In the Time of Corona: Teaching Writers in Uncertain Times

As I write this*, thousands of educators and administrators — as well as students and their caregivers — are all settling into a new reality. It is a reality that means they will likely not be back in physical classrooms in the foreseeable future. It is a reality in which they do not know for sure whether any kind of online learning will be able to replace mandated hours of classroom time.

That said, some practices for teaching writing can be of help to writers at any time, and especially now, in these uncertain times. I offer these suggestions, knowing that my K-12 colleagues are facing a different reality than my colleagues at community colleges and universities, and that issues of equity and access are still pressing across many educational contexts. Not all students have access to technology, and others face different challenges. 

Still, we can teach writers. And, we can teach them online. To paraphrase Lucy Calkins’ oft-cited advice, we teach the writer first, then we teach the writing. If we try only to fix a student’s writing, and not focus on what the writer needs at this given moment, we are not truly responding to their needs. The time we spend conferring should not mean that we are glorified grammar checkers. Instead, we need to hold true to the idea that we are writers responding to other writers. 

These are some practices that have worked for me as I have taught writers online over many years, including high school students in fully asynchronous online settings, as well as undergraduate and graduate students in primarily asynchronous online settings. Of note, in these college-level classes, I required synchronous video conference meetings as part of their final grade. 

My hope is that two or three of the practices will be flexible enough for my colleagues who are teaching writers in these uncertain times, and in the months and years ahead as more and more of our instruction moves into hybrid and online modes. 

Practice 1: Connect

At the heart of teaching writing, we know that we need to connect, to establish relationships with writers. There are many ways that we connect with students in face-to-face settings, and not all can be fully replicated in online settings. Still, connection is crucial. In order to do that, I will:

  • Host a “welcome webinar” (in contrast to preparing a welcome video), where I will invite students to review the syllabus and come with questions, usually on the second or third day of the semester. We create a shared Google Doc during the webinar to capture questions/answers, and share that document (as well as the recording of the webinar) with students who couldn’t attend live. In the past year, I have switched to using Zoom for all of these, though other options like WebEx, BlueJeans, Skype, and Google Meet are available. 
  • Share my weekly appointment calendar so students can schedule individual meetings with me. I’ve used both Calendly and YouCanBookMe, and there are other tools to do this, too. I update my calendar each week, and put the URL for it in all my course announcements and emails to students. In the appointment reminder, I set it so the students have a direct link to my Zoom room, and also ask them to share a phone number that I can reach them at, in case we have technical difficulties. 
  • Offer “open office hours” for a two-hour stretch at various points. Some weeks, I do this during the workday, other weeks in the evening. Once in a while, I will offer them on the weekend. I will be honest, I rarely have students drop in to these open office hours, and most make appointments anyway. But, I make the option available, and it is nice to have a student pop into my Zoom room during those times. 

Practice 2: Confer

Having established these practices for connecting, I do require that students meet with me, individually, and we use the time for conferring. By conferring here, I mean the intentional focus on a writer’s work, especially higher-order concerns as compared to lower-order ones, and in the pedagogic tradition of writing center consultancy. We have limited time and attention to give, and rather than making instructional videos and spending hours offering feedback that will go unheeded, I make appointments to meet with my writers. 

For instance, in a full 16-week semester where I would teach 25-30 students, I would have four major essays. In the midst of writing those essays (Roughly Weeks 2-3, Weeks 6-7, Weeks 10-11, and Weeks 14-15), I would require that all students schedule a 30-minute appointment with me. They share an editable GDoc or Word 365 doc that we can collaborate upon, and during the conference I will:

  • Begin by asking the student to highlight one place where they feel that their writing is strongest, and one place where they have a question or concern. I wait patiently for them to do this during for a minute or two during the call. While the wait time can be a bit awkward, I do let them know that it is OK to take the time, as I want to hear what is most important to them in their writing. 
  • Ask how I can be most helpful, encouraging them to share their current feelings about their writing, including the two places just highlighted. Also, if I do know that I have specific, assignment-based questions that i will ask of all writers, I will share those in advance. Then, after listening, I engage the writer in conversation, often asking for deeper explanations of their thinking. 
  • Model how I might revise these segments of writing, using the “suggesting” or “track changes” mode. In addition to showing them sentence templates from Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say, I will actually do some composing, showing them how I might approach the writing of a thesis statement, introducing evidence, or making a counterargument. They watch as I type this on screen, and then I ask them to say back to me what they saw me do as a writer. 
  • Close the conference by asking the writer to identify next steps. If it feels useful for that particular writer, I will type up a “to do” list at the top of their document (also, so I can go back and look at it later to ensure they made the requested revisions). 

