With a complicated and difficult Spring Term behind us and an ongoing pandemic that brings so much uncertainty, teachers are now turning to their plans for teaching in the next academic year. We don’t know what fall or spring will look like. We don’t know whether we will be meeting with students in person or online or in some combination. It would likely be prudent to plan for flexibility for ourselves and for our students, given that there will be risk of illness and times when both teachers and students may not be able to attend class. This doesn’t mean that we need to plan three courses: an in-person course, an online course, and a hybrid course. But it does mean that we should plan for resilience: plan for being able to respond to the current conditions and plan for some redundancy, so that, for example, if someone has to miss class, they can get caught up with some ease.
This page will offer some strategies for planning your writing-intensive course to be resilient in this way. An advantage is that doing so will also make your course more accessible to writers with disabilities or those who simply learn better if they can use different modes of learning or engage with material several times rather than just once in class.
We have included below a few selected links to resources that are relevant and helpful for teachers who are re-imagining their courses for the current circumstances, but we aren’t presenting an expansive list of potential tools and platforms. While there are lots of good tools available, we are assuming below that teachers are using Canvas, Zoom, and Panopto.
What Is Resilience?
In this context, we see resilience as course design (goals, lessons, readings, discussions, assignments, and feedback) that will work for your class whether you are teaching online, in person, or a combination as needed by the situation, including your health and that of your students.
Now more than ever, it is important to know what your goals are for students’ learning in your course and to know what the pieces of your course are and how they fit together to allow students to achieve those goals. Without an ongoing in-person classroom conversation to provide coherence and motivation, your students will need you to lead them through this thinking via your course design.
What should students get out of your course? What should they know or be able to do at the end of it?
Try to articulate these goals as fully as you can and think about how the various components of your course work together to help students achieve these goals. The more you can articulate the goals and your rationale for those goals in your teaching materials, the better.
While you may be used to having a set of goals for your whole course, articulated in your syllabus, this is a good time to articulate learning goals for each activity and assignment in your course. Doing so will provide more of the connective tissue for your course that would ordinarily be supplied by you and your students being in a room together for several hours a week.
What Are the Components of Your Course?
When you think about your typical course, you probably have components like these:
- lessons: time when you are teaching content, either related to your subject area or to the writing and revision process.
- readings/videos: material that students study outside of class to inform their work, to serve as examples, or to be discussed
- discussions: students talking with you and each other about readings, each others’ work (either in a peer review or with the whole class talking about one paper or parts of several papers), or issues related to your subject area. They may also work together to solve a problem or produce a piece of writing. These discussions may happen in small groups or with the whole class.
- in-class writing: you may use in-class writing to jump start discussions, gauge students’ understanding, reflect on their writing or reading, start projects, create revision plans, brainstorm topic ideas, try out new techniques or strategies for writing, revision, or editing
- assignments: out-of-class writing that can be either low-stakes (the usefulness of it is to the writer and their process; you don’t provide feedback) or higher stakes (the work is graded or receives feedback from you).
- feedback: students receive feedback from various sources, including a writing partner or small group, from the whole class discussing their work (or an excerpt), from you as their teacher.
- presentations: students may be responsible for presenting information to their peers either live or via a recorded presentation.
When you break down the components of your course in this way, it is easier to see how you might be able to plan online versions as alternatives or complements to in-person learning should the need arise. There are good tools for all of these components, but they require some thought about how to usefully engage with them in the context of a writing course.
Some Principles for Teaching Writing Online
Scott Warnock is a compositionist who works on the ways that technology can enhance the teaching of writing. He has written about how we can effectively teach writing online, and he offers these principles*:
- Think Migration, Not Reinvention: Evidence dictates that teachers can and should rely on what they already do and what they do best for a successful online/hybrid course.
- Online Can Be an Opportunity: There is a lot of research supporting the idea that teaching certain writing skills and processes feel more natural in an online space versus a face-to-face classroom.
- Communication and Conversation: Effective and efficient communication can and should look and feel different in an online space.
- Preventing Challenges: Faculty cannot stop challenges from arising, but they can anticipate and operate preemptively for as smooth an experience as possible for everyone involved.
We will offer more detail on these principles in a couple of weeks.
Strategies and Tools
If you have resisted using Pitt’s Learning Management System in the past, this is the time to embrace Canvas for what it offers to help students access materials, participate in discussions, and see connections among the kinds of work they are doing in your writing-intensive course. The Center for Teaching and Learning offers a lot of resources to help you learn and use Canvas and other tools that can be integrated into Canvas (including Zoom and Panopto, for example).
