The Evolution of the English Classroom: From Brick and Mortar to Virtual

Jennifer A. Seymour, Wausau Area Virtual Education (WAVE), jseymour @ wausauschools.org

If the names William Shakespeare, John Steinbeck, Kate Chopin, H. G. Wells, and Sojourner Truth sound familiar, you may be an English teacher (or you paid attention in your high school literature courses). And, now that you are nostalgically thinking back to that English classroom that served as the hub for your scholarly pursuits, you may be fondly remembering Mrs. Smith as she clip-clopped between desks reciting “To be or not to be,” delighting all with her wit and enthusiasm. In contrast, the memory more prominent than the rest may be the sound of Bobby Porter’s voice reading aloud from To Kill a Mockingbird–he was the only one in class who volunteered. Regardless of your positive or negative memories, one thing is certain: the majority of adults reading this article attended their required English classes on a daily basis, sat in Lilliputian desks, and carried gargantuan anthologies wrapped in brown shopping bags to and from home (this should have counted towards PE credit).

Luckily, students and teachers of the 21st-century have alternatives to the traditional setting. As a teacher for the past twenty plus years, I have poured my heart into making sure the precious, allotted minutes of desk time were spent in the most engaging English environment possible while addressing the diverse needs of the students that entered my classroom. And, in reflection, I am proud to think that most of those students had benefited from what they had learned by the close of the semester. Still, I know there were students filling the spots on my rosters that would have had a more meaningful English experience in a setting less driven by time and space, an experience that allowed more flexibility in content delivery as well as minutes spent on a given task. For these students, the traditional setting did not allow the freedom needed to fully engage and learn deeply, nor did it encourage the independence to become self-driven learners.

The virtual classroom is a viable option for students whose lives and paths need more flexibility than the brick and mortar model of our past. Currently, I am teaching English courses in our district’s virtual charter school, Wausau Area Virtual Education (WAVE), which has the motto of anytime, anywhere education for the 21st-century learner. The Wausau School District is committed to providing many pathways for students to achieve success in education, and, in addition to other charter schools in the district, WAVE provides one of those paths. Our student body is composed of individuals who have chosen the virtual model for various reasons, some because their passions and dreams require a commitment to an intense sports training during the “regular” school day. I am excited to think that down the road our WAVE graduates may be Olympic gymnasts, NHL hockey players, and PGA golfers. Other families have chosen WAVE for the the freedom it provides them to travel; I currently have a family traveling the world while not missing a beat of their Wausau School District education. For others, the teenage drama of high school is too much, and the option to learn in a setting void of that drama is the preferred option. Still others, for a plethora of other reasons, have found virtual high school to be the best fit for them: employment and internships, the need to be a caregiver to a family member, social or anxiety hindrances, the desire to graduate early. The beauty is that virtual school changes the game and provides a choice for students who previously did not have one regarding the delivery of their public school courses.

How does an English class look in the virtual setting? For WAVE, we contract with Wisconsin Virtual School through CESA 9 and national curriculum providers to obtain rigorous, tested, highly engaging course curricula. The core English classes are all taught using Florida Virtual School curriculum, while the electives (Creative Writing, Mythology and Folklore, Lord of the Rings, and Gothic Literature) come from various other national providers. When I was trained to be a virtual school teacher, I was apprehensive. How could I possibly teach Macbeth via the computer? How do I get to know my students? How… How… How… the questions and doubts flooded my mind, but all that changed when I had the chance to dig into the curriculum, the Learning Management System (LMS) and its tools, and the Student Information System (SIS) and its reports. Furthermore, hearing the excitement from other virtual teachers regarding what they were able to accomplish in their classrooms was the catalyst I needed to keep investigating this new frontier, and I am so happy I did.

To start, the curriculum is outstanding. The modules are aligned to national standards and organized into deliberate scope and sequence lessons. I am impressed with the continuity and skill building that exists between each of the core classes. Furthermore, the rigor is truly impressive. Students are being taught to the highest of expectations and standards. Additionally, students who are accelerated can move at a pace that does not hold them back. When they have mastered a task, they can move to the next one. I can offer honors modules and additional enrichment to them as well. Furthermore, because online teaching is so personalized and dependent on teacher feedback, I can easily differentiate my instruction as needed.

Differentiation is much easier to manage in the virtual world where students are free to work at a pace appropriate to them versus the standard delivery which, for the most part, requires them to stay lock step with one another. For example, learners who struggle with a concept can move slower through the pacing. I can meet them in Google Hangouts, we can have running discussions in the margins of the feedback on a Google doc, we can email, we can talk on the phone, and if it works logistically, we can meet in a face-to-face environment. WAVE has a unique space for these types of meetings: we have a storefront in our local mall that serves as its face. This space provides blended learning opportunities for those who need a hands-on component.

 

Capture.JPG
WAVE Storefront / Meeting Center

 

Another bonus I have seen in the virtual world of English is that students are required to communicate often and communicate well. There is no possibility of students crouching in the corner desk hoping the teacher does not see them. Every student must initiate, respond to, and maintain regular communication throughout the course. If a student cannot do this, virtual school is not the right option. Specific student-driven teaching in the virtual setting occurs through this shared communication. I may ask students to re-submit an assignment multiple times and provide specific feedback to them through screencasts, links to video tutorials, or audio feedback regarding what needs to be improved in order for mastery to occur. There are many formative opportunities built into the curriculum as well as the reteaching that happens on a student-by-student case. Students, by nature of the delivery, will inherently become more sophisticated and confident communicators throughout their virtual experiences.

