Friday, September 26, 2014

Connecting with Students via Creative Writing

What a week! I had such a great week... but I really ran out of time (everybody knows that feeling I think!), and so I did not get to do as much Connected Courses stuff as I wanted to. Alas! But at least I thought I would wrap up the week with some thoughts about connecting with students via creative writing — since that is how I spent almost all my time this week!

Some context: I teach two fully online courses — Mythology & Folklore and Indian Epics — and in both classes, the students do a lot of creative writing, retelling traditional stories (some of them literally thousands of years old!), finding new ways to bring the stories life in their own words. This type of writing is new to many of the students, but it works wonderfully: the forces of individuality and creativity are strong! Even when students might be writing about the same story and even using the same style, the stories still come out differently because the magical force of the imagination means that each student "sees" the story in their own way.

Blog stories. In their blogs, the students tell a story each week that is based on the week's reading from class, and they also read each other's stories in the blogs and leave comments there. You can get a sense of what stories are like by looking at the HTML clippings stream from those blog posts: Myth & Folklore Stories and Indian Epic Stories. Isn't the variety wonderful? And that variety is simply the natural reflection — through the prism of storytelling — of the variety of the students themselves.

Storybook stories. Meanwhile, as the students are all sharing those stories and getting to know each other through their blogs week by week by week, there is another, more formal writing process that is taking place, as student create their semester-long Storybook projects. That is where I spend my time, working with the students each week as they brainstorm their project, write up the Introduction, and then start adding stories, which will be three or four stories total by semester's end. Every semester, the collection of Storybooks has a personality of its own, thanks to the new directions and ideas that each semester's students bring to the class. It is through these Storybooks that I get to know the students, and we connect through their Storybooks every week this way.

Getting to know you... This is admittedly an odd way to get to know someone, but a good way. Think about how you can feel close to an author of a book, even if you know nothing about that author's personal life — it's something like that! Or the way you can relate to an actor's character in a movie or television show, even if you know nothing about the actor as a person. You feel connected... even if you don't know the personal life details. Weird, but true. That's how it is with the students and the Storybooks. I know a little bit about their personal lives from their Introduction posts in their blogs, but what I really remember about them is the "person" I get to know through the Storybook that they create, and I remember them for years and years afterwards because the Storybooks always make such a big impression on me.

This semester's Storybooks. So, in closing, let me share some of the Storybooks that allowed me to connect with the students this week. I'll just choose a few to give a sense of the wonderful variety that they express:
  • Tales of Aesop: City of Animals. Just listen to the voice of the narrator in this Introduction! What a voice! Now, I don't know just how this voice is part of the student's own personality as it were — but somehow or other this voice "came" from this student. Isn't it great? And this is such a good example of the endless power of creativity: there must have been easily 50 or more Aesop Storybooks in the 10+ years that I have taught this course . . . but no two the same!
  • Cupid on Trial. Not only is this a completely charming premise for a Storybook, it has an extra layer of meaning for me because this is a project from a student who was in Indian Epics last semester, and his two Storybooks are so different! Here is the one from Indian Epics: Vishnu's Favorite Avatars. By getting to read a second project for this student, I am able to connect with him in a new way. What fun!
  • Sigurd the Sailor. Take a look at this Storybook Introduction and be prepared to swept away, right from the very first sentence. This student is helping me here not just by sharing such great writing but also by covering a topic that is not part of the class UnTextbook: I tried so hard this summer to find a Sigurd source to include, but I finally gave up. Now this student has come to the rescue by making Sigurd part of the class in his Storybook project!
  • Alexander the Great in India. This is another Storybook where I am so grateful for the new content that the student is bringing to the class. Thanks to this Storybook, the students are going to get a lesson in Indian history, connecting it up with a familiar historical figure: Alexander the Great. The Introduction is brilliant, and I am not surprised; I know this student's work already from Myth-Folklore last year: Monstrous Beings of Greek Mythology. As you can see, this student is fascinated by ancient Greece, and the other students are getting the benefit of his enthusiasm.
  • Janaki's Journal: Sita's Story. I'll close this list with the Storybook that was the last one I read this week, a beautiful interweaving of the stories of Kusa and Lava, twin sons of Rama and Sita, and what happens when they read their mother's journal after her departure from this world, a departure which is for many readers the moral crisis point of the whole Ramayana. No one has done a project quite like this before, and I think the other students in the class will enjoy it so much! I know I am enjoying it tremendously. Reading the first story in this project ended my week on such a high note.
I could go on, of course: there are a total of 80 students in my classes, and I have spent the week interacting with each of them about their writing, and they are interacting with each other like this too. In a separate post I'll have more to say about all this (there's always more to say, ha ha) . . . but while I was on such a happy high from this week of Storybooks, I wanted to be sure to share something now. Just in case the weekend runs away from me, as it sometimes does.  :-)

Here are screenshots of the Pinterest Boards which are another way to browse the projects! If you have a few minutes, take a look. There is so much good stuff going on already, and it is just Week 6 of the semester!


