Joy and Accomplishment: Creative Assignments Teach Better Than Essays

I’ve been including a creative assignment in most of my classes for a while now. Most of the time, this creative assignment was a quick, fun project, meant to be an easy 10 points towards students’ final grades.

The basic assignment asked students to choose a text we had read, gather thoughts and notes around a single aspect or lens – using class notes – and then use a creative medium to represent an interpretation or understanding of the text: a poem, a short story, a painting, a Lego diorama, digital art – anything at all. I would emphasize that I’m not grading their artistic ability (“stick figures are fine!” is a constant refrain) and that I’m more concerned with their accompanying 250-word written reflection explaining their choices and process.

I gave full credit to every student in each class, with only three exceptions (one who clearly based their artwork on a SparkNotes summary and had not read the text, one who thought the assignment didn’t have to be related to any texts we had read, and one who submitted an image they had downloaded from a Google search).

This semester, I expanded the creative assignment in my composition classes. Rather than a freebie easy assignment, I designed the assignment to be a culmination of the research and critical thinking skills students would have learned all semester.

I had designed my syllabus this semester around children’s literature, with the goal of teaching students how information can be presented in many different ways depending on genre, format, audience, and purpose. We looked at non-fiction picture books, biography picture books and chapter books, and historical fiction, all the while thinking about how authors and illustrators used various techniques to evoke specific emotions and attitudes in the readers.

Pluto's Secret: An Icy World's Tale of Discovery: Weitekamp,  Margaret, DeVorkin, David, Kidd, Diane: 9781419715266: Books
Pluto’s Secret by Margaret A. Weitenkamp and David DeVorkin, illustrated by Diane Kidd

We read Drs. Myra Zarnowski and Susan Turkel’s 2013 essay “How Nonfiction Reveals the Nature of Science” (Children’s Literature in Education 44.4) and Joe Sutliff Sanders’s 2015 essay “Almost Astronauts and the Pursuit of Reliability in Children’s Nonfiction” (Children’s Literature in Education 46).

For their first paper, students wrote a short essay analyzing a nonfiction picture book through the lens we developed reading Zarnowksi and Turkel: Does the book emphasize the nature of science as they describe it, or does it simply provide facts? Does it emphasize inquiry or authority? Etc.

For their second paper, students wrote a slightly longer essay analyzing a children’s biography through the lens of reliability and inquiry again. After a class visit from the college’s librarian specializing in children’s literature and education (the amazing Dr. Alison Lehner-Quam), students found a children’s biography and researched the person discussed in the children’s text. They then compared the two accounts – one written for children and one written for adults – and wrote an essay about the details included in or left out of each version, about the emotional undertones and the conclusions in each text, etc.

The Midwife’s Apprentice by Karen Cushman

In the third and final unit of the semester, we read a historical fiction novel, Karen Cushman’s The Midwife’s Apprentice (1991). We spent two weeks reading the book and discussing the various rhetorical moves the author makes. (I had given a conference presentation on the book a few years back, so it was a really nice return for me as I encountered all my marginal notes from back then…)

As a medieval and children’s literature specialist, I was in my element: I could provide lectures on medieval features and historical accuracy in the book, as well as lectures on current research on children’s literature as it affected our reading of the book.

When we finished reading the book, we read the author’s historical note, looked at the sources she provided in the book and on her website, and read some interviews in which she discussed the historical basis and her intentions for the book.

With all this in hand, I assigned the final project. This would be a creative project, but it would involve a lot more work than the previous traditional essays had.

To start with, students chose a topic from the book. Many chose medieval pregnancy and childbirth, since those were the main focus of the book. Others wanted to focus on medieval medicine more generally, medieval superstitions, medieval attitudes toward animals, medieval trade and market/fairs, and medieval inns.

For a full week involving two class sessions (via Zoom) and a written homework assignment, students researched their topic. At this stage, we reviewed the foundations of research (choosing and revising keywords, adjusting filters in database searches, using the bibliography of one source to find others) and the skills of identifying reliable sources. The written assignment asked students to submit two potential sources cited in proper MLA format, along with a few bullet points of details they found interesting in each source.

The next week, we focused on turning students’ research into creative projects. I provided an example of turning my own research into short story ideas:

I invited students who already had some ideas to share them with the class so that I could respond and model how they might think about deepening their projects and taking active control of how they were shaping their narratives. Students planned digital art, short stories, and poems – one even planned a video. I then put them into breakout groups where they had a chance to bounce ideas off each other and get started on making their projects.

We had one more session of presenting works in progress for feedback, and then the semester ended. Students had one more week, during finals week, to finish up their projects and submit.

The results of this assignment were amazing. More than any traditional essay I’ve done, even when I’ve invited students to write about a topic they care about, students were invested from the start. They were willing to do more work and to redo any step multiple times until they got it right.

I’m used to students resisting or even just ignoring me when I point out that their sources are not reliable. But this time, students displayed an intense desire to get things right.

Having spent an entire semester critiquing others’ work for accuracy and interpretation of facts, students seemed to be eager to create their own art or stories with as much historical and emotional accuracy as they could. Students read more complex articles than most of my first-year composition students are usually willing to read – and they spent time re-reading to make sure they understood them! Practically an unheard-of thing in my experience.

The stories and artwork students submitted, along with a 2-page reflection explaining their artistic choices, surpassed all my expectations.

There was a story about a prince’s wet nurse who struggled with leaving her own son in order to care for the royal son; a story about a commoner who falls in love with a noble who spurns her when she gets pregnant, and her struggles to hide her pregnancy and ultimate support from women during labor and birth; a collection of images drawn from medieval manuscripts to depict the journey from marriage to childbirth and associated rituals for a noblewoman; original pencil drawings to depict ideas about superstition and religion; a play about a Moroccan merchant coming to England to trade; and a meme-ified video with a text-to-speech narrator titled “why medieval childbirth sucked.”

Reflections included nuanced considerations of how the point of view affects the emotional impact of historical facts, how dialogue adds to the interpretation, how visual elements portray facts and attitudes, etc.

The creative projects and reflections also demonstrate joy and enthusiasm – and I enjoyed them too! I’m not used to enjoying the process of grading final papers. It’s usually a chore that I get done so that I can submit final grades. But this time, I got excited each time my email notifications pinged and I saw another submission from this class.

A good number of students addressed me personally in their reflections, telling me how much they enjoyed this project and how much they had learned. Their reflections, though not traditional essays, displayed more organization and development than I’ve come to expect from first-year writing students, more than the two essays they’d written for me in the moths prior.

I can safely say that I will be incorporating this kind of assignment into as many classes as I can in future.


The Worst of Times, the Best of Times

This semester has been so weird. And yet, it’s been amazing. I sat at my desk in my home office while my students sat at desks and kitchen tables, on couches and beds, each of us looking at computer screens instead of each other. They could see my face; I could not see most of theirs. Most of our conversation happened via typing on Discussion Boards and in Blackboard Collaborate’s chat window. And yet… in at least one class, we managed to become a cohesive group; to have intense and productive conversations about texts; to laugh together; to find comfort in our meetings and discussions.

At the end of each semester, I usually do a “flood-the-board” activity: I’ll leave the classroom for about ten minutes, allowing my students to take over the room. I leave pieces of chalk (or markers) for them, and they get to write all over the board, filling it up with ideas, skills, insights they’ve learned over the course of the semester. I love what happens in those ten minutes. I stand outside the door, but I don’t go too far. I can hear them through the door – quiet at first, then murmuring, and eventually there’s laughter and shouting as they all read each other’s comments and interact with them – they spur each other on, they write jokes (like the comment about my apparent penchant for wearing turtlenecks one semester…), they have fun. And then I come back in, they giggle as they settle down and watch me read their board… I snap photos of the board and share with the class via email afterwards. It’s closure – even though they’re still working on their final essays.

This semester is obviously different. But I used Google Jamboards to try to replicate at least some of that. I put them into breakout groups to allow them the chance to chat with each other as they posted, though I don’t think they used that (I didn’t see any mics turn on in the groups). The board they came up with is just as great, though. Here it is:

Online Teaching: A New Semester, A New Plan

Over the past few days on Twitter, there’s been a lot of talk about reassessing and re-evaluating methods used in the Fall 2020 semester, the first semester some of us taught fully online. Stimulating conversations about platforms, schedules, assignment sequences, etc., have captivated me. I’m reading through long threads and reply chains of methods and considerations, of questions as well as answers. The collegial support, first of all, is so amazing. And the ideas being shared are invigorating. They also made me review the methods I’ve been using – and constantly tweaking – this semester, and the plans I’ve been making for the Spring 2021 semester. And I – to my own surprise, as usual – have lots of thoughts! So, time for a blog post rounding up some things I’ve learned over the last few months of our new normal.

As usual, this turned out to be far more than I expected to write. So skip down to the end to see what I’m planning for next semester if you don’t want to read in-depth reflections of my past semester.

Content Links:

Consideration #1: Scheduling
Consideration #2: Assignment Sequences
Consideration #3: Accountability
Spring 2021 Scheduling
Spring 2021 Assignment Sequences
Spring 2021 Accountability

Consideration #1: Scheduling

In the fall semester, I’ve been teaching three classes. One class is scheduled to meet twice a week for 1.5 hours each time, and the other two are scheduled to meet once a week for 3 hours. In planning my classes over the summer, I wanted to avoid “Zoom-fatigue,” and I also wanted to take advantage of the online tools available to us now. I designed the syllabus to be a mix of synchronous and asynchronous class. My plan was for each class to meet for half of the weekly allotted time.

For the twice-a-week class (English 300), we would meet only on Monday mornings for 1.5 hours. The other 1.5 hours of scheduled meeting time would be replaced by asynchronous Discussion Boards, due by Sunday evening before we meet. I planned to upload a video lecture on Sundays, about the text which students would be reading for the following Monday. So students’ weeks would look like this:

  • Watch the video lecture, starting on Monday afternoon.
  • Read the text due the following Monday.
  • Participate in Discussion Boards by Sunday.
  • Come to class on Monday morning, when we would discuss the video lecture, text, and discussions.
  • And repeat…

For my English 300 class, this worked fairly well. I think the reason it worked is in large part due to the strict assignment routine I set up, which I’ll discuss in the next consideration.

