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Dr. Bethanie Hansen 

Strategic Educational Leader and Coach

#97: Tips on Teaching Writing: From Essay Maps to Critiquing

#97: Tips on Teaching Writing: From Essay Maps to Critiquing

This content first appeared at APUEdge.Com.

Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenDepartment Chair, School of Arts, Humanities and Education and
Dr. Jaclyn Fowler, Department Chair,  English and Literature

Being an effective writer is a foundational skill but teaching students how to write can be both challenging and overwhelming for educators. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks to author and educator, Dr. Jaclyn Fowler about her strategies for teaching writing. Learn how she uses writing workshops to teach writing through the eyes of a reader and a writer, and why it’s so important to teach students how to properly critique each other’s work. Also learn about the building-block and essay-map concept she teaches to help students outline their papers as well as tips for grading and assessing student writing effectively and efficiently.

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to The Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into The Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to The Online Teaching Lounge podcast. Today you’re in for a special treat. We have a guest with us, Dr. Jaclyn Fowler. She is the Department Chair over English and Literature at American Public University. Jackie, welcome to the podcast. For our listeners, would you mind telling us a little bit more about your background?

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Sure. Thank you, Bethanie. And thanks for having me on the podcast. I have spent the last three years at APUS and loving every minute, teaching and also being an administrator in the department. So, I’m the Chair of the English Department, as you said.

And before that I spent about four and a half years in the Middle East as a professor in Canadian University Dubai. And the way I like to say it, is I was an American woman of Irish descent living in Dubai and teaching at Canadian, pretty multicultural background right there. And I’m a writer. So, I write novels and I write memoirs and short stories, and I’m excited to be here.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Fantastic. Well, just to help you know a little bit about our audience here. We have online educators all over the world that listen to our podcast. So, they are in for a treat hearing from you. I’m just curious what one of your areas of focus might be in teaching writing online, specifically?

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Well, the funny thing is, Bethanie, I write, I teach writing, I coach writing. Truly, I need maybe to get another exciting habit or hobby, but it’s one of the things I really love. And I think one of the ways I like to teach writing is through the eyes of a reader and the eyes of a writer. And I think so often we don’t do that. We teach writing as teachers and we forget that there’s an audience and that there’s somebody who’s doing it. So, one of the things I like to bring to my classes is the idea of writing workshops.

Even in an online atmosphere, it’s really fun, I teach the students how to critique each other’s writings. And by that I don’t mean give criticism, but actually critique the structure of what’s being put on a page. And what do I mean by that? Well, I want to know how the thesis statement works, how it flows when you read it, how somebody’s turn of a phrase works. So, we give writers the opportunity to see their writing through the reader’s eyes. And that’s an unusual thing. Usually, we put our writing out there before we understand how the readers will view it, and so it’s a really nice addition to an online classroom.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: I love the way you said this critique was more about structure. And what I heard when you said that was artistry, it made me think about an art critique.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Exactly. What I say to students all the time is, “Look, they’re words on a paper, don’t get overly focused on them being your words on the paper. They’re just words. And so, if somebody has a critique for you, if somebody says, “I’m not sure what that word means, and I’m not sure it’s helping the sentence,” for instance, don’t be defensive about it. Have an open mind, look at it the way the reader is seeing it and say, “Well, maybe it doesn’t belong there. Maybe I need to do something that reshapes that area so that it does read more fluidly for a reader.”

And the idea is, you want to write for an audience. You want to make sure your writing is understood by an audience, so be open, be flexible. And then, in the end, remember, you’re the artist. So, as a writer, you’re painting with words. That’s what you’re doing.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yeah. That’s beautiful.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So, it’s your choice on what paint colors and the texture and everything you use, but as any good artist would, they would open up to the critique from those who are looking at or reading the art.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Speaking of the critique. So, many of our educators that are hearing this podcast are not writing teachers. And I’m curious, what advice would you give them to get better at helping students in that area?

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Well, we can’t expect students to just critique. They don’t know how to do it, so it’s part of teaching. So when I teach writing, I’m also teaching critique. And for those of you who think that’s a really hard job, it is. But in the end, you’re also teaching writing by teaching critique because we’re giving the writers the opportunity to learn how to critique themselves by critiquing others first.

So, our students come to the classroom knowing how to give criticism. So, something like, “I don’t like that. I don’t think it sounds good. It’s not really good.” Or the perennial favorite for students, “Yeah, it’s good.” And what does that say to the writer? Nothing. None of those criticisms say anything to the writer.

So, a critique is more focused. You learn the building blocks of writing: a thesis statement, a paragraph, how to write a topic sentence, how to be creative, how to join sentences together so it makes a variety, and it makes it interesting.

And then, you allow the reader to say, “I’m not sure if this paragraph is flowing the way it should? It sounds a little funny. Maybe you need some transitions. Let me give you an example of what I would say. I might put, for example, here.”

The difference is as a writer you know what you want to say, and you know what you have in your head, but we often time short circuit that we just put enough for us because we have it all in our head. As a reader, the reader is saying, “I get where you’re going, but I need a little bit more.”

And so, to teach critique to a student, to teach them how to critique, it requires the teacher to model it. So, in an online classroom, everything is written, and so one of the things I do is write out critiques for every student the first few weeks of my classes, for every student, for every building block.

