It all started when we were about two weeks deep into our new pandemic lifestyle.

John and I were sitting in our living room, which sits about twenty feet from the tree-lined sidewalk that edges our street. That sounds quaint doesn’t it? The tree-lined sidewalk that edges our street. And it is most days. Some days though, those huge trees fall down.

The fall down on top of our houses. Like our house, for instance. On Christmas Eve.

That was a few years ago, and so we’ve made no secret about the fact that this particular tree–one of three that remain standing in front of our house–needs to be removed by our village. It’s their tree, after all. Well, it…was.

You see, the tree has a giant hole in its base, and until life started showing us what real problems are, the hole and the whole of that disintegrating tree has been the source of very lucid and troubling dreams. But now? Well, now we all have so many, many other terrifying things to lucidly dream about, now don’t we?

Strangely enough, the tree hasn’t troubled me once during this pandemic. In fact, it’s become quite an attraction.

As I said, it was about two weeks into our super socially distant lifestyle when we noticed that many, many more families were walking around our neighborhood. With many small children. And those small children are enamored with that tree, and especially, the large hole at the base of it.

“You should make a fairy garden there,” my delightful friend Sandy Barton suggested last summer as we sipped cool drinks on my front porch. Now, if you know Sandy, you might know that she’s drawn to that kind of mischief.

But me?

Well, if you’re reading this than you likely know that my writing often strives to demystify rather than bringing any kind of big magic.

That was until about eightish weeks ago, when John said, “There’s another little kid inspecting the hole in that tree. We should put some gnomes there.”

Now, Facebook. If you know me at all, then you know that I am not a gnome person. I am not a fairy person. I garden–I love gardening–but not that kind of gardening.

Until now.

Because the day after making this suggestion, we took a trip to an outdoor nursery, where we happened to find a few gnomes. Tiny gnomes. And we tucked them into the tree.

As you might imagine, this caused quite a ruckus among the small children who walk past it. They left dandelions. I painted tiny rocks. They tucked little notes into the hollow. We added a campfire. Then, they wrote letters, and so, we added landscaping. Then, they started drafting stories, and well…what could we do? The gnome home now has a playground, a pond, a hockey rink, some unicorns, and a long ladder that leads to the fairy house door. We also ordered windows and learned that–yes, indeed–fairies are diverse. We’re ensuring that our growing community is, too. Thank goodness delivery people are essential.

The garden evolves rapidly, day by day. A while ago, I started sharing the most interesting happenings on my private Facebook wall. Then, my friends starting asking that I make those posts public.

“My grandmother will love your stories,” one said.

“Your gnome and fairy stories are my daily smile,” another messaged me.

And so, we’re all writing: the gnomes, the fairies, the small children who visit the tree, and me.

I didn’t intend for any of this to happen, but it is, and it’s everything to me right now. I’m pretty sure it’s keeping quite a few kids and parents happy, too. And none of this is happening on Zoom.

This is an example of unintentional, wildly whimsical, and almost completely autonomous learning.

It’s possible to create similar experiences for the writers in your world with or without the assistance of fairies and gnomes, too.

I have a few ideas to share with you, courtesy of my friends’ generosity and the young writers I’m connected to in my own small corner of the world.

Five Ways to Support Autonomous Learning

  1. Define, Invite, and Support Learning

Learning is what most kids are doing when they aren’t showing up for online school. They might be learning how to master their favorite video game or learning how to create a TikTok video or learning how to create peace between two parents who can’t seem to get along. As teachers, we might assume that much of this learning is either trivial or traumatic, and without our support, this could be true. But with it? Well, with our support, young writers might use these experiences to foster deep learning and produce works of real significance to others. Don’t believe me? Here’s how I know that this is true:

Earlier this week, I happened upon a piece of writing that was not assigned but instead, independently pursued. It was composed by a young woman who was suffering from the tensions in her home. She wanted–in fact, it seemed she needed–to tell her story. So, she wrote it. Then, she shared it with an audience. That started a conversation, and that conversation found her good company. I doubt her teacher even know that she was writing.

 Yesterday, I learned that the daughter of a friend is teaching herself Spanish. The son of another is doing the same. Kids are setting goals and continuing to achieve.

They may be playing more and consuming greater content as well.

They’re exercising their freedom of choice, and we might not like the choices they’re making, but I’m wondering: How might we learn more about what writers are doing when they aren’t showing up for school? And if they aren’t showing up to learn with us, how might we show up to learn beside them?

