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    Virtual Writing Instruction

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    Across school districts, students’ grades, scores, and standardized test results indicate a widespread drop in foundational skills, some of the more critical skills affiliated with academic writing. Writing is not just an English-specific necessity. The ability to construct cohesive, clear, organized thoughts in written form is essential for all aspects of college and career readiness. As educators, we must prioritize these foundational writing skills to ensure that, even in the midst of virtual or hybrid learning, students are still being set up for success.

    Daily cross-curricular opportunities

    Writing is one of those skills that is strengthened by repetition and practice. Exposure to different styles of writing and opportunities to compose different written forms helps students to recognize the importance of writing in all subject areas. Therefore, teachers should provide opportunities for students to practice composing various genres and for different purposes. These do not necessarily have to be long, involved essay prompts; teachers can use these ideas as warm-ups, exit tickets, lesson activators, etc.

    For example, science teachers might ask students to write and submit lab reports, compose directions for science experiments, or draft project proposals for a final project. History, civics, or social studies teachers should consider prompts that require students to compare and contrast two or more cultures, time periods, land forms, or branches of government. Math teachers can help students with procedural or sequential writing skills by asking them to compose an error analysis for any questions that they missed on a quiz or assessment. For a task such as this, students are subconsciously learning the skills necessary to craft written work that follows a problem-solution or cause-effect format. The key here is to demonstrate that writing skills, even short practices, lend themselves to all content areas, not just English.

    Peer review

    Peer review sessions are extremely beneficial, especially during virtual learning where students do not have day-to-day interactions with their peers. Dissecting someone else’s work can be a very enlightening practice for young writers. It allows them to see how another student interpreted and approached the same task in relation to their own response. Viewing another’s writing also sheds light on different writing styles, provides ideas for varying sentence structure, and demonstrates how others interpreted a text or quote. In evaluating another’s writing, students begin to grasp, not only how their own writing measures up, but how an instructor might evaluate a written response. It forces students to consider the prompt, the rubric, and the overall objectives with regard to their final composition. Peer review sessions also prompt student discourse, which, during these trying times, can help stimulate social skills, collaboration, and motivation.

    Formative feedback

    By embedding formative feedback into weekly writing instruction, educators send the important message to students that writing is a fluid process—students are not expected to craft perfect writing on their first, or even second attempt. One of my most beneficial practices to help students with essay writing is to formatively assess the introductory paragraph first, before students continue on with their entire essay. By pumping the breaks and providing specific feedback on each student’s intro paragraph, I am able to accomplish several things at once.

    First, looking at the intro paragraph gives me an inside view of the foundation of their essay; I’m able to see students’ interpretation of hook statement, bridge statement leading into their thesis, and the final thesis statement, around which the entire essay will be framed. If students’ introductory paragraphs are a mess in any one of these categories, I can quickly provide necessary feedback and scaffolds for them to revise and reset before they have gone too far down the wrong path. Looking at the intro paragraph also shows me whether students actually understand the writing prompt or not. If multiple students seem to be off track or missing the mark, I can easily intervene and provide supports, interventions, and reteaching to ensure that everyone understands the prompt and how to approach it.

    Student choice

    Educators can also capitalize on one highly underrated teaching strategy: student choice. When at all possible, I try to provide my students with latitude for their written responses and essays. Of course, with a curriculum to follow, grade books to align, and cohorts that prefer to plan in “lock-step,” this is much easier said than done. Therefore, I make a concerted effort to plan for student choice when designing the writing tasks, as well as the instructional lessons leading up to those tasks.

    Below are several methods for implementing student choice while providing writing instruction:

    Set up a NoRedInk classroom for students to join, explore, and practice various aspects of sentence structure, punctuation, grammar, etc. The platform is set up for self-directed, student-driven, asynchronous work. Therefore, the activity options in NoRedInk can provide students with interventions, scaffolds, and supports, as well as enrichment and rigor for those working ahead of the group. NoRedInk allows students to choose from grammatical, sentence-level practices, standardized English prompts, and guided essay support. They can also participate in peer or self-review, depending on their level of comfort with collaborative feedback.