And what I find is that students start to mimic what I’m doing in the classroom. They come up with their own ideas, but I use a lot of different colors. When I’m talking about a thesis statement, for instance, I say, “You need a topic, you need an argument, and you need a three-point essay map.” And I put them in different colors so that students can see the critique right away.

And what I find after a couple weeks is students begin to use colors in the same way too. Or they begin to look at, for instance, how punctuation works. I know it sounds like just punctuation, but semicolon makes a big difference sometimes, or a comma might make a difference, and so students begin to mimic the way I’m teaching them to critique. And they recognize early on, because I’m really clear about it, it’s not about the author, it’s not about the writer, it’s about the words on the page.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: I hear that. And you said something that I was going to ask a question about, I’m sure listeners probably wondering this too, you said something about building blocks and then I heard you say, “topic, argument, three-point essay map.” Could you explain a little bit what some of those things are?

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Sure. So, the thesis statement, which is the English teacher’s favorite, favorite thing to teach. In my life I’ve maybe taught it 110 million times, but it’s important for every new group of writers—and now we’re talking academic writing—for every new group of academic writers, they have to learn how to write a thesis map. It is a thesis statement. It is exactly what it says. It’s giving the topic.

So, in a thesis statement, the way I teach it is I say, “You need a topic, you need an argument, and you need a three-point essay map.” An essay map tells us how we’re going to argue the argument. And each of those points become the topic for the body paragraphs. So, once you write a good thesis statement, you have your whole essay mapped out, which is cool. I remember in college writing my first paragraph and thinking, getting through it after hours and saying, “Oh gosh, that was great. I’m done. Oh no, I have more paragraphs to write, what am I going to write next?”

Well, if you spend the time on one of the building blocks, which is a thesis statement, you know exactly where you’re going for the whole rest of your paper. So that’s why we talk about building blocks, one would be a thesis statement. Remember, the thesis statement has three parts, topic, argument, three point-essay map.

My next building block would be to take the three-point essay map and then to use that to build the three topic sentences for the three body paragraphs. And that’s how we teach it, one step at a time, one step at a time.

So, once you break up an essay into steps, students can start to see the critique. “Oh, this would work better if you did three points in your essay map instead of two, or this would work better if you used your essay map to write your topic sentences.”

So, once you take it from the big elephant in the room, the essay, down to its smaller components, students will find it easier to create them—essays—and also students will find it easier to critique them.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Fantastic. That sounds like a really easy flow to work from. And I was playing in my head as you’re explaining this to me and to our listeners, I was thinking, “Okay, maybe I could just throw out a thesis idea and you could tell me how I could make this better.”

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Sure.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Just because at the time of this recording it’s winter, and, of course, our listeners might listen to this at any time of year, but that just jogged the idea for me of snowmobiling, right?

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: So, I was thinking, well, let’s just say, for example, I’m going to write my essay on snowmobiling.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So that’s your topic.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: And I’m thinking, everyone should ride a snowmobile to work in the winter because it’s exhilarating, it’s gas efficient, which is probably not true, but we’re going to pretend, and then because it will renew your zest for life.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Okay. They’re your three essay map points, right?

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yeah.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So now you have your topic, which is snowmobiling to work. So, you narrowed your topic a little bit, snowmobiling to work, and your argument is everybody should do it. So, you’re going to prove that everybody should do it. Now, one of the things I would say to a thesis writer is “Are you sure you want to say everyone? So, what about the guy in Fiji who doesn’t have snow?”

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yeah, I think he’d wreck his snowmobile.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So, we always talk about, in academic writing, narrow your audience, because if your audience is everybody, your audience is nobody. So, narrow your thesis statement. So those who live in winter climates, do you see how it narrows it down?

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Where there’s a snow floor, yeah.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Where there’s a snow floor. Now you have your argument, your topic and your three-point essay map is great, because what you’ve done is each of those become the topic of your body paragraphs. So, the first would be all about it being exhilarating. The first body paragraph would be all about it, it being exhilarating. I forget what the second one, oh, it’s gas efficient. The second paragraph would be all about being gas efficient. And it gives you a zest for life would be the third body paragraph. So, with one sentence you’ve outlined your whole essay.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: I like that. That’s nice. And then, I’m curious about how one would come to that thesis in a concluding paragraph without simply just saying it exactly the same way.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Oh, Bethanie, I think you might be a budding English teacher over there.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Thank you.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So, what we always say is, you paraphrase yourself. In your concluding essay, you want to take your thesis statement and you want to restate it in a way that captures the topic and the argument. And if you want, the essay map, but you don’t have to, but you want to do it in a way that the reader doesn’t recognize the words.

English has 800,000 words to choose from, and you could put them together in so many different ways. You don’t have to use the same words that you used in your original thesis statement to say some of the same things. And so, the idea is to just turn the phrase, paraphrase yourself in a way that concludes your essay. Can you imagine if I say to a student, “If you write a good thesis statement, you have your concluding sentence for your whole essay.”

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: I love that. And that simplifies it, I think, for the student too, especially, who’s not feeling confident about the writing.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Yes.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: So, Jackie, we were talking about how to help a student learn to write an essay, how to lay it out. I’m wondering if there are any other tips about the writing part before we go on to maybe the evaluating, grading that many of our listeners are also wondering on about.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Sure. So, one of the things that I always say to students is “Variety is the spice of life.” If you’re an American, you know that saying, “Variety is the spice of life.” In other words, the more things change up, the more exciting they are. And it’s the same with writing. Variety is the spice of writing.

