Sunday, May 03, 2020

Thoughts on Teaching & Learning: May 3

Over the past several weeks, I have found myself doing a lot of reflection trying to get this online teaching right.  I keep meaning to get my thoughts on paper but then get caught up in the day-to-day work of teaching in this pandemic era.  I know if I can catch my breath, there is a lot to learn and reflect on during this time. So, I decided that every day in May, I will share my thoughts on Teaching and Learning.  This is Day 3.

Invitation Or Accountability?

I have been doing a lot of thinking about accountability during these last several weeks of online learning. Anyone who knows me knows that I worry that we've put so much accountability in place for students, that they don't often have enough choice or ownership in their work. Because this online/pandemic teaching has allowed us to worry less about accountability and testing, I have seen some amazing things happen. I have been able to reflect a bit on the role of invitations and choice over standards and accountability.

I've always been committed to authenticity and agency. I see a big part of my role as a teacher as one of throwing out invitations, letting students know what is possible. I have written about this several times, but this online/pandemic teaching has me thinking about these invitations in new ways.

When I think about my own life as a learner, it is full of invitations. I bet yours is too. A friend recommends a book. I get invited into a book club. I see an announcement for the next #nctechat Twitter chat in my feed. I get a professional journal in the mail. I find out about webinars being offered. A colleague invites me to a workshop. All of these are invitations—things I am being invited, but not forced, to do as a learner. As a learner, I get to decide what makes sense in my life at any given time.

I worry that in this last decade-the age of accountability, is that we are not as comfortable throwing out invitations as we used to be. Instead, in the name of standards, every good invitation becomes an assignment or a “have-to” for our students. And we talk about accountability with every assignment we give. And often, in the name of accountability, we end up giving students parameters that limit possibilities.

What I have noticed with online learning is that students seem to take me up on invitations that are interesting to them. There are some assignments that just don't get done by lots of kids. And some that get shared by almost everyone. I've watched over the last seven weeks at the things individual students choose to spend a great deal of time and energy on and the things they don't. I've given lots of open-ended projects that I assumed would be invitations to those students who wanted to go above and beyond the minimum expectations. I am noticing the most engagement in open ended assignments across content areas. I have students who, when given choice as writers, decided to work on the Prologue to a story this month and then to continue working on their fantasy novel through summer. I've had students spend 10 days on a science challenge that could have been completed in 30 minutes. The assignments were designed with this in mind, but even though I was expecting it, I have been reminded of so much.

One science assignment that was fascinating to me was the challenge to design a chain reaction machine as part of our learning about force and motion. I didn't really place any requirements on the project--just several video examples. And from my own experience, I know that even a 1-2 step chain reaction machine is not easy to create. I had students create simple (yet fabulous) chain reaction machines and others who spent days creating a very complex machine or figuring out a way to turn off a light switch with a chain reaction machine. This assignment was the perfect example of the accountability vs. invitation argument--there was no issue with accountability. Every child did it and was able to do the science learning needed. But had I put too many parameters on, those students who took up the invitation to work for days, would not have been able to do that.
Because we are not in school and because our students are sometimes looking for interesting things to do, it has been interesting to see how some of the invitations are received and how all students are spending extra time and energy on some things.  They are all learning the things they need to learn across subject areas, but I am seeing with some extra time and less dictated content, they are choosing to spend that extra time on a variety of assignments, based on their individual needs and interests at the time. 

In this time of online/pandemic teaching, how can we design projects that become invitations for more? What can we learn about our students based on when they decide to take us up on or ignore one of our invitations? How might we add more time for choice learning after seeing the power of choice and invitations during these last several weeks?

In my planning over this time, my focus has been about invitations and  possibilities instead of accountability and the response has been incredible. I am hoping that when we come out of this pandemic and go back to the school days that we all miss, that we will be able to think about invitations and accountability in new ways. I am hoping that we realize that every child can't be accountable for every single thing every day and that with invitations and more time for choice within content areas, students will learn so much more.

As I move through these last several weeks of school with limited time and resources, I've had to ask myself What is really critical? What do each of my students have to learn and do? What do they have to be accountable to? And then how can I make time within all of that for invitations to do more? How can we create invitations that have lots of access points?

I know that we have Genius Hour and Project Based Learning, etc. but these last several weeks have taught me that we have to let go of accountability a bit more than we've been comfortable with so that we can provide more invitations so that our students learn what they need to learn but also have time to learn so much more.


  1. You bring up so many interesting ideas in this piece. Like you, I have had some things, where I thought kids were totally going to engage and go deep, and nothing has happened; and then other ideas, where they have spent days mucking around and thinking and creating and emailing and texting. I'm thinking A LOT about engagement and rigor these days. Can't wait to read more of these pieces!

  2. I love this post. It resonates with me deeply, as I have been on a 4 year journey with personalized learning. I love your concept of "invitations" and will undoubtedly "borrow" it with my own students. I also teach 5th grade in Cincinnati, OH. I tried to find your other posts on "invitations" but had a hard time. Can you lead me to them? Thanks for sharing and perhaps we can connect our students!


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