     2. Shift Your Stance a Bit

Rather than maintaining an expert’s stance, assume the role of learning facilitator and collaborator instead. If you’re accustomed to modeling writer’s craft, process, routines, and rituals inside of mini-lessons, you might find this easier to do. If you tend to lead learning from the front of the room for most of a class period, this shift might be much more uncomfortable for you. The risks inherent in trying and even struggling are fairly low right now, though. I can’t think of a better time to experiment with instructional practice.

Try introducing and unpacking each lesson’s learning target in 6-10 minutes or less. Using Slides and a screencasting tool will allow you to record an asynchronous lesson that writers can show up for whenever they’re best able to. These recordings may also be revisited too, as writers need.

At the end of your lesson, offer a multimodal challenge that invites writers to pursue your learning target independently and even, offline.

They might create a character using loose parts.

They might mold an argument from clay.

They might paint their opinion about something.

Or they might build a life-sized story setting, like my friend Jen Greene’s students did this week. She teaches in West Chester, Pennsylvania, and last week, she offered these invitations to her students. Here is how one of those students tackled the fort story challenge. Can you see how his story might emerge from play?


And I know that every child may not have access to similar spaces. That’s why it’s so important to offer the challenge but refrain from defining the experiences, resources, materials, and even times of day when learners will choose to engage. Relinquishing this control will help you learn so much about your students and yourself as well. This is actually the most rewarding part of autonomous learning for teachers: It’s often delightful. You’ll learn much that is unexpected. Some of it might break your heart. Much of it will fill it with joy, though.


Once they’ve done a bit of autonomous learning and creating, you might bring them back together to share their thinking, processes, learning, work, and feedback. Offer your own as well, in alignment with their interests and needs and especially, your prioritized learning targets.

And that’s another thing:

     3. Know that When Students are Learning Remotely, Those Learning Targets Matter Even More

Learning targets ground writers in the critical content and/or the skills they’re aiming to perfect in a single writing workshop session. Begin with them, keep them small, and use language that your students will understand as you share them.

Check the alignment between each session’s target, what you are teaching in your mini-lesson, the challenge you offer, and the thinking, learning, and work they will pursue once they step away from you. When you return to debrief, share, and offer feedback, keep those targets front and center, too.

Whether we realize it or not, when we choose not to create and share learning targets with writers in a face to face environment, we spend a great deal of time compensating for that. We steer harder. We help writers correct course. We confer them back toward a productive path. The fact is that learning targets, when used effectively, enable teachers to de-center themselves from the learning experience. They encourage autonomy. In your absence, they become even more important.

They help you control for quality while offering learners greater autonomy.

Ask yourself, “Did they hit the target that we set together?” Look for evidence of this, and invite divergent processes and perspective-taking.

Let writers use their lived experiences, their incredible expertise in all that you aren’t aware of, as well as the environments they’re in to inform and guide and elevate their learning and their work.

     4. Triangulate the Engagement

M.G. Moore was the first to define the three forms of engagement that are crucial to remote learning success: learner to learner, learner to materials, and learner to instructor. Facilitators of autonomous learning are not only sensitive to how they situate themselves inside of the experience but when they choose to center or de-center themselves, and for how long.

Once you’ve defined, unpacked, and modeled the learning target for writers, ensure that they have a plan that allows them to direct their own learning. This plan should include resources that enable them to learn what they need to on their own. It should include opportunities for them to learn from their peers as well as opportunities to learn from you as well. Each engagement will offer them something different and something more, and that brings me to my last point.

     5. Leverage Multimedia Resources and Invite Multimodal Expression

I know it’s been my exhaustive refrain for nearly a decade now, but writing is bigger than the written word. We make writing for a reason–to communicate better. Learners will not simply enjoy your use of multimedia and multimodal texts–they will comprehend what you’re trying to teach far better if you include them. They’ll be better able to communicate their own theories and ideas if they’re permitted to use the full power of their own multimodality as well.

This is especially true when it comes to providing feedback. I’m hearing this from EVERYONE this month: When feedback is written, it’s largely ignored. When we record our voices, it’s better received, and when we videotape our feedback or speak with writers 1:1, they report even greater appreciation and comprehension. I’ve been playing with screencasting tools in a far different way as a result. Try using them to share feedback with the writers you serve. Your students might enjoy similar benefits.

Hey! I’ve enjoyed meeting up with other writing teachers each Sunday Evening at 7 pm EST this month. If you’d like to jump into the mix, just get yourself on my mailing list. The invite will be included in this Sunday’s newsletter, along with a bunch of other goodies that you might enjoy. Subscribe here.

All Images: Copyright Laura Stockman, 2020


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