Having taught asynchronously during the entire 2020-2021 academic year, I was excited to begin teaching synchronous sections of ENG10: Accelerated Writing Skills in Fall 2021. Because these sections were linked with asynchronous sections of ENG110: Expository Writing, I wondered how my students would respond to taking these courses together in two different online formats. Additionally, given the now-ubiquitous phenomenon of “Zoom Fatigue,” I also wondered whether I would be able to keep students focused on our coursework week after week. Here are a few practices I learned this past term that I personally found helpful in teaching a synchronous online course focused on building students’ reading and writing skills:
Set Expectations Early
In any course, students may arrive with varying expectations regarding attendance, participation, and delivery of course material. To address this, I created a short video that explained the basic functions of Zoom, how to access the synchronous class meetings, and the overall structure of the linked ENG10/ENG110 classes. I also covered course policies that were unique to our Zoom sessions—things like signing in using their own name, remembering to mute when not speaking, and generally being respectful of others in the online space. I made this video available prior to the beginning of the semester, and I encouraged students to reach out with any questions or concerns they had about accessing the class. Besides saving time that might have been spent resolving technical issues, this video also helped me to start building a connection with my students early on, and several students commented that they found it helpful in learning to navigate the linked courses.
Create Opportunities for Collaboration
Some of my more successful Zoom sessions usually involved some combination of a mini-lecture or presentation and an online activity where students could work together. One of the advantages of Zoom or Blackboard Collaborate is that they allow students to participate both by speaking or by typing comments in the chat window. Another way for students to participate is through shared documents—for example, I might begin a class by sharing a Google Doc with a Discussion Question on my screen and invite students to write their responses directly onto the document by sharing the link with them in the Zoom chat. After 5-10 minutes, I would then invite students to discuss and share more about what they wrote, using their responses as a springboard for a full-class discussion.
I’ve also used Google Docs as a platform for social annotation, where students could read and analyze a text as a class or in small groups. To do this, I would upload one of the course readings as an editable Google Doc, which students could highlight, underline, add comments and reactions in the margins, and respond to each other’s comments. We would then discuss what they annotated and why, and address any questions that came up about the reading. Afterward, I would change the document settings to “View Only,” and send the annotated version of the reading to the class. What was especially effective about this activity was that it centered student knowledge by producing collectively generated class notes, and it allowed students to become invested in the process of working through the readings during class.
Consider Holding a “Working Meeting”
Because ENG10 is intended to reinforce the reading and writing skills taught in ENG110, I made an effort to dedicate some of the synchronous ENG10 sessions to working on the assignments given in ENG110. During weeks when major essay assignments were due, we also held more open-ended writing sessions, in which students would spend the class period writing in breakout rooms, while I, along with the Supplementary Instruction (SI) Tutor assigned to our section, circulated to each group to check in with students and provide individualized guidance on their writing. In addition to giving students the opportunity to complete their coursework in a structured and supportive environment, these “working meetings” also allowed students to connect with each other as well as with their SI Tutor.
By mixing in interactive lessons and structured working time with short lectures and presentations, these and other similar strategies can dissuade students from developing a habit of passively watching or listening to the class. Additionally, these strategies have the benefit of helping to foster a sense of classroom camaraderie online.
Ann Genzale is an Assistant Professor in the English Department at Hostos Community College. She received her PhD in English, General Literature, and Rhetoric from Binghamton University, and her primary research area is twentieth century and contemporary American fiction. Since joining Hostos in Spring 2020, Professor Genzale has taught at all levels of the English Department’s composition sequence and is co-manager of the Developmental Writing courses.