Practice 3: Respond

Finally, it is time for students to submit their writing. Having done a great deal of the heavy lifting for response by meeting with them during their writing process, I use the opportunity of providing feedback to also feed forward

While I have gone back and forth on my own grading policies over the years, with strategies such as contract grading, single-point rubrics, and going gradeless, I am going to share here ideas about the tools I use to provide feedback as compared to specific rubrics or criteria. 

These tools include voice-to-text dictation, audio recordings, and screencasts. I vary these response tools depending on the time of the semester, the nature of the writing assigned and —  to be completely honest — how much time I have available to offer feedback. 

For different kinds of responses, I may:

  • Use Dictanote to record using voice-to-text. I will then copy/paste my comments on the document, or in my response for final grading. Because dictation is not perfect and I don’t usually copy edit everything, I will put in a reminder to students, letting them know that I have used voice dictation for these quick responses, and there may be typos.
  • Record myself with a built-in audio recorder in my university’s learning management system, or set up a communication channel with students using Voxer. Alternatively, for a quick recording tool, our smartphones have built-in apps like Voice Memo, or additional apps like Voice Record. Those files can be emailed to students, or shared through cloud-based drives. Also, you could use Vocaroo for web-based recording. No matter how long the piece of writing I am reading, I will read it all, then organize my thoughts, and make a recording no more than 3 minutes long, giving overarching feedback. 
  • Record myself with a screencasting tool such as Screencastify, Screencast-o-matic, or my university’s licensed screencasting tool, Panopto. In contrast to audio recordings, I use the screencast to highlight one, perhaps two specific segments of their essay, highlighting the words, phrases, or sentences that are most pertinent and, perhaps, modeling even more revision strategies. This is meant for targeted feedback on specific segments of their work, not overall comments. Again, I limit myself to 3 minutes. 

In conclusion, teaching writers at any time is challenging, and in uncertain times such as these it may feel impossible. Couple this with the fact that many of us are moving from face-to-face instruction and taking our practices online, and it can feel overwhelming. For me, I encourage students to use automated essay scoring and other artificial intelligence to check their grammar and diction, and then I get to the work that really matters: providing them with time, space, and support as they make meaning with their writing.

No matter how uncertain the times, one truth about student writers remains constant: they want to have their voices heard, and we as teachers can connect, confer, and respond in ways that ensure that they are. 

*Though a time and date stamp in one’s opening paragraph may seem a bit odd, I need to note that this post is being written on Tuesday, March 24, 2020. Amongst all the other news related to COVID-19, many states, including my own state of Michigan, have issued guidance about what educators can — and cannot — do during this time, as well as shelter in place orders for the next few weeks. 

These orders about what teachers can (and cannot) do means, most notably, that state departments of education are leaning toward a policy that schools, should they choose to move instruction online, must meet the needs of all students, including those with IEPs and 504s, as well as vulnerable populations including ELLs. 

Two other major events have transpired this week that will play out in the near future, including the state of Kansas closing schools from the rest of the 2019-20 academic year and President Trump issuing guidance to states about postponing or fully forgiving standardized testing. Both will have immediate and long-term effects that are hard to predict. 

In short, I write this post in the context of changing times, with the idea that educators can only offer supplemental guidance to their students through March, April, May, and June of this academic year. Hence, these practices — connecting, conferring, and responding — are ones that I hope hold true over time and across contexts. 

Troy Hicks is a professor of English and education at Central Michigan University. He directs both the Chippewa River Writing Project and the Master of Arts in Learning, Design & Technology program. A former middle school teacher, Dr. Hicks is an ISTE Certified Educator and regularly leads workshops related to writing and technology for schools, districts, and professional organizations. He is the author of numerous titles, including his forthcoming book with Andy Schoenborn, Creating Confident Writers: For High School, College, & Life, publishing June 2, 2020.

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