This was not the case for my other two classes, both of which were English 223. These two classes were scheduled for once-a-week meetings, 3 hours each. One section met on Monday evenings, and the other section on Thursday evenings. Again, I planned to meet for 1.5 hours rather than 3 hours, with the other 1.5 hours of class time replaced by asynchronous Discussion Boards and a video lecture. Students’ weeks were supposed to look the same as what I envisoned for the English 300 class:

  • Watch the video lecture, starting on Tuesday morning for the Monday evening section, and starting on Friday morning for the Thursday evening section.
  • Read the text due the following Monday or Thursday.
  • Participate in Discussion Boards by Monday morning or Thursday morning.
  • Come to class on Monday or Thursday evening, when we would discuss the video lecture, text, and discussions.
  • And repeat…

The main problem with this schedule is that it gave me little time to read Discussion Boards before class. I had made the deadline just before synchronous class meetings because I wanted to give students the full flexibility that asynchronicity affords. I knew that some students would wait until the last second, but I (foolishly, I guess) assumed at least some students would post earlier in the week. I stressed over and over again in the first month of the semester that the earlier they post, the better. My English 300 class was a bit better at posting earlier in the week, which I think may be due to a few reasons.

First, they had signed up for a bi-weekly class. So setting aside time on Wednesday morning was part of their plan when they registered. My English 223 students had registered for one evening a week, and they were unlikely to use the remaining 1.5 hours to get started on the following week’s texts after spending 1.5 hours in synchronous class.

Second, most of my English 223 students had signed up for evening classes because they work full-time during the day. Many of them also have children or parents to take care of when they get home. They simply do not have time during the day to do 1.5 hours worth of work. And their other evenings are occupied by their other classes.

Third, I was a lot looser in my initial planning for English 223 than I was for English 300. As I mentioned before, my English 300 class kept to a strict routine, and the purpose of each assignment and of the overall course structure was entirely transparent. I did not do so well with my English 223 class. So, onto the next consideration.

Consideration #2: Assignment Sequences

Over the summer, as I planned my Fall 2020 classes, I wanted to set up a routine of the same assignments each week. That way, students would know the broad outlines of what was expected of them each week, and not have to worry about forgetting new assignments.

For my English 300 class, this goal worked out well.

In part (I suspect), this was because I had a clearer idea of the overall goal of the course. English 300 is Introduction to Literary Study. It’s a required course for all English majors, and its goal is to prepare students to study English literature. Fairly simple. When I looked at sample syllabi provided by the English department (this was my first semester teaching the class), I saw that some professors treated the class like a historical survey. I knew immediately that I would not do that. The department has other classes specifically for that purpose. Other professors treated it like a theory class, studying one theory in depth every few weeks. I didn’t want to do that either. I knew that I wanted to teach skill more than theory or content. So I combined a few things, and decided on this approach:

  • I would begin the semester with a lecture on New Criticism, pointing out that students are already familiar with this method of analyzing texts and providing terms for concepts and analytical techniques they are already comfortable with. We would read two short texts (a translation of Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel” and Kenneth Grahame’s “The Reluctant Dragon”) and apply the methods of New Criticism to the texts.
  • Then, I would divide the class into five groups. Each group would be assigned one theory to read in the textbook. We would spend two weeks reading and discussing the theories.
  • After that, the whole class would read the same primary texts each week, and each group would read that week’s text through the lens of their assigned theory.
  • The first essay would ask students to analyze one of the texts we read using their assigned theory.
  • We would then repeat the process, shuffling the groups with each new group studying another theory for a week, reading new primary texts, and writing another essay using this second theory.
  • We would end by reading one more text, everyone thinking about all the theories we’d studied over the semester, and they would write a final paper using any two theories they wanted.

The first week went wonderfully, as we close-read “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Reluctant Dragon.” In Discussion Boards, I pointed out when students were using theoretical lenses like feminism, Marxism, animal studies, etc., to prepare them for seeing the new theories as things they already know and think about, rather than scary complicated new ideas.

In the next few weeks, students stressed the fuck out. They read 30-page chapters on theory, and freaked out about not understanding it on the first read. Despite my numerous reassurances that I did not expect them to understand them on the first read, despite the Discussion Boards which were divided into two sections:

  • 1) What did you find interesting in this chapter? Anything you recognized from previous classes or general knowledge?
  • 2) What questions do you have? What confused you?

They worried not only that they didn’t understand the theory itself, but that they didn’t know how to apply the theories to literary texts. I started despairing and almost pulled the plug on my whole plan. But I stuck with it. And I’m glad I did. I just had to keep reiterating that I did not expect them to become experts overnight, and that the whole point of devoting the following weeks to reading texts through their assigned theories was that they would learn how to read texts through theoretical lenses!

When we read primary texts, each week’s two Discussion Boards were the same:

  • Open Discussion on the text: I started some threads with questions and observations. This was a space for extremely casual and informal discussion of and reaction to the texts.
  • Theoretical Application: This forum each week asked students to use terms and ideas from their assigned theories to think about that week’s texts. I asked them to either write an interpretation of a specific plotline, character, element, etc., or to write some questions about the text through their theoretical lens.

I engaged in both weekly Discussion Boards often throughout the week (which I was able to d because students posted throughout the week and didn’t wait until the last second). I used lots of emojis and memes in the Open Discussion forum to encourage informality, and I wrote lengthy comments in response to the Theoretical Application posts. I also utilized the private feedback spaces to guide individual students who were struggling, rather than calling them out where the whole class could see.

Each synchronous class session was designed the same as well:

  • We begin with an open discussion where students can ask questions or tell us their burning opinions about the text. I address any issues I saw come up in the Discussion Boards, I mention some on-point comments from the Discussion Board, and we have an informal chat (via unmuting and texting in the chat widow) for about 20 minutes.
  • Students then move into breakout rooms, meeting with their assigned theory group to discuss their theory and its application to the text, expanding on their Discussion Board conversations. (I move between groups to answer questions and guide conversations.)
  • We come back to the main room, where students can ask questions that came up during groupwork or share some exciting insights.
  • Students then get shuffled into random groups, where each student teaches the others about their theory and recaps what their group discussed about the text. (Again, I move between groups.)
  • Finally, we come back into the main room, debrief, set up for the next week, and say goodbye.

By the time we moved on to the second set of theories, students commented on how different the experience was the second time around, that they now understood what the point was, and that it’s easier this time around because they know what to expect, they know how to think about theory, and they know how to think about applying the theory to literature. (One student even said “our professor is a genius,” which I will absolutely take.)

I did change the essay requirement so that students didn’t have to use any particular theory. It was a good decision, because it opened the opportunity for students to write about any aspect of the text that caught their interest in the preceding weeks. And the essays were almost all a smashing success.

My English 223 classes were a different story.

English 223 at Lehman is (for one more semester, before the curriculum overhaul takes effect in Fall 2021) an overview of English Literature for non-majors. It’s supposed to cover all of British literature, from Old English to 21st-century literature. That’s… a lot.

Again, this was my first time teaching the course, so I turned to sample syllabi provided by the English department. It seemed like some professors tried to cover all literary eras with three or four short texts each week; some skipped around and assigned a mixture of longer and shorter texts, without covering all literary eras; and many focused on their area of expertise. There did not seem to be a clear consensus on what the purpose of the course was. The catalog description is “Masterworks that form the basis of the literary heritage of the English language. Authors may include Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Swift or Pope, Wordsworth or Keats, Yeats, and a nineteenth- or twentieth-century novel.” I decided to frame the course as a question about the description itself, asking who decides what gets categorized as a “masterwork,” and what “the literary heritage of the English language” even means.

I started the semester with a collection of readings about “the” canon, about “identity canons” (ie, the gay canon, the canon of women writers, the Latinx canon, etc.), and about how and why we read. I then began a backwards-march through British literature, beginning with a postmodern dystopian novel (Individutopia, by Joss Sheldon) and aiming to end with Beowulf. The point was to flip the expected, to ask “what is the current state of English literature” before moving on to “what forms the basis of this body of literature?”

The plan for routine was:

  • A detailed video lecture about the ideas I wanted to focus on, including historical context and literary analysis.
  • Two Discussion Boards each week, with specific questions that students choose from. Students post one original thread in each forum, and reply to at least five classmates overall.
  • Groupwork in synchronous class sessions to work on various literary analysis skills.

From the beginning, this was a disaster. I had taught composition classes before, where students were not English majors. I thought I knew what to expect. But students in my 223 classes struggled with reading the texts on the canon and all its issues, and seemed to be using the page citations in my Discussion Board questions as an invitation to read only those pages. So their responses were completely out of context. Too late, I realized that I should have begun with at least one or two weeks about how to read, only then (maybe) moving on to these meta discussions.

Discussion of Individutopia was okay, not great. The essays on Individutopia displayed a complete lack of knowledge about writing paragraphs, essays, thesis statements, etc. This is a writing intensive class, but it’s not a composition class. I had set aside time to teach writing, but not to the extent that most students clearly needed. I do not blame the students, of course. But I was very frustrated.

We moved on to the Modernism week, where I had students reading an excerpt from Woolf’s essay on Modernism, Joyce’s “Araby,” and Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” I was a bit hesitant to assign that much reading for one week, but the sample syllabi I had consulted assigned far more per week than that. It was an unmitigated disaster. Clearly, almost no one read all three texts. Some students could not differentiate between the editor’s headnote and the actual text. And the comments on the video lecture displayed very little understanding of the concepts of modernism I was explaining.

After that week, I changed the entire syllabus. I scrapped all the future readings. I had not assigned any full novels after the two weeks on Individutopia, in order to allow each week to be focused on a different literary era. Now, I assigned Pride and Prejudice to be read over three weeks (I provided the text as a PDF, not asking students to make a sudden mid-semester purchase), the 2005 movie for one week, and Ibi Zoboi’s Pride for three weeks. The remainder of the semester would be spent on in-class essay-writing work. I split the class into three groups, with each group required to attend synchronous classes only once every three weeks. Smaller class sizes would, I hoped, allow me to provide more direction to individual students. All students were told to watch the recording of class lectures afterwards.