So, you can write a simple sentence, you can write a complex sentence, you can write a compound sentence, you can put sentences together and build one long sentence out of two or three or four shorter sentences, the idea is you work with all of those in one essay.

What that does, let me give you an example, one of the best novels I’ve ever worked with that showed this is Elie Wiesel’s “Night.” And what he does beautifully is he moves from short, choppy sentences where your heart is beating, to longer, more sonorous sentences where you feel relaxed.

And then he comes in again with the short, choppy sentences and you’re taken off guard and your heart starts to beat again. And so, that’s the kind of stuff you want to do in writing. Even in academic writing, you could write these long, beautifully, complex sentences, follow it up with something really short and to the point so it wakes up your reader. You want to have that kind of variety in your sentences.

And one of the ways I talk to primarily American students, because students who learn English from other languages don’t have the same problem, but grammar is such a beast for students in the United States. And one of the reasons is, because they just don’t understand that the words that we’ve chosen to name our grammar, nouns, and verbs, it’s all from Latin. And it used to be that we all learned Latin in university, but not anymore.

So, our students, they have a hard time with the words. And so, one of the things I do in any writing class is I start at the very beginning. So, I explain to them what each of the Latin words means so that they can finally get a grasp on grammar. And then I say to them, “Hey, let me tell you this, if you are writing, 85% of what your words say is the important part of an essay. 15% is the grammar. Now, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t worry about the grammar, but that shouldn’t be the only worry.”

And this is the way I like to tell my students, “If you were lucky enough to go by a beautiful Monet painting, you flew to France and you bought the Monet and you came home and you went to put it on your wall and you realized you didn’t have a frame for it, and you went down to Walmart and you bought a 99 cent frame to put your beautiful Monet painting in, the Monet will not have changed because of the frame, but it will detract from the Monet because of the frame.”

And that’s the same with grammar, you want to put your writing, your words, the painting with your words in a beautiful frame, which is grammar. And the frame allows the beautiful words, the painting with words to be enhanced rather than the frame taking away from the understanding of the words. Does that make sense?

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Absolutely. And it sounds like you have to craft with the grammar what supports it to flow well, or to show the beauty of what you’re saying.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Right. You want your words, the words that you’re painting into a beautiful picture to mean the same coming from your mind into the mind of the reader. And the way we do this is we have this shared structure, this shared format. And we use nouns, and we use verbs, and we use punctuation and they only account for 15% of the final overall painting, but it’s an important 15% because it puts us all on the same page. We all know, reader or writer, what you’re doing with a period, what you’re doing with a verb, what you’re doing with a noun. And so, that’s why it’s important.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Beautiful. Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to just shift gears a little bit to the evaluating part, the grading. One of the complaints online faculty sometimes have is that grading writing takes so long, it’s so involved. And I want to just make a confession right here that when I was first teaching online, I would bleed all over the essay. I would be doing what I’m sure you’re going to say we should not do, and that it was editing. So, I’d be making a comment here, there, everywhere. Since then, I totally approach it differently, but I would prefer listeners hear from you about what they should do, what your suggestions might be.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: There’s a couple ways to go at this. What I say to my faculty members, “Remember, English we grade 500 to 600 pages of writing every single week. And so we need to teach. That’s why we do assessments, to teach through assessments, but we also have to be reasonable with our time so we can teach in the classroom.”

And so, I always say, “If you spend more time writing than the students spent writing, you’re doing it wrong. You’re not engaging a paper for a long-term affair. This is speed dating. You want to be thorough, but you don’t want to be in there all day long. So, you’re not making a commitment to the paper, you’re going through it.”

And here’s the first thing that we do wrong as academics, as teachers in general, we correct every single mistake. And that’s a mistake, because we’ve done the work and now we understand how, for instance, grammar works, but we’ve done all the work for the students and so therefore they haven’t learned anything.

So, you’re not an editor. You’re right, we often edit. What you want to do is you want to read through the paper. If you see that there’s issues, for instance, with grammar, you want to pinpoint about three big pieces of grammar, the things that you think, if they were cleared up, the paper would be more intelligible.

And then you clearly correct it and give a comment that says, let me give an example, “This sentence is a run-on sentence, that means you have two or more sentences smashed together without the correct punctuation. Let me show you how to fix it.” Fix it. Then you fix it. And then you say in a comment, in the end of your comment, “I want you to go through your paper and find all of the run-on sentences and correct them. Next time I grade your papers, I’m going to be looking for the fact that you corrected your run-on sentences.” Do you see what I mean? You tell them what it is, you define it, you show them how to fix it, you tell them that’s how they’re being evaluated in their next piece of writing.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: That sounds like a wonderful approach. It’s going to save us lots of time and energy. So, I’m hearing you say that we should ask for a second submission.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: So, a lot of times in writing we do a second submission in English papers, but I’m also comfortable if it’s a single paper and the next time they’re doing a paper on something else, I make it clear, “When you write your week five paper, I’m looking for this.” So, it doesn’t necessarily have to be another paper or resubmission. You hope that they take your feedback and rewrite all the run-on sentences, but they may not. I don’t think I did when I was in college, but you hope. But you make it clear that you’re looking for them in the next paper.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: That makes a lot of sense. And then if you’re just telling the student to just apply this, you don’t necessarily have to track each one, follow up, see that they did it, you’re just advising, basically.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Exactly. You’re not the police. You’re there to give support, to teach, to help. And you don’t want to forget the lesson that you taught in the first assignment. You want to make sure that that lesson was understood.

