“Making the classroom a democratic setting where everyone feels a responsibility to contribute is a central goal of transformative pedagogy” (39).

Bell Hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (1994)

As someone who had never taught online before March 2020, I spent a great deal of time considering how to transfer successful elements of my in-person courses to the virtual classroom. Presented with multiple options for webinars and trainings, I had plenty of resources to consult as I retooled my classes and developed new ones for the asynchronous online environment. As I absorbed all of the information available to me, I reminded myself that students would neither have the time nor the training to adjust to online learning the way that I could adjust to online teaching. My pedagogical training has taught me to facilitate dialogue among students and to view the classroom as a learning community where all participants have a stake in our curriculum. In the midst of a pandemic where students, faculty, and staff have been experiencing various traumas related to Covid-19 and its economic consequences, as well as from racism and state-sanctioned violence, my question as an educator has been: How can I create a virtual classroom where students would feel supported and empowered to contribute in a substantial way throughout the

The following suggestions highlight some strategies I have found helpful when teaching English gateway courses and Writing-Intensive electives online:

1.) Help students navigate the virtual college campus and systems of support

When teaching on campus, I, like many of my English department colleagues, began the semester with orientation activities that would introduce students to services like the Library and the Writing Center. Success coaches would visit the classroom to answer questions from students. It is especially important to maintain ties to these systems of support in a virtual classroom, so I regularly remind students about the resources available to them. One low-stakes assignment that students complete during the first week of class is to send me an email from their Hostos account with a brief introduction and the name(s) of their adviser or success coach. By integrating these tasks into the curriculum, I signal to students that I do not assume that they arrive in my classroom already knowing how to navigate the systems that are part of the college experience. Making the procedures of college life more transparent can help to retain students and increase their sense of belonging.

We know from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that people cannot work successfully if their basic needs are not met, so I strive to provide information about support services in addition to course-specific content. Early in the pandemic, I created a Google Doc for students that offered information about Hostos and CUNY policies and services, as well as community-based resources to help with food and housing insecurity.

2.) Go beyond text-based media to create multiple points of entry for students

In an asynchronous online class setting where text-based media is dominant, I seek to appeal to a variety of learners and differentiate instruction as much as possible. In short videos that are no longer than 10-15 minutes each, I demonstrate how to navigate the Blackboard course site, discuss readings and writing assignments, and share strategies for completing work. Students report that these videos help them engage with the material and learn to navigate the Blackboard course

In my ENG 110 class, I have found that students appreciate and learn from podcasts. In one of the learning units, students choose a podcast episode to evaluate in a formal essay, and this assignment serves as the basis for their research project later in the term. Any podcast I assign includes a written transcript, and all of my short videos contain captions. I recommend Screencast-o-matic for recording and captioning videos.

3.) Give students space to set their own goals and reflect on their learning

To foster metacognition, I ask students to write about their learning goals and reflect on their study habits. In discussion board posts, they brainstorm new strategies to help manage their time or improve their focus, such as using a calendar, setting a timer, or trying the Pomodoro technique Students share ideas and check in on each other in a follow-up post a few weeks later.

This assignment makes space for students to discuss their learning process and make changes throughout the semester. While students often are pressed for time and juggle competing responsibilities, they are able to strategize what variables are under their control to manage schoolwork more effectively. One outcome of this activity is to emphasize the process of learning, not just the product.

4.) Make the course material relevant to the personal and professional lives of students

While it might not always be possible to tailor course materials to appeal to the topics and issues that concern the lives of our students, I believe it makes a difference if students can connect what they are learning in the classroom to what they experience outside of it. In ENG 110, my final writing assignment is a culminating project that asks students to craft original statements or declarations. After spending the semester writing about other texts and engaging in the research process, they refine their writerly voice by crafting an original position that shows a consideration for audience, tone, and purpose. The primary goal is to communicate something about their own personal, professional, or social commitments. While the structure is flexible, they are asked to include with their statement a description of their process and methods. Part of the inspiration for this assignment came from the activism of the Student Government Association (SGA) at Hostos that resulted in a statement regarding “Racial injustice amidst the Covid-19 global pandemic across the nation and New York City.” I wanted my students to have the opportunity to apply the writing skills they learned in my course to create something that could have broader use and significance beyond my class and the semester

Illustration of online learning

Elizabeth Porter

Elizabeth Porter

ElizabeProf. Elizabeth Porterth Porter began as Assistant Professor in January 2019. She received her Ph.D from Fordham University, where she specialized in eighteenth-century British literature. Her writing has been published in Eighteenth-Century Fiction, ABO: Interactive Journal for Women in the Arts, 1640-1830, and Digital Defoe: Studies in Defoe and His Contemporaries. She enjoys teaching at all course levels in the English department and serves as Course Man- ager for Developmental English sections.


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