Teaching Writing Online: I almost gave up on giving choice

In my real world, in-person, pre-global pandemic Writing class, students could write any genre they wished at any time. I primarily organized this through:

  1. Genre exposure lessons that briefly introduce genres using mentor texts and quick writes
  2. Shorter lessons and longer work time to emphasize conferring & small group work
  3. Whole class lessons that teach techniques that work across genres.

Back in March 2020, when schools were first closed it wasn’t difficult to maintain this since students already knew the expectations and routines of our class. I knew them as individuals and as writers, and our resources were basically already established and shared.

Starting a school year remotely with students who I barely knew was more daunting; I almost abandoned my whole approach. Our first semester scheduled had us meeting kids “live” once a week. That’s not enough time to teach with methods that hinge on getting to know the kids. I was overwhelmed and frustrated.

As part of this context, our students are either all recent immigrants or emergent bilinguals, so a perfect example of a genre that is also interesting and relatable could be totally inaccessible or take students weeks to read and understand it. As high school students who are new to the U.S., they are learning what they like to read and what they want to write in English, and critical genre analysis tools, all at the same time that they’re learning the language itself. So, I wanted to honor the same amount of choice I offer “in-person”, but I knew it would have to be different. And I didn’t want to inundate them with scaffolds that end up either confusing or limiting them. Here is what I did:

1. Start with Readily-Available Short Mentor Texts

So, I relied on the New York Times 2020-2021 Writing Curriculum for short, student-created mentor texts and started off with a base of genres they could choose from: Personal Narrative (many have to write personal statements for college, so this was a popular choice), Informational, Opinion, or Review. I also offered Fiction (when I explained Fan Fiction, this became a popular choice) Poetry, and Podcasts, but no students selected the latter in the first semester.

2. Use an online tool to organize your texts for student use

While Google Drive lets you organize work into folders, it isn’t as easy for students to “use” these texts by annotating them. Commenting and reading comments in a document while on an iPad or mobile phone is such a horrible experience. Also, it is easy to get overwhelmed by all the folders in the mobile Google Drive — and most students use mobile devices. Many students open new documents and leave them Untitled, so their drives are anxiety-inducing. Perusall, a site I mention in a previous post, helps students access texts you organize by genre (or by month, if your students focus on genres in a specific timeframe), or any other folder style. They can have complete choice over what to annotate in the Library, or annotate what is assigned.

3. Record videos that give an overview about what the Mentor Text can teach

In the f2f classroom, or if you see your students “live” more than once a week, there is more time to let them explore mentor texts with more open-ended questions, or even with peers. But, since they already do the heavier work of deciding how they can use what they learn from the mentor text to make decisions as writers, I decided that some guidance on what the text teaches gives them a leg up. Maybe this is obvious to you, but I once taught at a school where all direct instruction was limited to the 5-10 minute mini-lesson and it’s taken me time to see direct instruction as more nuanced and less evil.

I also chose to make videos about the mentor texts so students could use that before deciding to commit time in the reading and annotating process.

Side note: I’m still trying to perfect these videos. Sometimes I feel they are too long, and other times they’re so short that they’re more like a technique lesson than a genre lesson.

4. Focus more on technique than Genre

Genre study is valuable but it also can end up feeling forced (I know I couldn’t write a short story if someone required me to right now). It also can cause teachers to feel like they are limiting students to a small number of genres.

We sometimes forget that genres were invented/created to meet a creator’s purpose. This is the main reason why I teach purpose and emphasize choice — there is nothing worse than reading essays or stories kids are doing because they’re assigned to write it.

By focusing on teaching techniques that are within different genres allow students ways to start playing and exploring with their brainstormed ideas and looking at their ideas through the lens real writers use. It also gives them room to explore their voice since some may gravitate toward metaphor, whether they are writing poetry or a research paper, while others may love playing with sentence structure.

Techniques are also typically what makes writing better, but no technique can save a boring idea written by a writer who lacks motivation. Knowledge of how to express their ideas supports their thinking process and also empowers them to advocate for themselves as writers. I’ve had a few students who graduated come back to tell me that they were able to explain to a professor why they wanted to start their writing with an anecdote, or why they felt first person POV would be effective in their essay.

I also record these lessons — mostly because techniques have to get practiced more than once and in different contexts (genres) to be mastered.

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