Matt Johnson, a high school Language Arts teacher, who has been teaching remotely for the past year, shares strategies that he has found work for him in engaging students in learning. He includes approaches for providing writing feedback. With 163 students, one minute of feedback per student takes three hours. Find out about “flash feedback”.
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Steve [Intro]: 00:25 Hello and welcome to the teacher edition of the Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud podcast. For over three decades, I’ve had the opportunity to learn with teachers in and out of their classroom settings. I have great respect for the complexity of teaching and I know that all great teachers are continuous learners. I invite you to join me as I explore my thoughts and insights on a variety of topics, connected to teaching and learning. Thanks for listening in.
Steve: 00:54 Some things that are working in remote teaching. Joining us on the podcast today is Matthew Johnson, a high school language arts teacher from Ann Arbor, Michigan, and the author of “Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster Without Burning Out.” I asked him if he would join me to explore some of his experiences in remote teaching. And so Matt, I’m wondering if you’d start by describing the situation that your school has been in during COVID and where you are right now.
Matt: 01:45 Yeah, yeah. So thank you so much for having me on, I really appreciate it. And so, I teach in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and we have been remote for 11 months now which is something I would have never imagined. We’re looking at going hybrid this month, like coming back in a hybrid way, but that’s to be determined. It being a college town, our cases have been pretty high kind of throughout the whole thing. So that’s kind of where, you know, my teaching context is. I’m teaching high school English, by the way, [inaudible] with other English language arts to 163 students from a shed that I built in the backyard.
Steve: 02:25 If you go hybrid there, what will hybrid look like? Do you know?
Matt: 02:31 As far as we’ve been told, it’s kind of like, I guess, what you could sort of call it standard hybrid, which is that you have like
an A and B pod of students who are cycling through in any given day, and then some students who have opted to stay at home. And so there’s kind of a camera on you. And really, I mean, I think that the best practices for that seem to be similar to remote where you kind of have it set up, you know, in the same similar way that I’ve had my classroom going in the last 11 months.
Steve: 02:57 So, Matt, I reached out to you when I read a blog post that you did describing three things that are working for you in this situation and I was hoping you could kind of give us a descriptor and some feedback on each one. So the first one that you said was using individual breakout rooms.
Matt: 03:17 Yeah. So you know, so one of the things – there’s not much I’ve liked about this last year of teaching but, you know, there have been some silver linings. In fact, that’s my writing – all fall, I’ve been really trying to just focus on what’s working because there’s so much about no, it’s not working and that’s incredibly important, but I think there’s a lot of teachers who are just desperate for what can I do that’s actually working. And I’m looking at this kind of from two levels of like, what’s working right now. Like, what can I do right now to make that breakout room not a dark sad place with no cameras and no sound? And then also like, what can I do, like, as we hopefully start to transition back, like sort of laying the groundwork of what is that going to look like?
Matt: 03:59 What is the work that we’re going to have to do? And so one of the things that has really worked for me, it kind of got me going on this idea of doing posts on what’s working is the idea of individual breakout rooms. And the notion here, it’s not a unique notion to me, but I think I really leaned into it very hard, which is that when school stops, so many lines of communications between – or lines of communication between the students and me disappeared overnight. Whether it was the little interactions when they came in the room or they left, their body language, you know, the quick conferences during class, I mean, that all was just gone, just evaporated. And so, you know, for the first, like last spring, when this first started, I just found myself feeling like I was just kind of alone, right?
Matt: 04:45 Like, I was just sitting there in my basements with silence around me and I was used to the buzz of a school building humming with learning and all these students popping in and out, and all these little interactions and body language, and it was just gone. And so over time, I started to kind of notice that the one place where I started to see a lot of energy from students and to see something approximating what used to be was individual breakout rooms, where they would have their own breakout room. I would make like, in a class of 35, they have 35 rooms and then I would pop in there. And I actually started to find that in some ways they were better than the conferences I had when I was in person, because while in – during it, we’re in a class of 35.
