In Praise of Rhubarb

We’ve been up in Iowa for the past week or so, visiting my mother.* One of the joys of a visit there in the summertime is her great stand of rhubarb. She has two types: a small, dark red variety and a larger, whiter variety. Both are tasty, though the darker one is what we prefer for pies and sauces. When we feel we’ve picked enough of it, though, we move over to the lighter variety with thicker stalks. The flavor is about the same; only the color is different.

Rhubarb is one of the strangest ‘fruits.’ It’s actually a vegetable, though you eat the stalk. Don’t eat the leaves; they are toxic. The stalk is very tart, so you need to cook it with sugar (or eat raw, dipped in sugar, which was a childhood treat). Therefore, it’s perfect for pies. One legacy my mom passed down to me was making pie crusts from scratch. This lattice pie cruse uses the quick and easy method of alternating strips, rather than trying to weave them together. It still turns out about the same, and the pie dough was very flaky. The secret? 2 cups of flour, 3/4 cup of Crisco, salt, and ice water. Adding about a tablespoon of Crisco to the standard measurement of 1/3 C per 1 cup of flour helps make it lighter.

Once we’d eaten the pie, we were in the mood for another rhubarb dessert. This is Rhubarb Angel, which has a butter/flour/sugar bottom crust with a merringue and a custardy filling: 3 egg yolks, cream (though I used buttermilk), 1 C sugar. You can tell that this was made with the lighter variety. Besides pie, this was one of our favorite rhubarb desserts when I was growing up, but the most common way for us to eat rhubarb was always as a sauce, which can be put on cereal or eaten by itself at breakfast or poured over ice cream for dessert.

Rhubarb sauce is just cut rhubarb and sugar that is simmered until it makes sauce. Let the sugar sit on it awhile before cooking, so it starts to form some juice. Kim made this in the microwave, which is Mom’s preferred method, though the old-fashioned stove-top method ought to work. I don’t know that recipe by heart, though it’s pretty simple and you could experiment with the amount of sugar you use to get the tartness you want. My guess would be 1/2-3/4 cup of sugar for 2-3 cups of cut rhubarb.

However you cook it, if you have a patch of rhubarb, count yourself lucky. It’s full of vitamin C and potassium, so it’s a healthy and refreshing summertime treat.

*As a side note, the decision to visit an elderly relative during the COVID-19 pendemic wasn’t an easy one. Even as we were leaving, cases were spiking in a number of states. We had self-quarantined for 14 days before we left, so we felt reasonably safe visiting, but we had a 14-hour drive to get there. With 3 drivers and few stops, we were able to do it in one day and with only a few restroom breaks at rest areas — the only times we went indoors. While there, we hardly went out at all, only driving to the neighboring town so we could get curbside pickup of groceries. Because we kept our exposure as limited as possible, we felt it was as safe as could be. That’s not 100%, but probably not any higher than her daily activities would be.

Thoughts on Replacing the Mississippi Flag

This is a historic time in Mississippi. This week, both the state House and Senate passed a bill with more than a two-thirds majority to remove the current state flag that features the Confederate flag in the canton, and the governor signed it into law. A new flag will be designed by a commission and voted on by the public in November. The bill says that the new flag design may not contain the Confederate flag and must include the words “In God We Trust,” which means the flag will still be problematic, but it will be an improvement. Make no mistake, this is a momentous occasion, yet a lot still needs to be done.

I wish the new flag would mean that Mississippi is finally a more progressive place. It is, and it is not. For instance, during the debate in the Senate, one senator asked whether other Confederate symbols could be used on the new flag, mentioning Georgia’s flag, which is based on the Stars and Bars flag of the Confederate States. Of course, the answer was ‘yes,’ since the wording of the bill does not prohibit anything other than the Confederate battle flag. I would hope that the commission will design a flag that is more inclusive, but even if it does, it is limited by the bill and must create a flag that represents religious intollerance: “In God We Trust” presumes a monotheistic religion and arguably privileges Christianity over other monotheistic religions. Whatever ends up as our new flag, it will be a compromise, and there will be some who try to resist change.