Any educators with a few years of teaching under their belts know that the key to reaching students is developing and nurturing relationships. Moving from the face-to-face world to the virtual one, I wondered how I would manage to create those same connections. It quickly became clear that it would take a more concerted effort on my part as the instructor. In the traditional setting, I stand outside the door and greet kids as they walk in. I know their personal styles through observation, and I create camaraderie in the classroom through shared educational risk-taking. How in the world was I going to accomplish that in the virtual classroom? The answer is by rethinking the ways I can connect to students. One avenue I have found to be invaluable is the constant communication which I’ve already discussed as being essential. I require meet-and-greet discussion boards at the beginning of the course to establish classroom culture. Students are asked to share things about themselves (including a picture) and carry on conversations within the discussion thread. These discussion threads also occur within course units to encourage collaboration among peers. Furthermore, when I have the opportunity to speak with students on the phone, in Google Hangout, or in person, I make sure that a portion of that conversation is spent getting to know more about them. I extend these conversations into emails, asking how a sporting event turned out or how the new puppy is doing. I also make feedback personalized by always using the student’s name, identifying successes, and encouraging continued growth. Then there are the quirky bitmojis and GIFS that I send to celebrate birthdays, holidays, and successes. I feel like I know my virtual students as well, if not better, than students in traditional classes.

Virtual school prepares kids for life beyond high school. In a world that requires them to be technologically savvy, good communicators, and flexible enough to handle what life after high school throws their way, these kids are ready. I embrace the opportunities for growth that teaching English in the virtual setting has provided, and I look forward to the evolving changes sure to present themselves before I retire. Heaven forbid I ever lose sight of the fact that there are many different kinds of learners and many different ways of teaching. Let us celebrate them all.

“We Are Not All the Same”: Strengthening Teacher-Student Relationships through Online Classroom Dialogue

Antero Garcia, Stanford Graduate School of Education, antero.garcia @ stanford.edu

Robyn Seglem, Illinois State University, rseglem @ ilstu.edu

 

In the January 2016 issue of English Journal, Golden and Womack reminded us that the importance of relationships is often overlooked in these times of massive reform, particularly when working with minoritized youth. Through our work with preservice teachers, we strive to instill the importance of relationships within future teachers on a daily basis, emphasizing, as Golden and Womack urge, the importance of abandoning a deficit model of instruction. For Antero, this mission is personal because of the years he spent working with high school youth who dealt with inequitable schooling conditions on a daily basis. And for Robyn, who works with teacher candidates with little experience working with youth of color, it can be a challenge to demonstrate how to foster relationships with students they see as having little in common with them. As former teachers, we know that teachers and students must lead organic change from within schools. Thus, we asked ourselves how we could we shift our teacher candidates from being enactors of the status quo to advocates for youth from all backgrounds and experiences. Realistically, we knew that, by ourselves, we could not accomplish this through one or two college courses. Yet, we also knew that if we could assist in the development of authentic relationships between white preservice teachers and youth of color, we could begin to plant the seeds of future advocacy.

This article looks at how teachers and students can guide change from within classrooms by recontextualizing the cultural experiences and relationships at the core of learning and growth in today’s public schools. Whereas “classroom management” tends to be the focus for how new teachers must “control” kids, we focus our efforts to transform English teachers’ classrooms through utilizing online tools for humanizing purposes. Building on a study of our work with high school students and preservice teachers, we consider how reflection on the dynamics between these two groups and an evolution in how we build relationships in classrooms can better drive a revolution in the academic needs of students and the cultural awareness of teachers.


Connecting Teachers and Hearing Students
As literacy educators, we began our work by examining the potential of media to connect two groups who lived thousands of miles apart. With a class of sophomores who attended school in the South Central Los Angeles high school, where Antero had previously taught, and a cohort of preservice teachers studying how to teach in suburban Central Illinois, we wanted to explore whether we could tap into the potential of the digital world to unite the two disparate groups, helping them to reflect upon their individual realities and construct an educational experience leading to a impactful shared reality. Acknowledging the Discourse in which classroom exchanges typically commence (Gee, 1990), we wanted both teachers and students to reflect critically on the cultural role that language plays in defining the identities enacted in classrooms. Not simply making transparent the language practices necessary for participation in schools (Delpit, 1988), we wanted teachers to hear and validate the diverse Englishes” that students fluidly speak (Seglem & Garcia, 2018; Kirkland, 2010).

Just as importantly, we recognized that language–both typed and spoken–evolves over time. The cultural practices imbued within how youth communicate online including uses of emojis, abbreviations, and creative deviations from “standard” English reflect the youth popular culture that is often too absent from our classrooms (Duncan-Andrade & Morrell, 2008; Ladson-Billings, 1995).

Alongside bringing in youth popular culture mindfully as to not simply appropriate youth-focused tools, our project was also focused on considering how the uses of technology can do more to “sustain” cultural identity within classrooms (Paris & Alim, 2014). While there are extensive studies on digital literacies within classrooms (Lankshear & Knobel, 2003), our emphasis was on exploring how high school students and teachers could use these tools to communicate and build relationships. Even as recent research by Turkle (2012, 2015) highlights how technology may be further isolating individuals and negatively affecting relationships, we wondered if these same tools could guide strengthened relationships and vibrant language practices within classrooms. In short, we believe that if high school students want to be understood and respected by teachers who may come from very different cultural backgrounds, learning how to communicate within the continually evolving textual spaces of online dialogue is an important first step.


