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Story Title: Engagement at distance

Contributor Name: Charles Bazerman
Created: April 17, 2020 at 9:29 PM

Story: What are your experiences teaching & learning in the time of coronavirus?

I have just finished three weeks of all online teaching. Each class is of a different kind at a different level, with different goals, but in all of them I aim at creating high levels of engagement and participation—as I do in all my classes.  And all are small—ranging from about eight to sixteen.  But the student interests and concerns are different, even though in face to face all would be versions of informal discussion mixed with individual and group activities, carrying forward some form of project or personal reflection on the material and engaging with intellectual or writing practice questions as they came up in the course of each class. 

Over the years I have learned not to over-plan each session, though often I read new materials beyond the assigned to provide resources for the discussion or fold in some new thinking.  This is as much to keep myself engaged and excited, keeping my thoughts fresh, expanding or transforming my way of thinking and giving me a fresh perspective even on the texts that are consistent over the years.  Nonetheless, I have tended to let the emergent dynamic of classes really frame the unfolding of each session, with my before-class plan being only a short list of concepts or topics or activities I make sure we cover in some order, even if the order and transitions are spontaneous. Of course, this is in a syllabus framework presented to the students from the beginning in the Moodle course management system with assigned topics readings and activities for each class and deadlines interspersed.  Also there is usually some kind of expected post-class comments in small group forums throughout the term.

But in remote learning I have followed the wisdom of online savvy colleagues to keep it structured, simple and predictable, with a variety of activities, and decenter my presence even more through the use of discussion tools.  My teacher’s tendency to talk too much gets exacerbated by the power dynamics of the technology, despite having everyone having rights to interrupt, raise hands, make faces, use chat, back channel, or interact in other ways.  Attention wanders from the screen.  It is harder to create a shared intense atmosphere. It is easier for students to hide in discussion. 

Accordingly, I have been using breakout rooms more than I had been using small groups in class.  I have been structuring the tasks for the breakout rooms.  I have been doing more advanced planning about how to create more challenging authentic questions both for the large group and chat meetings. I have had to learn some new technology to facilitate the activities and integrate multiple interaction platforms for synchronous and asynchronous work—and to keep things running without too many breakdowns or clunky moments.  I also had to figure out how to accommodate student bandwidth issues, internet instabilities and the like—and ways to create recordings and voice to text transcripts of synchronous meetings.  But the technology wasn’t the real issue. I have been thinking more deeply about the motivations of each of the students and the group dynamic, and how they can be mobilized through classroom and technology structures.  I also have been augmenting and structuring the pre-and post-class forum activities—passages and questions for discussion, reading presentations, contemplations or extensions of the class or small group discussions. I have been structuring major projects and papers to fit more tightly within a trajectory of intellectual development I hope will occur over the term. Consequently, I have thought more consistently and explicitly about the different goals of the classes and the discussion and activity structures needed to meet those goals—rather than just relying on the spontaneous dynamic of the regular meetings and the logic and sequence of the assigned readings and assignments. 

One undergraduate class is on the development of writer’s consciousness over the lifespan, in which students are predominantly creative writing majors. Reading studies investigating writers’ development in different dimensions at different ages leads to reflections of students’ experiences in their own writing careers—something I have done in previous related classes.  But here I am accompanying this with their own investigations of the ways of thinking and ways of writing of others through exploration of the Paris Review interviews, and then their own projects interviewing writers of their choice.They will return in their final papers to a contemplation of the development of their own identities, ways of thinking, and worlds they are creating in their own writing.  I am hoping their need to connect with their peers and with other writers will be an even stronger driving force than when they are on campus and are able to hang out with their peers.  Now, alone in their apartments or returning to the lives of their families, they have an even greater hunger to be immersed among writers. We will see how that works out.

