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Teaching Remote Lessons in 25-Minute Chunks

By Kim Marshall, TIE columnist

The article: “Zooming Inquiry: Online Teaching with the Pomodoro Technique” by Kathy Swan, Andrew Danner, Meghan Hawkins, S.G. Grant, and John Lee in Social Education, September 2020 (Vol. 84, #4, pp. 229-235)
“One of the biggest complaints about online school is the zombie-like after-effects of spending too much time focused on a screen,” say Kathy Swan, S.G. Grant, and John Lee (lead authors of the C3 Framework) and teachers Andrew Danner and Meghan Hawkins in Social Education. This school year finds educators, students, and families immersed in “some of the most momentous events that this country has ever experienced,” say the authors, raising questions central to the social studies curriculum:

  • In the throes of the pandemic, what is the balance between freedom and security?
  • What will it take for the economy to recover?
  • What will change as a result of the nation’s racial awakening?
  • Will the current crises bring out the best or worst in Americans?
  • What do we make of this generation-defining election?

“Social studies educators cannot sit this year out,” say Swan, Grant, Lee, Danner, and Hawkins, and suggest a way of chunking instruction that explores key issues while avoiding the zombie effect. Their idea is to apply the Pomodoro method, a time management strategy designed to keep people more engaged and productive. Devised in the 1980s by Italian business student Francesco Cirillo, Pomodoro breaks work into 25-minute intervals, separated by short breaks, with a 15-30-minute break after three Pomodoros (the name comes from a tomato-shaped kitchen timer). Different school schedules can accommodate these chunks: 30-minute classes (one Pomodoro), 60-minute classes (two), 90-minute blocks (three).

Last summer, the authors applied the Pomodoro principle to an inquiry unit on the 2020 protests, starting with an introduction, then building background knowledge, then assessing students’ work and thinking about applications. Here are the eight 25-minute learning experiences, each building on the one preceding it:

  • Provoking curiosity and highlighting the unit’s core purpose with a compelling question;
  • Teacher modeling of the historical practice of analyzing change over time;
  • Students practicing with partners;
  • Reinforcing ideas with the class;
  • Independent practice;
  • Group deliberation, with the teacher fine-tuning skills and knowledge;
  • Summative assessment by the teacher;
  • Applying ideas in real-world scenarios.

The authors say it’s important to use a variety of formats within each Pomodoro: synchronous whole-class presentations and discussions; breakout room activities; polling; and chat box interactions. They found it was important to cue students to the breaks between Pomodoros, with everyone standing up, moving away from their computers, and doing jumping jacks or some form of physical activity. Without the prompt, students tended to switch to another browser and not get the cognitive break they needed before moving on to the next chunk.

The authors recommend recording Zoom meetings, making class recordings available to students, providing “office hours” several times a week to support struggling students, giving detailed instructions and scaffolds via Google Docs, using a class message board to elaborate on class discussions and breakout rooms, and modeling appropriate posting on the message board.

In the full article linked below, the authors give a detailed description of an eight-Pomodoro inquiry unit on the question, “Is there anything new about the 2020 protests?”

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