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Teaching Opinion

Reading & Writing Instruction in the Age of the Coronavirus

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 21, 2020 12 min read
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(This is the first post in a series that will look at specific instructional strategies that teachers of each subject can apply in remote teaching.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What can reading and writing instruction look like in the age of the coronavirus?

Danielle Croce, Kate Bauer, and Lindsay Bruggeman share their responses in this post.

All contributors today are teachers in the National Writing Project network. The National Writing Project is the nation’s largest network of teacher-leaders, K-university and across the curriculum, focused on improving the teaching of writing and learning in schools and communities nationwide.

I’ll be adding this post to All Classroom Q&A Posts on the Coronavirus Crisis.

Flexibility is the key

Danielle Croce has been educating students of all ages for 17 years in Philadelphia and upstate New York. She prides herself on her ability to learn and assist colleagues with new technology. Her husband inspired her to write this piece:

As a 6th grade teacher of reading and writing for my homeroom and science for that grade level, the past three weeks have taught me more than ever. After a two-week impromptu spring break was thrust on our district’s teachers, there was a rush to learn how we can be engaging and effective remotely while maintaining connections with our students.

Our Schedule

I’ve been connecting live with my students every other day for no longer than 20 minutes each session, after working out a schedule with our math and social studies teachers. Students meet live on X Days in the morning with their social studies teacher, and on those days are expected to work on ELA and social studies assignments. On Y Days, the kids meet live with our math teacher in the morning, and with me (science) in the afternoon, on which days students are expected to work on math and science assignments. These live sessions involve a mini lesson with a short video or song/rap, followed by a competitive game on Nearpod called Time to Climb, which reviews the lesson. In conclusion, I go over the daily schedule and new assignments to help keep the kids organized. We have communicated to parents that their child should be working for about two hours daily, but, of course, are always allowed to free-read to their heart’s content.


In the first week, I expected my 6th graders to have the self-discipline and independence to complete numerous activities for me each day. I quickly learned I was setting all of us up for failure. I failed to realize that not only were my kids being assigned math, science, social studies, reading, and writing, but all of their special-area teachers (art, music, instrumental music, P.E., PAWS News) AND their academic intervention-support teachers for math and reading were assigning activities and assignments as well.

Enter a more realistic me. Deep breaths everyone.

Here is what is working and what is manageable. I assign short vocabulary activities with matching, fill in the blank, or multiple choice weekly, including links to Quizlet games, providing digital flash cards and a “test” for practice.

My reading activities are integrated with the topic I am teaching in science (plate tectonics) or what the social studies teacher is covering (Egypt), and I expect my kids to read an online text (newsela.com or HMH eD) and answer comprehension questions. There is a grade attached to each assignment, and it shows the kids their effort. If they earn a failing grade, I direct message the student in Schoology, to answer the questions a second time and resubmit the work. So far, so good, since students rapidly learned that if they take the time to focus and do well the first time, they need not redo the assignment. Counting actual grades for the fourth quarter is something our district will be discussing this week. My opinion is that pass/fail is too harsh and perhaps a S+, S, S- system may work. We’ll see.


Every other day, I assign a personal journal writing question, requiring students to respond in 4-8 sentences. Each paragraph is graded with a rubric visible to students with each prompt. For the first week, during our live sessions, I modeled my own writing to demonstrate my expectations.

My prompts included:

- Make a list of five positives, the best parts of being home unexpectedly for this long.

- Share a funny memory you have about a pet, past or present. If you have never had a pet, write about an animal you would like to own and why.

- What is something you are/were really good at doing? In five sentences or more, describe your skill, when you started, and include whether you are still good at this activity.

Students are also encouraged to comment on each other’s writing (all of which I can view or delete) and ask questions similar to a college Blackboard environment. I intend to keep the questions light and engaging. Less pressure, less stress, and more connection is the goal.


Included in my reading course is a separate Optional file of my audio voice recordings, reading a novel aloud chapter by chapter. I have received good feedback from students who enjoy having this audio book to escape their possibly boring stay-at-home routine.

Flexible due dates are key. After two days, if a student has been inactive online, whether he/she is not attending live sessions or is not completing assignments, I reach out. First, I contact the student through direct message to get their tail in gear. If there is no response that day, then I reach out to the parent through SeeSaw messaging, email, or a phone call (*67 to block your home number). We need to understand that parents are working as nurses, postal service, EMS, dry cleaners, and grocery store cashiers. Some parents are divorced, making it even more difficult for a kid to complete assignments, especially if a parent wants to spend the whole day with their child doing fun activities while they are together (not doing schoolwork).

I am in constant contact with my grade-level team, through Zoom, email, and text. We also stay in touch with our principal through weekly grade-level meetings to share our concerns for students more than anything else. Our intervention specialist, ENL instructor, and social worker have been integral in contacting students and parents who, at times, are unreachable. Through them, we learn about sickness, death, and economic struggles that overshadow completing assignments.

We’ve set up a new routine. We see each other’s faces live, share and comment on our classmates’ writing, and continue to show patience and compassion as always. We wouldn’t be teachers if we didn’t care this much.

