Posts Tagged ‘COVID-19’

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.

Online or Social Distanced for Fall Classes?

As our university is working on a plan to reopen in the fall, I get why we would want to do it, but I’m also wondering what it will be like to teach in a social distanced classroom. Everyone would love to be back to normal, but that’s highly unlikely to happen.

Online classes have a lot of advantages, actually. Though students won’t be able to interact in the same ways they would face to face, they can interact in proven ways online. There are asynchronous methods such as discussion boards and text-based content or recorded video lectures, and there are synchronous methods like the ubiquitous Zoom classroom.

Though moving back to the classroom seems ideal, it may actually be less interactive than online. For instance, a lot of us use techniques like group work that will not be available in a classroom where students should wear masks and sit at least six feet apart. How do we get students to interact with one another in this setting? I could lecture, but that’s not the way I want to run a classroom, especially not for creative writing. In group work, we pass texts back and forth and write on each other’s papers — that won’t be possible with social distancing.

If I’m in the classroom with students, I suspect I’ll need to adapt some online course delivery methods there as well. I could see letting students exchange writing by chat or in a discussion room. I’d love to find a tool that would make this more interactive and fun. But of course, doing that will also require that students bring their devices to the classroom so they can communicate with one another despite the distance.

Hybrid classes may be the norm, rather than the exception. Some things will make sense to do in the classroom, and some things will need to be taken online, even if students are sitting in the same room with each other. Class sizes will also need to be small, so for some classes it may be that only half the class can fit in the social distanced classroom at any one time. We may need to alternate days and find ways to include those who are off-site in our discussions. Rethinking the classroom experience may be more complicated than it was to take all of our face-to-face classes online suddenly this spring.

It would probalby be easier to be all online, but we’d miss the connection we have with students when we meet physically in one place. Whatever happens, we’ll have to do everythign we can to maintain that connection, and whatever happens, we’ll need to use every tool in our took kit (and then some) to keep communication open whether that is in the classroom or online. It will take a lot of creativity to make next semester work, but the best part of that is that the lessons we learn from teaching under COVID-19 are ones that we can still use when life truly goes back to normal.

Why We Teach

In this era of COVID-19, it can be easy to lose track of the big picture and get caught up in all the details. I was reminded of this the other day, when a former student, who I hadn’t heard from in a decade, posted a comment and tagged me in Facebook. She mentioned something I had said (yes, it was a compliment, not a complaint). We commented a little back and forth, and another student chimed in, mentioning another class.

What this reminded me of is something I have always felt. We teach, not for the class or the test or the essays students write, but for the future. I care more about what a student will take from my class four, five, even ten years later, though more times than not, this is something I never know. It’s rare to see a comment like this or to run into a student and have them tell you in person. And that is how it should be (though it’s incredibly rewarding when you do hear from students).

Education is not about immediate or even tangible results. Of course, we give tests and papers, and we want to push students to excel and we want those tangible results. But the bigger point is what happens later. It’s great to see our students succeed after they graduate, and it’s great to find out that something we said or taught mattered. I try to remember that students who struggle in a class, who may earn a B or C or even lower, may still be the ones who get the most out of it. They may not be able to show ‘mastery of the material’ during that semester, but if something sticks with them, then the seed is planted and they will benefit in some way, someday, maybe in unexpected ways.

It’s hard to remember this when we’re all struggling to keep up and to stay connected with students who are suddenly being taught at a distance. Our struggle to keep teaching and our attempts to be fair and yet to be as rigorous as possilbe will be a big part of what makes an impact. The most important lessons taught in a class are often tangential to the material that is covered. The greatest lesson can often be given just by caring enough about every student, meeting them where they are, and helping them improve. In the end, it’s not about the grades and it’s not about the degree; it’s about that human interaction, communication, and faith in each other.

A Look Back at #AWP20 in San Antonio

Receently, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs sent out a survey. They didn’t ask specifically about the conference, but their last question asked about our experiences in the past month or so. That was probably wise, since not everyone on their list went to the conference or was even planning to go, but asking that question gave me the opportunity to put some thoughts together about the conference. Here’s what I said (edited and then expanded on for this blog post):

We came to #AWP20 in San Antonio, and I felt AWP did the best they could with the information they had at the time. In hindsight, events like ours should have been cancelled in February, but with two days’ notice and everyone scrambling to cancel hotel and airline reservations (when it wasn’t yet clear that could be done), and with product shipped to the book fair, it was right to keep the conference on for those who wanted or needed to come. We haven’t heard of anyone getting sick from attending, so we apparently dodged that bullet unlike some other conferences at about the same time. I don’t blame AWP. If the national response had been clearer, they would have known in plenty of time that they had to cancel, and they would have done it.

