Teaching Writing Offline (With Online Support)

Even though Scott Warnock’s book Teaching Writing Online: How & Why focuses on writing classes that take place entirely over the internet and hybrid classes which are about half online and half in person, any writing teacher in the digital age can glean important advice from his book on how to update and enhance their own teaching practices. Here are some suggestions I thought I would adopt and adapt, with comments and musings about why they are significant.

In chapter three, Warnock warns against trying to be more technologically complicated than needs be. The opportunities digital media provides should offer ways to add to the class, not to overwhelm teacher and students with technology. It is more a matter of knowing how to exploit the tools already available, such as through class management systems, maybe supplemented by another digital form such as a class blog, rather than trying to incorporate all digital media. A teacher should focus on a few tools, but explain to the class that other tools are available.

Teachers do not need to reinvent teaching from scratch. They do not have to abandon traditional teaching methods, they just have to adapt these methods to the digital or hybrid environment, most of which can be done with Course Management Systems already in place. In Chapter Four he lists some of these possibilities: teachers can deliver online lectures (not my favorite approach, yet it models writing for the students), they can question students through Socratic dialogues that lead students to their learning, engage in ongoing conversations, have students work in groups, put students together in workshops, and encourage them to engage in unsupervised work outside the class. The online environment shifts the focus from the teacher to the content itself, a worthwhile goal, which changes the dynamic from the delivery of information to the sharing of information, making education more participatory, rather than receptive.

Even in a traditional classroom, teachers must develop a persona, one flexible enough to move through various roles, such as facilitator, coach, counselor, and judge. Although Warnock did not list these roles, he did point out some roles that teachers should avoid, especially when working with students online: the unapproachable sage (the student is overwhelmed by the teacher’s knowledge and feels they have nothing to add), the apathetic drone (the teacher pay attention to the work students are doing online), the chum (the teacher is trying too hard to be a buddy), the fool (the teacher makes mistakes or writes sloppily) and the harsh critic (the teacher doesn’t employ diplomatic constructive criticism).

Online icebreakers could be used even with a traditional class to help students feel more comfortable before the first day of class. I would add that continuing online interaction is the most effective way for students to learn each other’s names. In a traditional class, introductions are made and names are soon forgotten. Some students form little groups, other names are picked up by hearing the teacher repeat them, but no one learns everybody’s name, but with online interaction, students quickly learn and remember names, and this creates a much closer community of learners, ones who can support and help each other in a student-centered, collaborative environment, rather than anonymous faces who have a relationship only with the teacher and are in competition with each other.

If traditional face-to-face meetings are maintained, digital tools like message  boards and forums can be used to prepare for classes, more student-centered and interactive if students are allowed to pose and respond to questions on reading material. In his own class, Warnock mostly poses the questions himself, but at higher levels this would be unnecessary, even inappropriate, since the goal is to develop independent learners. At lower levels, I would encourage a mixed approach where sometimes the teacher would pose questions, sometimes they would ask their own, and sometimes both. These online conversations would then be developed, problematized and deepened in classroom discussions, which could be continued afterward with follow-up discussions, research and more formal writing projects.

Sometimes we think the final paper is the only writing that really matters, and yet the everyday social writing, the online discussions, and the semi-formal posts are actually closer to the writing most students are going to produce in their daily lives and jobs. The rhetorical importance of these kinds of writing should be highlighted for their own sake, and not downplayed or dismissed as “process.” These pieces of writing can be used to develop ideas further or even as chunks that may be integrated into larger works. The important thing here is that students recognize that all of these steps are part of a connected process, each of which has its own inherent validity, building on rather than replacing what came before.

In short, teachers do not need to reinvent teaching. Although education should become more student-centered and student-directed: online activities are ideal for putting the class into the students’ hands. Also, teachers do not need to feel like they must master and use all digital forms available to them, but it would be a serious mistake to ignore them altogether, since the internet will be where most writing happens.

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