Because sometimes they don’t understand what you’ve said. You may think you put the most time into your comments on a paper and you find that nothing’s changed in the next paper. Well, maybe they didn’t understand. And so, you want to give another opportunity for them to succeed.

So, the idea in writing is you want people to succeed. So, you point it out, you define it, you correct it, you show them, you tell them what you want them to do for the next paper. And if they don’t do it, you do it again.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Gain confidence.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Gain confidence. You don’t let it die. You’re right, Bethanie, gaining confidence is important when you see it done well. The students in my class laugh because I teach the semicolon rule, an easy way to fix a run on sentence is to take the period, where you would put a period, for two sentences and put a semicolon in. It’s the easiest rule. And so, when I see it on papers, I make a big deal out of it, “Semicolon, this is great.”

And so, they get the idea that I’m looking to see what they do well, as well as what they don’t do well. And I think that’s important because all of us sometimes accidentally do something well. And so, if a teacher points out, “This was perfect, this was so well said, this was so well done,” if it was one of those moments when it was accidental, you’ve gelled, “Hey, I did this, right and I didn’t even know I did it right, but I’m going to do it like this forever now.” That’s the hope.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: I love that you’re pointing out a positive as well, because I think when you’re working online, oh, maybe you’re doing this eight hours a day, all week-long kind of thing, if it’s your full-time gig, you’re really spending a lot of time. And I know it’s easy to get fed up with the same problem you see, and have a difficult time being positive. Sometimes you see that same thing over and over, especially if you’re correcting it or stating the problem and explaining and it’s not getting fixed. So, bringing out the positive probably helps balance it for the student too and ensure that you’re not just getting stuck in that negative zone.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: No. And I don’t think corrections in writing should ever be a negative. I think it’s support. It’s a writing workshop where I’m saying, “Let me give you some advice on how to make this even better.” Years ago, I gave up using a red pen. Years ago. And it’s because people saw red pen and panicked. So even if I wrote something nice with a red pen, students weren’t seeing that.

And so now I just dialogue, I consider it a dialogue. So even when I say this is a run-on sentence, this is what it means, okay, a run-on sentence isn’t good, but I don’t make the student feel like, “She found a mistake, I did something wrong.” No, of course you’re going to make mistakes. You’re human. Welcome to the human race. And so, it’s okay. Make a mistake. I’m going to define it and teach you how to not make that mistake. If you want to learn how not to make that mistake, I’m going to give you that opportunity.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: So, I know we’re getting short on time for our session here or our episode, I’m wondering if we were to pull all this together for some key points that we really want listeners to take away, what would those be?

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Well, I would say the first thing is that writing is never a punishment. So, for anyone out there who thinks I’m going to make you write a theme for doing something wrong, please don’t do that. Writing is the articulation of your innermost heart and your innermost thoughts. And so, what a beautiful gift to give to our students, to teach them how to write in a way that the reader can understand, fully understand, the expression that’s coming from their heart and minds. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is if you think about teaching writing, instead of, one of the things I always say to students is how do you eat an elephant? It’s overwhelming. Think about eating an elephant. It’s about 26,000 Big Mac’s if you sit down to eat an elephant. How do you do it? And eventually someone will say one bite at a time, and that’s it.

So, if you think about the essay like the elephant, how do you do it? It’s one bite at a time. So, you teach the building blocks. Let’s start with a simple thesis statement, it’s one sentence. One. We can write that. And when they do it, well done, let’s go on the next building block until they get to the essay. It doesn’t take that long to do it that way.

And then, finally, as we’re looking over it and providing feedback, remember feedback is not a “gotcha.” It’s not a moment of “you made a mistake and I’m going to point it out.” That’s not what it’s for. A feedback is to help the student improve. I’m going to give you the key that if use it you can unlock a more fluid, more interesting, more understandable writing style. And as teachers of writing, you’re not editors. So, when you are grading it, your feedback is a dialogue between you and the student. You’re not an editor, save that for the publishing companies.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Nice. I think that’s going to help a lot of our listeners relax a little bit, realizing they don’t have to catch every little thing that’s wrong with someone’s writing.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Bethanie, some of the things that are wrong is what makes the writing good. So, we teach the rules all the time, but I always say to students, “When you’re really good at writing, when you learn all the rules, then you could break the rules, and that makes your writing special.”

So sometimes, when I write, I know what a fragment is, an incomplete sentence, but when I write creatively, I use a lot of fragments in my writing. And it’s not a mistake there. It’s intentional. And the reader knows that I know how to write a complete sentence. So, when I write a fragment, it’s for reason, it’s to pay attention here, I’m breaking the rules. And so, I think if we look at the idiosyncrasy that everybody brings to their own specific writing, I think, in the end that ends up being beautiful.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Yes, it does. Well, Dr. Fowler, I want to thank you for being with us today. It’s been a true pleasure to hear your thoughts about writing, but also your enthusiasm. You’re really inspiring to speak with because you have this energy about writing and it’s not this overwhelming thing, when you’re sharing all these points, it’s very encouraging. And I hope our listeners today will take that away and be able to apply that in their online work and their online teaching with students and just spread the wealth about how much fun this can be and how not overwhelming it can also be.

