Backstories + New Learning

One of the challenges to creating a unit chronicling our time of living through this historic pandemic was that we were already 4 weeks in. The big “reveal” if you would of e-learning, plans changing, and emotions high had already happened. We knew that what we all experienced prior to the beginning of the unit was important, but we also knew that we wanted to focus on the now and the what happens next. It was with this thinking that we came up with the idea of having students tell their “backstory” through an emotional timeline.

Backstories are often presented as prologues in the books students are reading and so we began there to gain buy-in and stress the importance of the work they would be doing.  I’ve used emotional timelines quite a bit in the past for students to analyze character change over time, identify defining moments in characters’ lives, as well as to identify and discuss theme. Students in my class were familiar with them and so we thought this could be a great entry point. After meeting with our amazing counselors, we decided to have students scale their emotions from when we first went on Chinese New Year break (Jan 22nd) until our current time (March 5th). We began with this question:

  • “How can we share and record our experiences of living through a historically relevant time period?”

We divided out our time into sections that were meaningful in some way to our shared experience: Jan 22nd (CNY Break)- Jan 26th (e-learning), then Jan 27th-March 1st (the date we began the emotional timeline), finally March 2nd-March 6th (when timelines were due). The final draft would end our journey into our backstories and bring us to current day.

To kick this off, I teamed up with our amazing teacher-librarian, Jessica Levitt. We met via Zoom as we were in two separate countries-each with 2 kids of our own to be caring for as well. I found these meetings to be helpful, not only for planning purposes, but also for my own mental health. Being quarantined and not seeing anyone has been the hardest part of this whole time. Jess was amazing and so supportive as she listened to my frustrations as we worked through, not only how we would teach these lessons together, but also my personal emotional state. (Side note: it is beyond important to have people you can trust and reach out to during this time!)

We began with having students plot their emotions using a 10 pt scale: 1 being horrible, terrible, no good to 10 being Amazing!

And providing examples of our own to help students gain an idea of how we were doing at first as well. We were encouraging students to use whatever they were most comfortable with: digital or analogue.


As we continued, each day provided a new focus. We had the students go back and use resources available such as: China Daily, Newsbank, CNN, etc to look up what was happening in the news during that time period of their emotional timeline. Students identified articles, cited them, and identified central idea. All were added onto their timeline to create a mix of narrative and nonfiction.

For each section added, students continued to look for articles to shed light on what was happening globally, as they shared their emotional timelines. We created lessons around naming emotions and had those added as well. At one point, I realized how I was choosing to share my timeline was not going to work long-term and so I made an adjustment. Every step of the way, the G6 humanities team shared their work and thinking with the students.

created with Visme

The final products included: articles cited with central idea, plotted moments with brief description, and clearly identified emotions. It was a mixed bag whether students went digital or analogue but every single emotional timeline submitted was telling. It painted an amazing picture of how our students were feeling along the way and what their backstory was comprised of. Frustrations I previously had with students who weren’t submitting work or were not communicating regularly were eased after viewing what life had been like for them over the past few weeks. Not only were the students creating a primary source of living through this time, but they were also offering us a glimpse into how they were doing emotionally. Feedback to students became more about making sure they were okay than the quality of the work they submitted. This week’s learning was not just on the students’ end, but also on mine. My thinking shifted and as a result, I hope I have become better for my students as well. It was also helpful for me to see that others are struggling and having extreme lows. I suppose I know that, I’ve heard it enough times, but it does take on a different power when you see it 40xs over from 11 year olds who are so open and honest. With openness and honesty comes vulnerability and as such, I did ask permission to share the examples below.



E-learning, Home-Schooling, Gates Closing

I’ve waited a long time to write down my thoughts on what it has been like to go through e-learning, home schooling my two 8-year olds, and dealing with the stress involved of increased security measures around town. As we’ve been asking students to journal about their experiences so far, I have felt unable to do so. I’m not sure what has changed over the past few days, but I suddenly feel motivated to share some of my experiences as an educator, parent, and person living through this time of COVID-19. Perhaps it’s because the virus has hit the US and in WA State, my home, schools have just been announced closed for the next 6 weeks. I’ve seen comments on social media declaring these measures ridiculous and severe, while others feel as if this isn’t enough to stop the spread of the virus. I’ve seen comments where teachers are concerned about how they will be able to remotely teach their students, comments where parents are concerned about how they’re going to care for their children while out of school when they still have to go to work, and I’ve seen comments where some are concerned about how their children are going to get the one or two solid meals they eat thanks to school based programs. In general, the stress is evident regardless of your feelings about the State of Emergency that has been declared.

