As we move toward the goal of a fall term at K that is “fully on campus”, people are in different places with their comfort, options, privilege, and vulnerabilities in spending more time in-person on campus. In some ways, the move back in to the classroom will be as fraught and uncomfortable as the exit. However, there is enough worth preserving that I hope we approach that goal with the same creativity and resolve. I reflect on my experience of in-person teaching this winter in this piece.
After attending Dr. Amer Ahmed’s faculty workshops on Intercultural Skills and Inclusive Pedagogy, I have become more aware of how the teacher is traditionally positioned as the “knower”, and students are expected to give as “perfect” as possible a “performance” of knowledge dispensed by professors and textbooks.
And I began to think about how our classrooms don’t always provide a space for not knowing – especially when our Class Calendar says it’s time for a Test or Term Paper, dictating when students are expected to “show how much you know.”
This is a simple exercise I added to the Midterm Discussion Exam for my Developmental Psychology course in Fall 2020 and am currently implementing again for two sections in Winter 2021. I didn’t administer the standard Blue-Book Essay Midterm as I had for 20+ years, as I wanted to find alternatives to written exams during online courses. This simple exercise assesses not only what students know, but what they do not understand yet (“fuzzy areas”) while taking a Test. (This was incorporated into a Discussion-style test but could be adapted for Written Tests and Papers).
Here’s how we did it:
- I didn’t reveal to the students ahead of time that I was going to do something different. I gave them a Mid-quarter Study Guide, and simply wanted them to review and prepare the course material as best as they could.
- I divided my class of 24 into four groups of 6 students. I met with each group for 100 minutes, with a 5-minute “stretch break”. (This took almost 7 half hours over the course of three days, but I didn’t hold synchronous classes that week).
- Toward the beginning of the discussion, I asked each student to identify their favorite topic in our class so far, give examples of why it was intriguing – and then identify what was the “fuzziest area” about that topic? (I tried to “normalize” having fuzzy areas, by saying something like “… because no matter how well we understand a topic, there’s always going to be something that’s a little murky or fuzzy, and not as clear as the rest”).
I didn’t know how it would go. Would they claim everything was pretty clear already? Would they be reluctant to reveal what they didn’t know during a Discussion Test? And how would this translate in an online situation, via MS Teams?
To my surprise, students were quick to point out “fuzzy areas” – especially after they had just had an opportunity to talk about their favorite topic, often with great enthusiasm and gusto.
- In our small groups of six, I usually started with a student who seems comfortable talking in class, to set the tone. After the student identified a “fuzzy area,” I would empathize first, then probe: “Oh yes, I see others nodding. I remember needing more time to grasp that one. What about Bronfenbrenner’s ‘mesosystem’ is most fuzzy or confusing?”
“Well, I understand the definition is the linkages between microsystems, but it’s hard to totally see how it works.”
“Okay, let’s get some group help – and then I’ll clarify as well as I can. What about Robin’s question: Can anyone give an example that would illuminate this level of the model?”
- Note: I didn’t do the “group help” step the first time. Out of habit, I jumped straight from the student’s question to giving an explanation (and then invited add-ons from peers). I played “dispenser of knowledge” too soon and took some of the joy of collaborative discovery away.
Adding this step allowed peers to scaffold each other (in their own language and with their own kinds of explanations) before I entered to summarize, clarify, and probe further. That way, students frequently credited peers for breakthroughs (“the example Megan gave really helped me get the concept”).
Another nice outcome of sharing “what I don’t yet know” in a group: some students later said it helped them realize that they weren’t the only ones that hadn’t grasped something – especially when they heard more confident students talk about “fuzzy areas.” This could be especially helpful for our first-generation college students, students of color, and students with special challenges; when not knowing is not kept a secret, it may help alleviate the loneliness of assuming you’re the only one that “didn’t get it”.
- Structure/Time management: I first posted all 6 students’ “fuzzy areas” to quickly plan a structure for our discussion — by grouping overlapping questions together, and deciding on a logical order to tackle them. I tried my best to include all students’ questions, folding in more tangential points into core concepts. This method made the best use of our time.
On most topics, students contributed helpful points to fill in the gaps, and there were some neat breakthroughs in each group. At the end of each round, I tried to provide a clear summary or synthesis (“So to sum up, we can understand the mesosystem as representing…”). When it came to me, I would add something new, with the hopes of continuing to teach and maybe even lead to another “aha” moment together. Often at the point of group discovery, there is a special readiness for another shift in thinking.