I also reduced Discussion Boards to one per week, no longer requiring students to create a new thread: their only Discussion Board requirement was to post three times per week, original thread or as a response to a classmate (or me, since I did start some threads). I added Reading Responses instead of the second Discussion Board. I wrote detailed instructions for short responses, designed to scaffold some reading and writing skills I hadn’t thought I would need to teach, in preparation for the second essay. I emphasized again and again that these Reading Responses were preparation for the essay, and that some students may even be able to use whole sentences or paragraphs from the Reading Responses in their essays.

  • The first Reading Response for Pride and Prejudice asked students to identify three characters, describe their social status, wealth, and personality; and reflect on how these three elements affect their interactions with others (total 250 words).
  • In that week’s synchronous class, we focused on analyzing short passages of text.
  • The following week’s Reading Response asked students to copy over a single short passage, explain why they chose it, and analyze its significance (total 250 words).
  • In that week’s synchronous class, we zoomed out to look at chapter summaries. In groups, students wrote chapter summaries in a Google Slides document. I asked them to write a five-point plot summary, a one-sentence plot summary, and one sentence about the chapter’s significance to the novel’s overall plots, relationships, and themes.
  • The Reading Response for the following week asked them to do literally that exact thing with one chapter chosen from the next 20 chapters.
  • In the following week’s synchronous class, by which time students were supposed to have finished reading the novel, we made lists of couples in the novel. We took notes on how their relationships end (happy? rich? in love?) and the trajectory of how each couple go to where they are. I showed them how looking at these patterns can lead us to answer “what is the novel saying about relationships? about marriage? about society’s rules? etc.?” (See image below.) Students pasted potential thesis statements into the chat, I copied them into a document I was sharing on their screens, and I asked each student to explain their thesis (essentially asking for proof and support). I bolded components of the thesis to show how theses can be broken down into components that require support and proof.
  • They watched the 2005 Pride and Prejudice movie for the next week, and the Reading Response asked them to do review the thesis work we had done in class, and then think about whether the relationships and social rules play out the same way in the movie (again, total 250 words).
  • The essay asked them to take all of that work and put it into an essay which makes a claim about what the novel (or movie) says about marriage, relationships, social rules, pride, etc.
Image: Document of notes taken in class as described above, charting relationships’ trajectories and end results. The last one is crossed out because the student realized, after trying to prove it, that this interpretation is insupportable by the novel – a victory for learning about how interpretation and support works!

None of that worked as planned, either.

The students who were doing fine continued to show up for synchronous classes as required, and some even attended during weeks when they weren’t scheduled (they asked my permission first). They also submitted their Reading Responses with thoughtful writing, showing sufficient preparation for writing their next essay. They made appointments to speak with me during office hours, and we reviewed their first essay and their Reading Responses one-on-one.

Some students who had been struggling stopped coming to synchronous classes at all. I wasn’t holding them accountable for attendance, and they knew that. So they stopped coming.

Some students who had been severely misunderstanding the texts and the assignments submitted Reading Responses that were way off the mark. When that happened, I provided detailed feedback and encouraged them to meet with me during office hours, and to visit the writing center. When I finally got in touch with a few who were really failing, they candidly told me that they were not even reading the assignment sheets, just assuming that a Reading Response meant “write some thoughts about what you read.” I was despairing, no idea how to fix this. (You would think that these students would then make sure to read the directions for the following assignments. That did not happen.)

Eventually, I was able to see that my feeling of failure here was coming from the unique position that online teaching puts both professors and students in. I know not every student will get an A, and I know a good few students might fail. But in “regular” classes, I don’t see it as clearly as I was seeing it now, every week, with every assignment. As Jody Greene points out in an excellent Twitter thread, the result of our wonderful thinking about how to keep students engaged and motivated during these online semesters often results in exposing the accountability (or lack thereof) we may not have realized wasn’t in place before. So, onto the next consideration.

Consideration #3: Accountability

My immediate reaction to Jody Greene’s tweet thread was this:

Two tweets from Dainy Bernstein. Tweet 1 text: "This is pretty much it. Students are used to opening the text five minutes before class, skimming the intro, reading Sparknotes. In class, depend on clues from other students to pick up and engage just enough in conversation and groupwork. Now, they can't do that." Tweet 2 text: "That's not necessarily a good thing. When I realized early this semester that I was asking students to come up with original thoughts each week in a way I wouldn't expect in f2f classes, I scaled it all way back. Making space for removing that pressure actually raised engagement."

As I said above, online teaching means that I see and register students’ failure to engage or understand differently. If a student is checked out in a regular classroom setting, I may notice it, but it won’t distract me. I won’t obsess over it. In online teaching, if a student is doing the bare minimum or less, it’s right there in my face when I read their Discussion Boards and Reading Responses, when I check on the Grade Center (which I am doing so much more often than I usually do). At first, I thought – great! This is built-in capability to keep an eye on students, identify who needs help early, and actually support students better! I forgot that some students just aren’t interested in that. And that some students don’t think they need help, no matter how much I may offer it.

Like, this RMP review shouldn’t bother me, because I know I reached out to all students who got zeroes on assignments and essays to offer help, I know that I spent forty-five minutes talking to one student who got a zero on his essay and subsequently gave him an A, and I know that each zero was very much deserved, and yet it still bothers me (and not just because of the misgendering).

screenshot from Rate My Professor, with an "awful" rating. Review reads: "Skip her class she is a lousy grader. She likes to give zeroes on papers."

Now, Jody Greene’s observation that “our previous expectations of how much work students were actually doing in our classes were off by a mile” is a good one. But I did always know that a significant percentage of students rarely do the reading before class, and that the ones who do don’t always read it as carefully as I would like.

And that’s usually fine! In-person classes allow students to sit back during the first part of discussion, to listen to the conversation and pick up on key details. When we point to specific lines in the text, they can get a sense of the text. When I assign groupwork, they’ll admit to their groupmates that they didn’t read (but please don’t let the professor know), and their group members will catch them up and protect them from my potential wrath.

And all of that is fine. That’s how learning works. With those who have more time and energy (and interest) sometimes carrying those whose jobs and families overwhelm them.

(The students who genuinely don’t care won’t be doing these things I describe to catch up in class. They’re a whole separate story. But again, I can usually ignore them during in-person classes, after establishing that they’re not interested in my help. I only have to deal with them when they’re upset at their inevitable bad essay grades.)

But students are feeling now that they’re being expected to do more work, because we are holding them accountable and grading bits and pieces of weekly work on a level we have not done until now. Sure, we collected and graded in-class writing, but being in person and jotting down some things on a paper during class sessions is very different from submitting Discussion Boards or Reading Responses outside of synchronous class sessions.

Which leads me to my Spring 2021 plans.

Will they work better? Only time will tell. But they’re based on all of the above thoughts and considerations, so maybe.

Spring 2021 Scheduling:

I’m teaching two classes in Spring 2021. They’re both classes I’ve taught before, though not for a little while. My English 121 class (English Composition II: Introduction to Literature) meets on Wednesday evenings for 4 hours. My English 301 class (British Literature I: Origins to Early Modern) meets on Tuesday evenings for 3 hours. I am planning to ask students to attend class for the full time, rather than splitting things up into a combination of synchronous and asynchronous. Here’s how they’ll work:

English 121: English Composition II: Introduction to Literature

The class is scheduled to run from 6pm to 9:40pm. Composition classes are always 4 hours / 4 credits at Lehman. Once-a-week 4-hour classes can be brutal. I taught two back-to-back sections of once-a-week 4-hour composition classes at College of Staten Island one semester, so I have some ideas from that coming into play here too.

  • We begin class at 6pm via Teams video sessions. I will lecture a bit and facilitate discussion of the assigned reading, the writing skill we’re discussing, etc.
  • At 6:45pm, our video session will end. Students remain logged into Teams but our activity moves to the text channels. They will read or re-read the text for that week, and will chat via text channels. They will ask questions about specific words or ideas and get answers from me in real time. They will respond to specific prompts. They will engage in informal conversation with classmates and with me. We’ll do this for 1 hour 15 minutes (the extra 15 minutes is a buffer for getting drinks, bathroom breaks, and getting back into the video session).
  • At 8:00pm, we’ll return to a Teams video session. We’ll review any questions, talk about implications of the text channel discussions, etc. I will introduce a new key concept or skill.
  • At 8:45pm, our Teams video session ends again. Students remain logged onto the text channels. They complete some writing work, sometimes individually and sometimes in pairs or groups. They ask questions via the text channel, and they submit their writing. I won’t be able to see their work as they write.
  • At 9:15pm, we return to the Teams video session. We review any questions and insights, we take a look at a few students’ work, we critique them, and we wrap up the session. I tell them what we’ll be reading / writing for next week, and we say goodbye at 9:40pm.
  • I stay on for a half hour longer to comment on the writing of students’ whose submissions were not used as samples in the last section of class.

English 301: British Literature I: Origins to Early Modern

(First of all, yes, the course title is being changed along with the complete curriculum overhaul.)

