Right now Morehead State is still planning a significant percentage of classes face to face – although we have been told to observe social distancing and make plans to keep the number of students in our classrooms below the accepted limits. While my share of those classes is designated hybrid, which gives me even more flexibility, I am still extremely nervous about spending 75 minutes in a classroom with 16 other humans (the number I have been told can meet “safely” in my assigned room) and I suspect that at least some of the 16 are nervous, too. Or will be at some point during the semester. And that doesn’t even factor in the number of students who will fall sick during the semester whether from COVID or the flu or something else.
The reality is that my fall classes, whether online or hybrid, will need to be more flexible and forgiving than ever before. Fortunately, shifting to a HyFlex model isn’t as big a challenge for me because I was already on the flexible and forgiving end of the classroom control spectrum. However, before the pandemic I could build interactive classes and individual writing conferences into my semester plan which allowed our class community to develop naturally and helped me develop a personal relationship with each student. Almost none of that will be possible when practicing good social distancing, so how do I develop the community that I consider so essential to the nurturing of writers in this strange new world? This is a question that I have been thinking about ever since my fall teaching assignment was adjusted and I have come up with four strategies to build a HyFlex community based on my long experience teaching online and hybrid classes combined with my pandemic summer teaching experience.
Thoughtful and Thought-Provoking Introductions
For years now my classes have always begun with careful attention to breaking the ice and getting to know each other. Originally I relied on me museums and six word stories, but I have gradually shifted to more directed introductions that were handcrafted to the specific course content or theme. My Writing I classes focus on an American Literacy theme and last fall my handcrafted icebreakers were focused on our personal values. This introduction was the sort of twofer that makes me so happy as a teacher and will be even more crucial while pandemic teaching. We need to know each other to work together and we need to understand our values to develop the trust essential to create an effective writing workshop.
This fall I will tweak that plan to focus even more on our personal values to set up our exploration of American values. That work will also be essential to talking about America during a time when we are increasingly, sometimes violently, divided society. It is crucial to see the members of our community as people who deserve understanding and empathy — and seeing the overlap in our personal values is key to that process. I also hope that developing our awareness of our shared values will help bind us as a community. I suggest that all instructors carefully handcraft their icebreakers as we prepare for another academic year of pandemic teaching and learning. I cannot emphasize this enough!
Creating A Helping Culture
We will follow the rule of three for comments and interactions. I usually establish the expectation that most class activities include an original post and then comments/responses to the work of at least three peers, but I will be much clearer about this rule from the beginning rather than set it for each activity. Most students quickly see the benefit of interacting with their peers’ work because they can find inspiration, guidance, and new ideas to inform their own work, but I also want them to see that the rule will also benefit their work by ensuring that they get feedback and support when they need it.
Almost every class activity involves some level of collaboration and/or feedback. Sometimes I direct students to examine the contributions of their peers for connections and overlap of ideas while other times I ask readers to respond to the writer’s ideas, examination, and/or research. While this process is important to their development as thinkers and writers, it is also central to our development as a community. I want my students to learn about each other through shared stories and ideas. This is quantified by the simple expectation that each time a student posts a deliverable for a class activity they should pay it forward threefold by responding to three others. I have found that creating this rule sets up an expectation of participation in community conversations that becomes much less important to monitor as the community develops an investment in each other. I have learned that developing our awareness of the intersections and connections found in our ideas binds us a community.
I also create a helping culture by explicitly encouraging students to help and support each other. I always include an “Information Booth” in my course shells. This space is for questions about assignments and class activities. Students are directed to use this space rather than sending an email which might get lost in my in-box clutter. I check the Information Booth a couple of times each day, but as my work habits do not mirror those of most undergrads we all know that a fellow student is much more likely to be able to answer the question in a timely fashion. I will always confirm or extend upon the student’s response, but much of the time the student is spot on with their answer and saves the original poster much anxious waiting. The Information Booth is another way we build community because students will often jump on to confirm either the question or the response.
My June involved two different online programs — both related to my role as director of the Morehead Writing Project. Early in June I was co-leader of the Power Your Story Journalism Camp. My co-leader and I were worried about creating a community in such a short time period, but were gratified that our National Writing Project experience helped us create a community of writers who cared about each other and supported each other. Their level of interest and investment in the stories of their peers was amazing to see. Much of that community developed as a result of the helping culture described above, but we also think it was a result of our daily morning meetings. I intend to build in options for students to check in weekly with the community, because we will definitely not be able to count on weekly class meetings to serve that purpose although we will still hold those even if they will be optional (with many virtual) and look more like a writing retreat crossed with a study session than a traditional class!
During the Morehead Writing Project’s Online Summer Institute we included a weekly Slice of Life post where participants were expected to give us a glimpse into their life from the superficial (check out my new hair do or homemade manicure) to the fun (spent the day lounging in the pool with the kids) to the serious (a friend just tested positive for COVID and now I need to get tested too). We described this activity as simply sharing the little tidbits that we would get if we were hanging out in person. I haven’t always included something of this sort with online undergraduate classes, but I think I will while we are still in pandemic learning mode because I know that we all crave human interaction right now.
I have long used student-awarded badges to support community, recognize student contributions, and reduce my assessment burden. I cannot tell you how much I love using this system. Reading the evidence that students share as they award badges frequently brings tears to my eyes and I hear over and over again from students how much the awards mean to them. Is it cheesy – absolutely. Is it a lot of work – not the way I do it. Should you do it – definitely. I started using badges as a way to track and encourage student participation, which it does because students care a lot about their peers’ opinions, but have found the rewards are so much greater.
So those are my plans for hacking our new reality to support student learning and build community while not living on zoom or driving me (the instructor) insane. What do you think about using these methods to build a HyFlex community? How do you build community in your online, hybrid, or HyFlex classroom?