I’m not sure I have advice, only simply that I get it. It’s been 6 weeks here in Beijing and I’ve never felt so stressed, alone, out-of-control, and unlike myself. It hasn’t made much sense to me at all but I have learned or come to realize a few things:

  1. I am impressed and humbled by how quickly China has responded to contain this epidemic
  2. I can’t count on anything staying the same from day-to-day or even hour-hour…flexibility remains my new motto (I think this could be a post all on its own)
  3. I miss my students more than I thought possible–working with children is really where my passion lies
  4. I am terrible at home-schooling. Huge props, kudos, and all my love to those primary teachers-they deserve a massive raise!
  5. Providing students with authentic and relevant learning opportunities is even more important to me than before
  6. It takes students way longer to complete tasks via e-learning than we think–be gentle, just as we are stressed, so are our babes and they don’t always have the tools, support, and resources to work through the stress
  7. It’s okay to close your computer and step away for a while (okay, full disclosure, I’m terrible at this but I am working on it!)
  8. We’re all doing the best we can under less than ideal circumstances-time to pull out the Norms of Collaboration and presume positive intentions
  9. I really need to make time for me and I’m sure you do too. Self care is more important than ever! Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries!-easier said than done
  10. Find your tribe! Now more than ever, we need people we love around us. Check in on your friends-they could be struggling more than it appears. We got this!

Now, this list is not exhaustive and even as I write it, I feel a bit hypocritical. Some days are better than others. There are definitely days where I’ve wanted to give up and wallow in self pity and then there’ve been days where I feel good and all is under control. Some days I don’t monitor my girls on their ipads and I found out they watched music videos all day rather than completed their work-others they have a schedule and we totally rock e-learning. I think back to “Alexander’s Terrible, No Good, Horrible Day” when he says, “My mom says some days are just like that” and I’m slowly learning that’s okay.

4 Weeks in A Smattering of Images and 6-word Memoirs

To launch our new unit, we wanted students to think about what they had been experiencing over the past four weeks. For most of us, we were excited about heading off to Chinese New Year break, anxious to go on holiday to visit family, sleep in, or travel to new places. I remember the smiles and energy on the last Wednesday of break. It was virtually impossible to get the students to engage in conversation as they were amped up on sweets and excitement. I suppose I was too as I was getting ready to meet my ILCC cohort buddies in Muscat, Oman. I had visions of camel riding, date-eating, and good times ahead.

As news of COVID-19 (simply called Wuhan Coronavirus at the time) began to spread, there was anxiousness and anticipation that perhaps holiday could be extended and we would not return to school. Initially, this seemed like a great idea and in thinking about how we could begin this project, wanted to capitalize on the fun and excitement our students had prior to discussing what the hear-and-now looked like. Hence the idea of a good, ole fashion collage. Who doesn’t like collages? They’re colorful, engaging, fun, AND allow each person to tell his/her/their own story.

At first, the students responded with a lot of questions: “Can my collage be this?”, “Can I do my collage by hand”, “Do I have to include today or can it just be my break?” on and on the questions were asked and I responded: “Whatever you think best tells your story.”

Along with the idea of collages, we also brought in 6-word memoirs. The idea was for students to whittle their days down to six meager words that would end up being crazy powerful in the end. Most students talked of their struggles with the situation and almost all voiced their frustration. The 6-word memoirs were also unique and as different as can be. Some students shared the many places they had moved over the past 4 weeks, while others shared that they hadn’t left the walls of their apartment. The collages and memoirs ended up being an added bonus: I was able to very quickly and obviously tell how my students were coping with this time. I reached out to many students I was concerned about and had the counselor reach out to others. I gained a new appreciation for what my students had been experiencing throughout this time.

6-word memoirs:

  • “E-learning and food, the main stuff”
  • “Masks everywhere. Extra safety precautions. Stuck.”
  • “I want normal life. DIE VIRUS”
  • “Caged in silence. Street’s asleep… When?”
  • “Same Day, Same Week, Same Month.”
  • “Disaster is just around the corner.”
  • “First trapped, now safe but chilly.”
  • “everyday the same, every day repetitive”
  • “In and out of the pool”
  • “Elearning has taken over my life.”



