Archive for the ‘Teaching writing’ Category


I got an email today from the university where I teach College Writing, announcing that next term, all classes will be moving to online instruction for several weeks. Since this is a traditional university–dorms, cafeteria, and lots and lots of classrooms–many of the professors have had limited, if any, experience with teaching online.

I, on the other hand, have been fortunate. I don’t only teach at the university; I also teach at a local community college in a thinly-populated part of a thinly-populated state. We’re badger-, cow- and rabbit-rich; people, not so much. For me, this means that the definition of “classroom” has evolved. My classroom often involves students sitting in front of me; students sitting at small branch campuses anywhere from 20 to 120 to nearly 500 miles away (I have a student this term who is attending from Medford, Oregon. I am in Milton Freewater, Oregon). It may also include students–like the high school group I had in Elgin, Oregon (way the heck up in the mountains), who had a time conflict (class time ran right straight into football practice as well as other school events). I had to record my classes for them. Because of distances and the weather around here, I often have students who call in from home.

This can be confusing for a teacher under the best of circumstances. The university is running training sessions for professors, getting them familiar with the software, which is very, very good. But there’s another component to teaching online–the human component. Being aware of what might happen and how it might affect your classroom can make your online class a success, or a not-success. So here goes.

Students attending by computer from another location often don’t feel like they’re part of a class. Many believe that you don’t see them. 

This is partly because it’s easy for an instructor to forget online students, particularly if there are students in the room. This perception can be the death of a class–when I first taught a class online I had a group of students turn the camera to face the wall, just to see if I was paying attention to them (I was). Your first job as an online teacher is to convince your students that you see them. Here are a few simple things you can do:

Take record. Every day. Keep track of who missed the previous class and let students know that you know they weren’t there. Say, “We missed you on Monday,” or “Let’s talk offline about what you missed last class period,” or “You’ll want to check in with a classmate for notes from last class period.” It’ll feel less than collegiate, but what you’re doing is letting students know that their presence is noted and appreciated.

Turn on name labels on your screen if you can, and address students by name. It’s even more important to know student names onscreen than it is to know their names in the classroom.

Insist that students turn on their cameras if at all possible and that they position them to show their faces clearly. Make sure that your camera, too, shows your face and shoulders (more about this later). Face to face is always best, even online.

Stop often and offer students the chance to ask questions or make comments. Sitting and staring at a screen can be deadly dull. Because people often feel self-conscious about speaking out online you might very well have to ask students by name for their responses. If discussion is important in your class, you’ll have to push for it. Students can and do participate online, but you’ll have to set the tone and give them space to do it.

Remember “the teacher show.”

The first term that I taught a recorded class I watched my recordings. It was torture. But watching those recordings taught me a lot. Here’s what I learned:

Plan for the camera. Most professors I know spend a lot of time moving around in front of their classes. They walk, gesture, smile, and frown. An engaged teacher puts on quite a dog and pony show for the class without even thinking about it. And the class responds. Teaching to a screen is not the same. It’s easy to lose focus, get sleepy, and most of all forget that cameras flatten everything. Lectures that work wonderfully in person become boring through the monitor. You’ll have to put extra energy into keeping things focused, lively, and productive. Do anything you can to make your students “real” to you–because you’ll be just that “real” to them.

Wear flattering colors and makeup. Again, the screen flattens things. You’ll need to compensate so you don’t look corpselike onscreen.

Consider your background. Where do you want your students to see you? Blank walls are boring. A bed in the corner looks unprofessional. Half a picture looks unplanned. Look at your image on the monitor and consider the atmosphere you’d like in your classroom. Friendly and informal? Consider setting up in your clean kitchen, with the tools you’ll need for class ready at hand. You might even go nuts and put a bouquet on the counter. More formal? Consider moving a bookcase to set up for a backdrop. Then “dress” your set by shelving appropriate books and materials as well as attractive things that will look appealing and professional. You might consider taking some of the things you have in your office at work and using them. Returning students will recognize them for what they are. New students might find them unobtrusive but attractive. Invest in decent lighting. Lights designed for streaming and recording are available at a very reasonable price and go a long way toward making you look more professional.