    One of my favorite warm-up activities is to provide students with several gifs on a Google slide. I try to choose gifs that relate to students and their interests, such as The Weekend’s Superbowl Halftime performance or the latest State Farm commercial. They get to choose the gif they’d like to caption. Then they must incorporate a sentence structure or grammatical concept that we’ve recently discussed in class somewhere in their caption. Not only do students get to pick the gif they want to caption, but they also get the opportunity to demonstrate their knowledge of subordinating conjunctions, for example. Teachers can quickly sift through the gif response to make sure that clauses are punctuated correctly and that students are understanding the purpose of the dependent clause in relation to the independent clause.

    For writing instruction involving essay revision, teacher feedback, or peer edits, ask students to consider which section or paragraph of their essay they’d like to really rework or revise. Teachers can then use strategic grouping to organize students into groups with peers who are looking to revise the same portion of their essays. I might organize small groups as follows:

      • Group 1 should be students who would like support/guidance with the thesis statement.
      • Group 2 should include students who need help finding appropriate quotes from the text or texts.
      • Group 3 should consist of students who need support with a concluding paragraph and/or transitions between paragraphs.
      • Group 4 should be for students who need help with elaborating on their analysis or further developing their own explanations.

    Student choice with writing samples/models:

    Providing teacher models at the beginning of a new writing task is another beneficial strategy for incorporating student choice. Depending on the writing task, teachers should find (or create) a few various examples of the final essay or product for students to read and review.

    These samples can also include student essays from previous years. Provide students with options and require them to read, review, and assess at least one of the sample essays. This activity serves several purposes—it allows students to see how others have approached the essay prompt, either successfully or unsuccessfully, depending on the samples you collect. It also shows teachers if students truly understand the criteria for success after viewing a teacher model or student sample.

    If students review a mediocre or poor essay model as “great” or “topnotch work,” then teachers immediately see that they have missed the mark on fully explaining the task and the learning goals attached. Conversely, if students are unable to articulate why the model essay was unsuccessful or sound, then they truly do not know how to approach the task successfully either.

    These are just s0me of many strategies teachers can use to optimize their teaching approach when it comes to virtual writing lessons, in particular.

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    Wendy Taylor, M.Ed has extensive experience working with students of all ages and abilities, with a focus on learning differences and disabilities. Prior to founding Learning Essentials, she served as a faculty member at Saint Petersburg College, a supervisor of pre-service teachers and a Montgomery County Public School teacher. A certified educator and qualified educational diagnostician, Wendy holds a B.S. in Social Science and Secondary Education from Frostburg State University and a M.Ed. in Special Education from George Mason University.

    Education

    Social Emotional Learning Skills by Grade Level: Part III

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    As discussed in parts one and two, social emotional learning (SEL) skills have become an even greater focus now that students are limited in their opportunities to socialize, collaborate, and communicate with peers in person at school. By the time students reach middle school, the basic foundational skills for social-emotional intelligence are in place. Preteens and teenagers are now ready to face greater obstacles and challenges, especially with regard to peer relationships, stress, and self-motivation. To meet new benchmarks, students in middle and high school must learn to deal with more significant academic struggles, greater peer influences, ever-changing teenage social dynamics, and their own personal growth and development at the same time. Below is our continued list of specific grade-level SEL standards for middle schoolers and high schoolers.

    Middle School

    Students should begin to recognize circumstances and situations that cause extra or unnecessary stress; they should begin to adopt strategies to help with motivation, stress management, and task completion. Middle schoolers should begin to recognize the benefits of strong self-advocacy skills and how to best utilize the resources and supports that are at their disposal. For instance, if schools offer after–school homework help, students who know that they struggle to complete assignments on their own should take initiative by signing up for the club/program and making a point to attend.

    Since learning to set goals in elementary school, middle schoolers should now be equipped to assess the validity of their goals so that they may make more informed, realistic, and specific goals moving forward. They should also be able to determine why they were able to reach success or not, i.e., What helped them to reach their goal? If they didn’t reach it, then why not? What prohibited them from finding success? By middle school, students should not only be able to recognize other people’s emotions, feelings, or perspectives, but they should be able to surmise why they feel or think that way. In this sense, they’re activating the ability to take another’s perspective that they learned in elementary school, then further expanding on that by making inferences.

    Preteens not only recognize cultural differences, but they should begin to acknowledge how certain cultural differences can result in some peers being ostracized or bullied. They should then be able to begin to find ways to combat or address the bullying and/or to make others feel included and recognized. Middle schoolers should be well-aware of group dynamics and what it takes to ensure the success of the group. This includes assigning roles, taking responsibility, sharing the workload, cooperating with others, etc.