As you may have realized during the spring term, if our first thought is to simply try to teach our usual in-person class, but on Zoom, it is likely not going to be very effective. Students have complicated lives, and if they are not in your classroom, they may be in another time zone, or taking care of children, siblings, ill family members. They may be sharing wi-fi or computers with other household members who also have work or school responsibilities. So if we try to teach entirely synchronously, students may not be available, may be distracted, may not have a quiet environment when we want to meet, may have poor internet connections, or may not feel comfortable sharing their surroundings with their teachers and classmates. For these reasons it is helpful to plan synchronous components of a course to be short, targeted, flexible, and optional.
Here are strategies that can be really helpful for students:
- Let your students know before the class what the plan is and what they will need in terms of access. If you have books or articles on e-reserve through ULS, you can tell them that, too. Ask what their needs are in terms of technology. Remind them that they have access to Pitt's virtual computing lab.
- Be sure that your materials are accessible. The Mapping Access Project offers a lot of good ideas to ensure that all of your students can interact with your course.
- Offer students a weekly plan or “Guide to This Week” that itemizes and links to all the activities you expect students to engage in that week. You might want to make a video or audio announcement as well. Ideally, each week, students will engage in a mix of different kinds of work: watching streaming or recorded sessions, reading material, working on low-stakes assignments, experimenting, giving each other feedback on drafts or projects that you want the whole class to discuss, discussing topics, working on phases of higher stakes projects.
- Be really consistent with the schedule so that students get a sense of the rhythm of the course. You might, for example, have work due twice a week (always the same days)
- Be responsive to email or other communication from students. Tell students when they can expect to hear from you. Have ongoing regular communication with students so that they have a sense that you are engaged with what they are doing.
- Scaffolding—breaking a complex task into smaller steps--is a necessary and useful concept for the teaching of writing. You may want to add to the list of steps an annotated bibliography, a literature review, and audience analysis, a summary of a text, or other writing tasks that will support the students’ process or become parts of a larger project. A lot of small deadlines seem to work better for many than a few high-stakes deadlines. You can also break up a project by process into several steps: a draft that is shared with peers for discussion, a draft that they submit to you for comments, and then a revision that they submit to you. This ensures that students are working on a project steadily over time rather than trying to write in a binge.
- Online discussions can be a way for all your students to interact with your course, whether they are on campus or off. Be as specific and concise as possible when you are setting up discussions online. The Discussion Project offers a handful of useful guidelines for setting up effective online discussions. You can have discussions with the whole class or you can set up smaller groups.
- Not all students will flourish in hybrid or online settings. Some students may feel overwhelmed, may get behind, may miss important information, may get lost. It can be helpful if you are friendly as you communicate with students, check in with them early, and try to help them figure out what can help them keep up with the course work.
Example Activities for Writing Courses
You could record a short 5-7 minute video lesson, ending with instructions for students to do something: an “in class” writing, for example, or an editing exercise for their draft, or an assignment to read an example project from the class to provide feedback in specific aspects of the writing. If you plan this work now–identify the topics for each discussion and your approach—it would be easy to do this work in an in-person class in the fall. Or, if it turns out that your class that day will be partly or entirely online, this unit will be ready for that reality, too, and you can quickly record a video that sets students up to do this work.
You could create an MSWord file that students can download and type directly into while you are talking or while they are watching a recording of you. Students could reflect on the reading or content you have been discussing or they could brainstorm or do an activity that will be part of their drafting process.
For peer review in your course, you could organize students into small groups on Canvas and ask them to share a draft and then discuss it in their standing small group, using questions and lines of inquiry that you have provided (be sure to check “Allow threaded replies” when you are setting up the discussion in Canvas, so that students can reply to each other). An advantage to these discussions is that students will be writing even more as they offer feedback to their classmates.
You can create low-stakes process or discussion assignments in Canvas that you can grade complete/incomplete after quickly reading the response, rather than giving detailed feedback.
For higher-stakes projects, consider creating rubrics that will help students understand what would constitute an excellent response to an assignment. Doing this allows you to streamline your grading and commenting but can also be useful for students while they are composing.
Canvas makes it easy to record audio feedback in response to projects, which can be faster than typing in some cases but can also help students to connect with you as their teacher.
You can meet with one-on-one with a student on Zoom and share a screen with them (or have them share with you) to discuss drafts.
Want more ideas? University of Wisconsin–Madison’s program offers 10 sample ideas for online activities in the writing class, including a scavenger hunt, mini research reports, guest lectures, a crowd-sourced research or writing guide, and more.
Flex@Pitt shares some qualties of a hybrid-flexible (HyFlex) approach. If you want to read more about HyFlex courses, Kevin Kelly has written a good introduction that shows how an actual course might play out.
if you want to explore principles and strategies in greater depth, we suggest the WAC Clearinghouse COVID-19 links.
We also remind you that there are Flex@Pitt resources on the Center for Teaching and Learning website.
Finally, if you want to explore lots of links to many resources, tools, and platforms, visit our page from the spring on Moving Your Course Online.
* Thanks to Megan Kappel for sharing this summary of points that Warnock makes in his book Teaching Writing Online as well as in articles.