Repeat after me. I can do this.

Simplicity in a time of uncertainty

Kate Bauer is in her third year teaching high school English and yearbook at Bluffton High School in northwest Ohio. She is finishing up her first year in the Ohio Writing Project’s Master of Arts in Teaching program through Miami University:

On Thursday, March 13, in the middle of eighth period, Ohio Gov. DeWine put an order in place, which would rock my students’ and my worlds indefinitely.

Taking a step back and empathizing with my students, realizing how I would have liked to be taught during this time has been the key to my success. I didn’t feel that overwhelming students with new ways of teaching was going to be effective, so it became my goal to maintain the same practices I was already doing. Instead of posting daily, I post all of my assignments Monday morning at 8 a.m. with a Friday 11:59 p.m. due date. I received positive feedback from my students to keep this in place for the duration.

For us, following a schedule has been the key to maintaining simplicity and, because I’m not frantically posting assignments daily, I am able to spend my time getting in touch with students and parents. A look at my typical week of instruction is outlined below.

Mondays and Wednesdays: Class Novel

We were just getting into our final class novels before e-learning began. These days, I assign a chapter or two of new reading and then an activity, like responding to peers on a discussion board or completing a graphic organizer. Students also work on question papers as they read, which they will return after completing novels. We were already doing these things in class, so it helped to not overcomplicate things while working from home.

Tuesdays and Thursdays: Writer’s Notebook

It should come as no surprise that students are spending more time than usual binge-watching television series, YouTube videos, TikToks, and playing video games. Instead of discouraging this, I looked at ways to turn these into authentic writing opportunities. Last week, my seniors curated a list of Writer’s Notebook prompts featuring videos, memes, and Instagram poetry. Presenting students with prompts I create and asking them to share one of their entries for the week on Classroom is my approach these days.

Fridays: Choice Reading

Before leaving school, I encouraged students to take as many books as they could from both the school and the English department libraries. In continuing with the structure we followed before, students read their choice novel and then show their thinking. I introduced the idea of sketch noting, and even shared an image of my own rough sketch, to give them an idea of one way to keep track of their thoughts as they read. Students also post something small to Flipgrid to maintain classroom community. Prompts have varied from Weekly Positives (something unrelated to the coronavirus that made them smile), sharing their at-home work station, and a book review.

No, the school year did not end up like we had hoped. Instead of overwhelming myself and my students, I found that simplicity in a time of chaos and uncertainty is the greatest tool and greatest gift I could give my students for surviving in this space.

So, where do we go from here?

Lindsay Bruggeman is a high school English teacher currently working toward her master’s of arts in teaching with the Ohio Writing Project at Miami University. You can reach her at lindsaybruggeman3@gmail.com or Twitter @MrsBruggemanLHS:

So, where do we go from here? We can start by holding on to the good bones of our classrooms. We can hold on to the routines, community, voice, choice, and words that we’ve created and devoured together for the past three quarters as we dive into unknown and unfamiliar territory. We can take a beat and take a breath, and then maybe we can consider this time as a victory lap of sorts. This is a chance for our students to show off all they are capable of. This is their chance to create content alongside us. All we have to do is give them the freedom, agency, and space to do so by asking them to create rather than complete.

While reading any text: Let students guide the conversation! Ask students to submit their own clarification or discussion questions. Then, they can respond to their peers’ questions. I’ve been using Flipgrid to do this, but you could also use a shared Google Doc or Padlet. I recorded a quick mini-lesson modeling how to create questions for a shared text we read earlier in the year before asking them to submit their own questions.

Creating spaces to write together: Give students the opportunity to submit writing prompts. This past week, my sophomores submitted prompts to help us create a remote writing marathon. Each student submission included a location and a prompt. For example, one student suggested sitting in your bed and writing about your dreams. After they had all submitted their prompts, I compiled them together in one document. Students selected a few prompts from the list, and we participated in writing marathons remotely.

Mentor texts: Mentor texts blend reading and writing together beautifully while giving students the chance to write and think in different ways. For example, this past week students viewed a Tweet from @JessicaSherburn, and then we created our own pie charts of what’s on our emotional and snack plates. The next day, we read a poem called “When this Over” by Laura Kelly Fanucci that I saw on Twitter. The poem inspired a variety of types of student writing: poems, short stories, and lists of gratitude. Tomorrow, they are going to view texts between my dog and me from my notebook inspired by Texts from My Dog. Spoiler alert: My dog blames ME for chewing up the family room rug.

Long term, this remote work may result in students creating podcasts, vlogs, or multigenre projects. I’m not 100 percent sure what our end products look like; they will evolve and change with us over the coming months. I’m not 100 percent sure how I will feel tomorrow or next week or next month. I do not have it all figured out, but I do know our classrooms have good bones. We can continue to build on those good bones during these trying times. By viewing the coming weeks as a victory lap and a chance to shine, we can create something beautiful, together.

Thanks to Danielle, Kate,and Lindsay, and to the National Writing Project, for their contributions!

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