- Although I implemented this simple exercise in Midterm Discussions, it could easily be adapted to Term Papers and (written) Tests. We might encourage students to fill in a box at the end of a paper or test where they can convey one or two “still fuzzy areas” or “what’s still coming together for me” (with a clear statement that this will not affect the grade). This can give us insight into what to review and reinforce in our next module.
I didn’t focus on “fuzzy areas” for the Final Discussion Exam, for which I targeted other learning goals. This was perfect for the Midterm, allowing me to fill in gaps and reinforce certain principles for the last month of the course. But many students spontaneously brought up “fuzzy areas” on their own during the Final (which we addressed together), having learned that our class was open to this!
The “fuzzy areas” was only one portion of our group discussion, but when I asked students what they liked or learned most from our time together, most described a breakthrough from the “fuzzy areas” part. When I asked why this was helpful, many said it’s because it departs from the standard way we test – with an approach that seems intended to assess what they “know”, and “catch” what they did not study well, or did not fully grasp. As one student put it, “at that point it’s to judge it and not to teach it.”
Many times, when we introduce a new concept in class, and stop to invite questions, no hands go up. It is only later, as students are pulling together all the information to prepare for a test – or actually taking the test – that they see where their understanding is incomplete. If we provide a safe space, somewhere in our spoken or written tests and papers, to convey those “fuzzy areas” and address them, the test is not just the measure of one’s learning but a tool for further learning.
As one student put it:
“Sometimes I don’t know what I don’t know till I’m taking the test, and then it’s too late… I really liked this discussion test, because you asked us to talk about the fuzzy parts, so we could close the gaps.”
I know, I know…you’ve heard about a million different tech tools to be used for online teaching –and you’re overwhelmed. But I promise you, this one is worth checking out. It’s called Jamboard, and it’s a Google collaborative tool like Google Docs or Slides. Jamboard is basically a fancy digital whiteboard. Share your screen, and you can write terms, draw, share images, and share text. If you share the link, students can add post-it notes (anonymously!). You can also add images from the internet or from your computer to be annotated. Jamboard is also a great way to structure small group work, and observe how students are doing in real time.
There are many ways to use this tool. Dwight Williams already wrote about using Jamboard for Whiteboarding with Organic Chemistry students. I have used Jamboard in my first-year seminar to get discussion started, or to guide group activities. For example, students brainstormed initial ideas based on the reading by adding “sticky notes.” We also workshopped “what makes a good thesis statement” – students posted their thesis anonymously and we talked through and then edited them together. In German class, I have posted images and had students brainstorm vocabulary, or collaborate to write stories together.
Here is another sample from my seminar (Link to Jamboard), for how to use Jamboard to structure small-group discussion. Each slide had either a discussion question based on the reading, or a blank slide that asked students to answer the question with a sticky note.
There are many templates you can find online (eg, by Kris Szajner for “Ditch that Textbook”), or it is very easy to create your own Jamboards from scratch.
- You can make the Jamboard view-only (similar to Google Slides) if you want to present; or you can give students editing privileges for collaboration.
- There is no revision history or way to “revert” to original. If you are giving students the link and editing privileges, you may want to save a backup if you plan to re-use the Jamboard.
- It is very easy to “duplicate” slides and to copy the presentation. For group work, you may want to give each group their own slide to edit, or you may want to copy the whole Jamboard and give it to different groups. I have found it also works well for students to go through the Jamboard at their own pace, with different discussion questions on each slide.
- Take advantage of the anonymity, or allow students to write their name on a post-it. I mostly used the anonymous posting tool in my classes.
How to find Google Jamboard via Google Drive (it’s under “More” below Docs, Sheets, Slides, and Forms):
- John Sowash, 5 Simple Jamboard Lessons (I especially love the examples of the “brain dump” and “annotation station” here)
A terrible movie called “Click” came out ~15 years ago. The whole plot revolved around Adam Sandler discovering a remote control that allowed him to pause or fast forward real life. As someone who spills coffee and instinctively makes finger movements to hit the ‘command’ and ‘z’ keys (control-Z for PCers), I’ve always wanted that remote. This tool may be the closest we’ll ever get.
The website is called twoseven (twoseven.xyz). It allows people to watch videos together, synced, while texting or video-chatting, and it’s one of the more straight-forward and free options I’ve tried. You provide the site with a link to the video (e.g., lecture), your friends with a link to join you on twoseven, and that’s it.