Another class is to support the writing of Masters theses for Teacher Credential candidates in secondary English Education.  This one has taken a remarkable turn. Throughout the year these student teachers have been gathering data from their internship placements for their finally inquiry projects, and have been developing research questions. They had also been reading pedagogic and research material about their emerging inquiry questions. But just when they were ready to collect their most focused and extensive data to address their questions, they no longer had access to their classrooms. Even in their virtual classrooms they were demoted from full-classroom takeovers to assisting the regular teachers who themselves were struggling with online restructuring. Further understandable privacy restrictions imposed by the school district meant they couldn’t use recorded internet classes or even recorded interviews of students as data.  So the thesis writers were truly marginalized and cast adrift in their projects. As their classroom situations fell apart they were pretty confused and even despairing. But after a few discussions in our thesis writing seminar they were able to convert their own challenges in remote learning and teaching to considering the challenges and impact of remote education on the secondary students they had come to know. This allowed them to compare the data they had gathered previously with what they were able to collect now through surveys, note-taking observation, and note taking interviews with both students and teachers. Since most of them had been previously concerned with issues of engagement, interaction, questioning, and other classroom dynamic issues, they have gotten very excited about what they are learning about problems that are very pressing at the moment. The contrast between their earlier classroom data and the data about the remote education are revealing to them fundamental dynamics of learning interactions.  The authenticity of their inquiry has driven an intense dynamic of engagement. And now our weekly meetings are devoted mostly to work sessions, where students spend time collaborating on shared parts of their project or they just work alone, but in each other’s presence.  They like having this fixed time and mutual company to focus their work.  This focus then carries over to the week, where they sometimes create study dates or collaborative meetings. But the shared work of our weekly meeting organizes their writing life.

The third class, which I have taught a number of times previously is a graduate seminar on socio-cultural learning theory. The readings and topics had been fairly set through the iterations of the course.  But I found I needed to make more explicit student roles.  So I made two major changes that have been working out well, both of which involved pre-meeting preparation  The first is that I have each student post in a forum a brief passage from the assigned reading that they want us to discuss with some comment about what they thought we need to discuss—whether it was an obscure passage or something they found profound or something questionable or that reflected on experience, or whatever else intrigued them. In the past I had asked them to do this orally, but rarely did anyone actually volunteer one.  But now I am really getting interesting choices and commentaries from each of them, providing strong starting points for discussion as well as giving me a much clearer idea of what they are finding in the readings.The second was having one person prepare a short (1 page) summary of the day’s reading and come up with a list of questions for discussion, again posted to a forum before class.  Previously I had them do these presentations orally, but the presentations tended to be loosely organized and went on too long. If there were any discussion questions, they were diffuse.  But now the posted summaries also give us strong starting points.And the discussion questions are great prompts when I have the students go into small groups in the break-out rooms.

In all three classes students seem much more serious, thoughtful, and more reflective.  I am not sure whether this is the luck of the draw or the fact that in their current circumstance they have more time to think, or that in their current isolation this academic contact looms larger in their minds and emotions, or something else

But what I can identify is that I have a much better sense of their lives and how it intersects with their engagement in the ideas of this course.  Part of this comes in just seeing them in situ in the Zoom meetings, in their homes, their kitchens—or some still near campus in apartments.  I am very aware of their circumstances.  Moreover, we start off all classes with personal and technology check-ins—whether they and their families are doing ok and are healthy, whether there are issues in their life that are making academic engagement difficult, to make sure their motivation and focus are still good.  But also in my own planning for each class I think more about how to mobilize the material of their courses within their states of mind and their concerns in their current circumstances.  I try to identify what might be on their minds, so the topics and activities may be seen not only as relevant but will help carry them forward in their making sense of and problem solving in their lives. This may in fact have very little to do directly with the pandemic moment, beyond that the attenuation of their social lives leaves them free to contemplate other issues. Of course, connecting concepts with student concerns was always a motive in my teaching, but I had left that to the spontaneity of the classroom to express itself—and now I feel I must do more to structure the conditions to make this happen.With this forethought and intentionality I am finding my questions and prompts getting much sharper, more pointed, digging more efficiently.

While the two weeks before classes were filled with panic and anxiety, the first week filled with worry and improvisation to avoid disaster, and the second with getting the routines down and exhaustion, this week everything seemed to fall together.  We’ll see.


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