On the other hand, there are many, many people of good will who are working hard to make Mississippi a better, more tolerant state for all of its people. This week, the legislature also put a resolution on the November ballot to change the state’s constitution so that the Governor and other state-wide offices may be elected by the popular vote. Now, they must be elected by the popular vote and by a majority of voting districts; otherwise the House of Representatives gets to select the winner. This means that a candidate who loses the election could still be installed in office by the legislature, and it is a provision that was specifically implemented in the consitution to limit the power of Black voters. Taking this step to change the constitution is just as important as changing the flag, and may have longer-reaching effects, but it won’t happen unless enough people come out in support of the resolution in November — all the more reason to register and vote!

And beyond that, much work remains to be done in Mississippi. Income inequality and education remain huge issues. Access to adequate health care and even food is a problem in many areas of our state. Our prison population is much too high and the conditions in prisons are terrible. All the problems with policing that are issues across the country are magnified in Mississippi. Our legislature has a Republican super-majority in both houses, thanks to voter suppression and gerrymandering. It’s not likely that radical change will happen anytime soon.

Still, the fact that Mississippi could change its flag when the opposition has so much power is absolutely amazing. It is a beginning, but it is only a beginning. Change in Mississippi can be a long time coming. This is a sign that it is coming. We can celebrate the victory, but the struggle is far from over.

New Life for Old iPad: Instagram Poetry Machine

This year, I retired my old 4th Generation iPad because it was getting pretty slow. I couldn’t do any serious work with it, and even reading the news or other recreational uses were painful. So I finally broke down and upgraded, but still felt bad to have a working electronic device without using it.

Then, I decided to get into Intagram poetry and faced two problems. 1) I didn’t want to clog up all the storage on my other devices with photos of poems, and 2) Instagram has ridiculous limits on the number of accounts you can have active on one device. I manage several instagram accounts for my job, so even though we post infrequently, I already have more than the allowed number for any one device. Adding another one seems silly, and I’m cheap, so I don’t want to rely on a third-party solution I have to pay for.

I could just log out of one infrequently used account on one device and use it for my new poetry account, but that would mean a lot of switching back and forth at some point, which is a pain. Instead, I chose to use the old iPad, which has a perfectly servicable camera and has enough storage now that I’ve deleted a bunch of apps that I won’t use anymore. The stripped-down iPad 4th Gen now works reasonably quickly and will take pictures of published poems from the contributors copies that I’ve kept over the years or of poems from my books that never appeared in magazines. I can photograph several in one sitting, and then post them periodically using the Instagram app on that device.

I’ve also learned how to take screen shots of electronic versions of poems, then open that in a photo editor on my computer (Photos works well enough on a Mac) to crop as needed and export to .jpg format. Then I can use AirDrop to send the image to my device (I’ve been using my iPhone to do this with Poetry South because we’re running a series of poems that I wanted to cross-post to Instagram). That ought to work just as well with the old iPad.

Using the iPad for Instagram works best for poetry because I’m not actually taking pictures out in the real world—I’m not a big fan of iPad photography, since you have to hold up the big old iPad to shoot. I did have to do a little juggling act to hold a magazine and my iPad to take a picture of a page, but once I find my old book easel (which I used to use for transcribing poems that I wanted to translate), then I can set up the open book in a well-lighted area and use two hands to take the picture with the iPad. And who knows, with a stripped-down iPad, I might even find I like using it to compose poetry, as long as I turn off auto-correct! That is, unless I plan to write Dada poetry; then auto-correct would help. In any case, it’s nice to have a use for the old iPad as long as it still works.

How I Became an Instagram Poet

Calling myself and Instagram Poet may seem like a bit of an exaggeration, but I am sticking my toe in those waters by posting my first ever published poem and my first published translations (which actually predate the first poem) on Instagram. My plan is to follow these with more poems, mostly from my first two books, but also some that have been published online and are no longer available.

The reason why I’m doing this has everything to do with the revisions I’ve been making to my site this week, so this is really the next in the series of posts about changing themes and moving to the block editor.

After setting up my static home page and book pages, I realized one thing that was still missing from a good author website was a page with links to individual poems or other published work. Fortunately, I had that on my university web page, so I only needed to update the list with some recently published poems, including two that went online last week at Juke Joint.

Once I had that page created, though, I felt that it wasn’t enough. On the one hand, a list of links isn’t visually exciting, and on the other hand, I wanted to be able to add more poems than the ones that are currently available online. I was thinking about my first book of poems, which is out of print ,though I still have copies. (Setting up a simple store to sell those online may be another post topic for another day.) I’d like to give people a taste of my early work and I’d like to republish a few poems that have appeared in obscure print journals or only appear in a book.