Dr. Jaclyn Fowler: Bethanie, writing is always hard, even when you love to do it. The hardest part is starting. But once you start, you move.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Sounds so true. Thank you again for being here. And we’re going to say goodbye to our listeners and wish them all the best in their online teaching this coming week. This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for The Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

#62: Connecting with Students Through Zoom

#62: Connecting with Students Through Zoom

This content first appeared at APUEdge.com.

Engaging with students and building a sense of community in an online class can be very difficult. In this episode, APU professor Dr. Bethanie Hansen discusses the benefits of hosting a Zoom meeting with students. Learn the numerous options for setting up a Zoom meeting that gives students an opportunity to interact and work together. Also learn tips to help teachers prepare to host a meeting, how to use breakout rooms and other technology tools to increase student engagement, and more.

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Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. Today, we’re going to talk about how you can connect with your students through using Zoom for video conferences. Now, there are a lot of different ways to be engaged in your online teaching. You might consider having asynchronous classes where people just participate on their own and interact separately. Perhaps you have live classes where they are conducted online already. Or maybe you’re in some kind of hybrid situation where students will go to the online class for part of their work and meet with you face-to-face in the live physical classroom.

Regardless of your format, Zoom conferences for your students can really create relationships and introduce different types of engagement than anything else you might use. So I’m going to teach you today how to basically use Zoom in a few new ways, and I’m going to also help you overcome any hesitation you have to using Zoom by giving you tips and strategies to help you in this area.

This is a great solution for connecting with students who might be less achieving, less vocal, less present. And help them get engaged in small groups and smaller conversations so that they are getting a lot more out of the experience and connecting more with you and with each other. Let’s get started.

Integrating Zoom into Online Classes

How do you start a Zoom meeting, or how do you get one going? First, there are some learning management systems where Zoom is already integrated and it’s available for you to use. If you have Zoom integrated into Brightspace, into Canvas, into some other learning management system, then you’re already set with a way to set Zoom up so that you can talk to your students.

If you don’t have access to Zoom, you can set up a free account online for up to 40 minutes for a small group or a longer duration if you’re going to just have one-on-one calls. I recommend using your educator email address because there just might be some kind of special recognition that Zoom will give you to provide an educational discount or an education account of some kind. So if you don’t already have access, definitely check out those options that might be available.

Review and Update Zoom Settings

Looking at your Zoom meeting, you can see particular settings in the Zoom settings menu if you go in through a browser. For example, you can have all of your participants need to log in with their institutional email if you’re using an account that does that.

You can have a waiting room set up so you can let participants in one at a time. You can also give people permission to mute and unmute themselves, use video, and also you can choose whether they can save the chat or not save the chat. There are so many settings that are worth your time to investigate so that you can set up your meetings in a way that really suits you best and preserves students’ privacy as well. And of course, you can record those meetings and you can share those with students who cannot attend a live session.

Use Doodle or Survey to Find a Good Meeting Time

Once you’ve set Zoom up, the best way to move forward is to provide the invitation to students ahead of time. I recommend giving this information to your students at least one week ahead, so they can put it on their calendar and look forward to the meeting time.

You might even choose an app called Doodle, that you can mark with various times that are possible for you and send it out as a poll well in advance of your Zoom call. If you do this, students can let you know of all the many times they might be available to make that Zoom call and you can choose the scheduling that will work best for all of your students or most of them, at least. So a Doodle poll can set you up for success before you ever schedule that meeting.

Send Out Repeated Meeting Reminders

Once you’ve done that, I also so recommend putting announcements in your course home page, sending announcements out in emails and messages one week before the call, a day before the call, and a couple of hours before the call. And lastly, 10 minutes before the call is about to begin.

Students get a lot of emails and a lot of messages. And if they’re taking more than one class, they also read a lot of announcements. They’re going to need reminders repeatedly to know when your live call is scheduled in Zoom and to be able to access it and join you there.

Establish a Backup Plan for Internet Connectivity

Once it’s time for the call, you can succeed in meeting your students where they’re at by being early and having your technology set up with a backup plan if your internet should fail. For example, if you have a Wi-Fi internet at home and you’re working from home, it’s good to also have a hotspot on your cell phone so that if your internet blanks out, you don’t lose your connection to the Zoom meeting. I usually have two or even three backup plans because I really don’t want to lose any of my Zoom meetings, and I have many of them that happen throughout the day and throughout the week. So think about what your backup plan will be for internet.

Assign a Student Who Can Take Notes, Continue Meeting

Secondly, you can have someone work with you. It can even be a high-achieving student who can take notes during the meeting in the chat, or who can be listed as a cohost so that if something should happen to your access, someone will still be there that can make sure the meeting continues and that the progress can be made.

Decide on Your Background

When you’re setting up for the call, check the background in the room that you’re going to be in. If you have the latest version of Zoom, you can set the background to be blurry, so it actually doesn’t matter what’s in the background, or you can choose a virtual background if you have a good solid space. Otherwise, it’s going to pixelate through that virtual background and you’re going to see part of your background and part of the virtual background. I recommend the fuzzy background because it just focuses on you being there and being very clear and it blurs everything else.

Of course, there are some fun settings in Zoom where you can also adopt caricatures and makeup and mustaches and hats and different things. And if you’re having a fun meeting or a celebration, you might consider using those with your teammates or with your class members as well.

Test Your Audio Quality

Within the platform, you can choose whether you use an external mic on your computer or a headset or some other setup. I recommend using a headset and not using the external speakers and microphone on your computer because there can often be an echo produced when you do that.

