Do The Next Right Thing

A young girl in an Elsa costume holds up her hands to "freeze" an unseen person.

My daughter turned 7 yesterday, and like many a 7-year-old, she is deeply enamored of the Frozen franchise. Lately, I’ve found myself channeling Anna, who, when faced with a double-barreled tragedy plus a daunting and impossible task, tells herself – in song, of course – to “do the next right thing.”

Online teaching is a challenge under the best of circumstances. It requires a massive shift in our pedagogy, and it requires us to have explicit knowledge of pedagogy and course design, a domain in which many higher education folks have never been trained. (So, K-12 folks, you have an advantage there.) Online teaching requires us to offload a substantial chunk of coursework and independent responsibility for learning onto students. (So, higher ed folks, you have an advantage there, especially in comparison to K-5 teachers.)

And, of course, this is not “normal” online teaching. This is pandemic online teaching. None of us – not teachers, not students, not parents – would have chosen this path if not for the literal threat of death and incapacitation. Nothing about this situation is desirable, equitable, or what we generally think of as an “ideal learning environment.”

We’re exhausted. We’re overwhelmed. We’re confused by new jargon, technology, and teaching methods. We’re beyond our capacity to reinvent from the ground up.

So, what do we do? We do the next right thing. Pick one small, next step that you can take to make the learning experience more intuitive and engaged for your students. Tomorrow, if you can, pick another small step. Here are some comparatively small steps that can make a big difference for your students’ learning experience.

Adjust the notifications for your course.

  • Did you know that some learning management systems notify students about every single change you make to your course?
    • Google Classroom’s “stream” function, for instance, is automatically set to capture every single edit you make. Imagine this from your students’ perspective: They are trying to figure out what needs to happen this week. You are planning two weeks out, and making adjustments to assignments and materials they won’t need to work on until then. But their stream is a confusing, contradictory mess that makes it impossible for them to prioritize or easily follow what needs to be done next.
    • Check the notification settings for your course and lock down notifications about changes.
    • If your LMS has a stream function, change your settings to limit thd stream to announcements only, so that students see a clear sequence of updates chosen by you.

Add time indicators for videos you post.

  • It can be really difficult for students (and families, for younger kids) to determine how long they need to allot for asynchronous work. One small but extremely helpful step is just adding the duration of any videos you include, using a template like this:
    • Duration: 07:30
    • Video Length: 7 minutes and 30 seconds
    •  Time Commitment: 7 minutes, 30 seconds

Draft a weekly announcement template that reviews last week’s ideas and previews this week’s work.

  • Choose whatever delivery method you can manage right now. This does not need to be a finely honed work of literature. Using the same method consistently is best, but we are not living our best lives right now, so be realistic and be kind to yourself.
    • Video is best for building presence, but if that’s too much right now, that’s OK.
    • You can screencast your voice over a three-slide presentation using the template below.|
    • You can write a brief message using a warm tone and the template below.
    • You can post a three-slide presentation using the template below.

  • Make a simple template that you can plug-and-post each week, something like this:
    • Top two or three points from last week’s discussion boards (or synchronous discussion)
      • Why? It reminds students that they have great ideas to contribute to the conversation
    • Top two key ideas that you want them to focus on this week
      • Why? It helps them prioritize and focus their learning
    • Quick review of what’s due this week
      • Why? Pandemic time stretches and blurs. Any additional structure helps.

Create a brief instruction template for discussion posts that you can use for every discussion post assignment, with minimal adjustment other than deadlines.