WordPress has a block for Verse, so I could just type them onto a page or make a blog post with a poem, but that seemed too limited. I’ve known for quite some time that Instagram poetry is popular, and though I have few illusions about becoming a famous Instagram Poet and earning a mass following, it did seem like a good platform to be on. I also realize that a lot of what passes for poetry on Instagram is more like self-help slogans than poetry, so I could say that as an academic poet I refuse to post poems on social media. On the other hand, ever since I got my start in poetry at the Uptown Poetry Slams at the Green Mill in Chicago, I’ve been in favor of bringing poetry to the streets. I started as a college poet and quickly learned that being pretentious won’t get you very far, so why not take your poems where people are reading poetry?

Common advice, though, is not to post things online for free when you can publish in a literary magazine for a contributor’s copy and a credit for your CV. Once a poem is put online in any format, most magazines will call it ‘published,’ so I plan to only post poems that have been published somewhere already: either in a book or magazine. I may also post a few poems that I don’t plan to send to magazines or that I write specifically for Instagram and my website.

But I have a wealth of poems to draw on from my early work, and I have copies of most of the print journals they were published in. It seemed like this would be a good format to use for an Instagram poetry post. For those where I don’t have print copy like ones published in online journals that no longer exist, I can create an image of the poem either from the book they were in or by taking a screen shot of the file. I could even post a video of me reading a poem or find other creative ways to use the platform. So it makes sense to post poems on Instagram in order to then display them on my Poems page, which will also give me a way to frequently update content on the page.

That left me with a decision, though: should I use my personal Instagram account or should I start a new one just for poetry. I have a Facebook account for myself and a page for me as a poet, so two accounts does make sense. In the end, WordPress helped me make that decision by limiting what I could do.

I went down a rabbit hole trying to see how I could embed Instagram posts on a WordPress page. Ultimately, it’s pretty easy, but what I learned informed my decision on how I wanted to do it. I’ll say right now, I use WordPress Personal. This level is pretty inexpensive and allows me to avoid having ads on my site and lets me have my personal web domain kendalldunkelberg.com. The new Block editor has two ways to interface with Instagram: you can link to a specific post (as I did above), or you can link to an Instagram account and display the latest posts, as I do on my Poems page.

Theoretically, you could use the Custom HTML block to embed content, but Instagram doesn’t provide much in the way of code to embed a feed. I could use a third-party tool that would give me more control over which posts to include, but that is a level of complexity I wasn’t comfortable with. I’m sure I could set it up, but something would inevitably go wrong: the tool I was using might change or disappear, or Instagram could change their policies and the tool might no longer work.

I could also upgrade to WordPress Professional, and for twice my monthly rate, I could link to an Instagram account and filter by hashtag. It’s not that expenive, so that’s what I would probably do if I wanted to keep just one Instagram, but then my poems and my personal photos would all be mixed together. Since it’s cheaper and easier to have a separate poetry Instagram, and since that helps me keep my personal stuff off the poetry account, it seems like the best way to go, at least for now. Professional has other advantages, including a simple store and more control over my theme with custom CSS, so I may end up going that route in the future, though I may also find a better and more cost-effective way to sell a copy or two per month (or per year?) of my out-of-print books, so I will probably stick with WordPress Personal for awhile.

In the end, once I had my Instagram poetry account set up, linking it to my page was fairly simple. I used the Latest Instagram Posts block and entered the address of my account. The only problem I had was that it took a few tries to unlink my personal Instagram account (which I had linked while testing) in order to link the poetry account, so I would recommend setting up the account you want first. You can only link one Instagram account to a WordPress site, so that may influence your options if you want both personal and professional content from Instagram on your site. In that case, I would recommend WordPress Professional or a third-party option for linking to Instagram.

More Fun with Blocks

As promised, I’m writing about my experiences updating my blog to an author website with a static home page and learning WordPress’s new Block Editor.

I never was able to get the image carousel that I wanted the other day. I could use an image gallery, but the options for linking with that are quite limited, and the one carousel option doesn’t allow me to use the image to navigate to a new page or link. Clicking on the image would only bring up more information about the image that WordPress generates. I might be able to put the link in a comment, but that seemed clunky. So with this in mind, I decided to set up my own set of images that isn’t a gallery or a Tiled Gallery.

