My Post-COVID IRW Classroom: Flexibility Remains Key

By Tina Shanahan

I’m scheduled to get my COVID vaccine this week!  The vaccine brings hope of a return to normal.  I can’t wait to see students’ whole faces in class next year and have a cup of coffee with a colleague on campus.  Still, there are some aspects of teaching reading and writing that will not be business as usual next year.  I’ve picked up some new tricks and will retire some old norms for good.  

And, I know I’m not alone.  Writers for Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education, or university-specific publications like Duke Today also report that a new normal is in order.  For me, the key feature of my post-COVID IRW classes will be increased flexibility in lesson plans, class policies, and technology. 

More time to slow down and connect

At my college, faculty were given a choice in their modality for Fall 2020 and Spring 2021.  I chose to teach primarily on campus in socially distanced classes with reduced enrollment.  My students told me they chose an in-person class because they couldn’t do online learning.  When my husband got COVID and my family had to quarantine for two weeks, my students and I were surprised at what we were capable of accomplishing via Zoom.  

I set up my Zoom sessions to allow extra time for student-to-student interaction in an attempt to help everyone feel connected.  I started each session with a small-group icebreaker or team-building activity.  I then brought the groups back for a short lesson, followed by an application exercise in the same group they were in for the icebreaker.  We came back to the main room to debrief as a whole class, but I made sure to check on each student individually and make sure everyone had a moment to reflect on the lesson and clarify the next steps in their reading and writing processes.  

This Random Wheel from wordwall.net was one of my classes’ favorite get-to-know you activities.

I admit that I was nervous about how many slides I deleted and how much I shortened my lesson to make space for the extra community-building and group activities.  But, it absolutely paid off as students supported each other and learned effectively in our Zoom sessions.  When we returned to the classroom after my quarantine, students told me they missed the breakout room activities, especially the ones that allowed time to just get to know the people they would be working with each class. 

The changes in class format this year shook the foundation of my teaching style.  But, I needed to be shaken.  Although I always use a lot of group activities in class, I have always felt like I owe it to students to pack every minute of class time with quality educational content.  There were times in my past teaching where I felt the need to charge forth as planned because I had so carefully designed the learning experience and didn’t trust myself enough to veer from the plan. 

A class packed from beginning to end with non-stop activities can be exhausting, and my students need a break to reflect and connect, even when we’re together in person.  I had been taking for granted that the class was a community simply because we were all physically together in the same space.  But, that’s not the case.  To truly establish community and present lessons in a way my students can absorb, I will continue deliberately incorporating more time for connecting and reflecting in class.

More flexible class policies 

I see my students trying to care for children while also calling into class.  I see my students worried about sick loved ones.  I see my students stressed out and overwhelmed.  The pandemic has been brutal.  Everyone has been affected in some way.  It has been uplifting to see the extent to which we have been extending grace to others during these times.  

But, brutal life situations aren’t unique to pandemics.  Students will continue to struggle with childcare, illness, and stress.  The flexible policies I have put in place during the pandemic have saved students from failure, and I will continue to extend grace, understanding, and options post-COVID.  

Most notably, I have given up my late policy and changed the way I talk about late work.  

Before ditching the late policy, I would send emails to students who missed a deadline that said, “I see you didn’t complete your assignment.  Remember that I accept late work for 10% off per day late, up to 5 days late.  At that point, any work will receive half credit.  Let me know if you have any questions on the assignment.  I hope to see your work soon.”  I rarely got a response back and only sometimes got the late assignment. 

I have changed my message entirely.  Instead of emphasizing my late policy, I emphasize the opportunity for learning that students miss out on.  I write something along the lines of, “I haven’t seen your assignment yet.  In this assignment, we’re working on…, which is important because… I’m happy to accept your work still.  Is there anything in particular holding you back from turning it in?”  I have been amazed at the difference in responses I receive with the change in policy and message.  Students have been far more willing to make up work when they know that their assignment is important because it is an essential part of the learning experience of the course and they can still get full credit for it.  In a recent study, students reported that instructor flexibility was the primary factor that motivated them to persist in their classes during the pandemic.  

As a writing teacher, I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with an influx of late work at the end of the semester.  Essays require a lot of time to grade and several late essays turned in at once will impact an instructor’s workflow.  However, I have not had students come out of the woodwork to turn in a slew of essays at the end of the semester.  Instead, I have seen students who are incredibly overwhelmed grateful for the opportunity to get caught up.  

More acceptance of changing technological trends

Prior to the pandemic, my classes worked with a lot of printed materials and in-class demonstrations.  I have found that my increased flexibility in technology created opportunities for students.  

I used to print class notes outlines, which students would hand in physically at the end of each week.  To eliminate handing materials back and forth, I started putting class notes on Google Docs.  Students make a copy of our weekly notes outline to guide their engagement in class activities.  I can seamlessly embed links to resources in the class notes so students have all their materials for each week’s lessons in one place.  

Homework was always done through Blackboard, but the assignment instructions were limited to a few lines and an in-class explanation. Homework assignments are now completed on Google Docs that walk students through each step of the assignment with brief instructional videos every step of the way.  By transitioning to Google Docs and embedding instructions and links in the assignments, students can now complete the activities even if they need to miss a class. 

Another change to my standard IRW class practice was the way we annotate.  I had always encouraged students to annotate printed text.  Although not impossible, having students print readings and send scans or pictures of their annotations is inconvenient since many students don’t have a printer at home.  Instead, I started to use Google Drive for annotations.  In some assignments, students annotate a reading on their own or annotate research for an essay.   In other assignments, students all comment on a shared PDF. 

A snapshot of group annotation through Google Drive.  Students click the + in the top right corner to highlight a passage and add a comment. 

The nice thing about Google Drive is that students can access it anywhere and can continue to use it after our class.  Of course, students can continue to annotate print documents outside of class, too.  But, how often do any of our students, or any us for that matter, work with print documents anymore.  In embracing the technology of Google Docs and digital annotations through Google Drive, I hope that I’m providing my students a useful skill they can use in other classes and in their personal online reading.  

Where do we go from here? 

Teaching during a pandemic was stressful and overwhelming.  Many of us were underprepared for the kinds of pedagogical and technological shifts required to teach in varied modalities.  We learned on the fly, and understandably, most of us would say our teaching this year has been far from our best form.  

Nonetheless, we have persevered and come out wiser as a result.  There used to be a common narrative in higher education that certain types of teachers or certain types of students are only cut out for traditional on-campus classrooms. The pandemic has shown us what we’re capable of.  Before being forced to push the limits of traditional teaching and learning, we were setting parameters on education that prevented our seeing what was possible for a new age of education.

Dr. Tina Shanahan is an Instructor of Reading and Writing at Gateway Technical College in Southeast Wisconsin and co-chair of the NOSS IRW Network.  You can connect with her at shanahant@gtc.edu.

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