new hat, mask, or headband in each lesson. We plan to turn our gallery of pictures into a book, whenever this is over.
Since talking is the easiest thing to do online, I’ve also thought about ways to maximize language, both in terms of building oral language and harnessing his language to construct understanding. Thus, we start each lesson with a quick interview, each of us coming prepared with one question to ask each other. In addition to learning about our morning routines, favorite colors, and the funniest thing about our Dads, he has practiced formulating questions for specific purposes, asking follow-up questions aimed at new learning, and responding to questions in complete sentences. As a teacher, these interviews have taught me a lot about Drew as a person. It has also made me think much more about the role of oral language in literacy learning, how to engage children in active conversations, and how to give our students agency for thinking and learning.
At a glance, these activities (e.g., hats, interviews) might seem gimmicky or inconsequential. I actually think they reflect some of what I’ve learned about the link between emotion and cognition from both Dr. Clay and Carol Lyons. Maybe, this new context has given me more clarity on that link. Usually, I focus on the need to ensure my child is comfortable and confident. Now, I am simultaneously building my child’s and my own confidence. Using these techniques gives me a fun and easy way to begin each lesson; starting with something easy makes the harder parts much less stressful for me, as a teacher.
Roaming as a Metaphor and Guide for this Experience
Together with our children, we are all roaming around in unfamiliar territory. In the last few weeks, Drew and I have grown more confident about working together online. Things that were initially hard (e.g., whiteboard feature) are now automatic for both of us. By letting ourselves deviate from our lesson framework and work together as though we are roaming, we’ve freed ourselves from stress, put the really hard parts aside, and focused on the ones we can do right now.
Most importantly, we have made a vast number of discoveries together. I have no idea if any of this is what Dr. Clay envisioned when she used the word “discovery” but I have discovered much about myself as a teacher and Drew as a learner. I realize, now, that there is power in being forced out of our comfort zones from time to time. In some ways, it gives us a better sense of our children’s perspectives as learners. This is scary and we are tentative, just like so many of our children when they come to us. And, while none of us know what will happen next, Dr. Clay’s work prepares us to respond to idiosyncratic paths. In the end, it is our charge to be flexible, to build on the known, to observe and respond, and to change course at any point. I hope (and believe) she would be proud of the myriad of ways we are all working toward that end.
Dr. Amy Smith is a Reading Recovery teacher leader in Richmond, KY. She currently serves as RRCNA’s President-Elect has served as chair of the Advocacy Committee.