This class is scheduled meet from 6pm to 8:40pm on Tuesdays. It is a writing-intensive course, but (in contrast to the 223 classes I taught in fall 2020) almost all students enrolled in this class are English majors. Many are also education majors. I am planning to use plenty of class time to teach, practice, and critique writing. Those weeks when they’re writing essay drafts will of course look slightly different than the schedule I outline here:

  • We begin class at 6pm via Teams video sessions. Students will have (supposedly) read the assigned text ahead of class. I will have prepared them for reading via a short lecture at the end of the previous week’s class. We’ll spend half an hour on open discussion, plot review, etc. I will set up the focus of the evening.
  • At 6:30pm, our video session will end. Students will remain logged onto Teams and will move to text channels. They will follow instructions to re-read (or read for the first time) the text, or specific sections of a longer text. They will ask for clarification about specific words, lines, characters, plot points, etc. I will post prompts and questions to think about as they read. They will discuss these questions and themes with me and with each other in the text channel. I will encourage them to cite specific lines as they share their thoughts and analyses. For some sessions, they’ll work in pairs or groups. For some sessions, I’ll provide worksheets for them to use in addition to the regular text-chatting.
  • At 7:30pm, we will return to our Teams video session. We’ll talk about the points brought up in the text chat. I’ll make any corrections or clarifications necessary, which I’ll have been marking down during the hour of text-chatting.
  • At 8:00pm, we’ll end the video session again and move back to text-chatting. This time, I’ll ask students to move beyond the comprehension / light analysis of the previous text-session. They will write brief analytic responses to the text we’ve been discussing, using my prompt which will direct them in skills of literary analysis (building throughout the semester).
  • At 8:30pm, we’ll jump back into our video session one last time. We’ll review any questions, and I will set them up for next week’s reading.

And that’s it!

It’s a lot of moving back and forth, but it accomplishes at least two things:

  1. It avoids “Zoom fatigue.”
  2. It allows the “extra work” of Discussion Boards and Responses, when there’s an asynchronous component, to more closely resemble the “regular” in-class work of reading, discussing, and low-stakes writing.

Spring 2021 Assignment Sequences

Since I’m setting aside so much time during synchronous class sessions for writing, I won’t feel the need to “check in” and “make sure” students are reading more than I normally do in in-person classes. As Roopika Risam put it on Twitter:

Screenshot of tweet thread by Roopika Risam (username @roopikarisam) QT Jody Greene: Tweet 1 reads: "Unpopular opinion but there’s a pandemic on. If you trusted that students did the reading and were satisfied with how they did in your class before the pandemic, don’t add more assignments for “accountability” just because it gives you a sense of security." Tweet 2 reads: "Having worked in faculty support for online teaching during this pandemic, I’ve seen so many courses designed to obtain proof that students read *everything* assigned. It adds up. Then multiply by 5. And that’s before factoring in direct and indirect pandemic effects." Tweet 3 reads: "No wonder students are struggling! We didn’t prepare them for this much “accountability” before and are now dumping it on them in the middle of a public health, economic, and political crisis like many of them have never experienced before."

So now I’m able to more consciously go back to designing assignments the way I used to: designed to help students practice skills of reading and writing, not to prove that they’re doing the work.

Assignment Sequence for English 121:

The overarching idea behind the whole sequence is, of course, scaffolding. I begin this composition class with basic skills of summarizing and close reading, and then move on to a more complex essay. We end with a research essay. The weekly assignments are directly tied to these essays.

Each week, students will submit a short piece of writing, except for weeks when essays are due, of course. Each week’s assignment is due on Monday of the following week (five days after our synchronous session). The assignment will be drawn directly from what we worked on in the synchronous session, giving students an immediate chance to practice the skills they just learned. The will be allowed – and encouraged – to simply revise their in-class work for submission by Monday.

The assignments are as follows, week by week:

  1. Introduction Video: a close reading of a personal item.
  2. Summary of the short text we read and discussed in class.
  3. Essay #1: a short (2-3 page) close reading of one of the previous weeks’ short texts.
  4. Summary of a critical essay (we will read this entirely in class, no reading due while they work on their essay).
  5. Summary and analysis of a critical essay.
  6. Creative writing (we’re talking about narratives and how the stories we tell, and the way we tell them, reveal things about us, our values, and our hopes for the future, etc.)
  7. Essay #2 First Draft.
  8. Essay #2 Graded Draft, after a session on revision, organization, development, and peer review.
  9. Spring Break – no work. (Only I have to grade all their essays!)
  10. Summary of the movie we discussed in class.
  11. Analysis of the movie.
  12. A “video essay,” based on the YouTube video essay we discussed in class.
  13. Research Question for the final essay, following a practical session about choosing and refining a research question.
  14. Annotated Bibliography, following a practical session about finding and evaluating sources.
  15. Final Essay First Draft, after a session on citation and peer review.

The Graded Draft of the Final Essay will be due during Finals Week.

Assignment Sequence for English 301:

This is primarily a literature class, so it’s weighted less heavily to writing. As I’ve described above, I will assign reading due before the synchronous class times, as usual. But I am also building in the opportunity for students to catch up in case they didn’t have time to start or finish reading before class. The writing for this class is also scaffolded, but I’m not asking the students to do any low-stakes writing outside of class. Their essays, including all scaffolded stages, are due on Fridays, following the Tuesday synchronous classes. (I’ll accept submission over Saturday and Sunday also with no penalty.)

So the week-by-week writing schedule looks like this:

  1. Introduction Video.
  2. None.
  3. Essay #1 Graded Draft (on medieval and early modern poetry, using the work they’ll have done in class over the past three weeks).
  4. None.
  5. None.
  6. None.
  7. Essay #2 First Draft (on medieval romance; they’ll have submitted a proposal which I will respond to immediately at the end of class).
  8. Essay #2 Graded Draft (following a peer review session in class on Tuesday).
  9. Spring Break – no assignments (again, I will spend Spring Break grading!)
  10. None.
  11. None.
  12. Annotated Bibliography (following two sessions on finding secondary sources).
  13. Final Essay Proposal (on medieval and early modern drama).
  14. Final Essay First Draft.

During Finals Week: Final Essay Graded Draft (following peer review in our last synchronous session).

Gosh, even just typing that makes me feel like a weight’s been lifted off my chest. I can’t even imagine what that will do to students juggling four or five classes.

And finally: Spring 2021 Accountability

None. I’ve eliminated the need for it.

With tremendous thanks to all my colleagues on Twitter (and Facebook, and the ESA Discord server) whose ideas and discussions are so valuable as we grapple with all this. Here’s hoping this intense work informs my teaching practices forever after. (Sorry, I am feeling very choked up with emotion after re-reading and proofreading this…)

Happy teaching, y’all!

Teaching in the Time of Corona: Look, Ma! No Plans!

A week ago, I posted the instructions for moving online that I sent to my students. (Was it really only a week ago…?) It was so clear, so detailed, so hopeful, so… delusional.

Most of my students managed to get onto Slack and Zoom, the two digital tools I chose to use for my classes. Many filled out the Google Forms survey asking about their accessibility needs and preferences. Slowly, students started interacting on Slack. Then one class met on Zoom, and things were going well. We were settling into our new normal.

The next class didn’t meet until this past Tuesday, but we were interacting via email and Slack. There were glitches and hitches, and I began to rethink what I was expecting my students to do. By the time we Zoomed on Tuesday, I had decided to abandon the second and third papers of the semester. It was hard enough to communicate about the texts – some students are of an -ahem- older generation as returning students, and they were really struggling with the tech. Even students who were okay with it were obviously juggling multiple emails from multiple instructors, and as much as it would be great if everyone would have adopted my organization suggestions (charts for each class with times of video meeting and deadlines for written work etc), that… was not happening.

We met on Tuesday. It was a decent class. Our class was “normally” scheduled to meet for 2.5 hours once a week. We spent 1.5 hours on Zoom, despite my original plans to keep the meeting under an hour. Most of that time was spent on learning how to use Slack and going over the plans for the rest of the semester.

Then CUNY announced a “Recalibration” period, giving us another week off to give students more time to request and acquire laptops and iPads as needed. They also said that our spring break – always scheduled over Passover at CUNY – was to be cut short, now only April 8 – April 10. Yep, I got those dates right. Spring break is 2 days. In a way, that makes sense. We had a week “off” to move our classes online, and we have another week “off” now again. So we don’t need another break, right?

Well, look, I have given up on thinking I can plan more than a week ahead – if even that. I did update the reading schedule for both classes (thankfully, the YA class can remain the same since we had planned to spend two weeks reading our current book, each student at their own pace and when they can).

I cut a few texts: to my dismay, I cut an excerpt from Sometimes We Tell the Truth from my medieval and early modern survey. In the past, I’ve paired Reeve’s Tale from the YA retelling with Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale for a conversation about quyting and scholarship on Chaucer. And I was supposed to present a paper at the New Chaucer Society’s July conference in Durham about how I use YA texts in a medieval survey class, but of course, that’s not happening…

Today I met with my YA class for the second time. We’re still in middle of reading Rena Rossner’s The Sisters of the Winter Wood, and my students are having some amazing conversations on Slack – better than they had in f2f classes, actually.

But our hour-long session today was spent on reviewing assignments, discussing anxieties over how the course will be graded now, learning and practicing how to post entries for their reading list (annotated bibliography) assignment – and then the whole thing broke down into a sharing circle as one student told us that their friend had died from apparent coronavirus yesterday, and another student shared that they had tested positive but that they’re feeling better now, and then students unmuted themselves one at a time and shared their anxieties, and I stopped responding and just sat back with tears in the corners of my eyes and let them talk to each other.

We didn’t discuss the book or their Slack conversations at all. I have given up.

No, I haven’t given up. I’ve shifted my priorities. Last week, I was saying that professors have to boil down their curricula to the absolute necessities and cut the rest. I wasn’t really taking my own advice, though I thought I was. It has become clear to me that the goals of my class can no longer be anything like what they were before.

Before, my goals were to have students survey the primary texts and understand the conversations in the respective scholarly fields.

Now, my goal is to have students talking to me and to each other, maintaining sanity, maintaining community. We do that through reading and talking about our books. We do that by escaping into the worlds of shapeshifter families and dancing plagues, of medieval trans heroes and sheep-thieves.

If they engage with the texts and keep their minds off whatever nonsense is happening in the world and in their lives, that’s good. If they learn something from my course goals, even better. But I will not be making lecture videos for them to watch anymore, I will not be giving them additional assignments to aid comprehension. I will be more active in Slack than I had planned to be.

And most of all, I will stop proclaiming what I will do in anything more than one week increments, if that.

Online YA Class: Day 1 (Setting Things Up + The Inexplicable Logic of My Life)

When CUNY shut down for a week, my class was at the tail end of reading and discussing Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s The Inexplicable Logic of My Life.