Matt: 05:23 And you know, my room was not very big. There’s basically just enough room for us to like move to our desks. We’d have a conference with a student. We kind of pretend as nobody else hears, but like a good third of the class, even when you’re whispering, probably hears it, you know, when you’re reading your writing. And so the but in an individual break out room, it’s truly individual, which actually has led to some of the best conferences I’ve ever had with students this fall because they can bring out that poem that nobody knows about, they don’t want anybody else to hear, and they can read it knowing that no one else is actually going to hear it. And so over time, my practice has gone more and more towards where it is now. I mean, most of my class has always been asynchronous.
Matt: 06:05 We have a synchronous portion and then they synchronous, but during the asynchronous, I keep them on and I put them into individual breakout rooms and I just cycle through. And I conference with them about what they’re reading for choice reading, what they’re writing for choice writing. I conference with them about, you know, like how it’s going you know, that most recent paper, we have targeted feedback, which I’ll talk about, which I can do there. And my goal now is to talk to every student every week in an individual breakout room.
Steve: 06:29 Cool. Very cool.
Matt: 06:29 And I got to say that it did help to really get to know them and to build those relationships and those connections and to motivate them. And I had some students who said like, this is the only class where I feel like I like, it’s like, I know you, right? You know, and I don’t think that that’s an accident. And that leads to learning. All of those things lead to learning.
Steve: 06:48 Absolutely. There’s certainly a major social-emotional chunk of that.
Matt: 06:57 Yeah. And we need to focus on their wellbeing right now, right? A lot of them are not well and so that gives you a chance to do that incredible and incredibly important work on wellbeing as well which you can’t do from just, you know, here’s my screencast and then go work.
Steve: 07:11 And it’s actually somewhat safe because it can initially kick into the work I was doing and then get more personal rather than if I just set it up for personal.
Matt: 07:21 Yeah.
Steve: 07:22 Cool. So you mentioned shout-outs.
Matt: 07:26 Yeah. So the idea of shout-outs is, I early on tried to do what I normally do in my classroom which was, we have a lot of celebration. My classroom is a class that we’re always sharing our work, celebrating it, and celebrating each other. We start – there’s an author named Matthew Kay, who actually, I think got from an author named Zach Chase, who starts every class with good news and we do that. And so like this idea of like, we’re always celebrating and sharing with each other and in the early days of zoom that just did not land, right? You know, it’s like, it’s really hard to snap for a poet and we’re all lagging on Zoom and no one wants to show their face on Zoom. And so, you know, celebration and like these like moments of camaraderie kind of drifted out of my classroom, it was quiet at first.
Matt: 08:07 But then I realized that this was a really important thing. Celebration is not just something superfluous. It’s not just something that’s nice to do when you have time. I mean, that’s where students build that classroom culture. It’s where they see mentor texts of each other’s work. It’s where you establish the expectations. I mean, that’s important stuff and it’s where you celebrate. We need to celebrate, especially now. They’re learning in the midst of a pandemic, they’re doing a remarkable thing. So we’ve got to celebrate that. So the idea here is that with shoutouts, if they’re not really feeling that comfortable with doing that, then I’ve gone a lot more to – I’ll get student work every single day that’s awesome and I have a clipboard where I keep track. So I make sure that every student gets this kind of multiple times in a quarter.
Matt: 08:48 And I’ll just show it and I’ll just celebrate. And I’ll just, you know, like, and I do say in advance, like, look, I’m planning on doing this. If anybody has issues with this, let me know because there might be a student or two who might feel weird about that, even though it’s anonymous you know, and I keep it anonymous to kind of help with that. But, you know, it gives me an opportunity to celebrate them, to show the growth that they’re doing, which is really important, creates this narrative of progress that we’re moving forward, even when like the world’s stuck. And you know, it’s been just a lot of fun. It’s something I think I’m going to continue to do even when we go back in person.
Steve: 09:19 I want to make sure I got it. So you’re showing a piece of my work and celebrating it, but not necessarily saying it’s mine?