Building Virtual Meeting Spaces
Pairing one to two high school students in South Central Los Angeles with one preservice teacher in Central Illinois, we had the two very distant (geographically and culturally) groups meet online weekly in chat rooms. Importantly, though the Los Angeles City Council officially renamed the area “South Los Angeles” more than a decade ago (Gold & Braxton, 2003), the students and local school community continued to refer to the area as “South Central” because the historic identity of the space remained important. While students were able to receive one-on-one feedback on their writing and work within an English class, our larger goal was to open up space for the kinds of reflection, textual exploration, and relationship building that comes with groups meeting each other through tools different from those frequently used. Traditional teacher-student power relationships were no longer possible when high school students were driving conversation, doing so in the language practices they were comfortable with, and– later –even conducting mock job interviews with the preservice teachers. Our revolution for learning and relationships in schools is built on recognizing the skills, expertise, and identities of the students in our classrooms.

Though we had more than a dozen different chat rooms running throughout the semester (approximately one for each preservice teacher), we are focusing on two of them to explore more deeply the textual exchanges that occurred. Looking at these two transcripts of conversations that transpired over the course of the Fall semester, we share several transcript exchanges to look at how language and identity intermix and shape relational understanding. In particular, we are interested in how the language practices within these chat rooms mediated identity and power relationships between the preservice teachers and high school students (Seglem & Garcia, 2018). Participants’ uses of intertextuality and digital language practices like emoticons facilitated nuanced persona building that affected the kinds of exchanges that occurred between youth and adults. Below we look at exchanges within our chat room transcripts as means for reflecting on academic learning, evolving what relationships can look like in classrooms, and fomenting a humanizing revolution.


Using Literature to Reflect Upon the Larger World
The first transcript we share demonstrates how the chat rooms built inroads for utilizing literature to reflect upon the world and the realities youth face on a daily basis. As was typically the case in each discussion, the high school students and the preservice teachers paid close attention to language practices–in this case on the choices made by Alexie (1998) in his essay “Superman and Me.” Yet, while high schoolers Luis and Michael began the conversation focusing on Alexie’s essay, their discussion eventually evolved into a conversation that focused on the boys’ experiences in school. Through their reflection, they were able to share with Jill, their preservice teacher partner, their personal experiences of often not being heard in a school dominated by white teachers; the online environment created space for marginalized voices–those of youth and particularly youth of color–to be centered and understood:

Jill, Michael, & Luis, December 5

1. Luis: Hello. Good Morning. Today we are going to talk about the Biographical essay of Sherman Alexie.”Superman and Me.”

2. Jill: Very good, do you have thoughts to start our conversation about the essay?

3. Michael: cool..

4. Michael: “at the same time i was seeing the world in paragraphs”

5. Luis: What do You think or feel about that quote, Jill?

6. Jill: Could I ask which paragraph this quote came from?

7. Michael: the start of the 4th paragraph

8. Jill: I can see both sides… sometimes things come to us in a single thought, or paragraph and other times I feel like I see the world as a bunch of random words… what do you think on my thought?

9. Luis: I think that’s what Sherman Alexie thinks too.

The dynamics of this conversation are interesting. It is evident that the boys were mimicking the language of school. In Turn 1, we see Luis address his “class” by stating the objective of the day, with Michael following up in Turn 4 by providing a specific reference to the text, highlighting the importance of using Alexie’s words to dig into the meaning of the essay. The two high school students shifted into language that mimics a teaching identity: “Today we are going to talk about” finds the students in the formal register that was beyond their typical banter with Jill. It is clear these youth have experienced this type of approach to instruction in the past, and Luis underscores their intent by explicitly asking Jill her opinion. His use of her first name is notable because they often address her more formally like they would a teacher, making the teacher persona even more evident in this dialogue. He furthers this persona by affirming Jill’s thoughts in Turn 9, responding to Jill’s request about their evaluation of her performance by stating “I think that’s what Sherman Alexie thinks too.” This layered approach to language highlights the unspoken, tacit knowledge these two high school students fluidly possess: they shift into traditionally authoritative language repertoires while also knowing how to usurp such practices when delivered by Jill. Conscious of the traditional scripts of schooling and varied language practices, Luis and Michael command the academic space in ways that traditional schooling often stifles.

Continuing the transcript from above, Jill, Michael, and Luis interrogate Alexie’s ideas about the paragraphs of the world, with Jill ultimately asking them to reflect on “What kind of actions or decisions in our lives make for a solid, flowing paragraph?” Luis responds: “Decisions that affect our life’s outcomes. School is one of them. College. Work. Stuff like that.” His answer prompts Jill to ask what they plan to do after high school, and Michael states he would likely go to work because he doubts he’d “last in college.” The excerpt that follows demonstrates why Michael feels this way:


Jill, Michael, & Luis Example 2, December 5 Continued

27. Jill: I think that you would do great in college!! You are always very insightful and contribute great thoughts in this class!

28. Michael: hehe thank you i can do good in every class but math ._. i haven’t been learning much math since 7th grade i always have a teacher that can’

29. Michael: cant’ control their class due to immaturity amongst kids

30. Jill: Your right, we are not all the same… how do the teachers at your school encourage you in your decisions?

31. Jill: Is that teacher not able to control their class because they have low expectations of you? Why are the kids immature in their class?