Why was I looking for that kind of tool? Well, I like classrooms that are just a tad loud and all over the place. I ask questions and stop for a minute or two until students think of answers. I encourage interactions among students if they don’t disrupt others. I enjoy when students make nerdy jokes about vertebrates. I was looking for a way to simulate that communal feeling while my young biologists were watching lecture videos.
1. After creating an account, go to “Start Watching”
2. Make sure you have the right source selected at the top (e.g., Vimeo) and enter your link address
3. To invite others, all you do is get a link and share it
4. You are now ready to watch a lecture and pass virtual papers to your neighbors with the chat function!
I used in my language classes in the Fall “Fligrid,” an app/website provided by Microsoft. It is a video app that instructors can use to assign asynchronous video discussions to students. It worked for me as a nice supplement to Moodle since Moodle can hardly accommodate any video discussions. I discuss here my experience of using it in my CHIN101 course, but I think it could be employed in other language or content classes for asynchronous discussions.
Flipgrid has some nice features that I appreciate a lot:
- You can include media files in the prompt.
- Students can join the discussions using the comment function, either in text or in video or in both.
- You can join the discussions as students do, and even more— you can provide private comments to individual students.
- You can use basic or custom rubrics for feedback and grading.
- You can export data for each assignment.
- And it is FREE for both educators and students!
The following is a brief summary of how I used Flipgrid in CHIN101 Fall 2020. As I am still new to Flipgrid, the summary is definitely not exhaustive and it is intended to serve as a reference only.
- I asked students to register on Flipgrid with their school account and then limited the access of Flipgrid assignments to the users of “Kzoo.edu.” I feel more comfortable to have certain degree of privacy protection for my classes in an external online learning platform than otherwise.
- Students can choose to click the embedded webpage link on Moodle or to open the Flipgrid app in their cellphone or tablet, with the passcode I provided.
- I can organize prompts in groups.
- I used the Flipgrid in both language classes last quarter, much more frequently in one than in the other. However, Flipgrid received more positive reviews from the class that used it less. So I conclude that Flipgrid could be a nice supplement to the discussions on Moodle; however it could be overwhelming as video discussion is generally more time-consuming than a discussion in text.
- To the right, there is an option to include your lecture recording. It could be useful if you want to organize asynchronous discussions around your recorded lectures.
- I asked students to respond to each other’s video posts by certain time. And I also made sure I responded to each post. You can see each post received at least one comment.
- There is an option of proving “private video feedback” in addition to open comments that are visible to everyone.
- There are two sets of grading rubric, one basic; the other custom.
- The function of data exporting could be helpful as we could track how much, how frequent, and at which time a student participates in a discussion.
I feel I so far have explored only a small part of Flipgrid for language teaching. I will use it in my literature course this Winter. I may be able to come back to update or to revise what I put above. Please contact me via Leihua.Weng@kzoo.edu if you would like to explore this application with me. Thank you.
While the phrase “discussion leadership” typically brings to mind the work one does to facilitate a conversation in real-time, the shift to virtual learning due to COVID-19 invited two elephants into my Zoom room:
- The grim likelihood that our students would be facing a lot more disruption to their ability to attend class regularly, and
- the fact that, absent the bodily cues of in-person conversation, nurturing–and then following–a conversation on Zoom is hard.
(Of course, from an accessibility perspective, these elephants have always been in the room, even when that room was brick and mortar.)
The Discussion Leadership assignment I developed for my discussion-based course (a 100-level English class with 26 students) sought to address these challenges by carefully structuring our in-class time with asynchronous work, and by leaving behind a structure that could be accessed asynchronously for anyone who had not been able to attend class.
Here’s how it worked.
Each student was responsible for taking on a Discussion Leadership role for 4 classes throughout the quarter. There were 3 roles to choose from:
- Pre-Discussion: Develop 2-3 questions about the text that will guide our class discussion.
- Post-Discussion: Identify 1-2 key takeaways from our class discussion. Pose a new question that’s arisen for you, or that you feel we didn’t have time to address in full.
- Class Notes: Take detailed, structured notes on our class discussion.
My students posted their Discussion Leadership contributions to that week’s Forum on Moodle, so everyone would be able to locate and reference them.
Here’s an example of the worksheet I used to introduce the assignment and the aims of each role.
(Student signed up for roles at signup.com. The roles were intentionally doubled-up and there were significantly more slots than required, to allow for maximum flexibility and to increase the likelihood that, at minimum, Class Notes would be covered even if someone forgot, or ended up unexpectedly absent.)