The disruption meant that we had one planned class left for discussing the book, but everyone was so disoriented and worried about the world that it was difficult to think about returning to the book in a substantial way when we reconvened online (or at least, that was my impression). I also didn’t want to a) leave loose ends hanging for this book or b) start a new book AND a new platform at the same time.

So it worked out pretty well: I was able to ask students to play around with the new platforms using a text we’d already discussed. They were able to gather their thoughts on the book and get comfortable with these new online tools at the same time. And moving forward into the next week, they’re beginning to read the next book, now that they’ve gotten a bit comfortable with a whole new way of learning.

Here’s how I worked it all:

On Sunday, I emailed the full document outlining the plans for the semester. That document (posted here) gave instructions for accessing Slack and Zoom, the two online platforms I settled on. When students entered Slack, they were asked to post in a #confirmation channel, just saying hi so I could keep track of who accessed the Slack, and to get them posting, even if only one word. On Monday, I posted to the #random channel with an image of some blackout poems I had created. The purpose of this was to get them used to seeing the #random channel as a place for easy informal conversation, and to allow them to post their own images. In this class, no one responded until Wednesday, when I posted an image of my tea infuser, a cat chasing a fish.

screenshot of a slack conversation showing two images of blackout poetry
screenshot of slack conversation showing image of a cat-shaped tea infuser, followed by two student comments

Meanwhile, on Tuesday, I sent another email with a few PowerPoint slides. My hope was that this would provide stability and reassure students by giving them a concrete plan. The other purposes were to provide a review of what we had talked about in previous classes, which seemed like a lifetime ago, and to encourage them (but not require them) to begin using Slack. And also to provide a bit of levity – see the “Whistling in the Dark” slide, which links to this video and this one.

On Thursday, we had out first Zoom lesson. I started by asking students to, one by one, tell us about how they’ve been feeling and/or something they’ve begun to incorporate into their routine now that everything is different. It was good for a number of reasons. My primary reasons for doing that were to 1) hear their voices and 2) make sure everyone knows how to mute themselves 😉

It went way over the time I thought it would (it took 30 minutes to get through everyone) but was so worth it. I felt the sense of community that we had before coming back as they talked about their jobs and their families and various worries. Everyone was tense and a bit formal at the start, and by the end we were back to our usual loose, comfortable atmosphere. Moving into talking about Slack and the assignments etc was a lot easier after that.

Students also fiddled with Zoom while we met and found features I hadn’t known about – I had been asking for them to physically show me a thumbs up if they understood/were on board with something I said. They discovered the ability to send a thumbs up emoji, and I will incorporate that in future Zoom sessions! They also discovered the ability to digitally raise their hands, which lets me know who has a question and works better than the in-video chat window.

When we had all gotten comfortable again, I asked if anyone had any questions or concerns. There were a couple questions and some general anxiety about how the class will work. I addressed those briefly, and moved seamlessly into a synchronous demonstration of how Slack works. Via Zoom, I shared my screen with everyone and showed them:

  1. how to switch between classes on Slack, since many of them are attending multiple classes on Slack now.
  2. how to find the channels that may not appear in their menu right away (on both desktop and mobile).
  3. how to post to a channel.
  4. how to reply to someone else’s comment or question.
  5. where to post general queries and where to post text- or assignment-specific thoughts.
  6. how to privately message me.
  7. how posting shorter comments works better than long responses to my prompts, to facilitate conversation among their peers.

I then asked everyone to post one comment or question about The Inexplicable Logic of My Life in that book’s channel. The comments came flying in – almost all of them were immediately comfortable with the platform, and it was clear that they had been thinking about the book quite a bit! There were a few snags, which was part of why I asked them to do this, of course – to identify any problems and enable us to troubleshoot. Three students had issues, and I was able to help them while the rest of the class posted and read each other’s posts.

After everyone had posted, I asked them to respond to at least one classmate’s comment or question. The purpose here was to make sure they knew how to start a thread (Slack’s interface isn’t entirely intuitive for that) and also to reinforce the message that “I agree with you” is not enough of an engagement. Once they got that, the responses – again – came flying in, and I very much enjoyed watching the conversations unfold. For me, it was like listening in to groupwork as I usually do during in-person classes. It reassured me that this will work!

Finally, I showed them the #reading-list channel, which is a variation on an assignment I had literally given to them the day before CUNY shut down for a week.

I then asked them if they had any other questions or concerns. They did, of course 🙂 I answered them, we reviewed the requirements for the following week (read The Sisters of the Winter Wood at your own pace; engage ten times on Slack, but no I’m not literally counting ten times; try to set aside two half-hour chunks of the week to be on Slack rather than checking in constantly or at the last second; video-lectures and PowerPoints and relevant links will be posted to the #sisters-winter-wood channel and BlackBoard).

(We did not get to talk about the songs in the book, which is a disappointment to me. But c’est la vie!)

And then, with a sense of relief, hope, and determination (at least on my part), we said goodbye, to meet again in a week’s time!

Online Teaching During a Pandemic: Two Syllabi

This past week has been a flurry of more global, more intense collegiality than I’ve ever witnessed. It comes as a result of a terrible situation, of course. But I have been so grateful for and so amazed by the communities that have sprung up, by the support being offered freely from those with any kind of expertise.

I was so appreciative of people on Twitter and Facebook who shared brief ideas and suggestions as they worked on their newly-online syllabi. I want to share mine here as well – not to say that they are exemplars but to provide a starting point and a way for others to think about possibilities that they might incorporate into their own courses.

This is far from set in stone. As I told my students during our first Zoom meeting today, I expect that things will continue to shift as we all figure out what we can and can’t expect of ourselves and each other in this new format that we’ve had little time to prepare for. To that point, if you want to share your revised syllabus, please drop a link in the comments! I would love to see what others are doing.

I started with a table of contents. I don’t usually do this in my syllabi, though it occurs to me that I should start doing that now… But here, I wanted students to be able to navigate easily through this document that I wasn’t presenting in person.

I did include videos recorded via Zoom, where I shared my screen with students and walked them through each section. But for future weeks, if students want to check something, they can now easily navigate to it within this (admittedly very large) document.

Here’s the syllabus for my class on Critical Approaches to Adolescent Literature. Further down is the syllabus for my class on Early British Literature. (The first section, on distance learning and isolation, is identical in both documents, so I only include it once here.)

General Notes on Distance Learning and Isolation:

Some of you may have taken online classes before. This is NOT what you would expect from an online class. This is a stopgap emergency measure, and there’s no way it can be as effective as a class that was originally designed to be online. We’re all doing the best we can, but there will be glitches and upsets. The main goal here is to finish the semester without losing our minds.

That means that if you’re not sure about an assignment, or if you somehow don’t see a notification and realize only a week later, don’t worry. Send me an email or visit my office hours (details below). Flexibility is key here, and I will do all I can to ensure you all get the grades you’re aiming for.

Having a routine has been proven to help people maintain healthy mental states. If you’re taking care of children or elderly people, you’ll probably have a routine mostly built in. But make sure to schedule time for classes and homework, if only to ensure you have time for yourself! Build little routines into your day.

Some ideas:

  1. Set aside a designated space for schoolwork, whether it’s a commonly used space or your own separate office. Returning to the same spot for a specific activity will help get you in the right headspace. (It’s science!)
  2. Maintain your eating and cooking routines. Take some extra time with them if this is an activity you enjoy. Indulge in some fancy teas or coffees, or whatever gets you excited.
  3. If you had a crafts hobby you haven’t touched in a while, pick it back up; or, start a new crafts hobby! Set aside some time each day, and make sure to practice self-care.
  4. If you won’t be leaving the house (a smart idea, all things considered), do some exercises or stretched. Get the adrenaline flowing! ( is offering their app free for a while, so if you need some coaching, they’ve got you!)
  5. If you usually do your makeup or other kinds of grooming, don’t ignore that just because you’re not leaving the house. Spend some time on yourself, just for yourself. It’ll help you maintain a sense of the “world out there.”
  6. Keep in touch with friends! Be active on social media, form chat groups, etc. Even if you can’t get together, make sure to maintain contact. Check in with people who might need help and reach out if you need help.


  1. Read Young Adult books to get a sense of the field.
    • More flexible reading schedule. Not totally free-for-all, though!
    • Discuss books in informal chats and via once-a-week video conferences.
  2. Learn about topics of debate and conversation in the field of Young Adult literature.
    • Listen to / watch videos I will share with you.
    • Occasionally, read secondary criticism.
    • Some low-stakes assignments to make sure you understand the videos/texts. These may be in the form of charts, drawings, infographics, etc.
  3. Learn / hone skills of critical analysis.
    • Discuss the YA novels and the secondary videos/texts with classmates, in formal groupwork and informal chats. Required: 10 engagements per week.
    • Write one more essay. (I am grading your first essay and will return it to you shortly.)
    • Create a reading list.
    • Write fanfic or create fan-art.



No more Discussion Boards. Slack channels will replace these.

Assignment sheets will still be posted to BlackBoard (as will this document). You will submit your final reading lists and your final paper via BlackBoard. Everything else will happen on Slack and Zoom.


  1. Follow this link: [removed]
    • You will be prompted to create an account with any email you choose. Your name should be your FULL NAME, first and last, so that I can keep track of you.
    • There are a number of “channels” which you can access from the left side of the screen on a computer, or from the menu on a smartphone.
      • The #general channel is for questions / comments about the class. This document will be hosted there.
      • The #assignments channel will have writing assignments and reading schedules.
      • The #random channel is for you all to informally chat about anything at all.
    • Each book we read will have its own channel.
      • You can enter the channels whenever you want and add your thoughts.
      • You should keep to the reading schedule, but you may read ahead and skip backwards to return to books we finished discussing.
      • Channels with new posts will appear bolded in your list.
      • You can post directly to the whole channel, or you can reply to a specific post. You can also tag people, so that we know who you’re responding to.
    • Each writing assignment will have its own channel. I’ll post detailed instructions there, and you can ask questions and have informal chats with each other there as well.