Smile often. When you’re not smiling try to remember to keep the corners of your mouth slightly tensed. Many of us have the “resting bitchface” going–when we’re not smiling, the corners of our mouths go down. The monitor exacerbates this. Tightening the corners of your mouth just a bit helps to counteract that. Don’t overdo it. You don’t want to look goofy or psychopathic–just pleasant. Record yourself and watch a few minutes–you’ll see what I mean.

Take advantage of the technology. Most of us are familiar with posting class materials and assignments online and asking for papers to be returned the same way. But streaming platforms often offer a lot more than that. You can use that technology to help you. Requiring students to turn in everything through the online system your college or university uses means that you have a complete record of when everything arrives. Don’t be seduced into accepting papers via email except for extraordinary circumstances. Those online submission tools can help you keep organized and cut down on student questions about grades and accusations that you’ve “lost” something.

Consider building an attractive presentation to accompany each assignment. It’s a great way to organize class materials, keep yourself on track–and leave students with a handy reference for when they’re working on the assignment. Your system should also include capabilities for showing “desk” materials–sketches, equations you work by hand, and so forth. You can save and post those, too.

Use the “chat” window in your streaming software. Chatting offers a way of talking privately to students, even during class. Just be sure you’ve chosen to “chat privately.”

Keep communication open. Consider holding “office hours” online. Sign in to the streaming class, and then open a private video chat window on the side. Students can sign into the streaming window, and then, if multiple students sign in, you can route them to the private window, one at a time. Establish times when students can call you. Put that and the number you’d like to use on your syllabus. Refer to it often. Remind them that you are available. If you choose, you might set up a voicemail box where they can leave questions. If you do that, be sure you collect and respond to those questions quickly. Texting also works well–but again, only if you respond quickly to questions. In my experience, the single biggest reason students dislike–and sometimes fail–online classes is because they feel disconnected. It’s your job to offer them the tools to combat that.

Write notes on papers. Write lots of notes. Grading like that takes a lot of time, but again, it’s a way of connecting with students on a personal level about their work in particular. It’s just plain good teaching, but it’s more than that–it’s another way of fostering that all-important sense of community. Because of scheduling exigencies, I have sometimes had to teach very long classes (three hours) one day a week. Nobody’s interesting for three hours straight–not even me. Using some of that time to do a deep dive into student papers was more effective than any amount of lecturing.

Keep your face onscreen unless you’re directly referring to some visual aid or example. Plant yourself in your chair and stay there. Remember to use aids as needed–and then switch back to your face. When your students can’t see you, they assume you can’t see them. Sometimes they get distracted. Sometimes they get up and go do something. Sometimes they just get bored. Sometimes they fall asleep. There’s no substitute for teaching face to face. And that holds true even if miles and monitors lie between the faces.

Encourage students to communicate amongst themselves. Set up a group chat or bulletin board where people can go to leave notes and ask questions. Again, use your streaming software if possible (it helps to protect you, to help you monitor conversations for tone and appropriateness, and to keep school-related materials within the record-keeping system). Establish an email list so students can communicate among themselves. Set up group projects. In my writing classes, peer editing is important. Last term I had one woman in Baker City (about 90 miles south). The remainder of my students were in two classrooms 30 and 50 miles away, respectively. That wonderful, bold woman in Baker City stood up in front of her camera and said, “Can somebody in Boardman or Hermiston read my paper?” A woman in Boardman said, “I will.” They emailed their papers to each other. They did the editing. I think they talked by phone. It worked.