32. Michael: well the kids don’t take the class seriously. students are always being sent out it just gets worst over time..

33. Jill: What do you think would solve the problem?

34. Jill: There was a time that a teacher told me that I was dumb and the only reason I was doing well in her class was because I work hard.

35. Michael: if people were to take the class seriously . I mean kids just mess around the teacher just allows it and doesn’t do a thing to stop it

36. Jill: What do you do to help the situation and do your part to learn in class?

37. Michael: I don’t do anything to disturb class because i actually want to learn due to not learning much math these last few years

38. Michael: Stay in my seat and I’m quiet

39. Jill: Your decision to learn will take you far… both of you make decisions which will help you in the future.

Within the partnership between Jill, Luis and Michael, Jill consistently projects the most stable persona–that of teacher. Whether through rephrasing a question (“Can you be more specific with your personal anecdote”), redirecting the conversation (“tell me again, what is your position… and your 3 claims?”), or asking for clarification (What do you mean by “run tardy?”), Jill returns to more formal teacher practices throughout the partnership. At the same time, as Turn 27 indicates, Jill is obviously trying to build a relationship with Luis and Michael, and she appears to genuinely care about what they have to say. Noting an opportunity for a personal connection, Jill takes a break from the discussion over Alexie’s essay in order to affirm Michael as a student. Her willingness to do this suggests growth in their relationship because rather than staying on the task at hand, she seems to recognize the importance of connecting with her students and affirming their self-worth. In particular, as we look at this example in relation to the weeks of dialogue in which Jill tends to focus solely on the academic task at hand, the flexibility she exudes here is a significant shift from how she typically spoke with Michael and Luis. Jill ultimately invites the youth to reflect upon how the essay relates to their own lives, providing inroads to developing cultural understanding.


Evolving ELA Classrooms through New Language Practices
Reviewing the language choices in the online space above, we must consider how the kinds of words, phrases, and symbols that the youth utilize reflect how they perform characteristics of their identity. For example, Michael and Luis, making the unhappy-looking emoticon >.< speak informally. Their language is transgressive within the traditional space of schools. Likewise, lol engendered Jill into the youth-endorsed language practices, whether she wanted to participate in this language or not. It is important to recognize that such emoticons and abbreviations were initially a source of confusion for Jill. Throughout the semester, Jill did not type or send any emoticon or lol-like abbreviations, despite the fact that Michael and Luis used both in every single transcript. Neither the students or the future teacher seemed willing to concede the ground of their language practices for the dialogue.

Yet even within this exchange and the advice that followed–”Even when the situation is not how we would like it to be, we can learn from it”–Jill continues to adopt the formal language practices she associates with the Discourse (Gee, 1990) of teachers. Further she seems to accept Michael’s assertion that the disruptive class was the fault of his peers, rather than the teacher’s ability to manage the classroom. In affirming Michael’s view, Jill misses out on an opportunity to engage in culturally responsive practices that explore how a mismatch between teachers’ and students’ experiences can result in situations such as the one described by Michael. In contrast, the following excerpt reveals the diversity of language practices with which Antoine and Vincent communicate while also identifying differences in beliefs and worldviews that arose during the holiday season. Precisely because of shared language practices, these exchanges highlight how different worldviews can be understood and negotiated between youth and adults.

Prior to the conversation below, Antoine explained that he is vegan, and they both noted how very different their Thanksgiving experiences were. From there, we can see how a willingness to move forward and laugh through their differences allows Antoine to sustain an environment for powerful exchange:

Antoine & Vincent, November 28

1. Antoine: what did you do on black friday?

2. Vincent: I WENT SHOPING

3. Antoine: does all caps mean you are yelling? why are you yelling at me? hahaha! where did you shop? what did you buy?

4. Vincent: ahaha no im not yelling at u tf?? aha its more like saying something in exciment i baught cloths

5. Antoine: what’s “tf” mean? i did not go out on black friday. i was scared.

6. Vincent: aha it means the fuck lmfao (x scared of what?? O.o

7. Antoine: hahahaha!!! that’s hilarious. i know what “lmfao” means. hahaha!

8. Antoine: i was scared of shopping.

9. Vincent: tf y r u scared of shoping?????? O.o thats not normal in my neighbor hood

10. Antoine: i just don’t like consumerism. it scares me.

11. Vincent: what dose consumerism mean??

Unlike most classroom dialogue, both Antoine and Vincent slip comfortably between using acronyms, emoticons, and a lackadaisical approach to capitalization. In Turn 2, we can see the playful nature of Vincent capitalizing a sentence and how they both draw and explore the different intentions of capitalizing the statement. The meaning of textual “talk”–what could be naturally inferred in a face-to-face context–is instead discussed, clarified, and utilized for strengthening the relationship between the two chat room participants.

Antoine was humored by Marco’s language choices. Rather than ignoring or questioning Marco’s language, he declares that it was hilarious and often laughed digitally: hahaha! Building trust, Antoine encourages Vincent to comfortably explain the expletive-laden meaning behind the tf abbreviation. Accepting Vincent’s cursing, lack of capitalization, use of abbreviations, emoticons, and exclamation and question marks, Antoine’s engagement in the chat room highlights a willingness to understand difference that guides the new teacher’s future practice. Even though Vincent and Antoine have markedly different experiences, their shared language practices offer a familiarity to learn and meaningfully dialogue.