  • Follow this link: [removed]
    • You will be asked to allow a download of the Zoom app, whether on phone or computer. Allow it!
    • Once you’re in, click “Join” and enter this Meeting ID: [removed]. Follow instructions to create a username.
    • We will use this meeting space in two ways:
      • Once a week, we’ll meet “face-to-face” for an hour. See the survey I sent asking which day you prefer: [removed]. Zoom meetings on the free plan can only go for 40 minutes, so we will have to hang up and rejoin to get a full hour.
      • Once a week, I will hold office hours. See the survey I sent asking for which times you prefer. When I’m holding office hours, you will be able to enter the “waiting room” and I will let you into my “office” in the order that you called in.


Reading Schedule:

  • Thursday, March 19: Finish up with The Inexplicable Logic of My Life
  • March 24 – March 31:The Sisters of the Winter Wood
                Slack for chats; Zoom once a week on Thursday 3:30-4:30pm
  • April 2: Sometimes We Tell the Truth (selection, not the whole book)
            Slack for chat; one Zoom session on Thursday 3:30-4:30pm
  • April 7 – April 16: Spring break.
  • April 21 – May 5: Dark and Deepest Red           
    Slack for chats; Zoom once a week on Thursday 3:30-4:30pm
  • May 7 – May 14: The Poet X
                Slack for chats; Zoom once a week on Thursday 3:30-4:30pm

Writing Schedule:

March 24 – May 14: Share a book for your reading list, one per week.
To limit outside exposure, there will be no library or bookstore requirement. Instead, you will use online libraries or sites like Goodreads to gather titles. And since we have this added online chat space, we can spread the assignment out over the rest of the semester.

  • Each week, you’ll find one book that fits a theme, genre, or topic (as described on the assignment sheet).
  • You’ll post it to the Slack channel #reading-list.
  • You will include the title, author, publisher, and year of publication.
  • You will also include a summary (copy-pasted from the site on which you found it) and you will cite your source (Goodreads, NYPL, Buzzfeed, Epic Reads, etc).
  • Finally, you’ll add a sentence or tow about why you chose this book.
  • Keep all your books in a document. You will turn in this document at the end of the semester, through BlackBoard, so that I can have an easy record of it to grade.

April 20: Fanfic/fan-art due
I’m pushing this way back rather than having it due in a couple of weeks because it’ll be difficult enough to figure out what’s going on with the regular reading – we can save the more creative piece for later, so that you have more time to get used to online stuff first.

  • You will have the option to work in partners or on your own.
  • We’ll talk about specifics after we read Sometimes We Tell the Truth.

May 16: First Draft of Final Essay

May 16 – May 21: Mandatory virtual-office meeting to discuss your paper

May 22: Final Draft of Final Essay
I’m pushing the essay to the end of the semester. Originally, I had planned to have a day of presentations at the end of the semester. But since we can’t do that, it makes more sense to just leave this big project for the end. That also gives you the chance to write about any of the books on the syllabus, rather than limiting you to only the texts we’ve read before your essay is due. So, a win-win!

Things to do before our first class on Thursday, March 19:

  1. Read this entire document!!!
  2. Make sure you can access Slack and Zoom.
  3. Fill out the survey.
  4. Finish reading The Inexplicable Logic of My Life.
  5. Make sure you have a quiet space and/or headphones, and you’re ready on Thursday at 3:30pm.

See you then! Onward, brave adventurers!

ENG301: British Literature I, Spring 2020: Online Instruction (March 24-May 12, 2020)

MAIN GOALS FOR THE CLASS and how we’ll achieve them:

The move to online, and the loss of a week as your professors rethink their syllabus, means that some things have to be dropped from the syllabus. Other things need to be rearranged. Below is an outline that explains my choices – where I chose to keep things, where I chose to cut things, how I chose to reconfigure some assignments, and the reasons behind it all.

  1. Get a sense of medieval and early modern British texts:
    • Discussion of texts in informal chats (using Slack) and via brief weekly video conferences will replace our 2.5hr weekly classes.
    • The Slack will be open all week long. I will check it on a regular schedule (not 24/7). This way, we can make sure that you understand the basics of text as you’re reading (plot, character, language, etc).
    • Infographic timeline: I will show you how to create an infographic, and you will organize the texts from our syllabus in chronological order.
  2. Understand the ways various medieval and early modern genres work:
    • I will record some video and audio for you, accompanied by PowerPoints. These will replace my lectures that usually gave you context of the genre and the conventions. (Like when we talked about courtly love in relation to Lanval, for example.)
    • It would have made sense to cut some texts from the syllabus, but we need a good representation of all the genres. I’ve cut down the amount of time we spend on a couple of the texts, and I’ve cut out the secondary (critical) text on The Merchant of Venice.
  3. Learn about topics of debate and conversation in the field of medieval and early modern British literature:
    • This will be covered in videos and PowerPoints as well.
    • Some leading questions designed to help you think about the debates/topics will be posted in Slack so that you can think about them during the week as you read.
    • During our 30-minute weekly video-conferencing session, we’ll talk about the topics/debates a bit.
    • Some low-stakes assignments to make sure you understand the videos/texts. These may be in the form of charts, drawings, infographics, etc. which you’ll post on Slack. This will basically replace in-class writing. They’ll be short and very informal (and ungraded).
  4. Learn / hone skills of critical analysis:
    • Discuss the texts and the secondary videos with classmates, in formal groupwork and informal chats. Required: 10 engagements per week. Engagements can happen at any time before Tuesday at 6pm. They can be in the form of a question (clarifying a point in the text, asking about context, etc.); a thought about interpreting the text; or a response to a classmate’s question or interpretation. Responses MUST be more than “I agree with you.” They must substantively contribute to the conversation. (Let’s be real, otherwise you can just write “I agree with you” ten times, and that’s not learning…)
    • Write two more essays: one on romance (Lanval, Bisclavret, The King of Tars, Roman de Silence) and one on drama (The Second Shepherds’ Play, The Merchant of Venice).
    • Write an adaptation or fanfic of ONE text from the syllabus. (This is definitely critical! You’ll write this after we discuss Sometimes We Tell the Truth, which is an adaptation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.)



Assignment sheets will still be posted to BlackBoard (as will this document). You will submit your papers, timeline, and creative project via BlackBoard. Everything else will happen on Slack and Zoom. Slack and Zoom both have phone apps.


  1. Follow this link: [removed]  
    • You will be prompted to create an account with any email you choose (keep in mind that everyone in the class will be able to see your email address, so use your Lehman email if you want privacy). Your name should be your FULL NAME, first and last, so that I can keep track of you.
    • There are a number of “channels” which you can access from the left side of the screen on a computer, or from the menu on a smartphone.
      • The #intro-syllabus channel is for questions / comments about the class. This document will be hosted there.
      • The #assignments channel will have writing assignments and reading schedules.
      • The #random channel is for you all to informally chat about anything at all.
    • Each text we read will have its own channel.
      • You can enter the channels at any point during the week when we’re reading a specific text and add your thoughts. Do not go ahead. You may return to previous weeks’ discussions, if you have more thoughts you want to add. (This is a bonus of online learning!)
      • You can post directly to the whole channel, or you can reply to a specific post. You can also tag people, so that we know who you’re responding to.
      • Channels with new posts will appear bolded in your list.
    • Each writing assignment will have its own channel. I’ll post detailed instructions there, and you can ask questions and have informal chats with each other there as well. Same rules as with the text channels.
    • If you want to create a private study group with just a few people, you can do that!


  • Follow this link: [removed]
    • You will be asked to allow a download of the Zoom app, whether on phone or computer. Allow it!
    • Once you’re in, click “Join” and enter this Meeting ID: [removed]. Follow instructions to create a username.
    • We will use this meeting space in two ways:
      • Once a week, we’ll meet “face-to-face” for 30 minutes. We will not meet as a full class – I think that would get overwhelming. Instead, we’ll meet in smaller groups for 30 minutes each. See the survey I sent asking which timeslot you prefer: [removed]. I will post the groups/schedule as soon as everyone has responded.
      • Once a week, I will hold office hours. See the survey I sent asking for which times you prefer. When I’m holding office hours, you will be able to enter the “waiting room” and I will let you into my “office” in the order that you called in.


Reading Schedule:

March 24: The King of Tars; Beowulf (lines 1-1250); Cohen’s “Monster Theory” Seven Theses

  1. Review the seven theses (document of your summaries posted to BlackBoard and to the #king-of-tars-beowulf channel on Slack).
  2. Review the plot of The King of Tars.
  3. Read Beowulf lines 1-1250.
  4. Watch the video of me talking about monsters & lump-babies & Grendel & Beowulf…
  5. Join the Slack channel and engage at least 10 times before class on Tuesday, March 24.
  6. Make sure you know your timeslot. Join Zoom on time.

March 31: Roman de Silence

  1. Access the document of questions about Roman de Silence.
  2. Note that you will be reading selected lines throughout the text. You do not need to read the whole long text!
  3. Watch/listen to/read any supplementary material I give you (I’m not sure yet what format it will be in – this depends on your preferences, among other things.)
  4. Read Roman de Silence, using the questions to help you understand the text.
  5. Check in on Slack frequently this week. Silence can be confusing – use the resource of what can be a group-study, where you can all help each other out. I will of course also be checking in to answer questions, etc.
  6. Engage on Slack at least 10 times before class on Tuesday, March 31.
  7. Join your Zoom at the right time.

SPRING BREAK!! Yes, that’s still on… Make sure to relax and actually take time for yourself. It’s easy to just hop onto Slack and chat with people (and sure, do that in the #random channel). But don’t do schoolwork unless you have to.

April 21: The Canterbury Tales: “The Miller’s Tale”

  1. Access supplemental materials I provide (video, audio, or written). These will include links to resources to help you understand the Middle English of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
  2. Read the Norton’s introduction to Chaucer (pages 256-261).
  3. Read the Norton’s introduction to “The Miller’s Prologue and Tale” (page 282).
  4. Read “The Miller’s Prologue and Tale” (pages 282-298).
  5. Engage on Slack at least 10 times, at any point during your reading of the introductory materials or the text itself.
  6. Join your Zoom at the right time.