Finally, let yourself be human. If you’ve never taught an online class before, there will be times that you forget to “share” materials you’re discussing. There will be times that you “share” something and then forget to “unshare” it. There will be times–terrible but true–when you manage to disconnect yourself from your class entirely (I’ve been doing this for ten years, and I managed to do it last class period). You can insulate yourself quite effectively from student impatience and scorn by openly acknowledging the limitations of online classes–that it’s easy to feel invisible, that while you’ve prepared, you’re not experienced at the finer points of what you’re doing yet, and so forth. And then, when the flubs happen, correct them as quickly as possible, apologize, and move on. Things will get better. Prepare. Practice ahead of time if you can. But when something goes wrong–and it will–let yourself be human. It’s a truly effective way of doing the most important thing you can do to ensure the success of your class: Fostering a sense of a shared, common, mutually-supportive experience.

Good luck!

 Questions? Feel free to leave them in the comments below; I’ll answer them there (or in  your email, if you prefer.)


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I’ve been teaching college writing courses off and on since 1985 or thereabouts. I’d doing it again this spring–I’m teaching two courses of basic writing, and one course of college writing. And just about the time we headed into this term it dawned on me that the one thing I’m not teaching is writing. My students already have the marks-on-paper stuff down cold.

It took a student bringing in a paper he had “written” by speaking to his computer for me to realize this. Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m teaching. Is it grammar? No–there are grammar checkers. Is it spelling? No–spelling’s a visual memory; memorizing word lists isn’t going to make anyone a better speller. Is it modes of writing? Not really. What’s the point in being able to spout a particular format of essay on command?

It seems to me that what I am doing is teaching students not how to write, but how to think. I teach them how to find,  gather, and evaluate information, and document where they got it. I teach them how to go beyond the obvious to the hidden messages buried in imagery and context. I teach them how to weigh conflicting opinions. I teach them how to reason a problem through, make judgment calls, lay out their findings in simple, persuasive terms.

If I do my job right, I prepare my students for every other class they will take in college–and for every day they will live afterwards. I am teaching them how to learn about and understand the world.

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We’re nearing the end of the term here at the remote, isolated outpost of higher education where I teach basic writing courses. The thing about teaching writing courses is that they work best when there’s a certain level of trust and intimacy between writers and audience. Many of the assignments require students to explore some facet of their own experience. The upshot of this is that I have a window into the lives of the students who sit in my class that many other teachers don’t have. In any given term, I have a good idea who is struggling with personal issues, who is single, who is married, who has lost–or gained–a loved one, who is having a positive–or negative–experience at school.

I’ve been teaching writing for a long time, and I have rather come to take that window into my students’ lives for granted. But this term has been out of the ordinary. A huge percentage of my students are single parents. Many are attending school as a path out of a long family history of poverty. I have students who have recently returned from Iraq and Afghanistan, and are going to school on the GI bill. Some students have had unexpected deaths in their families.

We are a small, comparatively poor town, and half of my class reports in by television from even smaller, poorer towns. I teach night school, so many of my students come to class after having already worked a full day, in some cases at grinding physcial labor. And still they come to class, and they sit there, and listen, and write their papers, and revise, and rewrite. And I can see how very tired they get.

And while I wish I could just let them have the time to relax, to unwind, and to catch their breath, I don’t. In fact, I work them all the harder, because that’s my gift to them–the benefit of every bit of wisdom , encouragement, and support I can cram into those hours we share. And they learn. As far as I know, I am the only writing teacher who encourages students to rewrite their papers, over and over and over again. And I grade them over and over again, because the best way to teach writing is to give people the opportunity to write, and to see how they might express themselves more clearly.

Teaching this way is hard work. Sometimes it gets confusing. But we keep doing it because I am teaching more than making marks on paper–I am challenging the people who come to my class to look at their lives in new ways, to explore ideas, to look beyond the simple, trite, common knowledge that “everybody knows” to the deeper wisdom behind it. And I’m doing this not because of who I am, but because of who the people who sit in my classes are. They are people who, in spite of living in small, backwoods, rural communities, have dared to dream of moving beyond the world into which they were born–or in which by happenstance they find themselves.