How did we use these contributions?
I typically chose a couple of the pre-discussion questions to structure our class discussions (usually in small groups, where each group would choose a question to focus on). My students were able to exercise ownership of our discussions by highlighting elements they wished to discuss; and if needed, I could still add questions of my own to balance theirs.
The post-discussion syntheses were useful in offering a form of “endcap” to our discussions, which felt particularly important in virtual space, where discussions typically took a little longer and we were often running right up against the end of the period. Sometimes, I’d use the post-discussions to prompt a quickwrite at the start of the next class period, to return us to the thoughts we’d left off on the previous day. And honestly, I think being able to say “[Dilly Bar] posed a really great question I’d like to open with today” helped these quickwrites feel like genuine invitations to muse, rather than instructor-written prompts that secretly had right answers. In small ways, they reinforced our ideal classroom dynamic, where ideally students would talk to each other, rather than respond to me.
These posts also helped paint a picture of what class was like on any given day a student might have missed, and to offer them an opportunity to still engage asynchronously. That being said, Discussion Leadership was not intended as a fully asynchronous course option: The expectation of the class was that you would attend the synchronous meetings as often as possible. When it was not possible, however, it was intended to help make up the difference.
Students who were absent on any given day had the option of making up their class presence by reading the Class Notes and other Discussion Leadership, responding to questions that arose and offering their own interpretations/comments. While not the same as being able to participate in the synchronous session, it offered a safety net, and an invitation to continue engaging with the course materials/conversation for that day, even if Plan A didn’t pan out.
Maybe this all sounds workmanlike! It’s definitely not flashy. But sometimes simple, strong foundations are the best new gizmo when we and our students are sitting in our houses on fire, muttering “this is fine” to ourselves.
What did my students get out of it?
My students seemed to appreciate the Discussion Leadership because it wasn’t particularly difficult or time-consuming. As one student pointed out in an anonymous midterm reflection, in an ideal word it’d be stuff they should probably be doing all the time. (Ah, but ours is not an ideal world, is it?) One student noted that choosing to think up pre-discussion questions helped remind them that preparing for class wasn’t just about doing the reading, but engaging with the reading and thinking about what they wanted to say before logging into class. Note-takers would occasionally ask their classmates to repeat a comment to clarify their meaning, actively working to ensure their own comprehension/the accuracy of their record.
What I most valued about Discussion Leadership, outside of its utilitarian purpose, was the fact that the work was shared, low-stakes, and collaborative: Students didn’t need to stretch themselves to distraction, attempting to take notes while also contributing and listening to others as they made eye contact with their classmates’ Black Zoom Boxes, etc. because they knew they could rely on each other’s work, sit with each other’s insights, or compare their own takeaways from a class with the written record of another. Discussion Leadership helped make our virtual interactions more tangible. It served a written record of our collective knowledge-building, and allowed us to see how far we’d come, even as days blurred and time seemed to corkscrew.
Not a bad day’s work for a Moodle forum!
Here I share how I used Instagram as a replacement for slideshows and more traditional Moodle posts, allowing students to engage aesthetically and analytically with course materials in ways that felt personal and accessible.
I’m sure we all have salient memories of March 13, that final day of classes at K when we knew coronavirus was looming, when we were just wrapping up the Winter term, completely unsure of what was to come. We had just begun carrying around little bottles of hand sanitizer with us, masks were not yet a thing. Maybe we had a pack of Lysol wipes in our offices. Our students sat close together, sharing bagels and iced coffees. We stood close together in the library elevator. At the end of my morning class, not knowing when they were going to see me again on campus, a couple of students asked if we could give me a hug. They were the last people I hugged outside of my family.
That morning students in my Religion and Masculinity class were chatty and restless as we sat in our library classroom. Rather than discuss the reading for that day on the intimacy of 19th century men’s studio portraits, we spent the class time imagining what an online class at K might look like. The first things my students dreaded was having their only meaningful interaction with course texts be through Moodle posts. My brilliant colleague, Ambre Dromgoole, a PhD Candidate at Yale, had tweeted a few days prior about using Instagram Live in lieu of other lecture-delivery platforms. I loved the idea of using Instagram and floated it by my students. Instantly they agreed that it would be fun and accessible to use social media for classes. I was preparing to teach my Catholics in the Americas class in the Spring. Usually my slideshows at the start of each class are full of Met Gala costumes, skulls, bones and other macabre relics, cathedral interiors, statues, woodcut images of burning convents, festivals, and processions. A course on Catholicism begs for visual richness and interactions with objects, architecture, and art. Instagram is the perfect platform for students to think about the relationship between tradition, practice, texts, objects, and images.