  1. Sounds like you spend a lot of time commenting on student work?

    I notice you use a pbworks works wiki for most of your course details in addition to individual student blogs on Blogger to course announcements & other stuff) on a separate blog-- do your students say that they get lost amidst all the platforms? With only individual blogs for class, which I aggregated on the wiki, and a wiki, my students complained endlessly. Of course, they were all beginners in Web-based tools. How do you work with that?

    Also, I'm really interested to see student last names on their work. Is that a concern for any of them, or even something you discuss with them?

    So much to learn....

    1. Thanks for all your questions, Karen... an excuse for me to write more, ha ha. And yes, it's true, commenting on student work is the main part of my job. I would guess about 25-30 hours per week, although there is some good pacing from the alternating weeks of new stuff and revisions, and the way some students are on their own schedules, so it is more like a range of between 20-35 hours per week commenting (I have two especially heavy weeks of commenting: the week of the Introductions, and the week of the first new stories, which is next week)... but hey, I give myself a lot of social media breaks during those hours, ha ha. Twitter, Google+, Feedly (I sometimes have to set a little timer to make myself behave...).

      I teach full-time online, so I can really focus my efforts this way, and each student is getting 15-30 minutes of feedback from me every week. It's powerful. Even students who are really struggling with or resistant to writing can make huge progress this way. I don't do any new content prep during the semester; everything is 100% ready to go at the start of the semester, so really all I do from day to day is interact with the students about their writing or other class work, along with interacting with my teaching buddies online. It can be a little exhausting but it is also sooooo satisfying. The writing is all a pleasure to read, and I am so happy when I see the revising process really working, esp. when students are prepared to take something really rewrite it, which is sometimes what needs to happen. I work, they work, we are all working, and I am learning A LOT, just as I hope they are.

      With the different tools, it's really a result of the evolution of things. I figure ANY tool can die, and can even die very suddenly. The biggest shocker for me that way was Delicious, which I used to use very heavily. For student blogging, I started out with Bloglines. Then I switched to Ning (you are a Ning user also, am I remembering that right?). The demise of mini-Ning is what triggered a HUGE domino effect for me, with a ton of changes to my classes this semester. Good old PBWorks has been a stalwart companion for many years (I used it back when it was PBWiki and still had the peanut butter logo). So, I prefer to use different tools, knowing that if something dies off, I've got other tools in development. My use of Blogger has become more and more and more intense, so that it is now I guess the most important tool I use... but if it were to go the way of other digital tools (and sooner or later it will), I'll figure something out!

      ... I've never written a comment Blogger rejected as too long. Eeeeek! Second part to follow.

    2. Here's Part Two, ha ha.

      As for students being confused by different web spaces and tools, etc., sure, some students are confused, but that's really just a result of them not reading the instructions. Everybody is in such a hurry! (me too) Even if I used just one tool, I think they would still be confused because they are in too big of a hurry to read the instructions, and that's fine; since I am teaching full-time online, it means I am quick to respond to emails when students write to ask me something. Almost every time when they write to ask a question, the answer is already in the instructions, so I just point them to the right place but sometimes I have indeed not explained something clearly or correctly, and I fix that pronto!

      About names: it's totally up to the students. I don't use last names when making things like the class directory, etc., and I am glad to use a pseudonym if the student requests that (but no one ever has). What I do is to contact students who have their academic record officially flagged for extra privacy (which is itself pretty rare) to see what we need to do; we can see that flag in the student information system records. As for their blogs and websites, it's up to them - most of them are proud and excited about their work and want to put their names there. Others choose not to. It's all good. I have an extra credit Tech Tip about Googling themselves to see what they find, and it's always interesting to hear in their comments on that assignment what their feelings are about online presence, etc. I'm a big believer in having a strong online presence for both students and faculty, but I also completely understand students who feel differently. As for faculty, I am not sympathetic: especially for those of us teaching at public university, I really feel that having a strong online presence, making our work accessible to the general public, is a duty, something not optional for faculty. IMHO. :-)


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