I read their papers, and sometimes my heart breaks for them, but mostly I am awed, humbled, and grateful that my life offers me the opportunity touch so many lives, to offer hope to people for whom hope may be a rare commodity, to offer support and courage to people whose lives may hold a lot of challenges and pain, but also a seed of a dream. Every week, I get to meet with around twenty-five people who, in a world of uncertainty and diminishing resources, have dared to envision a life that holds more.

In the past, I taught writing. These days, I find I’m spending a lot of time fostering creativity, urging my students to think outside the box, to consider avenues to success that don’t depend on traditional nine-to-five jobs, to explore non-traditional housing options, to dream big, because in times like these our dreams are our treasure. As long as we can dream, we can never be beaten.

And that is the gift of teaching–the deep wisdom that lies behind the obvious pattern of teacher talking and students listening. If the teacher takes the time to listen, her students can teach her the power of dreaming, and of working to make those dreams come true.

My students don’t read this blog–most of them don’t even know it exists. But today I wish they did. I wish they knew what they mean to me, and what they teach me simply by showing up to class, with their tired eyes, and their dreams, and their willingness to write, to think, to rewrite, revise, rethink, and rewrite again. I wish they knew how I hope that something they hear, something they learn, will spark an idea that will carry them beyond where they are now, to a place beyond where they have ever dreamed of being.

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A year ago I started teaching two basic writing classes at my local community college. My first term I stuck pretty close to the sample syllabus I got–just tweaking the tiniest bit.

Before I started my second term, though, I made two minor renovations that have changed everything about the way I teach.

The first is that, rather that focusing on teaching the “modes” of the various essays and on grammar exercises, I switched to a “sequence” format. Here’s the difference:

Teaching “modes” means focusing on essay format. Subject matter becomes secondary. Grammar and punctuation is taught as a series of worksheets that bear little relation to student writing.

Teaching “sequences” places subject matter front and center. The various essay forms become different ways of exploring the subject, and grammar and punctuation is done in the context of student writing.

That was the first change–I chose a subject, and wrote my assignments to prompt students in writing about it in the various forms required for state standards.

My second innovation is more far-reaching–I allow infinite rewrites, as long as the first assignment has gotten in on time (deadlines are important, after all).

I’m spending a lot of my time reading and commenting on papers these days. Why would I do this, when it makes my life so very much busier? I’m doing it because of my real world experience in writing, editing, and publishing. I have yet to find any writer who can produce something worth reading in two rounds of revision. Seems to me asking beginning writers to do it is unrealistic–and it also deprives us both of a powerful teaching opportunity. Students learn best in the context of their own writing–and by allowing multiple revisions I’m giving myself the opportunity to guide them through the process of really writing, from content revision to structural revision to style revision to grammatical revision.

And it’s working. I’m getting boatloads of papers in. More important, though, is that my students are not only learning how to write about a subject in various ways–they’re starting to think about things that really matter. Last term the sequence was about food. We talked about how humans have various nutritional needs, about how environment, wealth, climate, and culture shape how those needs are filled, and about how the food of the poor in a culture becomes the “comfort food” of a nation. And then we talked about how understanding what people eat, and why, can become a powerful tool in bridge-building between cultures. I gave extra credit for students who actually cooked an old family recipe and brought it in to class. Not a class went by that we didn’t have something to eat. And I watched my students begin to move past the cultural barriers in our small town.

This time we’re talking about homes, and about how values are reflected in the homes we choose, and how we shape them. Our first three essays have been where each of us live, and what it says about us. The last three essays will be broader in scope. We’ll compare homes from different cultures, look at how they reflect climate and culture–and then look at how those differences can affect the way we see each other. And we’ll look at how the sharply increasing problem of homelessness is changing us.

So far, it’s going well. But as I say, I’ve got a boatload of papers to grade. And so to work…

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