Instead, I used the Layout Grid. This gave me the option of 4 columns (rather than 3, which is all the Column block allows). I also created a header above my layout of book cover images, and then I used the Group block to make these all the same. I set a background color and made the group full width. This works well for four images, and I have more control over how it looks. It also changes to a square layout or a column on smaller screen sizes. See my home page for an example.

I also had fun setting up my book pages. First, I used the Cover block with the “wave” pattern along the bottom to take an image from each book cover and make it the header image for the page. The Cover block allows for a text overlay on top of an image, which I used for a pull-out quote from a review or blurb of each book.

Next, I experimented with the Pullquote block and the Quote block, but in the end, I didn’t like either one. Some Pullquotes were formatted in ways I didn’t want, and I couldn’t control the color of the horizontal line on the Quote blocks in my theme. There’s probably a way to do that with CSS, but that’s more than I wanted to mess with. Instead, I used the Paragraph block and the Group block set to Full or Wide alignment, and I used the background and text color options to highlight the text in different ways.

It took some experimentation to figure out how to group blocks and create the areas I wanted on the page, but in the end, I liked it better than the standard Pullquote formatting, at least for longer passages. For short passages, the Pullquote block might be easier. A good example of this is on the page for A Writer’s Craft.

All in all, I’ve found the Block Editor isn’t too hard to learn. It just takes some getting used to and some experimentation.

Fun with Blocks

No, I haven’t reverted to childhood to start playing with wood blocks. This weekend, after taking the plunge and changing the theme of my blog (and after second-guessing myself and exploring several more themes, only to settle for the one I initially chose, at least for now), I dug into revising some of my pages and converting them to the block editor. It’s a change that’s coming to WordPress, and blocks offer a lot of powerful tools, but they can be a bit confusing.

So far, I figured out the settings for the “cover’ block and learned to use “image” and “column” blocks fairly effectively. I’ve even learned to put a block within a block, though I haven’t quite mastered the “group” block; that may be next, or soon, on my list.

What I have been trying to figure out is how to make an image carousel, which is what I finally decided I should call it. I want to create one for my book covers to go on my home page, but I couldn’t see a block that did that exactly. I figured there must be some setting in one of the other blocks that would allow me to do that or some hidden feature somewhere that could make it possible. That’s when I discovered WordPress’s Help topic on Blocks: it lists all the block types with links to the primary help page for each.

Going through this is what led me to the term “carousel” for what I wanted to do because there’s a “post carousel” block, but none for images or pages. So I decided to search on “image carousel,” which took me back to the “gallery block” I had been looking at. But this is only an option for what happens when you click an image in the gallery, so it’s not quite what I’m looking for. I could make a gallery block with some of my book titles that when you click on it goes to a carousel with all of my book titles, but what I’d really like is a carousel of images of books on my home page. For now, I think I’ll use a tiles or mosaic gallery and keep searching for the solution I want. I see it on other author and book sites, so it might be possible in WordPress.

I never thoguht that redesigning my site and learning to use the new block editor would happen over night. I’ve come a long way in a couple of days, but I expect a fair amount of trial and error, and a fair amount of searching in the help files before I’m done. The site is already looking so much better, and I don’t expect to ever be completely finished with it, but I do hope to spruce it up a lot in the coming days and weeks.

Changing WordPress Themes

Now that I’ve dived in and am revising my blog, I might as well write about the process. The first step was to change the theme from “Spring Loaded,” which was so old that WordPress had retired it, but let me keep using it, to “Exford.”

This promised to be an easy process. I went in and after experimenting with a few themes, I used Try and Switch to set up my site. Or that’s what I thought would happen. I got things looking the way I wanted, switching to the static home page, but I realized there were features from “Exford” that my site didn’t have that I would have to add in later. What I didn’t realize is that when I chose this theme, my current home page would be replaced with the actual content of the Exford page. All the images and even the text of the sample page was carried over onto my live blog.

I realize that the idea is probably that I could then simply replace their content with my content, but there was a lot more to that page than I wanted. So I ended up deleting it and replacing it with text I had written for the new page. I was also glad I hadn’t spent a lot more time on that page before switching themes!

When I did add in my cover image, I couldn’t get it to look like the one from their example. It took me a long time to find the setting that allowed my cover image to be full width, something I discovered by trial and error, when I noticed that the cover block had an “change alignment” setting and that’s where I changed it to “full width.” This is in the main block settings that pop up when you select the block.

