Classes start tomorrow and I’m struggling. I’m worried that the baggage my students are dragging into my hybrid and online classes is too heavy for us to make any meaningful progress. Let’s be real. Students have always brought considerable baggage into first year writing classes and the exponential rise in dual credit classes combined with an over-emphasis on writing on-demand in K-12 has only made this worse. Today’s first year writing student is all too likely to enter the class with a dislike of writing and distrust of the writing process. In the past I have successfully overcome this baggage with fun first day experiences, an intense focus on community building, and an engaging initial unit. I still have the second two items on my list – and in fact thanks to my reworking lessons and plans this summer they are stronger than ever. But I’m worried because pandemic teaching conditions mean that I do not have control over students’ entry point and first experience with my class. I’m worried because so many students had really negative experiences with online learning in the spring that they see hybrid and online classes as weak sauce.
Back in March when we were all suddenly engaged in a shift to pandemic teaching and learning, I wrote a blog post about the need to (re)orient our students to both our class community and the work of the class. Now most of us are returning to school under even more alien circumstances and we must think carefully about how we will engage with our students to build relationships with and among them as well as draw them into the work. This blog post will focus on the steps I’ve taken with my first-year writing students as they begin their college experience in these unprecedented times. I only hope it is enough as I watch my Blackboard shells and Google docs and wait for them to begin to simmer.
Put a Face to a Name
I opened my Blackboard course shells for my first-year writing students two full weeks before the start of classes to give students a chance to explore as well as ask questions, but in my opening announcement (which was also sent via email) I included two quick Animoto videos introducing myself and the class (five things you need to know about Eng 100). In the before times I preferred to kick off classes with a cold open that meant spending the first class period writing/creating/playing together, but this first week of classes for my hybrid/blended classes will be unlike any teaching experience I’ve had before so I wanted to give my students a personal connection first. I also expected that many first year college students would have a lot of questions. I tried to make it clear that I have a lot of experience (that predates the pandemic) teaching hybrid and online classes and believe strongly in this model. I hope it is enough.
For some time I have refused to spend our first class meetings on dry procedure and instead created an orientation using a Google slideshow with lots of embedded videos and memes featuring my extremely corny sense of humor. I cover six topics including the basics you expect to see in any class and then break the news that my classes will be different from their expectations in a number of ways including how we communicate, the course structure, and the community we will build (and why I made these deliberate choices). I then follow the orientation up with an even sillier faux quiz with joke answers to reinforce the messages delivered via the orientation. The orientation includes lots of important information, but I hope that the silliness makes it easier to work through and (very important to me) allows me to discover which students possess some silliness too. There are more details about my silly orientation in this (Re)Orientation blog post, but the dominant theme is the mom joke illustrated by many many memes and cartoon dogs. Hopefully students enjoy this experience more than a dry reading of the syllabus which is more of an institutional document than a reflection of my values and pedagogy, but the jokes (especially my faux quiz) still makes me giggle so at least I’ve got that going for me.
Set the Table
A few days before the official start of the semester I also posted (and emailed) a “Let’s Begin” message that informed students there would not be any Weekly Meets during our first week to give students time to complete the orientation materials before jumping into the work, listed the tasks they should complete during our first week, and encouraged them to complete the Community Check-in because I couldn’t wait to learn more about them. While I had explained my new HyFlex Hyperdoc model in the orientation, I reminded students that the Week One Overview is the best guide to the work of the week as it takes students step-by-step through the expected tasks. Completing those simple tasks will also introduce students to Google tools and a number of class procedures that we will use throughout the semester. In addition, each of those activities will begin the serious work of building our understanding of each other and connecting our class community. While I can’t wait to see their Community Check-in posts I am super pumped to see their Value Snaps and the interactions that follow. but I worry about how my hybrid students will see the failure to meet in person that first week. Will they understand that I am centering their words rather than mine? Will they understand that the Weekly Meets are meant as a bonus feature rather than the centerpiece of our work together? Can they see what I’m doing over the mound of baggage that they have hauled into this class?
In a perfect world, we would all be together in class on the first day building table tents and circulating like it was a family reunion while munching on candy, but this is the world the Coronavirus built. Now I just need to trust my inner Kevin Costner. I have built it and they will come — and hopefully they will like me as well as the community and work we will build together. Fingers crossed. How nervous are you about the start of this semester in these strange and challenging times?