Write What You Know: Lessons in Lesson-Planning for Distance-Learning

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A few hours ago, I taught a Zoom class on The Merchant of Venice. We hadn’t been scheduled to read this text now. But two weeks ago, before the originally-scheduled spring break, I looked at the upcoming weeks – Chaucer! Miller’s Tale! – and despaired. I was already feeling depressed about how all my carefully-crafted plans had gone to complete shit. Thinking about teaching students how to read Middle English, walking them through the plot of the Miller’s Tale, having them grasp the bawdiness – look, I know how to do it, I’ve done it before, but the idea of trying to do that via Slack and Zoom was overwhelming and I just. couldn’t. face it.

So I switched the texts for the next weeks.

We had two weeks between sessions instead of the usual one week, and I’ve been reading The Merchant of Venice with my high school Skype student, so I figured – why not just skip to that text now. To hell with the carefully-crafted schedule that goes by genre. Jump to a text I feel super-comfortable with, one I’m already teaching online (though in a different format) and can easily adapt to.

Over the two weeks while my student read the play, I continued teaching my other class, because technically we weren’t on spring break anymore (see: CUNY’s “recalibration” period) and that class was at the very beginning and very end of the originally-scheduled break anyway. I also participated in a Zoom faculty meeting.

And – more importantly – I rested and relaxed. I spent weekends away from email, unavailable to answer questions on Slack, not thinking about or planning for classes in any way shape or form. I read a whole book!! You know how long it’s been since I started a YA book for pleasure and finished it in less than 24 hours? (Incidentally, that book was Tarnished Are the Stars by Rosiee Thor, a book which include 3 main characters, of whom 2 are lesbian and 1 asexual and aromantic!)

I decided to make one change before my class was scheduled to meet again: I offered students options. Their two options were 1) Zoom: continue as we’ve been doing, with reading the texts before class, participating on Slack, and coming to Zoom class sessions; or 2) Writing: read the text, participate on Slack as much or as little as you want, submit 2-4 short writing assignment per week to BlackBoard – and don’t come to Zoom classes (unless you have time and feel like it). Most students chose the Zoom option. A few opted in to the Writing option. That made me feel a little better, at least, in terms of managing my expectations for students. (In class earlier tonight, I asked them about what spurred their choices and got some feedback that will be useful for fall – because yeah, I’m totally operating under the assumption we’ll be online for the first month or two at least.)

And then tonight’s class.

I wasn’t feeling very optimistic about it. Like I said in my previous post, I had basically decided to give up. And that meant that for this class, I relied heavily on Stephen Greenblatt’s online course from Harvard – I had given my students the link and asked them to sign up with a free account. They wouldn’t be able to post to the course, but they would have access to all the videos and content. For the writing assignments (for students who opted in to the Writing choice) I copied over all the questions from that course, and I sorted them into a) questions I wanted students to focus on and b) some that were optional.

So I decided to use that in the Zoom class as well.

Now, here’s the thing. The questions that I used were definitely not mine (and students of course knew this). But I accidentally ended up structuring the class exactly the way I normally structure my face-to-face classes:

  1. Start with a free-write. In person, I usually put a prompt on the board, either via a PowerPoint slide or simply writing on the board. I used Zoom’s whiteboard function now: I typed out a prompt and asked students to write for ten minutes. I asked them to write in a Google doc, a Word doc, an email or text message draft, or a note app on their phones. After 10 minutes, I asked them to copy their free-writes into Slack as a reply to my prompt. The prompt was simple, and exactly the kind of prompt I usually give: choose a passage from the text, write about it, explain why that passage interests you. (In-person, this functions to settle conversations that have been happening before class, give latecomers a chance to slip in and get settled, and help set the focus on the text with the intent of encouraging students to always refer back to the text during discussion. Here, purpose #3 stayed the same, but there were no conversations to settle. It did allow latecomers to slip in and get settled, though – especially since, for some reason that I cannot figure out, students never seem to remember where the Zoom link is, despite my sharing it anew before every class…)
  2. Groupwork. My classes are always, always structured around groupwork. I didn’t know Zoom allowed that for the first couple weeks. When I discovered that (thanks Facebook-hivemind), I started using it more. But I wasn’t thinking about it as regular groupwork – I was trying to be all fancy with allowing students to share their screens or whatever, to make use of the tech we now had at our disposal. This time, I gave them the list of questions I had prepared for the Writing-option students by copying them from the Harvard course. I put the Zoom students into groups of 3-4, and I asked each group to choose any 2 questions from that list, discuss each question for 10 minutes, and have one person write up and post the 2 responses to Slack. Normally I would assign questions to each group, and normally I do that based on how the students sort themselves out (I’d give the more basic-comprehension questions to groups with mainly students who are struggling to keep up, and I’d give the more complex analytical questions to groups with mainly students who were capable of taking the discussion that far AND making sure no one is left behind in the group). I didn’t have that luxury here, but it worked out fine.
  3. Full-class discussion, go over the groupwork. I always pop in and out groups in person, and I can do the same on Zoom. So I knew which questions they all were discussing. I deleted all the others from the document I had open on my laptop. When they had all posted their responses and rejoined the main meeting, I shared my screen with them and we went over the questions one at a time. I responded to their written responses, and a decent conversation ensued, where students clarified things they had written or responded to my additional questions, or simply added their own thoughts.
  4. Clips from a performance. This part didn’t go so well, because there’s something wrong with the sound on my laptop, I think. But I had already explained to my students what I wanted to show them (clips from the Globe production of The Merchant of Venice, which isn’t available freely). And they were amazingly patient with me as I tried to fix my sound, and then put up with the very low sound as they watched and read the subtitles. Organically, without my prompting, a little chat popped up in Zoom as they recognized one of the actors as being a Game of Thrones actor (no one pointed out that Lorenzo was the Christmas Prince, but ah well). I loved that they were text-chatting on the side. (I may have said “focus! :)” in response to their discussion, because the moment was super-serious and I wanted them to feel the chills of the scene [the added scene of Shylock’s conversion with Jessica weeping and wailing nearby] but I did actually love that that happened.)

Look, I know all the experts were telling us not to try to do things majorly differently, from the start they told us to aim low. I tried to keep things simple, but I was still thinking in terms of “online teaching.” But you know what? In aiming low, I was able to keep aiming high (forgive the cheesiness, it’s late, I had a celebratory drink, and I’m high on success). This class session went so. freaking. well. And it was in large part because I stopped trying so hard!! How do you like that.

And now we’re heading back to Chaucer for next week.

I sent a long, detailed email (knowing students will likely not read the whole thing, but that’s okay) with links to resources for reading Middle English and understanding Chaucer – but rather than thinking of this as an online class, I’m continuing to think of it as just the same as before. I usually try to teach a mini-lesson on reading Middle English the class before they need to read, but this is fine – they’ll read the text, probably not understand it (which I said in the email), we’ll work on understanding the plot next week, and the following week we can move to deeper discussion and analysis of the text.

So… yeah. Once I stopped thinking of this as the scary new way of teaching, once I went back to my tried-and-true in-person methods (with some variations, I’ll concede that) class went bee-yoo-tifully.

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