So test your system out ahead of time and make sure that your sound quality is good and your video quality is good as well. If you find that these things are not good, troubleshoot them before you meet with your students live.

Prepare a Lesson Plan for the Meeting

The more you prepare in advance of conducting a live class meeting in Zoom, the more you’re going to find success there and have a positive experience. I do recommend approaching this as if you’re teaching a live face-to-face class. In that situation, you might prepare a detailed lesson plan. You might tell students up front what to expect and what you’re going to cover during the period of the meeting.

And you might also discuss what topics you’re going to do and any activities needed. For example, if you’re planning to use breakout rooms during your virtual meeting, you want to tell students ahead of time so they have access to a microphone and can be on video.

Establish Expectations with Students

It’s also a great idea to send those expectations out to your students well in advance of the meeting. For example, you might have a dress code if you don’t want students to show up in pajamas, or you want them to be dressed like they would be attending school, and you can also suggest what kinds of places they might be, where they’re on video.

For example, if they’re going to the local McDonald’s to get the internet to be in class, there might be a lot of background noise and they might need some kind of headphones or noise-canceling tools.

Think about Level of Student Engagement

You might also think about whether or not students have to engage in the text area. Plan this ahead of time. Zoom has excellent polling features. And if you want some basic interactivity, you can either use the chat box, you can call on students directly to make verbal comments live, or you can put a poll up there and have everybody participate that way.

There are also some external things you could have students access during the Zoom call, like Mentimeter and Poll Everywhere. And there are several others as well, where they could engage in polling, they can make word clouds. They can basically each contribute their own ideas in real time and feel like they’re actually engaging in what’s being discussed rather than being a passive consumer.

So think about these things ahead of time and plan out what your approach will be as well as a brief lesson plan. Tell your students ahead of time, check your background and what you’re wearing and make sure it looks clean, clear, professional, and confident. And then host your meeting.

Tips on Hosting Strategies

When you’re hosting your meeting and having that live call, sit up tall, roll your shoulders back a little bit to give yourself an extra boost of confidence, and help yourself to connect better with your students. Even though you’re on screen and you’re not really looking directly at each one of them, you want to look towards the camera so that you feel like you’re making eye contact with them and being present.

And whatever your plan is for engaging them during the live call, definitely include lots of ways to engage. As I mentioned before, these could be typing in the text box, these could be polling features or external programs. And you could also put them in breakout rooms.

Prepare Breakout Rooms in Advance

If you use breakout rooms, I highly recommend putting the questions out in advance because once they leave the main room, they can no longer see any slides you were sharing or the questions you might have. You can also broadcast a message to all of the rooms if you put people in groups, so that they can still see what they need to see and be able to talk about it while they’re in that breakout room.

And definitely tell students if they’re going to do a breakout, how long it will be, and ask them to appoint a timekeeper in each group. Even though Zoom might time the breakout rooms for you, you want someone in that group to keep everyone aware of how little time they have left as that time is winding down. Nobody likes being jerked out of a breakout room abruptly in the middle of a comment.

Assessing Student Engagement and Community

Now, you can look around the video screen and see where students are, and sometimes you can even see their demeanor and whether they’re tracking along with the meeting or the presentation. You can also see if they’re just a name with no camera enabled, and you can engage with people anyway and call on their names or have them type in the chat.

Sometimes students are caring for little ones at home, and they’re not really able to chat on video, but they would be able to type in the chat and are still there with you, even though they don’t want to be on screen. I personally believe you should respect that because not everyone is comfortable being on screen, but also we can’t really gauge that they’re all fully present just by seeing them. We can also gauge that presence through the chat and other features that we might use.

Either way, you’re going to create a sense of community by using Zoom in your online class, so students feel more connected to you and more connected to each other. And they can also get this whole sense of community that they’re part of a big program in a university or a school that you’re teaching for.

Zoom has the potential to really take conversations deeper, especially if you use those breakouts and other tools, and help your students to feel like they’re a lot more engaged and invested. I personally have used Zoom a lot in teaching and coaching and in leading faculty meetings.

And also I have used it with one-on-one calls. Even though sometimes it can seem a little bit much for a one-on-one call, I have really enjoyed being able to see people face to face and engage with them, and they have appreciated being able to see me while they’re talking to me as well. And many have said that.

As you try Zoom in your online teaching, I encourage you to stretch in several of these ways to try the different things you can integrate and see how creative you might be, and definitely inform students ahead of time, and practice. You want to be confident and not have technical glitches while you’re carrying it out. As you do these things, you’re going to get a lot more engagement from your students, and they’re going to get trust for you and reach out to you whenever they have problems in the course. And that’s a good thing.

Best wishes to you in creating your Zoom meetings and connecting better with your students, and solving the problem of that distance we all have in online education. And best wishes in all of your teaching this coming week as well.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

 
#61: Five Creative Ways to Enhance Forum Discussions

#61: Five Creative Ways to Enhance Forum Discussions

Discussion forums in online classes can sometimes get repetitive and stale. In this episode, APU professor Dr. Bethanie Hansen suggests five creative ways for online teachers to spice up discussion spaces to revitalize the discussion and get to know students better. Learn about role playing, technologies to create video responses and collaboration sites, and more.

Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Have you ever struggled to engage in the discussion of your online course? For some courses we teach, it might seem that over and over we’re discussing the same topics with the same students from the same approach.