Matt: 09:31 A lot of students are very nervous, even if it’s a celebration thing, like, you know you know you know, that this student did this and that can make, you know – and so now sometimes, I will, you know, I’ll sometimes if I have a piece of work, I’ll be like, “hey, can I share this with the class?” And like, if I’ve got a poem that’s really cool like that. But I find that it’s just easier this way because every student feels much more comfortable with that.
Steve: 09:55 I can sense there are times where that I’ve studied some of this in praise and recognition. Hearing somebody praise your work to somebody else is actually more powerful than I’m praising it to you. So that’s neat that that’s that that’s built into that. And then you talked about flash feedback, which I’m guessing comes from your book. So tell us a little bit more about that.
Matt: 10:24 Yeah. And the idea here is that while all of these bridges of communication are down, the most important one is actually as functional as ever and it’s going to have to bear more weight, which is our feedback. Teachers often approach feedback as sort of just like – there’s actually a term for it. It’s called a detached authority, which I think a guy named David Fuller came up with that, which is basically like your job in feedback is to say what’s right and wrong. There are certain rules and your job is to enforce them. And instead of a detached authority, I think feedback is much more effective when you have the approach of an interested reader where I’m looking at your work and I’m interested in helping you move forward in whatever way makes sense for you. And the cool thing about taking the interested reader approach versus detach authority is it frees you from having to mark everything.
Matt: 11:11 You can focus on things that just matter to move the writer forward because if you mark everything, there might be 50 different lessons that you’re trying to teach simultaneously, which means that they will probably learn none of them. And instead, it allows you to focus on one or two things and then work on the next thing the next time. And so flash feedback is a part of that. It’s the idea here that feedback is often the most effective when it’s targeted when it’s really focused. So if we can find ways to give focus feedback to students, really quickly – like a minute or less because I have 163 students so it’s three hours for every minute of feedback I give. And so the idea here is that – I’ll give a couple of examples of what I’m doing this week.
Matt: 11:51 So this week, in one of my classes, we’re talking about emphasizers, like things that we use to emphasize emotion and tone and language. So colons and dashes, and even emojis, you know, we were talking about like the various emphasizes that you can use or positives. And so the students are writing a one-page paper where they have to use three or four emphasizes at a key moment and then they have to annotate it with how they used it and why they use it. They’ve already pointed out where they’re using them and how they’re using them so my feedback to them is simply, yes, that’s spot on – “Oh, wait, hold on. That colon here’s kind of how you use a colon.” And I can do that in a minute or less than the learning because they’re actually focusing for that long.
Matt: 12:31 And then I required them to like revisit the feedback and do some reflecting on it is way better than me just scribbling through their margins all, all year long and we can do this. Another one is, so you can do that on paper. You can also do it in conferences. Like, my students are setting goals for the second semester. They have a Google form they do this with and – the Google form, they do all the thinking. I just show up and say, you know, “I like that goal. What do you think about this?” But I can do those conferences in 30 seconds, but it’s meaningful. Like, they’ve already kind of come up with a meaningful goal, I’ve taken a quick look at it, and we can come up with a meaningful interaction in 30 seconds or less which means I can do that in 15 minutes in class.
Steve: 13:10 Matt, I’m wondering, is there a way that you prep your students or explain to your students the value of the flash feedback, or does it just kind of happen over time?
Matt: 13:27 No, I tell them all of this straight. I mean, I have a policy in my class that you can ask me why we’re doing anything in a respectful fashion, and if I can’t give you a good answer, we probably should do something else. They always started trying yet, but I talk about that with feedback. I’m like, some of you might be used to getting feedback where all of your papers – you get it once a month on a paper that’s torn to shreds, we’ve got a little bit different here. And I’ll actually share the research with them, like the pedagogical reasons why. And what’s kind of cool about that is it goes from like, Matt’s lazy because he’s only marking two things to like, no, no, no, this guy is doing his homework and he knows what he’s doing and he’s doing this and it’s going to be like more meaningful than normal. So I will totally share with them the exact reasons why we do it down to like the studies. I’m like, go look it up.