An Unexpected Opportunity: COVID-19

I’ve been meaning to blog for quite some time throughout the past 5 weeks, but then when I sit down to do so, I have nothing to say. We are now 5 weeks into the COVID-19 epidemic in Beijing and 4 solid weeks of e-learning. At first, my team attempted to carry on with business as usual in the thinking that we would be back to school shortly; however, that has not proven to be the case.

We began hitting our Ancient Civilization unit hard. With each new lesson recorded via Zoom, I felt as if I was becoming less and less attached to the curriculum, to school, to my students. It felt like Ancient Sumer (while normally quite exciting for me) was irrelevant. I became a bit apathetic and spent less and less time thinking about the actual lessons and more about the virus and how it has impacted, not only students, but my children as well. I watched my daughters struggle through full days of e-learning and dealt with the inevitable temper fits that resulted after too much screen time. In a moment of extreme frustration, I emailed my team…I’d had enough and knew that if my baby girls were struggling this badly, so were my students. Something had to change.

After a very long, emotional email, I did feel better. I shared with my team that I felt we needed to look at this time as an opportunity to lean heavily on what reading and writing does best-help us through times of uncertainty and help us gain new perspective. Initially, there was some hesitation and rightly so. This would be an entire new unit developed for only this one year and as teachers we were already stretched emotionally and time-wise. However, I work with amazing people and they of course saw the value in using this time to help students beyond just academically. Soon, we were pop-corning off of each other. It was as if we had a sudden jolt of energy. And so, a new unit was born: COVID-19 2020.

We’re still finding our way and are uncertain as to what the end result will be or when it will be, but so far here’s what we have:

  • students will create a primary source of living through a historical event
  • The primary source will become narrative nonfiction, integrating nonfiction and journal writing
  • we will divide the workload so each teacher can focus on an area of passion/strength
  • daily lessons will be recorded and shared with the team in the idea of working smarter, not harder
  • we will bring the counselors into the discussion to glean from them how we also support the social-emotional piece during this unit.

It’s a rough sketch and one that I know will have many changes prior to its completion. I’m excited that the students will be provided the opportunity to engage in an authentic experience that relates to what they are going through right now. I also know that this has the potential to be cathartic to the adults involved as we will be engaging in the unit alongside students.

Updated Goal 2019-20

As the school year began, I felt great! I was loving my students, loving the curriculum and overall, just happy as could be. I didn’t know if that would translate into positive areas on the Tripod survey-nor were my efforts because of the survey; however, I was quite pleased when the survey results came out. As far as I’ve been told, “green is good” and there’s a lot of green in the flower below.



At first, I struggled with coming up with an area I really wanted to focus on. Truth be told, I was overwhelmed by what the next steps would be and what my final Tripod survey would reveal. It’s daunting to know that with a lot of green, there’s a lot that can happen to lose momentum and have things go south. This year has shaped up to be a crazy busy one (truly, are there ever any that aren’t?!). So, having a conversation with myself, I thought about what I truly feel is important that my students leave our time together having a strong experience in. I came down to “Challenge”. I selected this because I feel as if it is our job as educators to meet students, regardless of where they are, and truly provide a challenging environment. I want my students to know that I want them to push themselves, that I expect them to work hard and put forth their best effort. Last year, my Challenge category was high in all areas. So, I’m reflecting on why my students feel as if I do not challenge them at a high level. I’m still working on that, but I do know we had a very slow start to the year. I’m curious to hear how things go as more and more expectations and one-on-one conversations have been had with the students. Will they feel more challenged? Or, will this be something I’ll continue to work on in years to come?

Extended Metaphors and Borrowed Lines

I love children’s lit and so anytime I can bring in a favorite book of my girls to share with my students, I do it. I think about how I can model amazing writing for my students through these books that is accessible to them, but stretches them as writers. Today I read My Mouth is a Volcano, by Julia Cook.

The students immediately picked up that the title was a metaphor, as we have been working on figurative language in class (YAY! They remembered!). There were smiles and giggles as I read, modeling fluency and feeling in my reading. Many students could relate to the boy who clearly had a problem with spewing out anything that came to mind whether someone was speaking or not. They were hooked from the start.