    Students in the middle school grades should be aware of negative peer pressure, what it looks like, sounds like, and feels like. They should also be able to come up with ways to combat negative peer pressure in non– confrontational ways and under various circumstances. Preteens should be considering their decision-making in terms of others. Before making an important decision, they should consider not only how they will benefit from their choice, but how it could impact others as well.

    High School

    High schoolers should begin to understand how expressing one’s own emotions/feelings can have both positive and negative impacts on others. For example, as young adults, they need to know that positivity begets positivity, especially when emotions are running high. High schoolers will also have developed the ability to multitask by this point. However, more than multitasking, HS students should be able to shift back and forth between various tasks and under wavering conditions or circumstances. For instance, if completing a chapter review for English, a high schooler may need to answer a phone call or walk the dog to then return to the chapter questions later. Perhaps they need to maintain focus on several different homework assignments while working from a bustling coffee shop.

    Students in high school should be able to capitalize on their strengths and think creatively when facing a challenge. This ability connects with problem-solving skills and ingenuity. We can’t all be great at everything, but in what way can we use our personal/individual strengths to make challenging tasks easier? This is key for college and career readiness. High schoolers should also be thinking about setting goals for the future after graduation. College is not the “end all be all.” But if college isn’t their plan, then what is? Young adults need to recognize how important it is to find a path, take steps to follow that path, and evaluate their progress, preferences, and goals as they go. If they want to take a gap year, what do they hope to accomplish during that year? If they are going to study abroad, how will they decide on a program and pay for it? What skill set do they plan to use for supplementary income while in or out of college?

    High schoolers should be capable of showing respect for those with opposing or differing viewpoints, even if the opposing side is argumentative, dismissive, rude, etc. It is important to maintain a level of self-control even when others are not. Just because someone has a different opinion doesn’t mean they are wrong or right in their convictions. As young adults soon to be out on their own in the adult world, it is critical that high schoolers recognize how we must all be concerned about the well-being of all people; we may all be different races, but we’re all part of the human race. Therefore, we can positively contribute to our communities by advocating for human rights.

    High schoolers should be able to assess their ability to actively listen and explain how active listening helps with conflict resolution. They should also be able to demonstrate leadership abilities within group contexts without dominating or overtaking the goal of the group. Young adults should also be prepared to demonstrate knowledge of social norms and appropriate behaviors between and among various cultural groups. They should recognize certain expectations and norms when interacting with authority figures, children, elders, etc.

    Thus, we have completed our three-part series on SEL skills by grade level. The following series will serve best as a helpful resource rather than a scare-tactic of sorts. We all develop in our own ways, but it’s important we be mindful of these skills by grade level. If your child or student seems behind on any of these, consider the ways in which you can empower them.

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    Education

    Social Emotional Skills by Grade Level, Part II

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    As discussed in part one, social emotional learning (SEL) skills have become an even greater focus now that students are limited in their opportunities to socialize, collaborate, and communicate with peers in person at school. We all know that academics are just one facet of education; the SEL skills that students learn and develop when in school are just as critical. Some might even argue that these “street smarts” are more important or beneficial than the “book smarts” we acquire in school. That said, distance learning and virtual schooling have certainly created various obstacles for students when it comes to developing and growing their SEL skills. Below is our continued list of specific grade-level SEL standards.

    Later Elementary Grades (4-5)

    Students in 4th and 5th grade should be able to assess a range of feelings and emotions connected to specific scenarios, circumstances, and situations. In other words, they should be able to thoroughly describe how they feel and precisely what made them feel this way. Students should also be able to maintain control of certain behaviors and/or emotions that might interfere with their focus. For example, if they are feeling stressed about their homework, they should choose to turn off the television and put the phone away until they finish their assignments. Students should be able to articulate interests, goals, and the ways in which to develop the necessary skills to achieve those goals.

    Students in the later elementary grades should be able to list the necessary steps for goal setting and future achievement while monitoring personal progress throughout the process. In other words, they should be able to take an active role by tracking growth and taking steps to improve along the way. Students should also begin to understand social cues that demonstrate how others are feeling during certain situations. Students should be able to not only recognize others’ perspectives, but specifically describe another’s perspective or stance as well. They should be using phrases like, I understand what you’re feeling and why you’re feeling that way. I might disagree with you, but I appreciate your point of view. That’s not how I interpreted it, but I can see how you may have experienced it differently.

