The Pens of Blue Hens: Four Lessons from the Trenches of Online Teaching

By William Repetto

Over the winter session, we first-semester TAs took some time to reflect on our experiences. Our conversations covered not only English 110 conceptually as a course, but also the nuances of meeting every day via Zoom and interacting conversationally primarily on Canvas. As a final post for this column, I thought it prudent to share our reflections, which I hope will offer insight for navigating the spring semester. Hopefully this will be our last semester of mandatory distance learning and teaching. Ideally, however, our insights will be applicable wherever the computer becomes the primary medium of teaching.

Breakout… but…

In our super-section of English 110, each TA was assigned a group of three or four students to work with throughout the semester. For portions of the class meetings, we would meet with these students as a small cohort in Zoom breakout rooms. Though it took time for familiarization to grow, the breakout time was well-spent. One of my colleagues quipped that in the main Zoom room before the breakout sessions, “it was definitely really hard to tell if they were engaged or not.” Yet, when we returned to the main session after breaking out, this TA felt comfortable calling on one of their students to say, “hey, you had a really good point about this; why don’t you share that?” In other words, the Zoom breakout rooms functioned as an appetizer for generating meaningful discussion when the full group was together.

One caveat we would add to breaking out, however, would be to keep the breakout rooms consistent. We experimented with rotating groups of students so that people from the class engaged with new faces and more learners. The TAs I reflected with, however, preferred when the breakout room group was consistent because, as one stated, “It made it more conducive to get to know the students; it felt more personal.” In a phrase, this TA added, “I preferred my small group.” It seems that the online breakout room does not make a good media for quick icebreakers before focusing on a task at hand. Our advice then: break out! … but keep the student cohorts in the rooms consistent.

Chat

I espoused the virtues of the Zoom chat function in my first post for the column, so I don’t want to dwell too much on it here, but I would like to add two quick reflections. A fellow TA mentioned that during in-person instruction they would get to class early in order to make new friends or catch up with old ones. Such informal connections between classmates and friends obviously do not get their proper moments in virtual learning. I personally found such interaction integral to my college experience – in both undergrad and in graduate school – so a substitution should be worth considering.

You could schedule a five-minute informal discussion to start the course, or, as I opine, allow the chat feature to be the space for that. Not everything the TAs or students contributed to the chat was prim, proper, or laser-focused on writing, but, as another TA mentioned, “The chat function was a way to get to know each other in a way we might not have been able to in person.” That same TA added that the chat “was one of the unexpected ways we built rapport” and “it offered another kind of anonymity” because the TAs could vocalize any general concerns or specific questions that came up.

So, the chat can seem messy and off-topic, but be sure to maximize its potential; it certainly helped us.

Canvas about Canvas

We TAs loved Canvas. We used it primarily for reading student work and providing feedback in the absence of printed copies, but Canvas also kept us organized and on schedule. One TA said, “I did like the modules that you could click through in order to find what you had to do that day; I thought that was pretty helpful.” Another added that it was excellent for giving feedback; “especially with longer comments, I found myself speaking better to the strengths and weaknesses of students’ assignments like that versus trying to talk about it in person.”

One TA remarked, however, “I wonder if we had talked about assignments in class and brought up different trends we saw in the assignments enough.” Hence my advice: canvas about Canvas. With a large portion of a class held on a learning management system and the other biggest component happening on the Zoom interface, it might be easy for the illusion to arise of two separate courses – one where the student attends and listens and another where the student checks things off and submits assignments. A way to avoid such an illusion, as this TA implies, is to check-in often with students about how they are finding things on Canvas.

Align

Alignment is a buzzword is self-help literature, but let’s define it as the competent mobilization within one person or among a group of people toward a purpose. It is a bit of a catchall, but I believe it will suffice as a summary for the advice presented here as well as a last thought for this column. Communicating the expectations of breakout rooms, of chatting, of Canvas is key to keeping students, TAs and professors alike aligned. As said, alignment functions on personal and group levels. More than anything, the virtual environment seems to ask educators to find alignment in their own lives – where do I draw the boundary between work and personal wellbeing when everything happens in my house and on my screen? The virtual environment challenges educators to align our own expectations with those of our students – when are a couple of “video off” and “mute on” moments required to kindle further learning? These are questions we might not have asked ourselves only a year ago, when we already may have considered ourselves out of alignment, but during the pandemic more than ever, alignment should be sought and continually revisited.

William Repetto is a PhD student in the English department at the University of Delaware. He is also a TA and writing center tutor. William earned his MA in English at Villanova University after completing a bachelor’s in history at La Salle University. He wrote three theses at La Salle covering frame narratives, the influence of American culture on Japanese cartoons, and The Adventures of Tintin. His master’s thesis gave a comparative reading of Wallace Stevens and David Foster Wallace to show how conceptualizations of spirituality versus religion changed over the course of the 20th century in America. While at Villanova, he also received an entrepreneurship award and small grant for his work on diversity and inclusion at their Falvey Memorial Library. William has formerly taught English composition classes at Eastern University and English as a second language classes at La Salle University.

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