I was also didn’t like where the text was on the cover image. You can set it to top, middle, or bottom, but I wanted it to be a little lower than the vertical center so that it worked well with my image. There is a darker area, and the center is on the border of this area, so the white text was partially in shadow (good for showing it) and partially in light (not so good). I tried using the return key to move it down, but learned that shift-return (line feed) worked better.

Of course, this would all be much easier if I wasn’t making the change to WordPress’s brand-new block editor at the same time I’m changing themes. That was one reason I did it. My old theme, besides being old-fashioned and a little ugly, wasn’t compatible with a lot of new features. But learning how to work with blocks at the same time that I’m restructuring my whole blog is a little daunting. On the other hand, it’s a good incentive to make the change, and I can do a lot with the new blocks and the new theme to make a livelier website to host my blog. I expect I’ll keep writing about my successes and my trials for awhile.

Changes Coming to My Blog

Recently, I realized that I’ve been blogging for over a decade, since July 2009 to be precise. In that time, my blog and my readership has grown quite a bit, but the blog’s format has remained unchanged. In that time, I’ve also published two books of poetry and a textbook, and I’ve started an MFA program, yet the focus of this site has remained the blog, since my blog posts are the first things you see. For awhile, I’ve wanted to change things around, but I discovered only recently that this is fairly easy to do in WordPress. It will, however, take a little planning and a little work to set it all up once I make the switch. So what am I doing to get ready.

  1. I want to have a static page as the site’s landing page, so I have to create that page. Since I have yet to decide on a new theme, and I know that theme won’t have the same layout, I’m not planning on adding a lot of content to that page until I make that switch, but I may write some of the content I want to include—or at least plan what I want to write. I’m also looking for a good cover image, and I’ll plan what I want to go where on that page so it helps visitors navigate to my many interests.
  2. I will also need a page for my blog, since I do plan to keep posting on a semi-regular basis. So I created a Blog page, which will be where I move all of that content.
  3. Fortunately, WordPress makes that easy. I will go into Settings and then Reading, where I can switch over to “A Static Page” under “Your homepage displays.” Once I do that, I can choose my new homepage as my home and choose “Blog” for the page where my blog posts will reside.
  4. I’ll make that switch, then I’ll select a new theme and start building out the site.
  5. For a little while, things may look a little clumsy until I get my pages to work the way I want them to, but I’m excited to spend some time sprucing up my site and shifting the focus from the blog to my books, writing, the MFA, etc.

Look for these changes to start happening in the next few days, as soon as I’m done planning for the new theme and home page. By the way, I could have chosen one of my existing pages as the new home page, but I felt it would be better to add a new main page and keep a page dedicated to my books, my bio, and my calendar. I may add pages or restructure them as I move forward, but I wanted the main page to be one that gives an overview and helps visitors navigate to the parts of the site that interest them most.

Virtual Residency 2020

MayResidencyI first realized that we would likely need to have virtual residencies this summer while I was at AWP 2020 in San Antonio. Those of us who went had many conversations about COVID-19 and what it might mean, though at that point in early March everything was uncertain. At the Low-Residency Caucus panel, several directors were worried about what they would do if they couldn’t hold their on-campus residencies. It’s a vital part of a low-residency program, and for many programs it is required every semester and part of their classes. Our program at Mississippi University for Women is set up so that the residencies are separate classes. I knew I could have students active in the program without making them come to campus, which was a huge advantage, but I also knew that I had students in the program who needed a residency to graduate in August, so I would need to offer one. We actually had 28 students who needed residency and had already planned to offer two at different times, so that we could accommodate everyone’s schedules. We can’t do that all the time, but it made sense this year.

With that in mind and as soon as we learned Spring semester classes would all be moved online, I began planning to have our first Full Residency in May as a virtual residency, still holding out hope that in July we could be on campus. Soon enough, we learned that all on-campus summer classes would have to be online. This week, we’ve been doing the residency with 20 students and 5 faculty, all in Zoom. We’re trying to do the same things we normally would do, and finding there’s a few things we can’t do as well and a few things we can do better.

Workshops

Every morning, our groups meet for 2 hours to discuss student writing. Each workshop has 5 students, so each day 2 or 3 students’ works are discussed. The workshop groups are formed with a mixture of people from different genres and classes, so the feedback students get isn’t the same as they would have gotten during the semester. We hope there’s been some revision since the semester class, and we don’t expect revision (for the class) after this workshop, which frees us up to have a different kind of discussion: not just ‘what needs to be fixed in this piece,’ but also ‘what kind of writing might this writer want to try next’ or ‘what could be different in the next piece they write.’ We use Zoom a lot in our program, so everyone is used to it. Though we can’t meet in the same room and we can’t all share coffee from the same pot, we can have the same kinds of discussions.

