This post discusses my experience this semester using weekly communication with students, in the form of a Weekly Letter, in order to provide online students with a sense of cohesion and progress across weeks while also engaging directly and extensively with their discussion-board and other contributions.
Last week, I met with four small cohorts of students. Each group came from one of two asynchronous online courses that I am currently teaching via Canvas. Up to that point, I had only gotten acquainted with these students by name, or by their discussion posts, and so meeting them—albeit through the medium of Zoom—was quite lovely. It was also illuminating.
One of my first questions for them:
What is working well in our Canvas course?
I received a surprising response:
"The Weekly Letter," they said, almost unanimously.
A weekly what?
Composing a "Weekly Letter" was an entirely new practice for me this year, something I had never thought about nor considered in the past. I cannot take credit for its invention.
In the program I had recently joined, the director of first-year writing had designed a template course that could either be executed as-is or adapted substantially to suit one's own teaching objectives. One feature of the template course was a Weekly Letter, meant to be written fresh at the beginning of each week's module by individual instructors. It was encouraged that we incorporate some of these structural mechanics even if we re-invented the content and pacing of the course.
The Director's own model letters, incorporated in the template course, presented her personal take on each week's material, along with directives for the tasks, deadlines, and work to come. These letters were helpful, but lengthy, and I wasn't convinced that students would absorb anything from them.
In fact, I was skeptical as to whether they would pay attention to them after the first week.
So, I was both delighted and surprised when students replied that this element was what they have been valuing most at this point. To be honest, I've come to depend on them.
What to include?
Reading over my first series of letters, I was able to cull 5 generic elements that I tend to incorporate each week. I did not do this consciously when composing them, in fact, and each letter is structured using different subheadings that have little to do with these 5 points below. But taken as a whole, this seems to be the territory I have naturally been covering (and, of course, this is one set of suggestions where there are myriad possibilities).
5 Elements for the Weekly Letter
A recap of the previous week, which might include
a note about the tasks that students have just finished
an overall celebration of their accomplishments
an update on what I have been working on (reading their discussion board posts, annotating feedback on an assignment, etc.)
2. Reminders of deadlines, contact information for me, and where to post questions
a brief sentence or two with hyperlinked phrases that direct students to places on the course site where more details are stored (e.g., the Faculty Information page)
a special reminder about chat hours / office hours during the weeks when a paper draft is due
3. Synopsis of contributions
my personal takeaways from their prior week's contributions, such as drafts or discussion board posts, by noting things in common among students' writings
a synopsis of ideas, questions, themes that arose across the class posts
4. Room for improvement
suggestions regarding problems or challenges or patterns that emerged when looking at the class's contributions as a whole
5. Preview of the week to come
commentary on the material, such as:
an explanation of why I have chosen particular reading selections and put them together, and/or
what skills I am asking students to work on as they conduct a certain exercise or step in a project that week, and/or
how they should prioritize the tasks for the week ahead.
Synopsis of Contributions
This element—#3 and, in part, #4—is where I assume students may be finding the most benefit. I know I am.
These two pieces have given me a chance to shape a narrative around what I observe: what I want them to think about and learn; patterns of common weaknesses or confusions I want them to notice in their own and their classmates' work; a guide for how I would prompt them to continue to think about these issues; ways I want to challenge them to develop certain skills as readers, thinkers, and writers.
For example, after students wrote their first substantive discussion board posts (a mini explication of one stylistic choice made in one of our readings), I wanted to address what I would otherwise have been talking to students about during the first week or two of an on-ground course: Close Reading.
Since I won't be meeting with these students in person, we cannot take as much time to explore together specific passages in the same way—in the classroom, together, with me scribbling ideas in chunky phrases on the chalkboard; them, throwing out more and more verbal observations as they attend carefully to a text and build upon each other's ideas.
I still want to expose students to some of the questions that I would typically drive at during such conversations, especially ones that come up around the time that students are writing an essay. Those two key questions that I always ask are:
In order to give students a sense of that, my latest Weekly Letter pulled in each student's discussion board post in a single bullet point. I paraphrased one main key claim that the person had made, then offered follow-up How? and Why…? questions to help us notice what was not yet being addressed.
For instance, here was one of my discussions highlighting a (here, re-named) student's point from a discussion board post:
Laurie points out that repeating "no possibility" emphasizes Adichie's claim, that Americans are trapped in stereotypical images. Might we ask HOW here? How does the repetition of this phrase communicate that idea? What is it about repeating "no possibility" that communicates an idea that Americans are trapped in stereotypical images? (Do you see where I am going with this? What a difficult thing to identify!!) I ask these questions to jolt you to recognize that there is nothing essential about the words "no possibility" that inherently means "Americans have stereotypes." So we would want to try to explain how we get from those words to that idea.
I went on to do similar things with each student's post. And I acknowledged several places, as in this above quoted sample, that this was indeed a new paradigm I was putting in front of them, that it was not a skill they needed to have yet, and that it was a big challenge I was asking them to take up for the semester. Whether they do so will be up to them.
Have a little fun
After my extensive ruminations, I try to lighten the mood a bit, often throwing in a few memes, such as:
I realize that was a lot to take in. Are you feeling like this?
...or maybe like this?
Varying the tone between extensively analytical / didactic and more personal, humorous, even snarky not only allows me to display the range of my personality on-paper/screen the way I might convey more naturally in a "live" classroom, but it also hopefully demonstrates for students that we, as writers, can choose a range of tonal deliveries as well, depending on how we want to connect with our audience. Show, don't tell.
What I enjoy most about collecting my thoughts every Sunday in these Weekly Letters is that it allows me to regroup along with the students. I think about where we have been, where we are going, and what bridges we need to build between the two.
While this communication tool is proving essential in an online learning environment, I wonder what benefit it might deliver for more traditional courses. After all, students lose a lot of connection over the 3-5 days we do not see each other over a weekend, and having a written document that would help them link successive weeks to each other might be of value to all of us—myself included.