In addition to making the space informal so that Antoine can inquire about tf, we also see Vincent asking about consumerism–a conversation that continues into a discussion of wealth, Marxism, and the interests of individuals that Vincent knows in the South Central community. A rich narrative emerges as a result of how textual changes in online space create familiarity even when these two participants are pretty different otherwise: in addition to age, location, and ethnicity, the transcript highlights different ideological stances. With a foundation for exploring cultural meaning and identity in online spaces, relationships helped evolve the possibilities of learning and engagement within the classroom.


Revolutionizing Relationships through Talk and Reflection
Even though Jill did not share the same rapport with her students as Antoine did with Vincent, she still created a safe chat space for the boys to feel comfortable enough to interact playfully and faux-antagonistically. The shifts in power in the classroom evolved gradually across the semester. Looking at both of these groups–and the rest of the high school students and preservice teachers that they worked alongside–it is important to consider how the collective literacy efforts developed (in collaboration between student and adult in online spaces) was highlighting one way to consider revolutionizing the possibilities of English classrooms today: revolution through relationships.

Further, we must consider that these changes happened within the traditionally out-of-school digital space of virtual environments. In fact, had we not developed this virtualized school-based learning context, these relationships would not have been possible. For instance, consider how ideologically different Antoine and Vincent were in their dialogue. Antoine’s ideology was quite different from Vincent’s own perspective of the world. However, by having a conversation grounded in student-developed social language and shifting power dynamics in these spaces, these two individuals were able to build common understanding and support Vincent’s academic growth. The chatroom also created a needed distance for some high school students to speak up within their partners; by not seeing their partners, high school students in this class gained the confidence to be heard.

Fairclough (1995) notes that power can be understood “both in terms of asymmetries between participants in discourse events, and in terms of unequal capacity to control how texts are produced, distributed, and consumed (and hence the shapes of texts) in particular sociocultural contexts” (pp. 1-2). Radically reinventing the possibilities of the English classroom requires significantly understanding how existing power structures can be reshaped and renegotiated. Considering the needs of high school students in today’s politically polarized society, we must question how technology in schools is fostering powerful learning and meaningful relationships. By realigning a more balanced approach to how students and teachers participate in and produce discourse and language within their classrooms, we see new English practices that more fully incorporate our students’ humanity, dignity, and growing voices.

 

References
Alexie, S. (1998, April 19). The joy of reading and writing: Superman and me. Los Angeles Times, p. 110.

Delpit, L. D. (1988). The silenced dialogue: Power and pedagogy in educating other people’s children. Harvard Educational Review, 58(3), 280-298. Retrieved from America: History & Life database. (Accession No. 19700856)

Duncan-Andrade, J. M. R., & Morrell, E. (2008). The art of critical pedagogy: Possibilities for moving from theory to practice in urban schools. New York: Peter Lang.

Fairclough, N. (1995). Critical discourse analysis: The critical study of language. New York: Longman.

Garcia, A., & Seglem, R. (2018). “DUDE UR GUNNA BE A GREAT TEACHER YO”: Cultivating diverse Englishes through chatroom discussions between preservice teachers and urban high school youth. Reading and Writing Quarterly. https://doi.org/10.
1080/10573569.2017.1416319

Gee, J. P. (1990). Social linguistics and literacies: Ideology in discourses. London: Routledge.

Golden, N. A., & Womack, E. (2016). Cultivating literacy and relationships with adolescent scholars of color. English Journal, 105(3), 36-42. Retrieved from MasterFILE Premier database. (Accession No. 112596050)

Kirkland, D. E. (2010). English(es) in urban contexts: Politics, pluralism, and possibilities. English Education, 42(3), 293-306. Retrieved from ERIC database. (Accession No. EJ880910)

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2004). New literacies: Changing knowledge and classroom learning. Philadelphia: Open University Press.

Paris, D., & Alim, H. S. (2014). What are we seeking to sustain through culturally sustaining pedagogy? A loving critique forward. Harvard Educational Review, 84(1), 85-100. Retrieved from ERIC database. (Accession No. EJ1034292)

Turkle, S. (2012). Alone together: Why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.

Turkle, S. (2015). Reclaiming conversation: The power of talk in a digital age. New York: Penguin.

Teaching English Online: Challenges and Successes

Elizabeth Jorgensen, Arrowhead Union High School, jorgensene @ arrowheadschools.org

 

Although some districts offer online classes year-round, the high school where I work, Arrowhead Union, offers traditional and blended classes during the school year, while exclusively online classes are only offered only during summer school. Throughout my past decade of teaching these courses, I’ve made invaluable professional, community, and student connections; learned more about myself and technology; and watched students acquire English skills as they matured academically and personally. But I also experienced challenges and setbacks.

Creative thinkers and educational pioneers are long accustomed to learning, growing and adapting. But because technology constantly changes, online teachers in particular need to remain responsive and reflective. By anticipating roadblocks and collaborating with colleagues and professionals, online teachers can meet student needs.

 

Teacher Resources and Support
One of the biggest obstacles I encountered teaching online was installing, incorporating, and instituting multiple learning management systems (LMS). In 2003, teachers at my high school used Moodle to electronically store and disseminate course content in online, blended, and face-to-face classes. A few years later, Arrowhead phased out Moodle. According to Donna Smith, Arrowhead’s Director of Library Media and Technology, Moodle “was a widely used learning management system. At the time, Moodle user communities and professional development were robust and commonplace …. A district need only maintain the system on a server and set up a domain name.” When Moodle no longer met Arrowhead’s needs, Smith contracted with Canvas. While some teachers moved content to Google Classroom, others utilized Canvas. As teachers moved content from one LMS to another, support was provided. Specifically, online teachers participated in several meetings each year, developing protocols and sharing best practices.

