Guest Blogger: Jim Burke
Friday, March 13, 2020: What better day to close schools down and send us all home to begin our new careers––as online teachers. As I made the long drive home that afternoon from Middle College High School, I had no idea how long we would be teaching from home. Instead of seeing the quarantine as an obstacle, I thought of it as an opportunity to examine the different types of writing we assign and how these assignments might (or might not) be adapted to remote teaching for the juniors with whom I spend my days—online, of course.
Over the course of this and upcoming blogs, I will examine each one of these types of writing assignments in more detail and within the context of teaching online during such difficult times as we currently face. For now, it seems that we should all expect to be grappling for some time with the challenges and constraints that come with teaching online or, as seems the likely scenario in the fall, some balance between in-person and online.
Writing to Learn (WTL)
It seems appropriate to begin this series with writing to learn (WTL) assignments, the first of the six types of academic writing assignments, not because it appears first on my list but because it offers us the greatest degree of agility as we learn to adapt our past practices to the demands of the online classroom. I quickly realized, by the end of the first week of teaching online, that I would cause tremendous disruption and distress to most of my students if I moved too far and too fast in what I asked of them. After teaching remotely for nearly two months, this decision to move cautiously, to emphasize consistency, clarity, connection, and community has paid off based on the feedback I have received from my students.
What do WTL assignments look like in my class?
In short, they do not look any one way, as the examples that follow will illustrate. The first problem for me to solve was actually not what to write but what to read—and how. My 11th grade ELA students had just finished work on their year-long research project and submitted that major paper to Canvas when the news broke that we were closing the school. The book we were slated to read next was Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a remarkable collection of stories, but not one that seemed the right fit given the emotional climate and my students’ needs at the time. So I chose to assign them readings from Uncharted Territory, an anthology consisting of eight units, each consisting of a diverse mix of nonfiction, fiction, poetry, and visual or graphic content.
Given the uncertainty we were all facing and feeling, I erred in the direction of choice, engagement, flexibility, and emotional and intellectual needs. In short, I invited my students to choose whichever of the eight units—Education, Credo, Identity, Relationships, Success, Power, Decisions, and Freedom—appealed to them most. Once they had signed up, I organized my students into groups and told them they could choose the order in which they read the texts within the unit, so long as they finished by the end of the six weeks I allotted to this unit. This was a generous amount of time, but the reality was that we all had so much to figure out, including what we could require, how to get wifi hotspots and laptops to those who needed them, and how long before we returned to our real classrooms. Soon enough, of course, we were told we would not be returning, which added a whole new level of responsibility for students’ mental and emotional wellbeing.
For the next six weeks, this is what my class was like: Each group decided on what to read from their unit, read it by a date they determined, then wrote about and discussed it with those in their group and, eventually, me.
Where did students write? How? To whom? To what end?
First, they wrote in their “digital journal,” which was merely a Google Doc where each student responded to the questions they chose at the end of each reading. Again, I emphasized choice and engagement at every turn. Following each reading in Uncharted Territory, students found three sets of questions, each with four questions. My directions were: Pick and write about any two questions from each of the three sets of questions at the end. Your choice. You do not need to respond to the same ones as your group members.
Such reader response is one among many forms of WTL. My aim was to challenge and engage, but not in ways that required direct (live) instruction or structured class time on Zoom. It is worth mentioning that teachers in my district were also told that students would receive a grade of Credit/No Credit, so this flexible approach was reasonable but allowed students who wanted to challenge themselves to do so. Though there had been some initial resistance, the CR/NC decision felt best in the end, as it anticipated the troubles so many students would experience and thus eased the strain by showing compassion.
After writing about that week’s text in their digital notebooks, students had to post their thoughts about the text they read and how it related to their unit’s theme (e.g., freedom, relationships, identity) in the discussion area I set up for each group in Canvas. Such learning management systems as Canvas have become the norm for many districts in recent years; however, I anticipate all of us being expected to receive training in how to use it at much more advanced levels for the coming year. In addition to posting, students had to respond to each other’s comments within the thread, a type of WTL that has become more common in college classes and represents a more academic form of writing than it often did in the past. I would describe these online posts to the discussion groups as “written conversations.” After posting and responding, students then participated in a live discussion of that week’s reading in Google Hangouts with the whole group and myself. Typically, these conversations lasted about thirty minutes and tended to be substantive and engaging, in a useful way that did not exacerbate the stress most of my students were feeling.
As with many WTL assignments, the digital journals and written conversations were designed to also prepare them for the culminating paper they would write at the end of the unit, which I would describe as a writing-on-demand (WOD) assignment. I will discuss that assignment in a subsequent blog about such assignments, but for now, I want to emphasize the way these smaller WTL assignments can be reframed as pre-writing for subsequent WOD or process papers.
In addition to the work they were doing with Uncharted Territory, my students were also using Quill, an online platform based on the ideas from Peg Tyre’s article “The Writing Revolution” and Judith Hochman’s book by the same name, all of which had been used to inform discussions a group of us had had at the College Board over the past couple years. In short, Quill emphasizes sentence-level work anchored in sentence-combining activities that are carefully researched and assigned to students according to their individual needs based on initial diagnostics they complete online. I consider this type of writing a more intentional form of WTL designed to improve students’ writing through practice (i..e, they are writing to learn how to improve their sentence-sense and overall craft); also, it is a form of WTL because they are constructing sentences, not just clicking on which would be the best solution, and receiving specific and immediate feedback they can use to revise their sentences till they demonstrate proficiency in a specific area.
One other example of WTL is worth mentioning: The Corona Diaries. Having extensive experience with creating and maintaining online communities for teachers (visit www.englishcompanion.ning.com), I understood that we needed a sanctuary, not available on any social network, where we could discuss ideas and feelings among ourselves, where we could create a sense of community to keep our spirits up and our class together. The Corona Diaries is merely a Google Doc I set up where we could all post questions, concerns, and, it turns out, movie reviews, food recommendations, and much more. Here is the note I put at the top of the document:
After Six Weeks...
...we have written over 100 pages, mostly as we wanted, when we wanted. We have fallen into a routine of starting Monday’s class, held via Zoom, by writing about some prompt I offer to them that serves as a way for me to check on how they are doing. Here is an example from early in May, after we, and the greater San Francisco area, has been in lock-down for six weeks:
Perhaps writing to learn is the perfect way to begin this series of blogs about teaching writing during what must surely be the most difficult experience of our teaching careers and our country’s recent history. Even here, as I write this blog, I am not writing to you because I know but because I want to learn what works, what is possible, what our students need, what I need if I am to spend my days in my office at home looking at a Zoom screen with the names of kids I care so much about after nearly a year together but whose faces I cannot see and am not sure I can ask they show over video, given the complexity of some of their lives outside of school.
What I have learned so far is that we can make great use of WTL assignments in the current instructional context, for they function well within the constraints of our new work as online teachers engaged in the disorienting work of “remote learning,” which we will all spend the coming months trying to better understand. I have learned that such WTL assignments allow us to be both engaging and understanding, rigorous in concept and flexible in execution, instructionally agile and emotionally responsive; to create and sustain a sense of community and connection, while at the same time developing a curriculum that is coherent, consistent, and compassionate, which, for now, are the new standards we need to keep in mind when we are planning what, how, and why we ask our students to write.
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