I have always put a lot of thought into how I will begin a class. I know the importance of first impressions and I also know I have limited time with my students. Every moment counts so I am loathe to waste my first class with a syllabus day. This has been a long-standing belief of mine (see Community Under Construction), however I did have a too-elaborate onboarding process that involved a lengthy orientation and a number of community-building activities. Pandemic teaching has shown me the error of my ways and now I spend my time with my students (in face-to-face classes or virtual synchronous sessions) writing — because the purpose of my classes is to encourage and support writers and I know that just writing and sharing together will build community — no need to get fancy with cute icebreakers. Although I do love a well-crafted icebreaker linked to our course theme!

In our first fall of pandemic teaching I worked to focus my orientation process and even created videos to support the weird pandemic hybrid instruction that took place that semester. Then in 2021 I added #AnnotatedSyllabus to my introductory activities, but as our pandemic education continued to stretch out and everyone’s capacity continued to erode I realized I need a much more minimalist approach and so I have leaned fully into the #AnnotatedSyllabus movement. My syllabus includes all the required elements but includes more commentary and explanation, description and definition, than ever before. Now my syllabus is a handbook or guidebook to the course and as a result I have reduced the number of #HyperDocs students need to get started and navigate the work of the course. This offers students a softer start to the semester and, frankly, we could all use more softness in our pandemic world.

I still require a very silly orientation quiz chock full of dog pics and mom jokes, but I have streamlined it to highlight five key sections of the syllabus and break up the document into bite-sized chunks encouraging annotation of the syllabus at every step. I introduce the work spaces we will use (Blackboard is our communication hub and Google HyperDocs where we learn and share); introduce the theme of the course (Writing I is American Literacy and Writing II is Games); discuss how my Community of Care ethic impacts policy and participation; explain how #Ungrading works in my classes; and wrap up with an explanation of our Communication Channels.

I used to love spending time with all sorts of fun and interesting icebreakers to build community and jumpstart the work and I still include those to some extent, but each pandemic semester I have whittled away at those class activities due to our reduced capacity. Now I craft my bell ringers and icebreakers into writing prompts to guide our synchronous meetings and previous class activities and homework into two rounds of snaps at the beginning of each unit. These moves have involved channeling my inner Marie Kondo. While I have long despised disposable work, which meant every class activity was designed to support the unit deliverable, too much of a good thing is still too much.

My students and I just wrapped up our first week of classes. A week that began on Tuesday due to the MLK holiday and included two snow days. However, the two snow days benefited our community as it meant I was able to offer a synchronous jam session on Tuesday in place of the class I was originally scheduled to teach. Students in asynchronous online sections were able to attend Tuesday’s jam session and/or Thursday’s previously scheduled virtual jam session because the cancellations had freed up time in their schedule. Both Jam Sessions were optional but the small groups of students that attended shared some powerful writing and built community then wrapped up with some tech troubleshooting.

Despite the disrupted learning schedule students were able to roll into the soft start on their own terms. Before I even opened the Blackboard shells I sent students the link to the Google form housing my ridiculous orientation quiz (which included a link to the syllabus as well as five invitations to annotate it with questions and comments). After I had my Blackboard shells set up for my classes and had updated my HyperDocs then I opened Blackboard. During our first week (students have until midnight Sunday) my students are expected to complete the orientation and the work of the week – which includes reviewing information about games and what we can learn from them (shared in text, video, and audio formats in a choose-your-own-adventure format) then creating and sharing their first snap on the unit logbook. Both the snap activity and writing invitation we used for the jam sessions (which was shared with everyone) were designed to jumpstart thinking and writing that will eventually lead to the narrative argument (This I Believe essay) that is our first deliverable. My weekly expectations are that students will complete the work of the week plus Community Support then wrap up the week with a brief reflection and self-assessment (see #Ungrading). Community Support can be boiled down to active involvement in our class community through some combination of synchronous (in-person or virtual jam sessions) and asynchronous participation as each student’s context allows. Regular feedback via our unit logbooks is expected, but students are also expected to post and comment on our Community Check-in blog in Blackboard. In addition, every member of the community is expected to offer help when another member of the community is confused and/or struggling.

By the time I signed out of Blackboard and Google on Friday afternoon most students had successfully begun their journey with my class and several had already earned their first A in the Blackboard gradebook with the completing of the Week 1 self-assessment quiz. Those first reflections reported some struggles to navigate the unfamiliar course setup but a lot of enthusiasm for the theme, the work, and the community. While my work for the week involved a lot of nagging and troubleshooting, there was also lots of writing and connection over shared ideas and stories that brought me a lot of joy. How do you introduce your new students to your class?

Author: Deanna Mascle
#TeachingWriting and leading #NWP site @ Morehead State (KY): Passionate about #AuthenticWriting, #DeeperLearning, #PBL, #Ungrading, and #HyperDocs.

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