My purpose today was to get the students interacting with physical feature geographic terms, while thinking about extending metaphors (two for one!). Metaphors for G6 students are tricky and extended metaphors are quite the beast to have them tackle, but I knew they could do it. So, I began by borrowing a line from Cook’s book: My __________________ is a (insert geographic term here). I modeled this for my students first.

And then they tried it out on their own. After about 3 minutes, the students were struggling to put down their pencils as so many ideas sprung to mind-video games are an oasis, my sister is a volcano, my room is a forest… on and on it went. This was no problem for the kiddos, and so I pushed. I introduced to them to the idea of an extended metaphor and shared how typically G6 students wouldn’t be able to write these on their own but I knew they were ready. The students were pumped and anxious to get started. I shared one I wrote with a 15 minute timer. Perhaps there were bits and pieces I would change, but no matter, whatever I wrote in 15 minutes (typos and all), I shared.

Their turn came. I set the timer for 15 minutes and off they went. 15 minutes went by like a flash and I struggled to get them to put down their pencils. They were excitedly writing their own extended metaphors and happily shared


Not bad at all for a first attempt at extended metaphors. I am pretty proud of these kiddos and what they could do with 15 minutes of push. I’m a huge believer that these kids can do more than what we imagine if we provide them the opportunity and support. Borrowed lines from nonthreatening texts is one way we can demystify writing for students. An added bonus, I learned so much about my students through this activity!

Personal Goal 2019-20

Last year, I retooled my goal to move from Confer to Consolidate–working specifically on summarizing learning targets at the end of class. When I began to do so with students last year, it made a huge difference in how students viewed the lessons. This year I would like to add on having students summarize and synthesize their learning. One way I will do this is through the use of note-booking. In the past, I’ve consistently had students create process pages to work through their thinking; however, have not provided the time to bring their thinking together in synthesis pages. This year I’m planning on providing a standard day to go back through and synthesize their learning for the week. The reason for this is two fold: one, to make sure that they are taking the time to bring their thinking and learning together; two, to serve as an assessment tool to see what my students are able to synthesize. This will be a great way to make sure they are on track and to encourage deeper level thinking.

Strand: Consolidate

“We review and summarize lessons to help make learning coherent and memorable.”

  • I summarize big ideas at the end of lessons and review them periodically.
  • I ask students to summarize and synthesize what they are learning.


The Project Deets

Coming up with the project outline took a fair amount of time and thinking. A big part of this unit is argumentation; however, the students have just come off of a unit where they wrote feature articles. I am concerned about two major writing units being back to back. As such, this outline is trying to make the most out of which standards we need to cover, honoring student choice, and trying to keep motivation high as we move into the last five weeks of the year. Right now, this is my current thinking:


How Do We Make the Better Choice?

Looking at different environmental issues, we have found that there is no perfect or best solution when all factors are considered. What is good for one group, often is at the expense of another.

Your task:

After researching environmental issues and their impact on people and the economy, you will analyze the pros and cons on different solutions/alternatives to the problem. Then, you will select what a better choice (solution/alternative) could be and argue for that choice.


The breakdown:

  • use at least 5 sources in support of your claim
    • Clearly listed on Noodletools
  • Cost/Benefit breakdown of two or more approaches to the issue. Make sure you look at how it will impact:
    • yourself
    • businesses/economy
    • People in other places
  • Thesis (claim) clearly stated
  • Link to Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs) and explanation of the link
  • Outline clearly listing your:
    • Thesis statement (claim)
    • Reasons (evidence)
    • Explanation (reasoning)
  • An argumentative paragraph that includes:
    • A thesis statement (claim)
    • Well-organized reasons (evidence) with:
      • Explanation (reasoning)
      • Transitions connecting ideas
    • A conclusion
  • A presentation of some sort.  Examples may include, but are not limited to:
    • poster of your thinking, including cost/benefit analysis
    • TED talk
    • campaign
    • Video
    • Commercial
    • PPT style presentation
    • Infographic arguing for your thesis
    • Create a protoype (if the proposed “better choice” is based on constructing the solution)


There is still concern around the mandatory argumentative paragraph. Is both an outline and paragraph (which inevitably will turn into an essay) necessary? Can we get away with just an outline and really focusing on crafting strong Thesis statements? What is most important for students to be able to do? For me, it’s to analyze how our actions impact ourselves and others, and to take a look at how small change can have lasting, far-reaching impact. Unfortunately, argumentative essay isn’t coming up high on my list. Right now I’m thinking of trying the paragraph with one class, and then not with the other class to see if it makes a difference in thinking, showing of learning, or movement towards a “better choice.”

