Teaching Creative Writing Online? Some Tips.

Hi everyone! I’ve been teaching a significant portion of my courseload online for the last four years, so I just wanted to share some quick tips for those of you moving online suddenly because of coronavirus.

Here’s what my classes generally look like:

  • Workshop with some combination of video chat and critique letters.
  • Reading analyses that have them apply some craft reading to a story.
  • Exercises where they imitate or work on something from the craft reading.
  • Open discussion where they propose their own discussion topics.
  • A discussion with a specific question about some topic of the class. This last one is more fun or asks them to find their own work to reference so it doesn’t matter if they see others’ answers. Questions like: “This week we talked about unlikable characters. What are your favorite unlikable characters or villains, and why are they compelling?”

I usually have at least one of each due each week, depending on the class.

Tips:

1) Do not try to translate your workshops directly into video chat. Trying to video chat with more than a few people just doesn’t work well. Instead, think about ways to do intense things with just a few members of the class, but less intense things with the whole class asynchronously.

You might consider video chatting with a small percentage of the class, and doing something with the video recording after.

For example, I record a Skype with the workshopped student for one of their stories, and we have a non-silent workshop discussion of their story, one on one. I always have a few brainstorming questions at the end of the recorded video, in which I ask the rest of the class to imagine solutions to story issues we talked about, usually with pointed questions. Instead of regular critique letters, students respond to my specific questions about the story after having watched the video.

I’ve also seen having a small group discussion with 2-5 students over video and rotating which of the students those are every week.

You can also have two students talk with each other about the story via video chat or regular chat, send that discussion to the class, and the class responds to the chat and the story together.

You can also just do critique letters instead of workshop, posted on a discussion board, and then I write my own letter or record a quick video having read all of those, summing the discussion up for the writer to help them make sense of the letters.

2) Instead of story discussions, I usually ask them to do an analysis as an assignment, with pointed questions for the prompt. You can do online discussions by having them respond to each other, but it won’t be very natural, and often they can “fake it” by reading everyone else’s responses. When I do ask them to discuss and reply, I usually ask them to “answer a question, ask a question,” so that the replier has something specific to respond to, otherwise they’re vague or they’re just responding to my original prompt.

3) Instead of a workshop-only class, you can gear it more towards exercises and make it more of a generative class. Then you can do some small pairing and sharing.

4) Use whatever discussion tech feels most natural for you. I’ve hosted discussions on canvas and Facebook (making a separate private group for the class) and Discord.

5) Do not try to have a separate discussion for each Socratic question you might have asked in class. Instead, combine them into one main discussion or assignment in which you ask many questions, so they don’t have ten little assignments due.

6) If you think you’re going to miss open-ended discussion, you can have an open chat or discussion forum and ask students to propose their own question related to class and have the other students answer it. You have to require engagement with it, though, or they tend not to respond to each other.

7) Know that any time you separate out students into groups, this will be a logistical headache. Small groups, there’s always the risk that one or more students won’t respond and then the other student won’t do the assignment. If you assign the groups yourself, you’ll have to manage this. If you have the students self-assign groups, that adds another deadline, more confusion. If you change the groups with every assignment or rotate, more confusion. Even if you have the students self-assign by responding to a student post to “claim” partnering or groups, the last person who responds may be stranded because the early people all responded to each other, or students won’t follow instructions and overfill or underfill groups. If you do use groups for anything, I recommend assigning them yourself and using that same grouping for everything you do. I also recommend having at least 3-4 people in each group, so that if anyone is delinquent, it doesn’t strand the other group member–the risk if you have only 2.

The advantage to using groups is that online you don’t ever have to do anything with the whole class. The “whole class” is just another way of thinking of a large group. It’s all the same to the students whether they have 5 people in their group or 30 people in their group. And some students may benefit from having, say, a 5 person “class” with the intimacy and the attention that brings.

8) Try to have a routine. Consistent due dates, have the same kinds of things due. The more scattered everything is, the more confusion. For example, Tuesday’s I might have exercises due, then Thursday’s I always do reading analyses. Etc. Whatever it is, try to make it consistent every week. Try to make the places on the site where students find things consistent as well.

9) Try to limit student interactions that require scheduling or passing things back and forth. Every contact with a student requires a different deadline, so if you have them schedule a day to talk, then talk, post their responses after the talk, and then reply to another student, that’s four different deadlines. If you only have twice weekly due dates, that’s two weeks for one thing. It might work if you have several assignments going and just a few big ones that you spread out over multiple weeks, but not for common weekly assignments.

10) Don’t rely on just one place where you put the instructions. No, they won’t read the syllabus. Yes, they will forget what you said at the beginning of the week. I have instructions atleast 3 places: Once, as a heads up in the weekly overview, Once in a lecture where I explain it. And finally, in the assignment turn-in link itself, I re-link to the page where I explained it and explicitly ask them to check it again. For example, MLA format with double space, times new Roman, header, etc? I have a page explaining and then I relink to that page in every assignment that requires it. I also might generally reference in the syllabus, “Please use MLA formatting,” though I don’t fully explain until later in the class.

11) Try to link to repeat references rather than recopying. I often need to update my content or fix typos. If you’ve re-copied 7 different places, you have to change it 7 times and remember where those references are. If you link, you only have to change once.

12) The simpler the instructions, the better. If anything is complicated, suddenly you’ll get twenty emails asking nitpickey questions about exactly what you meant by X.

13) Remember that you can still do all-class communication.

If you do find yourself overwhelmed by questions, you can send out an announcement to the whole class addressing the concern rather than replying individually. You can send out an announcement addressing several questions at once. You can send out an announcement summing up issues, feedback for the whole class rather than responding to each student individually.

In fact, I recommend figuring out which assignments to give feedback on individually and which ones not to. Remember that most class participation in-person is not graded evaluatively. You usually just give them a check mark for participation. Similarly, if you’re translating your class online, just because you’re having them do a discussion post does not mean you need to grade it rigorously out of ten points or a hundred points–same as in-person. Instead, consider whether you can give some assignments out of 1 point, graded on completion only. Engagement is rewarded no matter where the student is at. Save your feedback and qualitative evaluation for the large assignments that the students are expected to significantly revise and demonstrate learning rather than engagement. If you do find yourself wanting to give some feedback on the engagement, stick to all class announcements about how they did that week and don’t directly tie it to the grade. (Unless the student just didn’t complete the assignment.)

14) Remember that the first time you do anything, it’s going to be awkward. It’s not going to be perfect. Rely on textbooks and craft readings if you don’t feel comfortable or don’t have the time at the moment to write your own craft lectures yourself. Be kind to yourself.

Okay, good luck, everyone, and stay healthy!!

 

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