Teaching In A Time Of Pandemic: Dispatches from Metawriting

All, Guides

I’ve been teaching online and hybrid classes for more than a dozen years. I designed and piloted Morehead State’s online versions of Writing I and II as well as the Morehead Writing Project’s Online Summer Institute. And in all those years I have never stopped teaching online, so I have a lot of experience to draw from. I hope in this blog post to share that experience with those of you still new to this whole online thing, because it appears we are in this for a while.

Before most of us knew that we would all shift to crisis teaching, back when we all thought this transition from traditional classroom-based education would be short-term, I wrote a blog post about what to do when your class must suddenly shift online. It is well worth repeating some of the key lessons I shared in that post: Simple is Better, Don’t Replicate (your traditional class), and Remember the Students). but as I’ve watched this shift to disaster teaching play out I have identified five key ideas worthy of reflection as you design your plan to go forward with your new teaching reality. It is important, essential, to take time to reflect and plan – for you and for your students. In this time it is more important than ever to adopt a less is more approach to teaching and learning. Life is stressful for everyone so make good strategic choices where each activity serves multiple purposes and students are given time and choice and agency to respond according to their current status. Don’t complicate your life or the lives of your students by focusing on seat time requirements. Just support the learning and let your students approach it on their own terms. I was fortunate that the timing of our Spring Break meant that I did not need to change everything on the fly and last week (our first week of classes in our new reality) I spent time allowing students (and me) to adjust and catch up while I checked in with each individual. I have some students in actual quarantine (not just social distancing like the rest of us) and others battling illness and other challenges complicated by the pandemic. I’m using these five guidelines to help me prepare a plan to wrap up our semester in such a way that our learning goals are met while offering students time, choice, and agency.

Focus

Almost two years ago now I wrote the blog post: Pick 1 Thing: 3 Reasons You Must Know Your Endgame and its message is even more important now than then. Knowing your one true goal for your class, for your students, can be helpful when normal teaching conditions and lifesaving when teaching during a pandemic. I keep hearing from parents and students as well as teachers that they are overwhelmed and stressed. We need to focus and hone in on our bottom line goal for this class at this time and use that goal as a litmus test whenever we consider any lesson, activity, or assignment. Is introducing a new app the best idea right now? Can you eliminate an assignment? Can you combine activities to give students some choice and agency?

We all have to be very attentive to our planning during this time so we can be as strategic as possible with our limited resources and in recognition of our students’ limited resources as well. Now is not the time for grand plans which is why bottom line planning is so key. Make it your first priority so you do not waste your energy or your students.

Last but certainly not least as you contemplate your focus for wrapping up this semester or school year, allow room for passion. Let one good thing come out of this horrible time and let school be fun as well as educational. So many schools are canceling standardized testing for the year and colleges are moving to pass-fail, so why not embrace this opportunity to help your students fall in love with your content (or at least like it a little more).

Structure

Think carefully about the structure that you can and should build for your new online classroom. There should be one place where your students can go to locate all the information they need. For my classes I create our class calendar in a Google doc. Each week lists the key activities and goals for the week and there are links to each of those activities. I like using a Google doc because students can then save that doc to their personal Drive so they don’t need to go hunting for it later.

My university requires that we use Blackboard so I also have a home base in there that includes a “Start Here” section that includes links to the syllabus and calendar at the top (both Google docs) then a section for each of the four units which includes the key activities and goals organized by week. Yes, this system is redundant and if I had access to Google classroom I would probably not use both. I suspect the Google calendar gives students the option to avoid Blackboard for days at a time – I wish I could.

I also strongly suggest that you determine on a structure for your weeks and units. I recommend you avoid or at least limit your synchronous meetings. I held virtual office hours during our first week back from Spring Break (which was also the first week of our new reality) but since have only met with students when I observed a need (I would if they asked but so far it has only happened if I offered a specific invitation). However, it is helpful and comforting to everyone if you can set up a routine round of due dates and set pattern of work. Similarly, the more advance notice you can give students the better. Remember that you might need to some reorientation.

Feedback

Don’t fall into the trap of setting up a correspondence course. Without your regular in-class interaction students need a lot of feedback. They will feel uncertain about their work (especially at first) in this new environment. First and foremost, set up a way for them to provide an audience and feedback for each other so you can provide a sort of drive through feedback (or just a flyover), so you are not overwhelmed. I provide a lot of ways to for students to check in with each other at various stages of their current deliverable and then we conduct online workshops. I drop in regularly but the bulk of the feedback is provided by students. We also use badges and then each unit culminates with a grade conference. I like using snaps a lot for these check-ins. I also create a back channel (I call it Direct Line) in Blackboard (I hack the Journal to create a private conversation) and at least once (and often twice) a unit I direct students to report there on whatever question/topic I feel necessary. For example I asked for a status check following our sudden pivot to 100% online instruction. This channel is getting a lot more use now than it did pre-pandemic.

Adapting

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Examine the lessons you already have that can be adapted/converted to online instruction or better yet – taken off-line. For example, I recently converted my elevator pitch activity, which was 100% face-to-face into an online activity that is still interactive. However, a literacy narrative activity could easily be created that required no technology more advanced than pen and paper while utilizing the resources already available at home (their family!). Similarly, This I Believe essays or American Creed could be adapted for online or at home projects. Slam Poetry might be a great stress release for your students and their family – and April is National Poetry Month. Students of all ages might also enjoy crafting fake flyers, protest signs, and demotivational posters. Another project that is ripe for conversion is One Little Word. I would make a pitch for taking this opportunity to support authentic writing during this time. That can easily be taken off-line and can give students (and their families) a much-needed outlet for their fear and anger during these difficult times. And don’t forget that games can provide a lot of opportunity for learning!

Pedagogy of Care

And the first rule, the one rule to govern them all, should be a pedagogy of care. Care for yourself (because you need to put your oxygen mask on first, remember), for your students, and for their families. Do not make your class a burden or cause of stress. Find fun in the activities you share and carefully select to spread that joy to your students and their family. You might need to spend time rebuilding community and find new ways to help all of you weather this storm whole and safe. Taking care is a good rule of thumb as you forge ahead this school year.

And More

What questions do you have as we try to navigate this hairpin turn without going into a tailspin? What support do you need?

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