April 28: Sometimes We Tell the Truth excerpt

  1. Access my supplementary materials.
  2. Download the PDF of the excerpt you need to read (posted to BlackBoard and Slack, as all docs you need will be).
  3. Read the text!
  4. Engage on Slack at least 10 times.
  5. Join Zoom at the right time.

May 5: The Second Shepherds’ Play
Instructions: Same as previous weeks, with perhaps some adjustments as we figure things out!

May 12: The Merchant of Venice
Instructions: Same as previous weeks, with perhaps some adjustments as we figure things out!

I will check Slack chats a few times throughout the week. I will not be available 24/7…

Writing Schedule:

  • all due by 11:59pm via BlackBoard on the dates listed
  • detailed assignment sheets will be posted to BlackBoard and Slack
  • we will review the assignments via Zoom
  • you can ask me questions about the assignment in Slack, and you can chat with classmates and share ideas as well (I’m not worried about plagiarism – partly because I can see everything you write on Slack even if you’re in a private group 😉)

Essay #2 (Romance) Draft #1                         Saturday, April 4

Essay #2 (Romance) Final Draft                     Sunday, April 19

Creative adaptation / fanfic                             Tuesday, May 5

Infographic timeline                                        Tuesday, May 12

Essay #3 (Drama)                                           Saturday, May 23

Things to do before our first class on Tuesday, March 24:

  1. Read this entire document!!! Use the videos linked in the doc and on Slack to help you understand everything. Ask questions on Slack if there’s anything you don’t understand.
  2. Make sure you can access Slack and Zoom (links above).
  3. Fill out the survey: [removed]
  4. Review The King of Tars and the monster theses; read Beowulf lines 1-1250.
  5. Make sure you have a quiet space and/or headphones, and you’re ready on Tuesday at your assigned time to join Zoom.

See you soon! Onward, brave adventurers!

Spring 2020: English 301 & English 336

English 301: British Literature, Origins to 1660

Last semester, I tried something new with my early Brit Lit survey class. I assigned texts completely out of chronological order. Some of my friends were very skeptical, warning me that my students would be confused and wouldn’t walk away with an understanding of the history. I found that not to be the case. Partly that’s because I assigned a timeline infographic towards the end of the semester, which forced students to remember that they’ve been reading the texts out of order and to actively move them from the syllabus’s arrangement to a chronological arrangement.

But actually, I’m not too bothered if my students don’t know exactly which texts fall into the early medieval period, the later medieval period, or the early modern period. My thinking on this has changed quite a bit. I used to think it was essential that students understand the sweep of history. I used to think it was essential for them to understand the historical context within which the texts were written and read. And don’t get me wrong, I still think that’s important, and I spend a good deal of lecture on contextualizing this for my students. But the majority of my students are preparing to teach at the middle-school or elementary-school levels. It doesn’t really matter if they know these details. They need to learn how to analyze texts, they need to be aware of the multiple conversations and controversies that surround texts in general (not necessarily the texts I’m teaching them).

I was very satisfied with the results of the timeline exercise and I’m going to repeat it in the spring semester.

I wasn’t entirely sure of the success of my organization of texts by genre, starting with poetry. But my students in fall 2019 told me it worked well. So despite my slight misgivings about starting with poetry, which I thought caused my students to struggle unnecessarily at the very beginning of the semester, I’m sticking with it. I am, however, devoting more time to that section and beginning with a clear look at how to do close readings and analysis.

I also added a secondary reading: the first chapter of Ebony Elizabeth Thomas’s book The Dark Fantastic. Sure, the book is about contemporary fantasy. But it contains a lot of theory that will be very useful grounding for our discussions of many texts.

One more change I made to the syllabus this semester was to add poetry by Meir of Norwich. I had attempted too much last semester and had to cut King of Tars. I taught Silence for the first time last semester, and I had to take weeks away from King of Tars because my students were really struggling with Silence. I’m keeping them both on the syllabus this time, and will be more prepared for Silence than I was last semester! (Yes, I blame my students’ struggles with that text on this being the first time I taught it. I can prepare them better now that I now what to expect.)

Here’s the syllabus:

English 336: Critical Approaches to Adolescent Literature

For this syllabus, which I’ve taught once before (as opposed to 301, whose spring 2020 section will be the 5th or 6th time I teach it), I completely changed everything. Last year when I taught this course, I was very concerned with covering as many genres and issues as I could. This worked fine, but not great – not least because I was still focused on providing a historical overview of the YA category, how it developed, etc. This time around, I decided – screw that. Again, most of my students are going to be teaching. They would be better served if I gave them the cutting-edge YA books, the books published within the past few years, instead of books which are no longer representative of the market. As with the 301 class, I will make up for this through a non-essay assignment: Each student will create a reading list of their own, centered around three themes or topics. One of the requirements will be that they need to include one book from at least 3 different decades. (They will not be required to read these books, just to gather a bibiliography.)

I was still struggling with how to choose from the wealth of books published in the last few years, though. After chatting with some authors and professors of YA literature on Twitter and Facebook, I discovered one thing that made my whole syllabus fall into place. Dr. Nabilah Khachab asked me if I have a theme for the course, and I said no – the course just tries to give as broad a view of YA lit as possible. As I continued considering books, I realized that of course – I need a theme! And not only that, I already have a semi-theme embedded in my course description! So I leaned into that (the voices of YA, the possibilities that YA offers to marginalized voices) and that helped me choose my books, arrange their order, and get it all done.

Because this is a combined section, with both English majors taking this as an elective and non-English majors taking it as a required General Education course, I am not assigning secondary readings. I had originally planned to assign chapters from Disturbing the Universe, Ideologies of Identity in Adolescent Fiction, and The Dark Fantastic. Instead, I’m just going to create PowerPoints and lectures from each text, and provide that to my students.

Here’s the 336 syllabus:

Going Maverick: Writing Textbooks and Superheroes

Once again this semester, I’m teaching composition at a new campus. Ah, the life of an adjunct!

This time I was given a required textbook with writing instruction and readings, as well as a required sequence of essays. I have used chapters from that textbook before. I like the premise of the book, and I like a couple of its chapters. But I don’t like its overall structure. In my opinion, it doesn’t teach the basics of writing. It talks about the complexities of entering academic conversations, and it talks about broad rhetorical moves – but it does so in mostly theoretical terms, without specifics.

The department’s handbook stipulates that we may provide a few additional texts, but that the majority of assigned reading should be from the book. I see the point of that, of course, for a number of reasons – not least the financial burden of making students buy a book they won’t use for most of the class!

And since I picked up this class exactly four days before the first session, I was perfectly okay with just finding texts from the book.

The slight hitch in that was that the department didn’t have copies of the textbook to give new adjuncts yet, and they were relying on the company rep to give adjuncts electronic access. By the time I spoke to the director and was officially given the class, though, it was past 5pm on Friday, which meant that the company rep was out of the office and I didn’t get access until Monday morning – and I needed to have my syllabus all ready to go by Tuesday morning. So I used an old edition of the book, along with the freely-accessible online table of contents of the new edition, and slapped together a syllabus. I never did get a physical copy of the book, and I’m not able to print directly from the ebook, but I’ve been making do.

For the first few weeks of the semester, things were going okay. My students were quiet and didn’t really respond to my efforts to draw them out during class discussions. But we began to read texts and break them down; we read a couple of chapters about critical reading and about how texts position themselves in broader conversations; and a few students began to have ideas of their own in response to the texts we read.

I thought, at first, that the lack of engagement and participation was due to the early morning class (8am, dear lord – how many times have I said never again to early morning classes and yet went with it when one was offered to me later…), or the difference in campuses (this is my first class in a community college), or just the combined personalities of the students – which often is a major factor in determining how the class goes.

It wasn’t such a big deal for the first month. I wasn’t enjoying class as much as I usually do, but that’s not always a possibility. I assigned a lot of groupwork to avoid the excruciating silences during full-class discussion, but even during groupwork there was barely any interaction.

By the time I was receiving drafts of their first paper, students began to miss class more often, come to class without reading or without the text – a few students hadn’t even gotten the text by a month and a half into the semester. It felt like I was letting them down, but I was out of ideas. I suspected that these things were all connected to a lack of interest, and perhaps a lack of motivation. I was frustrated and resigned to not getting through to my students.

But one week the frustration bubbled over and I said, screw it, I’m redoing the syllabus and forgetting about the writing chapters of the textbook. I’ll use a couple readings from the textbook, but then just forget about it and use all of my own materials and sequences I’ve gathered over the past six years of teaching college composition.

We had already started working on the second essay. Students had submitted topic proposals; started doing research after a library visit; and were supposed to submit a first draft that week. I sent around an email – followed up by a second email to make sure everyone got it – telling them NOT to write that first draft, that we would be rewinding and going over some basics first.

I also decided to do some silly exercises at the start of each class to get students up and moving and talking to each other.

Both of those decisions turned out to be very excellent decisions.

The activity I did – just for fun – was this:

1. Write down five superpowers you would like to have.
2. Assign a value from 1 to 5 for each superpower, based on how much you value it.
3. Talk to your classmates and negotiate trades based on how much you and/or your classmates value each superpower. Make at least 3 trades.

I chose this activity for two purposes:
1. to get them all up and moving, to get the blood pumping and wake them up; and
2. to get them talking to each other, which might help conversations about classwork.

The effects of the activity were immediately obvious. When we all sat down to begin the lesson, students were more relaxed and slightly more alert than usual.

Despite the fact that by that time students had started doing research, based on strategies given to them by the librarian and by the textbook, I went over the skill again, this time using my own tried-and-true methods. I emphasized the need for a research question, I went over the need for establishing a “so what” at the start of research, etc. I used a worksheet I “stole” from UC Merced and revised a bit to fit my purposes. We went through the two filled-in rows together, discussing how it helps to have all this in mind before beginning research and before settling on a thesis.