Of course, it may be a new group of students, but it seems like we’re having that same dialogue over and over again. And sometimes there might be a feeling that it’s difficult to find new questions to ask, or new ideas to share. If this sounds familiar to you, it might be time to try some creative alternatives to the traditional discussion format. And when you take a totally new approach, it can revitalize your thinking about online discussion spaces and help you engage much more with your students too.

Today, we’ll review five alternative discussion forum ideas for your next online class. And by the end of today’s podcast, you’ll walk away with something new you can try this coming week.

Role Play Can Enhance Forum Discussions

Number one, role-play. The idea of role-play in online discussions involves creativity and imagination. To be able to engage in the dialogue, students must do a little research about an individual from the past, their context and culture, and their life’s achievements. There are forum prompts like this in music appreciation courses that I teach. So I’m going to share my own experience with you on role-plays.

In the first discussion we have that involves this role-play idea, students are asked to create five questions that a media interviewer might ask prominent musicians from the 1600s. Then students create replies as if that composer might provide them. And they format and post their discussions in some ways that are also creative.

I noticed some of my students take it further, so they even introduce the entire post in character as if they are the interviewer, complete with fictitious names for the magazine or newspaper they represent, and some additional fun details.

By doing this approach, students must weigh the facts on a historical musician and find those lesser-known details that can really pique your curiosity. They also have to think in present tense, first-person voice, as if they are speaking as that composer in their responses. It can help students start to think about people from hundreds of years ago much more humanely, and understand more than just some facts and some dates that they could write about. And it elicits their creativity, so they will spend a little more time putting it together.

In the other role-playing discussion we have, we have students who write imaginary conversations that take place between three composers, which they get to choose, from the romantic era. They bring in people like Beethoven, Berlioz, Chopin and Liszt, and they write the conversation as if these three people they selected really did meet at a party or a gathering. Sometimes students will write the conversation as if Beethoven has completely lost his hearing and keeps ignoring other people, asking loudly, repeatedly what they have said. And some of them portrayed Liszt as this dark emotional person, bringing in a mention of various elements from his life struggles.

We’ve been able to dive into the conversations about composers they select and explore musical issues, and the cultures the composers lived in as well. But more than that, some wider topics come in like musicians and mental health, relationships, and even challenges they face in life. And many of the students find that they understand these composers and the challenges and musicians as fellow humans, instead of just names and dates.

And some have even remarked that they contemplate the challenges that certain musicians have faced and overcome these, and they think about their own lives as well. So they liken perhaps the deafness of Beethoven and his composing symphonies anyway, to whatever life struggle they’re having. And a few students have even said they’ve been inspired to overcome their own challenges and keep moving forward because of these experiences, these stories.

Role plays can be powerful and useful if you want to help your students connect to their learning. To make discussions successful, clear and detailed instructions are needed. Step-by-step instructions can be important to help students know exactly what is expected and how the post should be written.

Create Video Discussion Forums Using Flipgrid

For this second idea you’re going to leave the learning management system completely. You’re going to get out of the LMS and go into a program called Flipgrid. Now, if you haven’t tried Flipgrid, it is definitely worth a shot. You leave, you use Flipgrid, and then you post it in the classroom.

This is a free video discussion forum tool. It builds your students’ perceptions of the connectedness in the online classrooms, so it takes discussions to a totally different place. You can use Flipgrid for video discussion forums. They’ll take the video and embed the video in the online course that students have created. And you can use it in a lot of different ways to connect yourself to your students and to connect students to each other.

Embedding a tool that brings voice, tone, and body language to the classroom really does build that sense of connection, and you can see who everybody is. You get a sense of the other students in the class and the instructor. And this raises the bar for everything happening in that discussion forum.

There’s a post on Edutopia about several different LMS strategies, and Flipgrid is one of those. They quote a high school English teacher named Kyleen Gray. And Kyleen said, “Flipgrid is a fantastic oral communication application that is easy to use.”

It’s a video-sharing platform, as I mentioned, and you can write the forum prompt to the discussion just as you always would. But instead of having students type the answer, you simply have them answer it in a short video. So this is a great tool that’s going to give you feedback in sort of an informal way. You can find out how students are doing in their learning, and you get to hear it in their own voice.

And of course, there’s been some research done on this, and it’s been found that Flipgrid actually boosts students’ feelings of being connected in the online classroom, which overcomes a lot of that sense of anonymity, and also that disconnection that is really common in online education. And it also helps them to bridge the gap between you and them, so they’re willing to ask you for help.

Of course, there are some additional fabulous ideas for using Flipgrid that you might also be interested in. Not only can your students just post videos of themselves talking and embed these in your forum discussions, but you can invite outside speakers. So there’s a guest mode in Flipgrid, and you can invite a guest speaker to participate in the online discussion asynchronously. Guests can watch the student videos and respond to them. This gives your expert a way to share knowledge from the field, and also allows them to share it at the convenient time for them.

If you’d like to have guest speakers in your online class, this is a really creative idea about how it can be done, and it can be done in a discussion, so that throughout the week everyone can engage with that guest and go back and forth.

We can also take this a little further. Flipgrid is great for sharing language acquisition if you’re teaching a world language, and, of course, you can share and celebrate work. If you celebrate completed projects, essays, assignments, and things like that in the discussion area using Flipgrid, you can have students talk about their projects and show them off at the same time. And then post that video so that each person can go through and sort of see a showcase of work. What a great alternative in a forum discussion.

