Combing Out the Fluff in Covid-Era Lessons

A MiddleWeb Blog

What is the name of the character who gave Percy Jackson a cup of coffee in the 6th chapter of The Lightning Thief?”

You don’t groan aloud, when you’re the support teacher for a group of middle schoolers who are actually physically in school for their alternating-day Covid cohort – getting out of their seats and going off their screens for the first time in weeks – to do an escape room activity.

But this question, readers – oh, this question.

I don’t actually recommend silent groaning either. It’s not gracious, as Beyoncé advises us to be. And as I mentioned in my first column this year, cynicism and frustration are not wise uses of our precious energy as teachers. Compassion needs to abound.

A TPT pandemic

Everyone, and I mean everyone, is buying lessons off of Teachers Pay Teachers and maybe not raking a fine-tooth comb through them before implementation. And who can blame us? At least some young clever whippersnapper has created a halfway decent escape room based on The Lightning Thief. We’ve still got Schoology to figure out.

So I want to be clear that I’m not laying blame at all. But that question, colleagues – oh, that anemic question. Let us consider it. And while we’re doing that, let us also consider how much of the material that we’re trying to use in this time of Covid may consist of questions or activities much like it.

“What is the name of the character who gave Percy Jackson a cup of coffee in the 6th chapter of The Lightning Thief?*

It is a “who/what/where/when/why” question, first of all – what Bloom’s Taxonomy calls “knowledge,” “remembering,” or “recall” – the lowest level of questioning. True, there’s a place for these kinds of questions. There’s not much way to be creative about the capital of your state, for example, or your times tables.

But knowledge-based questions should always be in service of a larger, useful, academic purpose, even if that purpose is simply being able to reconstruct the cast of key characters in The Lightning Thief, which I think we can agree does not include walk-on coffee vendors.

Secondly, if we’re lucky, there’s another name for “larger, useful, academic purposes.” They’re called standards. I had a very hard time figuring out which standard this kind of question assessed. (Hint: none.)

I know, I know – an escape room is not an assessment. Nonetheless, it put me in mind of many tasks I have seen pop up on the radar lately as I support my ENL students in their remote and hybrid content area classes. These tasks are time consuming, involve low-level thinking, and target minor standards or non-critical information, if any standards at all.

There is a surprising amount of fluff that has been tucking itself away in our classroom work. And I would argue strenuously that in the time of Covid teaching, we have no room to tolerate it.

Teachers already know intuitively that our curriculum typically goes too broad, sacrificing depth. Back at the turn of the decade we’re now ending, when the Common Core Standards came on the scene, the buzzword for us was power standards – those  “standards you should focus on because you will never get to everything listed here in 10 months.”

Now, in the Covid era, I can rattle off about six or seven new barriers to learning that have appeared. I bet you can, too. The least insidious characteristic of these barriers is that they eat up time – time spent making sure that the iPad is charged – that the WiFi is working – that the content is understood without the essential physical and social cues students rely on during face to face instruction.

Combine this lack of time with a too-broad instructional focus, add some fluffy stuff, and what do you get? Kids spending 20 precious minutes hunting and pecking for Percy Jackson’s Starbucks moment in Chapter 6.

So what should we do instead?

Get out that fine-tooth comb and go to work. If there is one thing – one single thing – you do to modify Covid lessons for educational equity, I would recommend this: Teach. less. Don’t worry about major reconstruction. Just simply go through that lesson, that unit, and eliminate the fluff.

Here’s some examples.

  • Low-level questioning that does not serve a higher academic purpose or standards. (Example: Percy Jackson and his coffee habit.)
  • Content that is minor or inessential. (Do your students really need to know the Latin name for “above ground burial sites”?)
  • Tasks that do not actually assess what you need them to assess. (If you ask a student to answer a question by looking it up on the Internet, are you assessing them on their research skills, or the speed of their broadband?)
  • Tasks that unnecessarily repeat or duplicate instruction. (Do you really need kids to identify functions from graphs 26 times on a single worksheet?)
  • Tasks that use unnecessarily complicated language. (This one’s my personal bugaboo, working with ENL kids as I do now. If your 6th grade question says “Justify your response using explicit evidence from the passage,” for example, you’d better be sure your kids know what “justify,” “response,” “explicit,” and “passage” mean.)

And what if eliminating the extraneous fluff leaves you with no lesson plan? Well, I might say then – with love and compassion abounding – that our real challenge may be one that extends beyond our teaching during Covid-19.

* NOTE: This isn’t the actual low-level Bloom’s question found in the escape room lesson, but it’s a reasonable facsimile. Percy doesn’t visit a Starbucks in Chapter 6 – he’s on a camp tour and has an epic encounter with a toilet.


Barbara Blackburn’s “Effective Questioning During Remote Learning”

Dina Strasser

Dina Strasser is a veteran educator of 20 years, 14 of those as a middle school ELA/ELL teacher. For six years she worked in many capacities at the non-profit group EL Education. Now she's back in the classroom, and this year she’ll be teaching middle and high school English language learners. Her early experiments with dirt have progressed into a lifelong love of the outdoors.

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