Seminars

In the afternoon, we have an hour and a half for seminars by faculty or roundtable discussions with students. These are on professinal topics like issues in the writing life or craft discussions. We had one on teaching a community college, one about book publishing, and one on nonlinear narrative structures, for instance. These are very much like our usual seminars, the only difference is that we probably have more of a prepared talk and a little less discussion, though discussion on Zoom, even with 25 people, has gone pretty well. One thing we’re able to do that we haven’t always been able to do in the past is to bring in more alumni. Yesterday, we held a roundtable discussion with a group of alumns on the Post-MFA experience. Alumni and other students in the program have also been invited to other seminars, and though not too many have taken us up on that (maybe due to the time of day), it’s nice to open up part of our residency to those who aren’t in the class.

Readings

Thanks to advice from Andrew, one of our students who works at another college, we were able to figure out how to stream from Zoom to Facebook. Before learning about that, I had thought about subscribing to StreamYard to do the same thing. (It has some advantages, like allowing you to stream 2 places at once and allowing up to 6 people to be on screen at a time, but also some disadvantages, like only allowing 10 people at a time to be online together — everyone else would have to watch on the live stream). We’re able to have alumni and far-flung faculty and students participate in the readings, and we’ve grown a pretty big audience (compared to live in-person events). Family and friends of the students who are reading can participate, as can alumni, prospective students, and current students who are not at the residency. We’ve had to learn about lighting and such, but we’re not trying to look super-professional, so we make do with what we have.

Thesis Defenses

As always, we hold our thesis defenses at residencies. Since these are all virtual, we’re able to bring in committee members who live far away, and we’re able to be a little more flexible with scheduling. A couple of theses might be done outside of a residency this summer. The conversations we havve about theses have been every bit as good as they would be face to face. The only real issue is signing the signature page: we’re mailing that around to the committees, which shouldn’t be a problem.

Hanging Out

This is the biggest sacrifice of going online. We don’t eat meals together and we don’t just hang out. No one but me had to sweat in an un-air-conditioned academic building over Memorial Day weekend (when they almost always turn down the A/C). No one got to see the campus groundhog (not a mascot, just a critter that we’ve sometimes seen lurking around the building and which I saw one night this year while walking the dog across campus). No one did early morning yoga on the lawn or got up to go exploring at the wildlife refuge, and no one went to Waffle House or out to the bars late at night. At least not together in our little college town.

Instead, we reserved a couple of nights as Socials (instead of readings), and we invited alumni and others to join us for one of those nights. Another night, we had a practice reading to try out streaming to Facebook, and we took a break on Memorial Day night as we often do. I’ve encouraged the students to have their own Zoom or other video get-togethers, so they can meet in smaller groups the way they normally would without my planning it or even knowing about it. I hope they’ve done that, but if they haven’t, I’ll also understand. We all know about Zoom fatigue, and when most of our days (for over a week straight) consist of at least 6 hours on Zoom — I’m glad we have meal breaks so we’re not constantly online — I know most of us are exhausted and ready for the residency to be over, which is just like an in-person residency when on the last day we’re all utterly exhausted, energized, sad to be leaving, and still happy to be going home.

Last night, after our final reading, I invited students to stick around in Zoom for awhile to chat. Not everyone did, and I get why they may have wanted to spend time with family or just be done with Zoom. But those who stayed had a good time talking for another half hour or so just amongst ourselves. The general consensus was that the virtual residency had gone surprisingly well. Some even preferred it to the on-campus residency, though most would have preferred to come to campus if they could. Still, they felt the level of social interaction was as much or more. Some of the workshops kept their Zoom meetings open for informal discussions long after the workshop had ended each day. Everyone was involved in our gatherings, and no one just rushed off to dinner or to their rooms. Though they couldn’t hang out late at night downtown, they also said they were probably more focused in their workshop discussions.

Would I do a virtual residency if we didn’t have to? I don’t know. It might be an option to consider at least for the part of our group for whom travel to Mississippi is an economic or scheduling challenge. One of our group this time had a medical emergency in her family, and being in a virtual residency allowed her to be near her family member in a trying time, while still keeping up with the residency — she probably would have had to go home if she’d been on campus. I expect we’ll need to continue to use some of the strategies we’ve developed this year under COVID-19, and we’ll also be very glad when we can be together in person. For some students, though, the virtual option may be the best.

