Online Teaching for Creative Writing - The First Class
|The background students see for online classes.|
For almost two years I've been teaching and developing the creative writing course for my department at a university in South Korea. The department focuses on building up academic English for students who will engage in the international communities in their various specialities. As a writer, of course I was eager to add this option for students to learn how to write in English with more innovation and have enjoyed developing the course to fit the needs of our students.
Going into 2020, I was planning to dabble in some academic research in connection to this course. Then, COVID-19 spread into our peninsula and the semester was delayed.
This was great for my writing. I've been able to make some changes to my book draft that I might have had to delay for months or given up on altogether. So, even though I've been pretty isolated, I've enjoyed my time.
As South Korea saw the explosion of virus diagnoses, the rumour and finally confirmation of online classes spread. A huge part of my instruction style depends on my interaction with students. I'm an expressive teacher verbally and physically. I also like to be available for students before and after class to speak about any issues they might have.
Needless to say, I was dubious about this online teaching malarkey. Our school took their time confirming things and this could have driven me crazy with pre-planning changes and then re-planning everything once I knew the real needs. But I've been in Korea long enough to learn that there's no point in worrying until something happens, because when or if it does, it'll be different than expected. Finally that lesson has sunk in and I wasn't even concerned this past weekend as we approached the first week of classes.
Thanks to technology advances and the huge demand already in place for learning anywhere you happen to be, my usual methods of teaching should be mostly possible. In fact, I'm looking forward to trying out some functions and finding new ways to freshen up my teaching plans.
Today was our first online creative writing class. It went very well, although it is a little taxing trying to engage the class while finding the right button and making sure the correct documents are available for everyone. Most went as planned. It started with looking at what writing is; in essence, storytelling. We read quotations from famous authors about why they write and then thought about our own reasons. This was great preparation to challenge students for their first assignment: flash/micro fiction. Again, we looked at examples, discussing how they were created to cause an impression on the reader. Finally, the students took time themselves to think about what they want to do with their writing - the impression/emotion/experience/conclusion the reader should have at the end.
Thursday will be our second class. I'm looking forward to trying out mini meeting rooms for students to work in teams and then share what they created. I'll update you on how the technology and the teacher manage it all.
The Problem with a Broken Hammock - Day Two Online
|Imagine being on this when the thud happens.|
Almost a year ago, I persuaded my husband that our lives would greatly improve if we bought a hammock. During his first little rest hanging above the ground, he quickly agreed that my purchase was wise and it has been a welcome haven for both of us to relax with a book or for a nap.
The other day, though, while laying on the hammock myself, there was a sudden thump and my back met with the ground. Our dear hammock collapsed on top of me as one of the supports bent and cracked.
Of course, my immediate thought was to get online and order a replacement. With covid-19, though, I didn't think this should be a priority and instead mourned the loss with my husband through many laments.
End of story? Not exactly.
Yesterday, when I woke up early to finish preparing some class work before my morning online lessons, I found that I could not see properly. Blind spots obscured my vision so that as I messaged family to pray about the situation, I could not see the words I was typing fully and most likely sent a few typos. With my family 9 hours behind, they were just about to go to bed, but saw the message in time and began praying, over the phone or just on their own.
Thankfully, within 30 minutes the spots began to fizzle and then fade. By the time I started classes, I could see almost everything and was able to conduct the lessons well. After classes, with a huge headache, I knew that rest was in order. But how do you rest without a hammock? Honestly, for me, not that well. I may have sang out a few more grief filled sobs.
This morning my creative writing students joined me for our second lesson of the term. I woke up very thankful for my perfect vision, even though my headache remained. I took time to read the bible and pray to find some peace. This time of correcting my perspective and remembering God as my Lord is an imperative part of life. It's not a fix for when I need help because I need this communion with God every day as a basic activity.
Class started well and we had plenty to do. Honestly, I wish I'd been able to focus better to plan a more interactive and entertaining class. (If I had a working hammock...) We covered POV and tense as part of the foundations of writing. I was able to send the students into mini groups to gather some ideas for time order transitions. Unfortunately, this was probably the most exciting time for them because they could share and discuss together.