Of course, everyone knew that the virus was out there. What we didn’t know was that what we had been told was wrong. We were given the impression that the virus was contained in a very few places and most of the U.S. was still safe. That was clearly incorrect. What we learned two days before the conference was that someone from an air base near San Antonio had been released from quarantine, stayed at a San Antonio Hotel, and then tested positive for the virus and sent back to quarantine. What we should have known was that the virus was out in places like Boston and New York, not just isolated in Seattle and a few people in quarantine. We should have known that travelers from Europe and the Middle East, not just from China, could be carriers. We should have had testing that would have let us know the true risks of public gatherings. We were just starting to learn that on March 2 when the news broke about the sick woman who had been released into San Antonio for about 24 hours that weekend and when the mayor of San Antonio declared a medical disaster (to keep other quarantined patients from being released).

I am glad for the many people who stayed away from the AWP conference, and I’m glad that AWP allowed anyone to cancel their registration at the last minute, which made that possible. I am glad that half our group went to the conference — we had a great, if surreal, experience, and none of us caught the virus or spread it. But we could have.

With better information, we probably would have made different decisions, but actually with better information, we wouldn’t have had to make a decision. AWP wouldn’t have been one of the first groups to face a decision about their conference. They would have known the risks well in advance and been able to cancel responsibly with enough time to give everyone a chance to cancel reservations or not ship their merchandise to the conference book fair. There would have been a national order to limit social gatherings that would have forced large conferences to cancel or postpone. That still hasn’t happened, but states and most groups have stepped up and made the difficult decisions anyway.

#AWP20 was right on the cusp of that happening. While we were in San Antonio, we learned that South by Southwest had cancelled. Other major events and venues soon followed, including the NBA and NCAA basketball tournaments. If our conference had been a week later or if we had gotten good information in the weeks leading up to the conference, we would have been one of the ones to cancel instead of one of the last to go forward and make the best of things. I’m glad we did what we did, and I’m very glad the virus didn’t seem to be spread at our conference, as it was at CPAC, AIPAC, and BioGen, other prominent conferences held about the same time. But I wish that we and all the other conferences had been given the information we needed to make better decisions, and I really wish that the U.S. response to COVID-19 had been led by science and testing and not by misinformation and denial.

Update, Day 3 of #AWP20

On the third day of #AWP20, things we’re much the same as before: somewhat bigger crowds in the book fair with the folks who had book fair stickers instead of badges. Since our table was in the hinterlands and some of our neighbors packed it in early, we started to wonder whether we should have moved, like some other tables did. On the other hand, we had a fair amount of foot traffic, nothing like a normal year, but the folks who stopped by were also more willing to talk. One of our alumni made it up from Houston for the day, taking advantage of the $5 admission. It was good to see Xenia.

All but one of our crew made it by the table, and it was good to see that no one was suffering from anything more than the usual effects of staying out till the wee hours. I did see a post from our other student, so I know she was okay. The only worries now we’re about getting home okay. With some news of cancelled flights and with the state of emergency in New York, some had reason to be concerned, but as far as I know, no one had any actual problems getting home.

Most of us are traveling today, though some left last night. Here’s wishing everyone safe travels and hoping we all stay healthy. It seems like we may have as much risk at hone as we had here.

Update from #AWP20: Day 1

The first day of AWP in San Antonio was fine, if a little sleepy. The biggest problems were smaller crowds and cancelled panels. One of my students, Hollie, told about a panel on submitting where none of the panelists showed up, but lots of people were thee wanting to talk, so they took over the panel and shared advice. It was very useful.

Another student, K.D., told us about getting interviewed on Wednesday. On San Antonio news on Wednesday. They were so happy that the conference hadn’t been canceled, they wanted to talk to those who came. They misspelled her name, but did broadcast her interview.

Everyone I talked to was very upbeat, if a little sad that the Book Fair is smaller and there aren’t as many people or panels. Everyone’s making the best of it and so far there are no signs of an increased risk of catching COVID-19. Lots of hand washing and creative alternatives to shaking hands. It may be the healthiest AWP ever.

I get why some people decided not to come. It’s unfortunate that the news broke days before the conference started and people really didn’t have time to make a calmer decision. In the split second you had to decide, and with so much uncertainty, it made sense to cancel for many. Only the future will tell what was the right decision, but for now, those of us are here are feeling all right and making the best of it.

#AWP20 in a Time of Coronavirus

More thoughts on my decision to attend AWP 2020

I thought about titling this “Love in a Time of Coronavirus” with a nod to Garcia Marquez, but then I thought better of it. On the one hand, my wife’s joke when we were disicussing whether or not to go was “Well, don’t kiss anyone!” I said I hadn’t been planning on it, with or without the current situation. Still, I thought having love in the title might sound a little weird. But I have been doing a lot of thinking (haven’t we all?) about AWP: everything from “What am I doing?” to “What’s there to worry about, really?”

Yesterday began with a phone call from one of my students who was already in San Antonio. Her message said she’d heard the news and wanted to know what I was going to do. I called her back to ask “What news, exactly?” and while we played phone tag and I talked to another student about an unrelated, equally serious situation (for her), I checked the news and didn’t see anything yet. Apparently, it was all over CNN, but I don’t watch cable and was in my office relying on the New York Times and Washington Post. She was the first to tell me that the virus was out in the community in San Antonio after someone had been released from quarantine.

