Teaching and learning during a pandemic is hard. Creating and sustaining community during a pandemic is hard. I chose a HyFlex design for my first-year writing class in place of my already flexible hybrid class structure in response to pandemic teaching and learning, but I worried a lot about maintaining contact with my students when our work was conducted asynchronously. I experienced how easy it was to become unmoored during our pandemic spring. I knew it would be even worse for my entering first-year students who had already struggled through a senior year devastated by the pandemic and did not have a pre-existing relationship with our institution. I scheduled in-person and virtual weekly meets to provide the just-in-time support I expected my students would want and need, but perhaps most important of all I created a weekly schedule of check-ins and reflections so I could get to know my students better, we could create a community together, and we could all help each other through these challenging times. The first year of college is difficult enough, especially if you are first generation as are many of my students, but mix in a pandemic and an education system in a constant state of flux then the risk of academic disengagement is high. I expect my students to check in three different ways each week and many students have reported they enjoy these interactions and feel they are beneficial to their connection to the class as well as their state of mind.
The academic check-in is pretty simple. Students complete a brief Google form that asks how they feel about the work that week and for details about their concern(s). I also ask students to note if they plan to attend a Weekly Meet and offer up the choices available for them. The responses to this form as well as my own drive-thrus of class work inform my instruction and support for the week. When I met in person with my classes I frequently conducted such check-ins via small group reports or exit slips and now I find this process essential to gauging student engagement with and understanding of our work.
I believe most good writing instructors get to know their students pretty well. Probably because so much of writing touches the personal, but also because so much of good writing instruction involves individual and small group interaction. Ever since I began my conference grading journey, which meant conferencing with students three or four times a semester in addition to casual conversations before, during, and after class, I have developed even stronger bonds with my students. I also knew, thanks to my work with the Morehead Writing Project’s Online Summer Institute, that I had a solution to address the loss of these in-person contacts. I created a Community Check-in space in each Blackboard shell for my fall classes using the Blog tool. Students are expected to check in each week and share how they are doing and what they are doing to cope. This process has taught me so much about my students and their lives (both as students and humans) that I may never let this practice go. Another valuable, and unexpected, benefit is that students also discover that they are not alone in their struggles and we all share our solutions and strategies. We are connecting as humans even if we are never in the same physical space at the same time and that is a tremendous benefit during these trying times.
As part of my #ungrading journey, also inspired by the Morehead Writing Project’s Online Summer Institute, I decided to require weekly reflections from my students where they read over their work for the week and reflect on what they learned as well as their journey as a writer then self-assess their work and set goals. I love how this weekly process has encouraged my students to think more deeply about their responsibility for the work of the class as well as their own growth as writers and thinkers. Gaining this glimpse into their thinking and habits has been a tremendous help for me as a teacher because I can see which lessons and activities resonate and challenge as well as where and how my students struggle. Although I offer students a Direct Line (using the Journal tool in Blackboard) for private conversations and an Information Booth for questions about assignment and activity details, the Unit Reflections (where these weekly reflections take place) have provided an additional space for conversations about student work. As we near the end of our first unit (grade conferences begin next week!), I also think that these weekly reflections and conversations will make our grade conversations deeper and more meaningful than those I experienced in previous semesters.
In addition to the human and educational benefits I describe above, these check-ins help me keep a finger on the pulse of my classes that can be missing in online asynchronous work. Even more important they bring joy into my pandemic teaching life that can be lost when asynchronous online teaching feels like nagging, record keeping, and general drudgery. These check-ins bring the humanity back into my teaching as my students make me laugh and cry (usually in a good way) as we mark the milestones on our journey together. How are you engaging with your students as humans?