  • Ask yourself the following questions:
    • What is the minimum length that you would find acceptable? Is there a maximum length?
    • Are you expecting students to use class texts to support their posts?
      • No matter what educational level you teach, DO NOT ASSUME that this is an obvious requirement. If you want students to use texts, tell them that.
    • Are they allowed to use OTHER texts? Some of my richest student discussions occurred when students made connections to other readings from my class, readings from other courses, or readings or videos they had encountered on their own.
    • What about lived experience?
    • Are you expecting them to reply to other students’ posts? How many? By what date?
  • Write your responses into a brief template. As a starting place, consider one of these:
    • TEMPLATE 1: Write one paragraph (5-8 sentences) that answers the question below. Your response must use specific details from the reading to back up your ideas. Post your response to Google Classroom by 11:59 PM on September 4. Post a response to ONE classmate by 11:59 PM on September 5.
    • TEMPLATE 2: Please answer one set of discussion questions below. You should write AT LEAST one paragraph (5-8 sentences) in response to the question set you choose. Use specific details from the text to support your response. Upload your response to Canvas by 11:59 PM on Wednesday, August 26. Respond to TWO classmates by 11:59 PM on Friday, August 28.
    • TEMPLATE 3:
      • Discussion Guidelines: Choose ONE of the bullets below to guide your response. Aim for approximately 150-200 words. A little longer is fine, but don’t overdo it. Use details from the text or your lived experience or both to support your point. You can pull in other readings that we’ve covered in class, if that would help you make your point.
      • Submission Guidelines: Please post your initial response by 11:59 PM on September 9. Comment on the posts of TWO classmates by 11:59 PM on September 11. Follow up on any faculty and classmate responses to your own posts by 11:59 PM on September 13. It’s OK to comment on any post, even if the person answered a different question set than you did.
      • Grading Rubric: Your assignment will be graded according to the attached discussion rubric. I am looking to see whether you’re read the assignment, whether you’ve addressed all the pieces of your chosen prompt, and whether you are able to support your point using textual evidence and lived experience.

Find one simple rubric for discussion posts. Attach it to every discussion.

  • DO NOT reinvent the wheel. The internet is full of rubrics for discussion posts.
    • There are also very effective single-point-rubrics, but they will require some mental reconfiguring that you might not have bandwidth for right now, and that’s OK.
  • Organize the course materials on your LMS for the coming week.
    • You might not have the bandwidth to build out modules (your LMS might call them “lessons” or “topics”) for the entire course right now. That’s OK. If you can work in two-week chunks, that would be best, but if all you can manage is a one-week lead time, then that’s good enough.
    • Don’t feel up to elaborate modules? Just make sure that materials are easily accessible and clearly organized by due date and priority. If you can manage it, add a brief overview to give context to the week’s work, like the examples below:
      • EXAMPLE 1: Week Four opens our unit on the value and nature of a “good education.” We begin with the idea of “cultural literacy,” which states that there is certain information that people need to know to become successful in their society. E.D. Hirsch, who popularized the idea of cultural literacy, believes that there’s a standard list of information that everyone should know. He argues that people without cultural literacy are unable to be informed and effective citizens and are at risk of being taken advantage of by more culturally literate people around them. Critics say Hirsch’s list values some kinds of culture more than others and does not take into account all the diversity within our society. Eric Liu questions and extends Hirsch’s ideas and proposes some revisions to Hirsch’s argument.
      • EXAMPLE TWO: This week, we are continuing our unit on the human body. Last week, we focused on the digestive system and did a simulation of how the human body breaks down food. This week, we shift our attention to the skeletal and muscular systems. We will learn about the ways that bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments work together to make our bodies move. As part of this week’s activities, you’ll build “robot fingers” out of paper, index cards, and string to show how the joints in our hands work. At the end of the week, you’ll combine the fingers you built into a “robot hand.”

Doing all of these steps is probably feeling overwhelming. Choosing just one “next right thing” might feel more manageable. And if you can do one “next right thing” today and another tomorrow and a third the day after that, the cumulative outcome on your courses will be a more effective learning experience for your students (and a more rewarding teaching experience for you).

Published by Jaime Lynn Longo

I am a composition scholar, an educational developer, a practitioner of transformative education both in and out of the classroom, and an accidental instructional design evangelist.

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