I’m teaching a class that is focused on the AWP conference. It’s our largest class ever for this Short Residency with 10 students who were planning to attend. The student who called me was already in a San Antonio hotel and they weren’t even saying yet which hotel the sick person had gone to. I had to make a judgment call on the spot, so I told her unequivocally that I would support her decsion, whether she wanted to stay or to get out of Dodge.

I could do this in part because my university had already started having discussions about what to do if COVID-19 coronavirus came to our area and schools were closed. We had already said we would take classes online or do what had to be done to protect student and faculty health and keep the university open. I told my student that I didn’t konw what I would do, but that she could leave and cancel her conference plans, and I would work something out. Worst case scenario, she would be allowed to drop the class, but I wanted to find some alternate assignments. When I got of the phone with her, I called my dean, and we discussed what I’d told her. He agreed. I emailed my class, as well as every student, faculty, and alumn of our program to let them know where things stood.

Throughout the day, there was a lot of consultation with students, other faculty, and colleagues at other schools while we all waited for news from AWP. In the end, though rumors were flying that they would cancel and many thought they probably should, the word came out that the conference was going ahead after talking to San Antonio’s mayor and other officials. I let my students and colleagues know that as well, but told them they were still free to change their plans. Half the students dropped out. Half decided to come on to the conference, and I decided to go to support them, to support AWP, and because for me, I think the risks are fairly small.

Risk: I go to AWP every year and rarely do I come home sick. I shake thousands of hands (might be avoiding that this time) and talk to thousands of people. I wash my hands regularly, but not obsessively (might be more obsessive this time), and avoid people who seem sick when I can. Every year there are colds and the flu. People get sick. I get it, and I don’t mean to sound cavalier about COVID-19. But I do think it’s out in the public in the US, and it’s unlikely to be contained. I don’t know that travelling to San Antonio will be any riskier than staying home. The person who was released from quarantine and found to have a ‘marginally positive’ test result isn’t showing symptoms and had limited contact in the public. Could the virus spread? Of course. Will it spread to AWP in the time that I’m there? I hope not. It’s a risk I’m willing to take.

Why choose not to go? I get why my students and colleagues have made the decision they’ve made. One was traveling with his wife and two kids to the conference. They’re planning another vacation wherever the rental car and the week off from work will take them. If I were them, I’d go to a national park or travel Route 66 (they were already in Oklahoma) or visit relatives. I wouldn’t expose my young kids to this. Another colleague is a single mom to a pre-school age kid. I wouldn’t leave home if there was a chance I couldn’t come back right away. Some of my students have their own health challenges and may not want to risk it. Others simply don’t want to take the risk even though they’re young and healthy. They may be making the right choice, and I support every one of them.

So why go? Some of my students and colleagues have been looking forward to this all year. We’ve made investments in hotels, flights, registration. Yes, we could get some of it back, but we might not get refunds for everything. AWP has offered to refund or apply registration fees to next year — who knows what next year will bring? — but the registration cost is a drop in the bucket compared to the other costs people have. If it had been cancelled, I might have been relieved. Since it wasn’t, I’m going and making the best of it.

Am I right? I hope so, but that will only be right for me. For those who decided to change their plans, their decision will always be the right one. For those of us who go, as long as we’re able to go and come home as planned, it will be right for us, though AWP will not be the same AWP that we expected, it will still be a rewarding experience.

What about my class? The five students and I who are going to the conference will treat it as planned. They will attend panels, visit the book fair, go to offsite events, and write about the experience. I’ll ask them to share their writings with their fellow students. Those who aren’t coming to the conference will write about their experience. AWP is planning to live stream some panels, so we’ll try to get them access to those. I’ll have them research some of the publishers, authors, or literary groups they wanted to check out at the conference, and write about those. If there are satelite AWP events (I’ve seen some discussion of this on Twitter, but don’t know if it will happen) they could go to those or go to another literary event closer to home and write about that. I’ll probably extend my deadlines and extend our discussion. In the end, I think it will be a good thing for the class. At least, we’ll be making the best of a very chaotic and difficult situation.

I don’t envy the directors, staff, and board of AWP having to make a decision like this just two days before everyone is supposed to arrive for a major conference. To cancel would have been a disaster. To forge ahead will be seen as foolhardy by some, as brave by others, and as either wise or incredibly risky, depending on what happens this weekend. No matter what you decide, you’ll piss of about half the people. Giving everyone the option to cancel and trying to find a way to keep the conference on track for those who decide to come, is probably the best decision, assuming they got the necessary reassurance from public officials that it is safe for thousands of people to descend on their city. It may seem a little post-apocalpytic, yet those of us who make there will likely have a great time.

If you’re on the fence about what to do, I’m not trying to convince you one way or another. I imagine most people had to decide whether to cancel at some point yesterday, if it wasn’t already too late for your reservations. If you’re coming, look for Mississippi University for Women or Ponder Review in the Book Fair. Our table may change, but we’ll be there along with Poetry South. I’ll also be doing a book signing at Texas Review Press / Sam Houston State University’s booth on Thursday. They’re still planning to be there, too. If you’re staying home or going somewhere else, then make the most of your time and maybe follow us from afar.