Steve: 14:17 I really like it. If my paper doesn’t look like it’s been bled on that, it means my teacher didn’t really care, huh?
Matt: 14:25 That’s actually a danger. Some students will think that. I had, in the early years of me, like, you know, kind of like, learning, making some of these changes, I had some students accuse me of that.
Steve: 14:37 Matt, as we wrap up here, there’s a question I’ve been sharing with tons of educators these days. And it’s what have you uncovered or what insights have appeared during this COVID virtual teaching, remote teaching environment that you think are things that will impact you or things that you’ll hold on to when we’re all vaccinated and we get the doors back open.
Matt: 15:10 Yeah. So, I mean, I think the answer is like a lot of things, this pandemic is very, been very effective at showing the many, many sorts of gaps and problems and issues that we have. And I think that that’s true in the classroom. I’ll give the example of the quiet, dark breakout room, right? I think that myself included, a lot of us just kind of assumed the kids knew how to talk to each other, but I’m not sure that they do. I think that that dissection may be showing something that already existed long before COVID. Like, we should actively train students to listen to each other and talk to each other you know, in productive ways or, and my book, I actually talk a lot about peer review and how we assume that they know how to do it, but they don’t and that you need very direct training on that.
Matt: 15:51 And I think there are so many other things that we need direct training. I’m very into like direct training on listening right now, and really like trying to like, you know, hear people and what like, the science of that looks like. And also, you know, direct training on how do you have a conversation in class? Like, what does that look like? Because there’s actually a specific move that you can make. So I think that, you know, a lot of these things, so, you know certainly relevance and choice. You know, I found that, you know, that when a lesson isn’t relevant over Zoom in class, I can kind of fake it. Zoom, you know, you’ve got – you know, and so like, you know, finding ways to connect this to students’ lives, finding ways to give them choice. Also, the importance of hearing them and really making space for them to talk. Because this was new for me, I’ve been asking them constantly, how are you doing? What is this like for you? What works and doesn’t work? And that has led to a whole lot of other realizations that have been incredibly important.
Steve: 16:45 So student feedback to you?
Matt: 16:48 Yeah. I mean, I think we, as human beings are sort of designed that we create a story for everybody very quickly. And so, but when you talk to people, it disrupts that. So the importance of this two-way communication. So that’s, that’s a lot of things.
Steve: 17:00 No, but it is a big learning time.
Matt: 17:04 Well, my hope is that we come out of this and we can maybe finally, you know, that the negatives, the profound negatives of the last
year will shake things up enough that maybe we can make some very positive changes going forward in how we approach, you know, education.
Steve: 17:18 Matt, would you tell the listeners the best ways to find you and find your book?
Matt: 17:23 Sure. So the book is “Flash Feedback” and it’s available kind of wherever books are sold for the most part, though, I do say that the publisher, Corwin tends to have the best prices on it even with shipping. And so, and it’s always nice to go get it directly from publishers. I tend to recommend that for any book. And then my blog is matthewmjohnson.com. And I, you know, trying weekly blogs. It hasn’t exactly been weekly this last year. You know, a lot of these Zoom days at the end, you just, you can’t sit down at a keyboard. But so, you know, I’ve been trying to really sort of do posts that are, you know, what’s working now and then maybe, what can we think about, you know, coming out of this to be better – to build back better?
Steve: 18:06 Well, Matt, thank you. And we’ll put a link to your website on the lead-in to this podcast so folks can find you thanks again for sharing your thoughts with us.
Matt: 18:18 Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
Steve [Outro]: 18:22 Thanks again for listening. You can subscribe to Steve Barkley Ponders Out Loud on iTunes and Podbean and please remember to rate and review us on iTunes. I also want to hear what you’re pondering. You can find me on twitter @stevebarkley or send me your questions and find my videos and blogs at barkleypd.com.