    Students should be able to engage in positive interactions with people from different backgrounds and those with different opinions and beliefs. In the late elementary grades, students should begin to understand various cultural differences between groups, i.e., they should acknowledge that not everyone celebrates Christmas. 4th and 5th graders should be able to describe various approaches to meeting new people and maintaining friendships while forging new friendships with peers in different social circles.

    Students should begin to demonstrate self-respect and how to show respect to others, even during conflicts or disagreements; they choose their words wisely as to not offend others in the heat of the moment. Elementary schoolers should begin to understand different social cues and behaviors of others and how they might impact one’s decision making. Once reaching the late elementary grades, children should be able to brainstorm various options for solving a problem and anticipating the different outcomes depending on the situation. Finally, 4th and 5th grade students should be able to identify needs in their school/local environment and perform duties to contribute to these communities. For example, if the cafeteria floor is covered in trash, they will take it upon themselves to help clean up after others.

    As said in the last piece, if your child or student falls short in any area mentioned above, don’t panic. Consider how you can help and empower them. In our final part of this series, we’ll cover middle school and high school benchmarks.

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    Education

    Social Emotional Learning Skills by Grade Level, Part I

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    Social and emotional (SEL) skills involve more than just the concepts surrounding educational buzzwords like growth mindset, grit, and self-advocacy. SEL skills are being emphasized at an even greater extent now that students are limited in their opportunities to socialize, collaborate, and communicate with peers in person. Distance learning and virtual schooling created various obstacles for students when it comes to developing and growing their SEL skills. For this reason, SEL has become an even greater focus for school districts, parents, and educators. Besides providing resources for building SEL skills at home, it is equally important for families to be able to determine if children are reaching specific grade-level SEL standards. In the following series, we’ll discuss each of the SEL skills students should have by grade level to provide a helpful resource for parents and educators alike.

    Early Elementary Grades (K-3)

    As expected, the SEL skills required for student success change or evolve as students progress through the grade levels. In elementary school, much of the SEL emphasis is on positive interactions with the world. Children are obviously highly dependent on adults during these years, yet they are beginning to enter their own social spheres with their peers as well. Here are some of the notable SEL skills children should have developed or are developing during this time:

    Students should be able to recognize and articulate their feelings/emotions; they should be beginning to understand how feelings and reactions are connected to behaviors. Students should also be beginning to exhibit impulse control and regulating their emotions. Early learners should be able to describe their preferences: What do they like/dislike? What are their strengths/weaknesses? Students will also begin to articulate personal opinions and needs during this time.

    Elementary schoolers should be able to identify when they need help and who is in a position to help them in certain situations, i.e., peers, family members, educators, etc. Children should be able to roughly explain how learning is connected to personal growth and success. Elementary–aged students should also be able to set personal goals regarding behavior and academics. Students will be beginning to understand that other people have different perspectives or ways of looking at a situation; they’ll recognize that others may share the same experience, but have varying opinions and viewpoints at the same time. Students will also be able to describe peoples’ similarities and differences.

    Early learners should be able to actively listen to others’ viewpoints and recognize their feelings while listening. Elementary–aged students should be able to recognize and describe positive traits in others; they’ll be able to give genuine compliments. Students will also begin to develop collaborative skills such as how to work/play with peers in constructive ways, how to solve and resolve problems and/or conflicts, and how to receive constructive criticism from others. Young children should be able exhibit the ability to adapt to new or changing situations or environments.

    By the time children reach elementary school, they should be able to understand why hurting others is wrong, whether that be physical or emotional hurt. Students should be starting to read social cues and adjust behavior accordingly. Students should also be exhibiting sound decision making and weighing right vs. wrong. Elementary schoolers should be able to positively contribute to their classroom environment, including cleaning up after themselves and others, sharing, demonstrating kindness/understanding, and taking responsibility for themselves.

    If your child or student perhaps falls short with some of these skills, that doesn’t mean it’s time to panic. However, it’s certainly worth being mindful of and considering ways you may be able to help them out. In the next piece, we’ll cover the later elementary grades (4-5).

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