I have been teaching more decades than I like to admit (I just did a quick calculation on my fingers and decided it can’t be right – but it’s a lot of years considering my first year of teaching high school was 1987-88). However, despite all that experience, and like everyone else in education, I have had to reimagine and redesign my praxis multiple times since our world changed in March 2020. Many of those changes have made me a better teacher and better served my students – students who are different in many ways from those pre-pandemic cohorts, but no decision has better served us all than my focus on landing softly.
In Spring 2021, I wrote:
While we know the midterm wall can be brutal, there is nothing like the exhaustion that students, teachers, and administrators face in the final weeks of the school year. The spring semester is always tougher than the fall semester and my math skills are not up to the challenge of calculating how much more difficult this semester has been more than a year into a pandemic with the continued worry about what the summer and fall will look like.Wrapping Write: Celebrate, Play, Reflect
Two years later I still heartily endorse the three strategies I name to wrap write: celebrate, play, and reflect. However, I now think that the first principle we all must consider when planning for the end of the year is how we can land softly. Landing softly means that my students and I are looking forward to this last week of classes and the only tears that will be shed are because we will miss our community of writers.
The Cambridge Dictionary describes a soft landing as “an occasion when a person or vehicle comes down from the air to the ground without difficulty or damage” and we have all grown familiar with the term when it comes to the economy. Much like the economy, my own pedagogy has been transformed by the pandemic. We needed to be kind and flexible, for ourselves and our students, during the early years of the pandemic and now that everything and everyone has been shattered beyond repair, tested to the point of destruction, we must push back on the forces of status quo propping up the failed education system (P-16). This means reimagining and fighting for places of learning that support learning and sustain humanity. If we want to engineer a soft landing then we must also begin and work softly.
Never has backward design been more important for teachers than in our endemic pandemic reality. I have always been a fan of the twofer activity/assignment, but now I make sure every class activity or assignment serves at least two purposes (and hopefully more) because we are all stretched and stressed and broken in ways we have yet to acknowledge as a society (thanks to Shay Stewart Bouley for the recent reminder that we do not know the ways that covid has impacted our brains and bodies). I know as a college instructor that my students and I are more fragile and more stressed than before the pandemic (and things weren’t great then, lest we forget). For me this meant beginning our work together by focusing on inviting my developing writers into the work through bell ringers and community building activities that supported the creation of our first authentic writing deliverables. If we want to land our work softly then we must begin softly.
Working softly means centering the humans that we are teaching and building a sustainable class ecosystem. Working softly means leaning heavily into the power of authentic writing and project-based learning to support the learning that needs to take place. Working softly means using a central theme or idea to guide the community, the learning, and the work. Humans love play and creativity and innovation, but we also rely on systems and structures to give us the mental, physical, and emotional space for that creativity. Now more than ever (endemic pandemic remember) we need systems and structures to support our learning and work. Working softly is about sustainability.
Landing softly is all about celebration, play, and reflection or simply wrapping write. For my first year writers that has been authentic what if projects in the fall and this semester creating/hacking games or crafting slant essays (according to their capacity and agency). For my upper level writers (professional writing in the fall and advanced expository writing in the spring) the principle is the same, a practical demonstration of what they have learned through our journey together but as those classes are built around project-based writing we lean more heavily into the celebration of the projects students have been working on all semester. But the culminating activity for all my students is a weighty reflection analyzing their journey as a writer and rhetorician, critical thinker, and human. And in every class we are also celebrating our community, our journey, and our accomplishments and as the amazing Lucille Clifton notes:
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.won’t you celebrate with me
Landing softly is about preparing for that landing before the semester begins and working toward that soft landing all semester. But most of all landing softly is about offering agency and choice as well as respecting the rights and responsibilities of the community. I am tired. We are all tired. But my hope is that none of the end-of-semester stress my students are fighting through is caused by me and vice versa. What are you doing to make sure that you and your students land softly?