As I told my students, Catholics are EXTREMELY ONLINE, by which I mean many of them use social media, whether that be Instagram or Twitter to share dimensions of their religion, to post images of saints and rosaries, prayers, and increasingly the internet and social media platforms have become a media of presence. Blessings and the presence of Christ can travel through computer screens and Twitter posts. Just before the Spring term began, on March 28, 2020, Pope Francis delivered the Urbi et Orbi [to the city and the world] Blessing to an empty St. Peter’s Square. In the blue glow of night tens of thousands of people all over the world tuned into a livestream. Catholics watched as the Pope adored the Blessed Sacrament, and as he walked out onto the square in the rain holding the gold monstrance with the body of Christ at its center. This was not simply a symbolic gesture, but an efficacious one. From the square, through the cameras, through thousands of screens Catholics were not only blessed, but could receive a plenary indulgence, a remission of temporal punishment for sin, if they tuned in by internet, radio, or television. In short, the internet, social media platforms, and other digital media technologies are central to how Catholics stay in touch with Rome, with each other, and are essential to contemporary devotional culture and practice. So Instagram seemed the perfect way for students to engage with historical and contemporary Catholic culture, and curate their own images to go with their thoughts on the readings and materials each week.
Every student was required to make a new Instagram account that they would use just for class—to minimize the awkwardness of using their personal accounts, and I too made an account that was private and just for class use. On their account they would post weekly in response to the readings, films, or sources for that week. Each week they would post what I called a “Virtual Provocation:”
These posts should include a reflection on something that interests you in the day’s readings and questions for discussion. Your post can be a combination of your own thoughts and quotes, passages, images, memes you have made, media clips etc.
Use these posts to raise provocations—what stood out to you? Can you make connections with other texts, examples, classes, events etc.? Did something in the text jog your memory? Do you take issue with any of the author’s arguments? Why? These should help jump start discussion and you should read and comment on each other’s posts as well. Posts should raise substantive issues rather than noting minor curiosities or posing purely informational questions. These will demonstrate your engagement with the texts and themes.
For this kind of assignment, fewer guidelines helped the students find their own voice and style. K students, creative, curious, independent thinkers that they are, rose to the challenge and I was delighted with how thoughtful their posts were. In response to videos, readings, and primary sources, students would select an image—sometimes this was a family photo, a picture from their time abroad, a painting, a building, a devotional image etc.—and their caption would contain their response to the readings. They knew these would be read by me and others, so it was the perfect place to ask questions, quote the text, and voice their own perspectives on the course readings. Sometimes these were personal, as students who had gone through Communion and Confirmation themselves, or went on pilgrimages, shared how the text complemented, complicated, and illuminated their own religious histories and experiences. Often these were critical, when they were voicing frustration with an author’s argument or critiquing missionaries and their role in colonization, or the Church’s theology of gender and sexuality, or the entanglement of religion and politics. I found these posts were of much higher quality than any Moodle posts had been in past classes, perhaps because of the reflection and thought required in pairing text and image, or the accessibility of the technology and their ease with the platform. For me, reading their posts was as simple as scrolling my feed, something I would do naturally. Due the night before our synchronous discussions, these posts were useful as I prepared discussion questions, and helped me prompt students to share their ideas and stories. The posts helped me create personal connections with students who I had never met in person, allowing me to learn their voice, and their unique perspective on the world. This made what could sometimes be awkward video chats run smoothly and much like an in-person class discussion would. Students would read each other’s posts and be ready not just to talk to me, but with each other about the materials, and they really enjoyed the use of social media for distance learning. Some student comments:
“Instagram was used so well!!! I don’t know if you have been considering this yet, but when you go back to in person you might consider still using it. That was really amazing.”
“The class platform was super enjoyable – connecting over social media to post provocations and other interesting things. That was super different and exciting, not to mention creative on Dr. Maldonado’s part.”
Some samples of student profiles:
Some students made memes, which takes a deep understanding of the material, and I love the remixing of old and new media forms. In the one below, a student thinks about Jesuit’s glorification of martyrdom in New France in their missionary work with the Iroquois. The student even tagged each of their Instagram accounts in the meme.