At Arrowhead, all online teachers provide students with a welcome letter highlighting course procedures, teacher office hours and LMS information. In this letter, students learn about a mandatory face-to-face meeting (prior to the course start date) where the teacher will field questions and introduce content. Similar protocols from all online instructors allow for transparency and for students to accurately gauge what will be required. Once enrolled in the course, students have the opportunity to watch a welcome video. Most instructors introduce themselves, state course goals and encourage students to raise questions and concerns.

 

welcome letter.PNG

 

To help teachers instruct online, in 2013, Smith and I created an online teacher expectation rubric. This rubric allows teachers to assess themselves on daily visible presence (responding to students within 24 to 48 hours regardless of weekends or holidays); constructive posts; comments that respectfully challenge students; contact with parents, as needed; and engaging activities including events, lectures, guest speakers, discussions and tutoring. Furthermore, where in-school collaborative time is not provided, teachers could reference online communities and discussion boards.

Specifically, in Canvas, the Commons allows educators to “find, import and share resources.” In Moodle community forums, instructors share ideas and connect. Other resources include the Journal of Online Learning and Teaching (JOLT), International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), and the National Standards for Quality Online Teaching (iNACOL).

 

Meeting Student Needs
During Arrowhead’s six-week summer school session, students might find themselves at sleep-away camps, working 40-hour weeks, or traveling. With the flexibility of online classes, students can build their own schedules. In end-of-class surveys, 25 percent of my online students report regularly accessing course content between 50 and 250 miles from school on phones, tablets and computers.

Offered to incoming juniors and seniors, online summer school English classes include composition, creative writing, journalism, and college strategies. Last year, 89 students enrolled in these online classes. The online summer school course offerings match what is offered to Arrowhead’s juniors and seniors during the school year. For freshmen and sophomores, summer school offerings remain remedial and face-to-face only.

Smith told me in an email:

We offer online courses at Arrowhead because there is a need for our students to experience self-paced and personalized learning. Online learning takes a lot of discipline and motivation. Students need to be willing to ask questions and troubleshoot technical problems if they arise … The benefits to our students are many. Online courses help create learners who are independent and persistent. Some learners find they prefer the discussion opportunities and personalized feedback in online courses. As online courses and training become more prevalent in post secondary education and in the workplace, we feel that we are preparing our students through blended and online opportunities at Arrowhead. The time management and communication skills our students practice in online courses will benefit them in all aspects of their future lives.

Annually, in end-of-course surveys, Arrowhead students, at a 90 percent rate, recommend that all students take an online high school course. They recognize that online classes require self-direction, motivation, organization and independence. They also recognize high school as a place to develop these skills in a safe and encouraging environment.

At Arrowhead, online English classes, capped at 15, remain a stark contrast to in-person classes capped at 35. Online classes of 15 allow instructors to monitor student progress and provide individualized attention and faster feedback. Smith says, “Online education creates an awareness of the importance of clear communication on behalf of both the instructors and students.”

In addition to presenting English content, netiquette rules, and information on web tools and the LMS, I monitor student progress. According to the Wisconsin DPI’s FAQ on online and blended learning:

Learning Management Systems (as well as the Student Information System) in online courses often provide a wealth of information about students’ times logged in, times on task, and assessment results. Especially in cases where the student’s pace, time or motivation seems to be a problem, teachers will want to work with the local contact person (sometimes called a local education guide, coach, case manager, mentor, or liaison) for further insight.

At Arrowhead, a secretary serves as a liaison between teacher and student only during the first week of summer school. This secretary contacts students who fail to log on or complete tasks; communicates student concerns to parents; and coordinates adds and drops. These efforts allow teachers to focus on students and instructing. Beyond this contracted time, these responsibilities fall to the teacher.

Special education teachers remain available for online summer school students, and the library is open during regular summer school hours. In the library, students receive technical support, wireless access, and devices, allowing teachers to focus on instruction and assessment rather than hardware or access issues. Although I do not require students use the library for learning, it remains a hub for academic and technological resources. My office hours are held in the library and, often, students will choose to work there, discussing assignments or collaborating with peers.

At Arrowhead, parents can access Canvas as an observer. This allows them to follow the course and see their son’s or daughter’s progress. According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (DPI) list of online teacher responsibilities:

Online courses are particularly suited to keeping parents and guardians informed and involved as they can be given online access to their student’s progress and work. Continual communication and collaboration is a key to success. Communication with students, parents, counselors, etc. can be accomplished via phone calls, e-mails, progress reports, screencast videos, texting, announcements on home page, web conferences, and feedback within individual assessments.

For students who fail to complete assigned work, a nudging email or LMS message is the first step. A face-to-face conference is a second step. Often, these contacts propel the resistant student. Initial contact can also be made via web or phone call. Losing points can serve as motivation, as students see how negligence impinges academic success. According to Hamilton and Jorgensen (2017):

If the students remain resistant, a phone call or email home can be the impetus needed. If a student continues to refuse, connecting with a previous teacher or guidance counselor can provide insight (what motivated a student to work in a previous class can often continue to be a motivating factor online). (p. 367)

Additionally, every composition, creative writing, and journalism assignment is completed for an authentic purpose and audience. Writers’ markets, with hard deadlines and strict requirements, motivate students with the allure of publication or prizes. However, if students still refuse to work, parents and I will collaborate and require them either to meet with me or work in the library.