What Am I Getting Myself Into?

Full disclosure: I’d like this bit of thinking to be deep, powerful, witty, and yet I’m sure it will be loads of rambling and overall a hot mess. I have decided to enter into an inquiry along with my students as I develop a unit that I hope to be impactful. Year after year, I’ve grown weary with reports on plastic bags destroying the oceans; and projects explaining or even arguing for the cleaning up of the Pacific Garbage Patch. Sustainability, to me, has become a buzz word that is losing its impact. I know how important it is for students to learn about how their choices have impact and that sustainable alternatives need to be explored; I’m just tired of clinical approach to a problem that is quite personal for millions of people around the world.

So, here I am thinking “Oh man, why oh why did I say I’d do this project with them?” I’m developing on the go and don’t even have a complete picture of how all of this will work. I want to give my students as much room to take this in whatever direction they can. This means things aren’t fully developed in my mind. Every day I ask students to show their thinking, push their limits, dig deeper in their work and then when it applies to me I’m realizing finally how my students feel. “What do I choose?” or “Am I on the right track?” “How do I approach this?”

I wanted initially to show an example-perhaps even one someone else had done and then rely on that. The compelling question driving us forward is:

  • How do we make better choices?

Students have learned about the food industry, plastic industry, impact of advertising, and water usage. Each kiddo seems to be going off in different directions around areas of interest and I’m pushing them. .  .I’m pushing them to not only understand the environmental issue, but also to look at alternative solutions and analyze the pros and cons of each one on themselves, businesses, and the greater world population. Surprisingly, they’re into it, they’re thinking of things I haven’t, in ways I haven’t considered. Which leads me back to my project. It was after conversing with the kiddos that I knew I couldn’t use someone else’s example. If this is so important for them to explore, it’s also important for me to be thinking about, modeling, and then putting into practice in my life. And so I created a list of possibilities.

  • going vegetarian
  • riding my bike instead of using didi regularly
  • taking shorter showers
  • making a firm commitment to sourcing only second hand clothing (I do mostly for myself but not for my girls)
  • researching fashion brands that are more sustainable
  • looking at the amount of plastic in my home (sigh…it all comes back to plastic)
  • alternatives to the never ending supply of dish soap we go through
  • sourcing toilet paper that doesn’t come in plastic

Of course with each of the possible changes above, there would be research attached: what is the cost, benefit of putting this into action? At the moment, two or three are jumping out at me. I want to argue for a change I know I can do and keep up. I do not want this to be something I do simply as an example. Instead, I want this to be a life change for me that I can continue to add on to.

So, I am officially committed. Who knows where this will go. Who knows if I will be successful, or at the end of it all, talking to my students about how I tried and ended up not accomplishing my goal. Stay tuned…

Adjustment to Personal Goal 2018-19

Initially, my personal goal for the year was focused around:

  • Feedback on student work focuses on supporting students’ thinking and self-directed problem-solving.

After receiving the Tripod results, I was surprised (but pleasantly so!) to see that my students thought I already was doing a great job in this area. As such, I spent my time reviewing the data and looking for patterns that could help me determine a focus for the year.

What came up over and over again was anything using the word “summarize”. This was not completely surprising to me. Too many times, class runs right to the last minute and I’m frantically trying to get students to write their home learning in their planners. I focus so much on that, that I haven’t consistently summarized, or consolidated, the day’s learning. I spoke with my students about the result and they verbalized confusion around the word “summarize”. Many students said a summary is something that happens after they read and article or a book and then they tell what it was about. Through discussion, clarification on how summarize can be used in other scenarios was had.

After discussing with the students, I created a daily PPT slide that I put up as the moved to independent work. At the end of class, I then reviewed the slide as a reminder of our focus for the day. Over time, I moved away from the slide (the having to make a choice between using the whiteboard or projecting was a difficult one for me) and I started writing the target or day’s learning on the board. Above the target, I also had instructions for students when they first walk into the class. It’s a quick check for me to see who is reading the board also. Once we begin, I physically touch the target and at the end of class, I go back, touch the target and remind students of the day’s focus.

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