In the pandemic, sometimes with shoddy WiFi, or devices shared between multiple siblings, it is important for students to be able to access course materials and even engage in course requirements on their phones. If I feel like I have low bandwidth for watching videos and other recordings, students might too. Instagram stories became a perfect way for me to deliver background content and share visual media with students without the need for video streaming or even sharing or downloading attachments. They could casually click through an Instagram story wherever they might be, and at whatever time of the day they find time. About once a week, I used Instagram stories in lieu of PowerPoint to create stories that students could click through to learn about historical background and context, whether that be the origins and development of devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, anti-Catholicism in the 19th century, violence between Protestants and Catholics, or why saints are so important. I prioritized choosing a compelling image for each slide. I then typed out a couple of short sentences to go along with the image—slotting lecture notes right into a slide won’t work as each needs to be easy to read and minimal. Attention to color, contrast, font size is important for readability too. Just seeing these images helped build a familiarity and facility with Catholic iconography and material culture, an important part of this course. An example of a cover slide and two informational slides:
Using Instagram helped students not only understand Catholic objects, spaces, and aesthetics (and learn that Catholicism is about much more than the hierarchy and theology), but also learn and display facility in how to discuss them. They were able to think critically about representation and practice, and about the pervasiveness and diversity of Catholicism in their towns, cities, and online worlds. I found it to be an equitable way to share content and have students engage in the course and contribute their own thoughts using only their phones. The flexibility and creativity of this platform and their facility with posting and viewing text and images in this way yielded strong work, critique, and analysis in ways that directly fed into our class discussions. More, this platform pushed me to consider how to deliver information in bite-sized and visually interesting ways, and it helped me connect with my students outside of learning management software. It met me where I was and met them where they were. I imagine these kinds of posts and stories could work well for a variety of disciplines to help students connect in meaningful ways with class materials and develop and share their own written perspectives, questions, and critiques.
This is the third of a three-part series
There were certain poems that I did not understand… but going on the discussion forums really helped me understand [those texts]. I liked the element of responding to two different responses from students each week because it was the closest thing we can do to make it seem (almost) like we were back in class again(Advanced Poetry Workshop)
Boler (1999) introduced the idea of a pedagogy of discomfort in her book Feeling Power: Education and Emotions. This principle is one around which I design my classes; I believe learning happens best in a zone of productive discomfort, and aim to enlist my students in embracing and engaging such discomforts as challenged assumptions, self-doubt, perfectionism, confronting a “shitty first draft” (Lamott 1994), fear of receiving feedback, interrogating one’s relationship to language, etc. Yet I had not prepared for teaching amid the profound discomfort of a global pandemic. When in spring 2020 the details of what we were facing crystallized, magnifying existing precarities and generating new ones to worry about, the baseline teaching condition changed. Discomfort, yes. But productive? How? How to recalibrate the writing workshop? I have tried to describe some possible approaches, and because the pandemic conditions continue, I continue to tinker.
As a poet myself, I was eager to engage my students about what changes they noticed to their writing practices under the conditions of pandemic, quarantine, social movements, etc. Many of them lamented the absence of unexpected sensory stimuli on campus. They missed being able to write a poem inspired by intriguing snippets of conversations in the dining hall, or a few bars of a song from the window of a car passing down our red brick hill. They missed writing quietly in the same room as other writers. They were tired of the view out their window. I shared their longings and laments. So I held some optional synchronous sessions just for writing alone/together (and plan to do even more of that this fall). We discussed how to find the muse on YouTube, and we read Pablo Neruda’s poem “Horses,” a poem full of figurative language, based on observations looking out a window. “I was in Berlin, in winter. The light/ had no light, the sky had no heaven.// The air was white like wet bread.” Reading that poem and writing our own “window poems,” students found solace and connection with a writer from across time and space. Who doesn’t love the feeling of “being together” with characters on a page when reading details so vividly rendered? In a writing workshop, connection and learning are intertwined; there is hardly continuity of one without the other. In the profound discomfort and dis-ease we continue to face, I hope to offer my students co-presence in this long winter.
There, in silence, at mid-day,
in that dirty, disordered winter,
those intense horses were the blood
the rhythm, the inciting treasure of life.
I looked. I looked and was reborn:(Pablo Neruda, “Horses”)
for there, unknowing, was the fountain,
the dance of gold, heaven
and the fire that lives in beauty.