Groups in the Social-Distanced Classroom

Last week, I posted some late night musings on how a face-to-face classroom might be different under social distancing. I was surprised at the number of people who viewed that post — nearly 100 in the first day. And because I can’t ask questions like that without searching for answers, I’ve begun collecting some tools and brainstorming some ideas for how we could do group work in a social-distanced classroom.

I will continue collecting these tools on my discussiong group for my textbook,  A Writer’s Craftsince I am thinking primarily about how creative writing can be taught using something like the group work I’m used to doing. Even trying to wrap my brain around this, though, has me thinking about how much more efficient it is to have students sit next to one another and talk. I can give them index cards with instructions, and I can pass those out rendomly to different groups to get them through a prompt. Or I can have them all write the same prompt individually and then turn to a partner or a group and share what they wrote. It all seems effortless compared to exchanging even short files with partners in a digital forum. But you have to sit exchange paper or sit near someone and talk: in either case, you’re also exchanging germs.

Lecturing can be deadly in a creative writing class, though, since it thrives on active learning. Students learn to write by doing, not just by being told what to do. While I’d love to find a way to electronically pass index cards around groups of 2-4 students (not share with everyone at once, but pass messages around a group), and I’d love to find a way for students to talk in a group without actually talking (since we’ll be in the same room but too far away from each other to talk quietly), I might be willing to settle for some other activities for students to do to break up a lecture and get them writing and thinking together. That’s why I’m looking for active ‘toys’ that can be adapted to creative writing tasks. Here’s what I’ve found so far. If you have suggestions, please let me know!

Hypothesis looks like a great way to read and comment on texts together. The text needs to be either a PDF or a web page. It might be good for making comments on a draft the student saved as PDF (as long as that isn’t public) or on a poem or story in an online journal. The group can write annotations of text to critique it or they could write creative annotations to respond to or make found poetry or found art out of something online.

Educaplay offers a number of games for use in the classroom. Some that seem promising are the Dialogue Game, Fill in the Blanks, Riddle, Unscramble Letters, and Unscramble Words. My main question (not having tested these yet) is whether students can create their games or whether the instructor has to create the game for students. Either could be useful, such as a fill-in-the-blanks game to create a poem with the blanks ro a dialogue game to create dialogue for a scene.

Draft is an online word processor that allows collaboration on drafts with the people you invite. This could be useful for sharing group work, especially if you don’t want to use Google Docs or Office 365.

Google Docs also allows users to share documents and collaborate on drafts. This could be used to share documents in groups and to allow readers to comment or add content to a draft. One advantage for Canvas users is that Google Docs is the default method for Canvas’s Collaborate feature

Speaking of Canvas, the Pages feature can also be used for collaborative writing. A page can be set to be editable by students. You could use the Groups feature to put students in groups and then give each group a page to compose in with the exercise instructions. They could write together on this page.

Trello is actually a project organizer for group planning, but it seems like it might be adaptable to smaller projects like group work. You can set up cards that can be annotated or commented on, and you can even create automated workflows. The free account allows unlimited users and up to 10 boards, so I could see using it for group work 10 times in one semester before I had to delete my boards. Or possibly, if I could have one board per class, and then create each group activity as part of the board, I could keep our work available all semester long. Assigning people to work on those activities might be a challenge, especially if I wanted to be in different groups each time, which I do like to do.

Quizlet seems primarily geared toward study aids and tests, but I wonder whether some of their ‘sets’ (like flashcards) could be adapted to group work. I haven’t explored Quizlet too far yet because I keep getting put off by the emphasis on learning rather than creating, but like Trello, I think somehow it might be adapted to more creative group activities.

I’m primarily looking for free tools that can be used without requiring a lot of cumbersome logins. Ideally, I could find one or two, maybe three tools to use for a few types of group assignments, so students don’t get bored doing the same thing all the time. I don’t want them (or me) to have to keep up with too many subscriptions or login information, and I do need whatever tools I use to be accessible on a phone, so that they don’t have to bring a laptop to class (though typing might be easier on a laptop). And I want to be able to adapt the same tools to an online class if we have to go back to all online instruction at some point.

I’ll keep adding to this list of tools in the discussion group on Goodreads for my textbook.