At the end of each summer school session, data is reported to administration, correlating student failures to time spent online. At the end of last year’s session, three students failed online English classes. One spent a total of 57 minutes and 23 seconds on the course; another spent 37 minutes and 01 second; the other spent seven hours, 16 minutes and 28 seconds. This is in contrast to successful students who spent a minimum of 60 hours.

In an online class, I want students to get to know me. If students enjoy me and my instruction, they are more likely to increase effort and achievement. To accomplish this, I post videos (shorter than three minutes) highlighting course information, announcements or updates. I record myself informally using my iPhone and then upload the content either directly to the LMS or use a YouTube link. If I see common errors in student work, I create and record mini lessons or lectures. I also provide video resources from Khan Academy or TED Talk. By combining a variety of resources, I scaffold and differentiate.

The work in my online courses relies on student engagement and options, similar to my face-to-face courses during the school year. I present several options or strategies and allow students to choose the task or assignment which will best demonstrate mastery. During online summer school, I utilize writers’ markets. Last summer, students wrote haikus for the Milwaukee Haiku Club’s haiku competition, poems for the Milwaukee Public Museum 10th annual poetry competition, and essays for The Capitol Centennial Commission K-12 Art and Essay Writing Competition. For each, I required students to understand the authentic audience and compose multiple drafts. Throughout the writing process, I provided individualized feedback.

Online feedback is different from that in face-to-face classes. Whereas in a traditional classroom setting, I confer with students at their desks, the same is not possible online. I’ve found students can be more sensitive to feedback provided in text comments because they can carry an unintended tone. Utilizing voice comments on Google Docs is one way students can understand my perspective and hear my intention. In Canvas, instructors can leave feedback for students using text, audio, an attachment or video. The same can be done in SpeedGrader. In addition to addressing my feedback and watching videos and lectures, students read exemplars, complete research, peer edit, and post to discussion boards.

I encourage students to use web tools to demonstrate learning. They explore digital storytelling and create presentations that utilize music, narration, text, photographs, animation and video. In my online classes (in contrast to face-to-face classes), they are allowed to use multimodal text to demonstrate content mastery. Often, they will use PowerPoint, Google Slides, Moviemaker, podcast, montage, infographics, collages or public service announcements to demonstrate learning. They reflected on this in an end-of-course survey:

The example pieces really helped me wrap my brain around what we were doing. Also because the course was online, I could pull up things multiple times to just double check, which was nice.

This class had many different writing assignments which kept variety in the course.

I liked the different resources of different kinds for different ways of learning.

I really enjoyed the assignments where there were videos along with them. I found that they helped inspire my writing and answer questions I had.

 

Overcoming Challenges
My online summer school courses (similar to my traditional classes) focus on writing for an authentic purpose. But challenges arise when many student writers’ markets close during summer months. Specifically, the Sejong Cultural Society offers a sijo-writing competition that accepts submissions through late February. I asked contest coordinators if they would allow summer submissions. Although they would not, they offered a different contest solely for my online students. In this competition, each student wrote a sijo poem and submitted it to professor Mark Peterson of Brigham Young University (a renowned expert on Korean poetry). Peterson provided individual feedback to each student and Amazon gift cards to the top three entries. The lesson for me: finding creative solutions is the first step in elevating the opportunities and instruction my students receive.

Arrowhead administrators recognize the time and training it takes to deliver quality online instruction. The technology integrators offer Canvas professional development during weekly professional collaboration time, but no remuneration is offered for course set-up, curriculum development or training when administrators adopt a new LMS. Additionally, technology integrators are not available during summer months. In my tenure teaching online classes, I have transferred content to and from three systems in a laborious and time-consuming process. I anticipate my online teaching will continue to evolve as both technology and students change. I also recognize the importance of utilizing professional development and my colleagues.

When Arrowhead migrated to Canvas, I found it less intuitive than Moodle. Canvas didn’t play nicely with Google Docs, my preferred vehicle for providing feedback. To get around this, I created a submission process that fit within Canvas (where students created and shared a Google folder with me). Students expressed frustrations and after the first year, provided feedback:

I personally don’t like using Canvas as Google Classroom was easier to use.

My main issue with Canvas is that every assignment from a form had to be copies of the original, not automatic individual forms like Google Classroom. However, I did like the forum-esque communication and I found the grade feedback options helpful.

This was the first time that I really had to use a Canvas page for a class, and it took a bit to adjust from the normal Google Classroom.

I really enjoy Canvas now because of the online courses I took simply because it’s a lot more accessible than Google Classroom is. It’s easy to see how the course is laid out (modules) and it’s easy to keep track of what you’ve done.

Although no one system will please administrators, teachers, parents and students, the nature of technology requires  all stakeholders to modify previous practice to meet current needs. For example, when I started teaching online classes, web 2.0 tools remained a bedrock of quality online instruction. Teachers used web 2.0 tools to instruct, and students used them to demonstrate learning. But a web 2.0 tool used in 2009 may now be defunct. Take Kerpoof. In 2009, it was named the top web 2.0 tool by Technological Horizons in Education (THE) Journal (Riedel). But by 2014, it closed its doors. The same was true for number seven on the list: Yack Pack. As Bates (2014) said in “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Teachers Who Use Technology,” teachers need to “embrace change” and be “extremely thorough and think two steps ahead.” This, in addition to course development, curriculum management, instruction, clear procedures, responsive feedback and meeting the needs of each student, remains paramount if students and teachers are to have success online.