Resources for Further Reading
“A pedagogy of belonging” by Mitchell Beck and James Malley (CYC-Online)
“How to teach online so all students feel like they belong” (Berkeley) by Becki Cohn-Vargas and Kathe Gogolewski (Berkeley)
“Cultivating belonging online during Covid-19” by Carey Borkoski and Brianne Roos (American Consortium for Equity in Education)
“A place of remote belonging” by Emily Boudreau (Harvard)
“Designing for care: Building inclusive learning communities online.” by Jesse Stommel (Hybrid Pedagogy)
“Unsilencing the Writing Workshop” by Beth Nguyen (Lithub)
“Camera on/Camera off?” by @FirstGenLatinxEducator
“Critical Response Process Resources” by Liz Lerman
This is the second of a three-part series
Small Group Workshops
The exchange of feedback is at the core of a writing workshop, yet there is never any guarantee that conventional frameworks for group critique will transform into conversation. The typical MFA workshop method (which has also trickled down into undergraduate settings) mandates that the writer stays silent while the full class offers oral critique. Yet simply being in physical proximity to one another does not alone create the conditions for connection, belonging, or learning. In her essay “Unsilencing the Writing Workshop,” Nguyen (2019) discusses some ways the above method has failed writers, particularly writers of color and other marginalized experience, and offers an alternate model for the creative writing workshop as a conversation, one which includes the writer. Lerman (2003) outlines a multi-step group process for constructive dialogues about works-in-progress, in her book Critical Response Process.
I needed to figure out how to facilitate this conversational workshop model not only over the internet, but also basically asynchronous. In one approach, I decided to invite students to add a note/message to their drafts when they uploaded them to their small group workshops; they could pose a specific question to their readers, or otherwise communicate what kinds of feedback they were most after. (My one caveat is they can never use this note to apologize for their work.) Students almost always chose to add such a note, and often the note was about their draft, but just as often it included other pleasantries, updates, or greetings to each other. In this simple act of writers uploading a file to their small groups, and being encouraged to add a note to the file, the interaction between reader and writer became a tangible and social one that helped them relate to and reference one another, even in our virtual environment.
Menon and Phillips (2011) found that small groups of even-numbered size (for example, 6 or 8) experience lower group cohesion than groups of odd-numbered size. Of course, group sizes are determined by overall enrollment combined with attendance on any given day. “Workshop math,” or trying to determine a workshop rotation schedule, is notorious among creative writing instructors for being a fraught task full of unknowns, broken printers, and, well, math. Yet it can be an opportunity to design for connection and belonging. Typically, I have found the ideal small group workshop size to be five. As we pivoted to suddenly-virtual instruction, I pondered even more factors. I wanted groups that could carry on even if several members faced simultaneous challenges to participation, yet small enough to make in-depth conversation possible.
In the end, I split my intermediate poetry workshop into two groups of 7 for workshop, and advanced poetry workshop into two groups of 9. If that sounds big for any given week, read on. I also wanted to figure out how to design some flexibility so that the inevitable unknowns wouldn’t torpedo an entire workshop rotation. So I asked students to turn in a poem draft in at least 6 weeks of the term in order to receive credit for that portion of the course. That gave them the flexibility to step back back some weeks for any reason. In addition, I asked them to provide feedback to 2 group members’ poems for at least each week that they themselves posted a draft, draft, and to help me ensure that each draft received feedback from at least 2 group members. I had no idea in advance how this “workshop math” was going to work out, but for the most part, it really did. They were attentive to each other’s drafts, and each group stayed in motion. One intriguing result of this structure was that the small group workshops on any given week took on a “fishbowl conversation” quality, where members in each group took turns participating or observing the conversation. I learned even more about this accidental fishbowl from Teaching Tolerance, a project from the Southern Poverty Law Center:
Fishbowl can be used to explore the ideas of membership, identity, belonging and shared experiences. The structure lends itself well to discussions of complex texts and to challenging topics of cross-cultural significance. By providing all students both a speaking and listening role and a stake in the discussion, fishbowl can help build an inclusive and supportive learning environment. The observation aspect of the activity allows students to identify appropriate ways to participate in discussions. If used on a consistent basis, fishbowl discussions can establish boundaries and norms critical to anti-bias communication.
While the fishbowl effect was unintentional in my Spring 2020 poetry workshops, I will now approach it on purpose, as part of designing for connection and belonging.