After this, we had writing practice, using one story prompt told in different POV and tenses. A simple exercise, but thankfully one that provided a lot of opinions afterwards, as students shared their experiences of the difficulties they felt or the comfort in preferred methods of narration.
My students today all preferred to use the third person, some in limited perspective and some omniscient. A few talked about ways to approach second person that inspired the others to try this again.
It surprised me that no-one enjoyed first person all that much. In my own writing I find that I naturally start most of my stories in first person singular. I've wondered why that is and pushed myself more and more to write in other POV, but I regularly find that if the story idea comes to me in sentences or clear pictures, they are told in this perspective.
My WIP, which started as a short story and the first prose I ever seriously tried out, is first person singular. However, the two stories accepted for publication a few years ago were both third person omniscient. While first person may be an instinctive POV for my writing, I've had success with others. It'll be fun to see how my students develop in this area.
Rest is essential. How we rest is crucial to proper relaxation and further performance. I'll keep this in mind and remember that God offers peace and rest. But I'm also going to search deals for a new hammock.
A Half Expected Guest - Day Three Online
|Top right: the speaker in question.|
An announcement came through the apartment speakers this morning. I suppose I should explain at this point that in South Korea, most apartment buildings broadcast announcements through speakers installed in each home. I've heard that this can get rather annoying with random intrusions happening perhaps once a day, or more. Thankfully, our building management is sparing with these and I usually know when to expect them because the contents have already been advertised in the elevator and by email.
This time, the management needed to let us know when they would start sending a lady with sanitation equipment to spray this on drains around the houses. It could have been any time between 9:20 am - 3:00 pm. But I knew it would be right in the middle of my morning classes.
Just around 9:10 am, as I double checked the files and computer camera position, right on cue: May I have your attention ..... (Except that it played in Korean and then repeated in English.)
When the sanitation lady arrives on our floor, she has to ring the doorbell for us to open the door, or else she uses the master key to enter and do her work. Not wanting any interruption to my class, I opened the door and left it ajar, with the door to the room I was teaching in open as well.
You'd be correct in thinking that this was not enough to avoid a nice Korean lady appearing in our creative writing class this morning. Of course, the only door she wished to use to access the veranda drains was the one in the room where I was teaching.
Thankfully, students were in the middle of group projects, creating a story inspired by a picture of a baby running away. We'd already practised some sensory writing by taking time to draft ideas of how to describe the sights, sounds, smells, touch and taste of sweets/candies. I asked students to consider the senses to add to their narrative of the baby in the picture. There was some nice description of action and emotions, with many students already attempting some 'showing, not telling'.
To round off the class, I read The Wish by Roald Dahl out loud to the class and we discussed how the author makes the simple descriptions of a carpet come alive and adds tension, risk and purpose for the narration. Students had just a little time to consider how they could add more to their baby stories with all these skills in mind. We're planning to continue this task a little more later and I'm excited to see how they will develop their basic story concepts into engaging prose.
Perhaps if our guest had arrived earlier and interrupted before I showed the baby picture, I could have used that moment as their prompt. We need to remember and be open to using these small moments that could add interest and reveal the emotions and desires of our characters in subtle ways.
Resting my Eyes - Day Four Online
|The first view point, not even half way up.|
Last week, when I had some issues with my eyes, my mother ordered me to look outside and let my eyes rest with nature. When I tried that my eyes nearly screamed with shock and it took an awfully long time to focus properly on the details. Part of me thought that maybe it was that there wasn't enough nature outside my window - too many buses and buildings. A week later, I've not been outside the house or felt much urge to watch those buses.
This morning's class whizzed by and suddenly it was the end of the teaching week. My students discussed ideas about genre and practised first sentences that attempted to reveal the genre and engage the readers. It's a simple class, but it's a lot of fun because the students reveal their ingenuity. Well, mostly. There are always a few cliches, but we don't worry about that in this early stage.
After class, and a good few online administrative tasks, I finally got out of the house. Been planning it all week but those admin tasks really got in the way.
As I went outside, I was anxious to get out and go far, but I did also feel an odd trepidation that I think most of us will be feeling these days. It wasn't exactly fear of the virus, but more of opening up my world again to more than just my home. This feeling was minuscule, but it would be an interesting thing to note for a future story.