Using Padlet to Improve Collaboration and Sharing

Today’s third creative idea for discussions is to try Padlet. There are many lists out there on the internet available for you on creative ways to use Padlet in your online classroom. I’ll just highlight a few of these today.

First of all, if you’re wondering what Padlet is, it’s kind of like a Post-it board, so you can put notes on there and everyone else in the class can do that as well. You can use Padlet in your online classroom by installing the app on your device or opening the Padlet website. You make a board and then you have posts there that everyone can add.

There’s a lot of ways to do this. First, you can use Padlet to brainstorm topics. If students are going to be writing an essay, this might be a great way to use your discussions face for the week. They can brainstorm topics together, thesis statements, projects, ideas, and other things that they might turn in for the class. You can try this and have students just collaborate with each other, and together they just might come up with even better ideas.

You can use that same space to create a live question bank. And a live question bank would be where students ask questions about the lesson, during the lesson. You could take this further and have them design three or four questions that each of them would ask if they were the one creating the final exam. This is a wonderful way to create creative questions in a big list all at once. And it won’t take very long when you have each student contribute.

Another way to use Padlet in your discussion area is to create icebreaker activities. For example, if you really like that activity, Two Truths and One Lie, students can post something about themselves and we can all go through and guess which were true and which were not, and have fun getting to know each other the first week of class.

And of course, you can use that same space to share highlights from the semester, or things that they’d like to honor about each other. It can be a celebration space for reflection at the end of the semester in your discussions. You can also use it as a question board, so your students can go there and ask and answer questions for each other.

And the last tip I have on Padlet today is to use bubble maps, thinking maps, or brainstorming maps. Padlet is a great way to organize the ideas, move them around, and create them into various ordering systems to help students think through the way they might use the information they have learned.

And all of these ideas I’ve just shared with you here about using Padlet came from an article called “30 Creative Ways to Use Padlet For Teachers And Students,” posted by Lucie Renard in 2017. There’s a link in the podcast notes here, so be sure to check it out.

Using Jamboard for Live Collaboration

The fourth creative discussion idea is actually a synchronous one. If you teach hybrid or live synchronous online courses, or if you teach face-to-face you could even use this idea. Google has a product out there called Jamboard. It’s all one word if you’re going to search it.

It’s for sketching out ideas and using a whiteboard style collaborative space. When you use Jamboard, students can write on it at the same time and they can add their own sketches or calculations. You could use Jamboard for a lot of different things.

For example, if you have some kind of visual art class and you want students to literally sketch things, you can use Jamboard. If you’re teaching mathematics, especially if you have a real-time meeting where you’re going to collaborate and do problems together, this is a fabulous way to help students get involved. And they can also put images on there and notes and take different assets from the web or pull in documents or slides or different sheets from the Google platforms. And they can all collaborate at the same time, no matter where they are.

It’s totally free, unless you want the freestanding Jamboard to be in your physical classroom, in which case there is a cost to it. But it’s a wonderful collaborative tool for synchronous use online in your discussions.

Integrating Photography into Discussions

And we’re down to our number five example. This fifth example comes right back to the traditional discussion format. So we’re not using the external technologies, but we are using one kind of media, and that would be photography. This example is shared by Kristin Kowal in 2019. Kristin says that, “This is adding images of examples in students’ posts.”

So for this example, you’re going to have students post the image along with their written response in the discussion forum. One of the best things about this strategy is that it’s somewhat personalized. It helps students be motivated to use more than one modality in their discussion post, and it helps them connect more to each other and to the ideas.

There are a lot of visual learners. It’s something like 60% to 80% of all people are visual thinkers. So when you start adding the image to this discussion post, you have something really interesting coming out. It’s personal. It motivates students. It connects them.

Erin Ratelis, an online instructor says that, “It not only feels different for the students, but it’s also a different type of activity that will stand out for them. It leverages a different technology and photos are a great visual tool to solidify class insights. It requires students to explore class topics through a very personal lens, no pun intended.”

So in the course where Erin used this strategy, she had her students go to a retail environment in their community. So they were looking for 10 ways that a consumer marketer would influence the purchasing decisions. And she asked her students to post photos, but made it optional. Most of the students chose to include picture examples, like retail displays at Target or other stores. And students even commented directly in their posts about how much they enjoyed taking the pictures and including them.

You can draw attention to all kinds of real-life examples, no matter what course you’re teaching, by asking students to show an example in a photograph. It could be the bonus point on that forum discussion.

You can also use it if you’re asking students to take a field trip. So if you ever have an assignment where your online students need to go out of the classroom and prove that they’ve done something, such as attending a concert or going to a museum, it’s best if they also have a picture of themselves at that event.

Lastly, think about privacy concerns when you have students post photos. If they’re taking photos at work and sharing them, it might be a good idea to get permission from their employer. Think about which areas you might want to use this activity in, where it might pique the most ideas. And you might consider doing it again later in the course.

So these five creative forum discussion ideas are here to give you alternatives so you’re not just posting and writing and posting and writing and students are doing the same. That kind of repetitive approach to a forum discussion gets old. And even if you’re having a very stimulating discussion, students tend to repeat the approach that they’re using. As you stretch and try these alternative methods, I think you’ll really spice up your online class and have a lot of fun doing it. I wish you all the best this week in your online teaching. This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.