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March 15, 2020

Some ideas for a first-year Comp class

A friend of mine at Twitter is suddenly facing a Spring quarter class first-year Composition class that is going to be all online; he's a grad student, and that's a tall order. A VERY tall order. I promised him I would think of some ideas that might help, so here is the class I would teach if I had to something like this all of a sudden:

Week 1. Get to know each other. Make sure there's a fun way for students to get to know each other as they would in the classroom. Not about the content of the class... just about coming together as a community! That could happen in a Padlet (I love Padlet!), or a Flipgrid, or a Google Slidedeck where there's a slide for each person and they can put in a picture (pet pictures! travel photo! fun stuff). That can even happen in an LMS discussion board, but just make sure students know how to include images and videos in their discussion board posts. I would spend the whole week doing things like this; there are all kinds of prompts you could use for people to connect and share just as people. You know how students usually expect there to be "Syllabus Week" in a class? Well, have it be Community Week instead. You can also do surveys this time (Google Forms are great for surveys!), asking students what they would like to do, finding out more about their circumstances right now (Internet access, housing, etc.). Build all the connections you can so that everybody in class can feel like they are coming together to share a learning experience for the next 10 weeks.

Week 2. Work together to find and share excellent writing. Writing is going to be really REALLY important as we make our way through this crisis. I'd spend a week where students are going out looking for excellent writing on the Internet (you might help direct their search in terms of genre, topics, venues, etc.; I think students would be very motivated to find excellent writing on the crisis we are facing), and then bringing that writing back, with links, and writing up some bullet points about what they think makes the writing excellent. Then have them look at the writing other students are finding. Then go find some more writing. Connecting and sharing. This can happen in an LMS discussion board, no problem.

Week 3. Think about improving the writing they found. Next, I'd shift to thinking about how every piece of writing, even an excellent piece of writing, can become even better through revision. Have them start proposing changes to the excellent writing that they found (their own, or from other students). What would be a better headline? Can they write a stronger lede? A better final paragraph? What about better graphics? (Which becomes perfect opportunity to talk about image usage rights, Creative Commons, etc.; they need to be better graphics that students make themselves or find licensed for reuse online already.) Have them practice shortening a piece of writing: pick a few paragraphs that are weak and tighten them down 10% in word count... tighten them down 50%. Or go the other way: find something important that is missing from the original piece and write the additional paragraph(s) that it needs. All kinds of revision experiments are possible! This could actually go on for a couple of weeks to be honest. Learning how to revise is in some ways more valuable than the initial drafting IMO, and they could comment on each other's revision suggestions, etc.
(I do something kind of like this in my own class where, when students do revision weeks, they are choosing from a list of revision approaches to use: Editing Challenges.)


Week 4. Start doing their own writing. Focus on micro-genres. Writing tweets. Writing two-sentence stories. Writing 100-word stories. 234-word stories. Collections of memes. Infographics. There are so many advantages to learning how to write short pieces and learning how to work with words/images. One big advantage is that means you also have time to really read what people are writing, and they have time to read each other's work. Which leads into the next week...

Week 5. Start giving each other feedback about that writing. They will have learning in Week 3 about improving the writing, and now they can think about how you deliver those kinds of recommendations to people in a feedback situation. Learning how to give and receive feedback is a huge task in and of itself; I have a lot of resources gathered here: Feedback Resources.

Week 6. Now take that feedback and revise.  Students revise the writing work they did based on feedback they have received and also what they have learned from looking at each other's work in the previous week. You can then build a Gallery with the revised work in it, plus some reflection statements from students about what they found most valuable in the writing/revision process, what was hardest, what they want to work on next time, etc. 

You could then repeat that Week 4-5-6 cycle again for Week 7-8-9, with Week 10 for wrap-up and reflection.

That's what I would do if all of a sudden I were trying to spin up a first-year Composition course like this. No, it's not a normal Composition course. It probably is not what first-year Comp guidelines expect and demand. But I think it would be a good learning experience that could work online without much advance prep, and I really don't think we can expect normal courses when the situation is so not normal...

Plus, like always, I designed this with the students AND myself in mind. I would honestly love to teach a class like this myself, and I would love to do those assignments (I've seen some excellent writing in these past days). Teacherly enthusiasm is a big help in getting an online course up and moving, and it really helps if you are an enthusiastic colearner with your students, doing the same assignments with them side by side. I would have an abundance of enthusiasm for a class like this, just as I do for the classes I teach now. (More about my classes here: MythFolklore.net.)

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