This is the first of a three-part series
Writing as a Social Practice
I was fascinated with the earliest poems I read and heard that gave insight into all the secret territories of the human spirit, our relationships with one another. Somehow those glimpses felt comforting, like looking through the lit windows of other people’s homes at dusk, before they closed the curtains. How did other people live their lives? Just a sense of so many other worlds out there, beginning with the next house on my own street, gave me a great energy. How could anyone ever feel lonely?Naomi Shihab Nye, “Lights in the Window”
When you picture a writer, what comes to mind? Likely some version of a writer toiling away in isolation, an iconic image of a solitary genius. Yet for most of us, writing happens in context and community, in response and reference to others— like the way I felt compelled to bring the above Nye passage into this post for you, reader. I often refer to writing as “this solitary thing we do together.” Even Emily Dickinson, often imagined as a lonely spinster in an attic, circulated her poems among family and friends and wrote copious letters. Louise Rosenblatt (1978) describes texts as being made up of not only the words on the page, but of a mutual interaction between the writer’s words and the reader, with the response of the reader actively co-creating the meaning. This interdependence between writer and reader underpins a writing workshop. I have been thinking a lot about how to design for connection and belonging in a virtual setting.
One of my immediate goals, then, in the emergency spring pivot to online, was to set up a virtual platform that offered a strong sense of being together, or what some in online learning call “co-presence.” And to do that really quickly. Gunawardena & Zittle (1997) found a sense of social presence to be a predictor of student satisfaction. Biocca, Harms, and Gregg (2001) define co-presence as “the degree to which the observer believes he/she is not alone and secluded.” In an online learning context, it’s about interaction and how real people feel on the other side. For our discussion forums and small group workshops, I chose a collaboration hub called Slack. Having previously used Slack in a remote working context, I felt comfortable with how to navigate its features on such short notice. My students reported stress-free adoption and seamless mobile access, and appreciated its intuitive, connected user experience. The platform is just a platform, though; there is still the question of how to build interaction. Here are some reflections from my students that I believe describes a sense of co-presence:
Poetry is a class that I feel like you can’t just slack off for. Being engaged with one another and your own work is really crucial to understanding the content and really engaging with the course as a whole. The way this course was established using Slack helped to create an environment where you were held accountable without being judged. Seeing one another’s comments every single week helped encourage you to read more in depth, read again, write in a different way, and challenge yourself. The opportunity to reply to the poems of my classmates made my own poetry stronger because I could take an objective view some days. I really loved this class(Intermediate Poetry Workshop)
Even though this class has been under less than normal circumstances since we are online, I feel like this class maintained workshop atmosphere to the best of its abilities. It’s hard to connect with people when you don’t see them every week, but Slack helped a lot with connecting to one another’s poetry and reading discussions. We saw a wide variety of different kinds of poetry and prompts and in working in smaller groups, we also saw how individuals interpret all of them differently.(Intermediate Poetry Workshop)
In the “before” times, my workshops at K had an entire sensorium grounded in social and physical proximity. Chair legs rattling against carpet. Shuffling and swapping of papers as group members huddled up around annotated drafts. Caramel syrup in someone’s coffee. Black-capped chickadees darting around in the evergreens outside the classroom windows. That buzz of conversation. In some ways, the conditions of pandemic are antagonistic to co-presence. Yet it is possible to design for a feeling of being together in a virtual setting.
Biocca, F., Harms, C., & Gregg, J. “The networked minds measure of social presence: Pilot test of the factor structure and concurrent validity.” Paper presented at the 4th International Workshop on Presence, Philadelphia, PA. May 2001.
Boler, Megan. Feeling Power: Emotions and Education. New York: Routledge, 1999.
Gunawardena, C.N., & Zittle, F.J. “Social presence as a predictor of satisfaction within a computer-mediated conferencing environment.” The American Journal of Distance Education, 11(3), 1997. 8-26.
Lamott, Anne. “Shitty First Drafts.” Bird by Bird. New York: Anchor Books, 1994. 1-2.
Lerman, Liz, and John Borstel. Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process: A Method for Getting Useful Feedback on Anything You Make, from Dance to Dessert. Takoma Park, MD: Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, 2003. Print.
Menon, Tanya, and Phillips, Katherine W. “Getting Even or Being at Odds? Cohesion in Even- and Odd-Sized Small Groups.” Organization Science, Volume 22, Issue 3, May-June 2011.
Neruda, Pablo, and Stephen Mitchell. Full Woman, Fleshy Apple, Hot Moon: Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda. New York: Harper Flamingo, 1997. Print.
Nye, Naomi Shihab. “Lights in the Window.” Lofty Dogmas: Poets on Poetics. Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press. 2005.
Rosenblatt, Louise M. The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994. Print.
 If you’re looking for a good movie to stream online at home, try Wild Nights with Emily.