I then divided the room into quadrants, with each one assigned one of the remaining four topics and research questions. Each group filled out the underlying problems and significance columns, did some quick little research on their phones, and wrote a potential thesis statement.

Each group shared their thesis statement, and I asked some questions about their process and reasoning. More than the theoretical discussion of how research is a conversation, this hands-on work allowed the students to see how research is a conversation (which the textbook’s end-of-chapter exercises did not effectively do).

Once we had done this exercise, I asked students to think about the topics they had chosen for their second essay (based on the readings from the textbook about various food-related topics), and phrase their interest as a question. Their homework for the following class was to fill out the remaining columns and revise (or write for the first time) a potential thesis statement.

I reminded them to bring their superpower papers with them to class the following session. At this point I had literally no idea what I would do with it. I thought maybe I could use this as an extended role-play game. Superheroes and role play are so not my jam – but if it gets my students energetic and talking and alert and engaged, then so be it!

Prepping for the following class made me see how I could actually incorporate the superhero activity into the lesson itself, though…

The pre-class activity (with the same two purposes of getting students up and energized and getting them talking to each other) was this:

Once the pairs of students had negotiated teams and settled down in pairs, I went over a handout about the five elements of a paragraph (which I got from my colleague Sarah Hildebrand):

I then asked each team to write:

  1. A thesis statement claiming that their team is the best.
  2. A paragraph structured according to these five elements that supports the thesis and includes “textual evidence” by citing events or situations from existing superheroes.

While previous sessions groupwork – using the exercises from the textbook based on readings drawn from newspapers and blogs, etc., were subdued and failed to engage students – this activity generated animated conversation from students whose voices I had barely heard all semester.

I circulated among the groups, as I always do, answering questions and guiding students. I know virtually nothing about most superheroes, and I made that clear – which led to my students excitedly telling me about their favorite superheroes and explaining things in ways that allowed me to say “yes! Put that in your paragraph!” 

So seriously – screw the textbook. Maybe I was following the rules too closely and I was never expected to just give up my personal methods. But whether or not that is expected of me, I’m not doing it anymore. My students are learning. They will be able to do well on their essays and their final exam. I saw major leaps and bounds of improvement in students writing – students who I thought were listless and not putting in effort.

I feel like – two months into the 3.5-month semester – I was finally getting to know my students.

Lessons in Club Creation: A Group Activity

In my composition class this week, my students read an essay by Gabriela Moro, “Minority Student Clubs: Segregation or Integration?” Over the past week and a half, we’ve discussed how to summarize and respond to an author’s argument, in preparation for their first essay assignment (a textual analysis). But as much as I tried getting discussion going, no matter how provocative I got, my students were not responding. They were willing to answer questions, they were okay with listening to me talk and with writing things down when I asked them to. And they were okay with working in groups. But in full-class discussions, when I wanted them to talk to each other, I was just met with a wall of silence. Not antagonistic silence – just silence.

So I decided to plan this week’s lesson around groupwork with only short breaks for full-class discussion.

I started, as I always do, with a “Write Now” asking them to plan a student club. The prompt was brief: Plan a student club, thinking about its mission and activities. I gave them a shorter amount of time than usual (I usually allow 15 minutes for free-writing to start class, and this time it was just about 7 minutes).

Then we got down to business.

I asked students to get into groups of four, share their club ideas with their group members, and write a mock-application. Pretend you’re actually trying to apply to Student Affairs, asking for permission to create your club. And pretend you’re actually trying to convince your fellow students to join your club. What is the purpose of the club? What do you plan to do in this club? How can you write that up into a mission statement? They did not need to explicitly engage with the debate of the text – minority student clubs – but I did encourage them to do so if they wanted to.

After a half hour of planning, during which I circulated and prodded them to think more deeply about purpose, I explained to them what tabling at a club fair would look like, and asked them to pitch their clubs to me and to their classmates. I used the first group (who I knew had a solid proposal) as an example, asking them questions in the role of a student. By the end of this activity, students were actually calling out to ask each other questions! I was so proud of my rowdy little bunch.

The club ideas they came up with weren’t too bad, either.

The board showing the instructions (on the left) and the club names (on the right). Shy Beauty is a club for introverts who like makeup; 0-800 is a club promoting financial literacy; Financial Friends is a club working to earn textbook money in fun ways; Environmental Warriors is a club whose long-term goal is to get a garden on campus; Great Social Sports is a club designed to get students out, active, and socializing through table games and active sports; Cultural Activists is a club where each club member gets a chance to lead an outing that teaches other club members about their heritage and culture.

My purpose for this class was mostly just to get students comfortable with talking in class. The content of the essay was not the main point of the class, to be honest – but we managed to come back around to it after they got thinking about the purposes for their clubs, and tying those thought processes to what Moro says about the uses and effects of minority student clubs.

When I tried to get them to discuss that in a full-class discussion, they went silent again. Work in progress!!

Synthesizing Class Discussion and Essay Assignments

“I was able to construct my syllabus and assignments so that the ‘talking about the book’ portion directly teaches about essay-writing.”

In my class on children’s literature this week, I assigned their first essay of the semester: a close reading paper (loosely defined). The assignment:

Choose one item from Freak the Mighty. Track that item through the text. Find two or three moments in the text where that item has a significant role or comes under discussion by the characters or the narrator. Write a 2-3 page paper analyzing the item within the context of the text. 

For my first few semesters of teaching literature, I didn’t spend a lot of time teaching students how to write. They learn that in Intro to Literary Studies, right? That might be the idea behind sequenced courses. But in reality, we know that just because students took a class on writing, that doesn’t mean they can thenceforth write brilliant papers on command. As with any skill, it requires practice.

So for a while I amended my syllabus and started devoting one-hour sessions to peer review and revision sessions. But that didn’t work either – I needed to teach them how to write before asking them to write. And I then needed to give them a chance to revise. And I foresaw my literature class turning into a writing class…

After months of talking to my mentors and colleagues, I was able to construct my syllabus and assignments so that the “talking about the book” portion directly teaches about essay-writing. And so far, I am more than pleased with how it’s working.

Here’s how it went down this week:

The text for this week (a 2.5-hour long class that meets once a week) was Freak the Mighty. As I always do, I started class with a “Write Now” – a prompt on the board that students come to expect. It works well as an opening activity because 1) I can direct students to thinking about specific points I may want to raise, and 2) it allows latecomers to catch up.

This week’s prompt was:

Many objects and ideas are repeated throughout the text (knights, books, bionic bodies, remembering, etc.).
1. Think about an object or idea that you connected with / that made an impression on you, either intellectual or emotional.
2. Find a passage (a few sentences) in the book about that object or idea, and copy the passage onto your paper.
3. Free-write about the object and passage. Why is this object significant? Why did you choose this passage?

After about ten minutes of quiet writing, I asked students to put that sheet of paper away. We went on with the lesson, talking about multiple aspects of the book with a focus on realism as a genre, and dis/ability studies.

For the last hour of class, I assigned groupwork. Each group of 3 students chose one character from the text and tracked that character. The instructions were to first find a few key passages where that character talks, acts, or is talked about, and note the citations and some impressions of characterization. Then, each group talked about what they had found and tried to answer whether and how the character changed and/or our perception of the character changed.

I circulated among the groups for half an hour, guiding and correcting and making sure students stayed on track. We then came back together as a class and each group shared their results. I asked each group to structure their “presentations” by beginning with a thesis (their conclusion/argument about whether and how the character changed), following it up with evidence (the passages they cited), and finishing with a conclusion (a repetition of their argument to remind us what they just proved).

Two groups who had chosen to focus on Gram came to very different conclusions, so I started with those groups.

One group argued that Gram changed from being apprehensive about Max to being affectionate and loving. For evidence, they used the moment at the beginning of the novel when Max says Gram touched him with a light, feathery touch; and the moment at the end of the novel when Max says Gram hugs him really tight.

The other group argued that Gram did not change, but Max’s perception of her did change – that Max thought she didn’t love him and was terrified of him at first, but ultimately came to accept her love. They argued that through examining the character of Gram, they were in fact able to gain more insight into Max’s character. For evidence, they used the same moments as the previous group…

I began with these two groups because I knew they had different theses (from my rounds during groupwork), and I wanted to use that to demonstrate that the same text can be used to argue completely different things. Later, the same thing happened with two groups that had tracked Max’s levels of confidence throughout the novel.

Each group presented their findings, and I insisted on the structure: first the thesis; then the evidence; then the conclusion.

In the last 15 minutes of class, I distributed the essay assignment sheet. In addition to the essay prompt above, the sheet includes a “WHAT” and a “WHY section:

WHAT: A close reading asks you to narrow your focus to ONE aspect of a text. 
WHY: 1) Trying to analyze an entire text can be daunting. Narrowing your focus and analyzing a single aspect of the text helps you get at some ideas more easily. 2) Any larger analysis of a text needs to use concrete evidence from the text. Having the skill of close reading will help you do that. 

After the prompt, I provided an example:

Example:  Books. You might track the dictionary that Kevin makes for Max and the blank journal that Kevin gives Max. Looking at the significance of each scene, you might conclude that the dictionary demonstrates the pair’s thirst for knowledge and the journal demonstrates the pair’s desire to be remembered and to have an impact on the world. You might then note that the first gift (a dictionary) helps Max learn words, and the second gift (a blank journal) invites Max to write his own words. Your thesis might then be something like this:  

“Kevin and Max are both seen as outsiders in the world they live in. They both want to be remembered and leave an impact on the world. Kevin’s two gifts to Max, the dictionary and the blank journal, indicate that given the right tools, anyone is capable of expressing themselves and leaving their mark on the world.” 

Your essay will then analyze these two gifts, and make a case for how each represents a step in learning self-expression, etc.

I pointed out to my students that they had already used the skills necessary for this essay: they had tracked characters and analyzed them, and the essay asks them to track objects and analyze them. And they already had some ideas of which objects seem significant to them, from their “Write Now” exercise.

Students were excited at this and pulled out their free-writes from the beginning of class. Wheels started turning, and students asked me about specific ideas and potential thesis statements.

It was the most productive essay assignment session I’ve ever had.