 

Lingering Questions
When the 2013 Wisconsin Act 257 repealed the requirement for 30 hours of professional development for online teachers, it allowed any individual to “teach an online course in a subject and level in a public school, including a charter school, without a license or permit from the department if the individual holds a valid license or permit to teach the subject and level in the state from which the online course is provided.” But what does this mean for Wisconsin’s online English teachers and the students they serve?

According to Wisconsin DPI’s list of online teacher responsibilities, “[I]t is up to the certified teacher to assign the class activities” and that “[T]eachers will need to plan for and coordinate the provision of specially designed instruction and needed supports,” provide both summative and formative assessments, and report outcomes to administrators, students, parents and guardians. Although many of these duties are consistent with face-to-face instruction, there are differences in teaching and learning online. First, online classes remain open for learning, 24 hours a day. This requires specific district expectations for feedback and communication timelines. Additionally, content and presentations must be planned and offered in advance. In my online courses, all materials are available on day one, so each student is able to work at his or her own pace. The exigency of online students requires teachers to anticipate roadblocks and offer personalization at the forefront. Because online teaching and learning are done through asynchronous communication, protocols must signal completed work.

According to Wisconsin DPI’s State Budget Licensure Changes, since no Wisconsin mandates, state legislature, or regulation monitors teacher training, practices, or online instruction quality, educators and their administrators must develop, offer, and utilize quality online instruction. Teaching online comes with a responsibility to meet not only the state content standards, but also the International Association for K-12 Online Learning’s (iNACOL) National Standards for Quality Online Teaching. According to the Wisconsin DPI’s FAQ on online and blended learning:

As teachers go through classes, they must reflect on what works and what can be improved. Student assessments and participation can be used as data. State and other standardized tests can inform the teacher about which standards and objectives students are learning and which may need additional attention.

In every online course I teach, I provide instruction in a variety of ways: written instructions, recorded lectures, YouTube videos, audio files, infographics. Diversifying instruction, as well as the ways in which students can demonstrate learning, helps meet a variety of student needs. Course organization, clear procedures and engaging materials also increase student and instructor enjoyment and success.

At Arrowhead High School, students rely on traditional and online classes to prepare them for the future. As instructors, a responsibility remains (regardless of state requirements) to provide quality, personalized and effective instruction both in person and online.

At the end of my online summer school course last year, one of my students said, “I wasn’t sure about this course at first, but as the course continued, I learned more about my writing and myself which was what I was hoping for.” And in the end, that is my ultimate goal, regardless if I’m teaching online or in person.

 

References
Bates, M. (2014, February 28). The 7 habits of highly effective teachers who use technology. Retrieved April 8, 2018, from Teacher Infographics website: https://elearninginfographics.com/the-7-habits-of-highly-effective-teachers-who-use-educational-technology-infographic/

Hamilton, H., & Jorgensen, E. (2017). Accommodating all students: A co-teaching approach to creative writing. Wisconsin English Journal, 59(1-2), 361-375. Retrieved from https://wejournal.files.wordpress.com/2018/02/29-hamilton-and-jorgensen.pdf

Online and blended learning FAQ. (n.d.). Retrieved April 8, 2018, from Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction website: https://dpi.wi.gov/online-blended-learning/faq

Online teacher responsibilities. (n.d.). Retrieved April 8, 2018, from Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction website: https://dpi.wi.gov/online-blended-learning/online-teacher-responsibilities

Riedel, C. (2009, February 2). Top 10 web 2.0 tools for young learners. Technological Horizons in Education. Retrieved from https://thejournal.com/articles/2009/02/02/top-10-web-20-tools-for-young-learners.aspx

Wisconsin Act 257, S. 589, 2013 Leg. (Wis. 2013). Retrieved from https://docs.legis.wisconsin.gov/2013/related/acts/257

Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Teacher Education, Professional Development and Licensing. State Budget Licensure Changes. Retrieved from https://dpi.wi.gov/tepdl/licensing

Teaching Nineteenth-Century Slave Narratives: Engaging Student Scholars in the Production of Digital Story Maps

Amy Lewis, Assistant Professor of Humanities and Liberal Arts, St. Norbert College, amy.lewis @ snc.edu

Abstract. Digital story maps are one key component in a project-based course focused on nineteenth-century slave narratives written in the United States. In this course, the traditional literary analysis paper has been replaced by a digital story-mapping project. This mapping project builds digital skills and literacies by focusing on how to convey stories about enslavement to a contemporary audience via digital maps and how choosing a digital medium affects the stories that we tell.

The author’s training in digital mapping was generously supported by a Digital Learning Initiative Grant provided by St. Norbert College.

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Ancient Grudge to New Love: A Remix of Romeo and Juliet

Tim Jansky, PhD candidate in Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Madison, tjansky @ wisc.edu

Abstract. Jansky discuss how he remixed his Romeo and Juliet unit to best capture the multimodal composing that was already happening in his classroom, a shift resulting in a student-centered approach leading to free-styling, collaboration, and the creation of music videos telling the story of Shakespeare’s tragic lovers.

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