In this post:
How I incorporated instruction in composition and essay development into a first-year writing course following the shift to online / remote learning. This post reflects on the usefulness of structure, consistency, and segmentation within any distance-learning setup, not just applicable to the teaching of academic writing.
When we migrated to remote learning this spring, one of my courses was an introductory-level first-year writing course. Continuing to instruct students on their writing from a distance, without advanced planning, and without students meeting with one another or with me in person, felt, at first, to be quite a challenging task.
I decided to slow down the pace significantly. After an initial few weeks, we stopped covering new content material. In addition, we broke up one final essay into a series of distinct elements and discrete tasks, with each occupying one week of our attention.
This new remote-learning agenda included:
Week 1: Critical arguments - analyzing and understanding the ideas of other writers
Week 2: Text Analysis - turning selected passages into effective evidence
Week 3: Critical Arguments - positioning own ideas against those of other writers
Week 4: Introductions - shaping effective introductions around a thesis claim
Week 5: Draft Review
During a more typical semester, these elements are spread over a few essays and, most likely, only half a class period would be dedicated to discussing each topic.
My new approach, which was partly synchronous and partly not, asked students to concentrate on only one piece of the writing puzzle at a time, as outlined in this re-worked syllabus, below, which I sent students as guidance for our online learning sessions.
By shifting back and forth between primary and secondary materials, between working with other writers' ideas and the students' own, I wanted to show students how the process of developing arguments and opinions often involves a constant back-and-forth, rather than a single-directional transference of one idea applied to another. To that end, for instance, Weeks 1 and 3 were both dedicated to working with the secondary sources, intermingled with development of their own ideas and viewpoints.
I wanted to make each week consistent in terms of workload and expectations, so I developed a 4-part structure for our online trajectory:
Read, Write, Meet, Lesson
Each week, students were asked either to return to material that we had already covered in class earlier in the semester (Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein and literary critical articles on the novel) or to read brief selections from style guides such as They Say / I Say and Style: The Basics of Clarity and Grace.
Style guide selections were posted as PDF documents on our learning management system, Moodle. I provided digitized versions of the articles and links to online versions of the novel for reference in case students did not have their physical text with them. Electronic text access also added flexibility in their capacity to search for, and find, material in these works.
Each weekend, I sent students a written worksheet to help them work through a key topic, which would be covered in the week's planned Zoom synchronous meeting. Their responses to these worksheets were for their own benefit and did not need to be turned in.
There were two advantages to this approach:
It gave students a chance to work through the concept first, before the same lesson was "taught" to them and discussed, which allowed students to determine where they had questions or confusion prior to coming into the live Zoom meeting.
It also enabled students to miss a meeting, if needed, and still get access to the conceptual material (surprisingly, however, there were few absences).
Here's an example of one week's worksheet. It builds upon work students had already completed during the prior week, in identifying useful concepts from a critical article.
For a course that traditionally met twice weekly for 75 minutes each time, we held only one Zoom video conferencing session at the same meeting time, midweek on Wednesdays.
Each session began with a check-in, followed by a "Lesson" (see below) on the essay element for that week.
Then, students divided into Breakout Rooms where they could discuss further with 2-3 peers. These Breakout Rooms were given particular explicit tasks. For example, in one session, students were asked to explain to their peers at least one of the textual passages they had selected and to provide some samples of their close readings.
At the end of each session, we returned to the larger group and dedicated time for Q&A.
For the first 20-30 minutes of each Zoom meeting, I guided students through the week's topic. Sometimes this instruction involved an impromptu few minutes of lecturing (Zoom seems to lead to more extemporaneous rambling, I find, than in-person classroom teaching). The majority of the Lesson, however, was conducted via interactive learning objectives.
For the example week above (April 15), for instance, in our Lesson session we worked through a detailed close reading of a passage together.
Using the screen-sharing feature of Zoom, I was able to display a document to the students and, throughout the entirety of our discussion, I could type, highlight, and otherwise call attention to pieces of the text. I also recorded students' comments about each of these phrases. (While in a classroom I might jot down a word or two on the blackboard to track the essence of student comments when important, the screen-sharing option allowed me to highlight each student's contribution in real time and document the remarks more fully, which was a very nice perk of using the digital platform.)
After our collaborative learning session, I would post the resulting document on Moodle so that students could return to it, and so that students who had missed the session could access it as well.
As an example, here is an image that resulted from one day's Lesson:
I especially liked being able to highlight in multiple colors as students categorized their observations into units, discussing textual pieces that related, for instance, to expressions of Victor Frankenstein's fear, his exhausting labors, and his repulsion at the creature's appearance. I was also able to type direct phrases from the students into the document, like "grossed out," allowing us to capture their in-the-moment, unpolished reactions.
Finally, the interactive screen-sharing exercises during our Zoom sessions modeled for students how they can interact with their own texts as well—perhaps in ways that are slower, more deliberate, and far more detailed than they expect.
No matter what creative or critical text they may be tasked with analyzing and writing about in the future, this kind of meticulous attention to rhetoric and language will always be a useful skill for them to bring to the table.
Students so often enter writing courses with the assumption that "writing" means putting words on the page. Yet so much of their work actually involves the thinking, brainstorming, reflecting, and conceptualizing that enters both before, and alongside, the act of typing onto a blank page. Breaking apart distinct elements of this critical thinking into separate weeks—necessarily extending their "writing" process longer than they are used to—allowed students to witness how their own ideas coalesce over time by "writing" through a variety of different settings and contexts. Note-taking, worksheets, on-screen Lesson exercises all become part of that essential, extensive process.
The repeated structure for each week's tasks also helped immensely.
For a time that was, and will continue to be, both unpredictable and chaotic, systematizing the online agenda can be a useful way to stay grounded. In this course, our structure offered the same elements from week to week: students read an assignment (READ) and worked through a provided worksheet on their own (WRITE); then, they attended a weekly Zoom session (MEET), during which we followed the same structure each time—LESSON, Breakout Rooms, Q&A.
This pattern divided each synchronous meeting into distinct segments, with clear boundaries around each activity. This structure helped all of us find a bit of sanity in the storm.
In the future, I plan to carry this structural organization forward, regardless of the context, pandemic or not. While, in the past, I often broke up classroom sessions into distinct activities or pedagogical frameworks (large discussion, small group work, Think-Pair-Share exercises, etc.), I have never used such an explicit or consistent structure across meetings, from one week to another. It was a nice change of pace.
The repetitive agenda made it much easier, for both me and the students, to know where we were—just like when we read (or write) a well-constructed essay.