A friend was walking along and it's been a good while since we've seen each other. Both of us were smiling and waving, but we kept our distance. It was easier to do this because the other party was on the phone, but it revealed a little more of what social distancing should be. It really wasn't worth us getting close, even if we had time because that friend has a little one at home that I'm eager to meet as soon as it's safe.
I entered the forest trail and debated about which route to take. I could go the easy path I regularly take to take the scenic route to the subway, or I could challenge my legs to rise higher up the mountain. I chose the harder path. A little bit of climbing took me to the first viewing spot. Here my eyes encountered their biggest hurdle.
The sun, through fog and clouds, felt sharp and the newly bloomed flowers, while bright, fuzzed into their greenish, brownish, greyish backgrounds.
Suddenly I realised that apart from food, all I've seen the past week are man made furnishings and computer screens. And that's not good.
I kept going up but little specks of rain started pinging on my arms and face. It was time to head back to safely manage those steeper sections. On the way back down, I became distracted by some issues that have been bugging me lately and my thoughts switched to prayers simply because I asked God to be with me and be the one to lead my thoughts and understanding.
Just one hour. One hour to break out of my online, at home rut. I had rested my eyes with this reset and rested my heart in the only place that gives peace. It was a good day.
Technical Mistakes - Day Five Online
|Online teaching props.|
(Tomato made by my writing buddy. Shoe box and books get webcam at perfect angle. Don't hurt me, I'll read them soon!)
I made a big technical error today. It's not surprising that this would happen eventually. When I started the audio for our reading passage, I asked if students could hear it and saw one student nod. They must have been thinking about something else.
Thankfully one of the students stayed on the line at the end of class to ask if I could show the link to listen to the audio. This was an easy fix: just an announcement on the portal.
This mistake didn't affect the lesson task of pointing out uses of figurative and lyrical language in the text, or later editing sentences to include these elements and make more interesting writing. In fact, the students did fantastically in both of these tasks. I sent them off in teams to analyse, then again to write, jumping into different side rooms to assess comprehension and be available.
To show, instead of tell, the idea of a "fun game", we had time passing quickly, ignorance of work deadlines and descriptions of adventures. As an embellishment of a "dark and scary night", we had the absence of light, a broken light bulb and eerie trepidation along a creaky floor. They're catching on quickly to this idea of subtly showing, not telling.
With this being the first noticeable technology mishap and my students engaging to already respond to exercises so well, I'm really getting away easy with these online lessons!
Outside of the classroom, things are progressing as well. The students just submitted their first draft of a story inspired by a chosen proverb. While I'm curious about their ideas, I'm a little overwhelmed with the changes to teach in this new way, so the thought of sitting down to mark out notes on how to improve these drafts is something I want to avoid.
How do I avoid it? When not preparing lessons: a little TV, a little cooking, a lot of eating, a lot of reading and some writing.
Speaking of which, one thing I've enjoyed during this time of social distancing is my video chat writing/working dates with a prior colleague and continuing close friend. We used to meet about once a week in person to write or grade together, and saw no reason not to move it online. It's great for de-stressing and accountability. (In fact, she's by my side right now.)
Like the students help each other to come up with ideas, expand upon them and then review, we do this with our stories and our classes. Wouldn't it be nice if some of my students kept in contact after this term and continued to support each other? I wonder if there are some ways I can encourage this. Suggestions welcome!
Fun and Games - Day Six Online
|Part of today's class inspiration.|
I spy with my little eye something beginning with... "s". Thinking? Got it?
Students! My students today played this as our roll call game. I'm a firm believer in active roll call. My students have to answer questions or play games as their response to check who has arrived on time. This does three important tasks to start the class off: helps me remember their names (I'm TERRIBLE with names, even though I remember the face and past events); helps students get to know each other; helps us all start to think creatively.
Thinking creatively is important for all of my classes, but particularly for my writers. Playing "I spy" might seem like a dumb thing for a bunch of 20-year-olds but they always humour me and got into it even more this time. Some of the spied objects could only be seen by the speaker, so the guessers had to think outside their own visible boxes on the screen.
After this, it was story writing practice all day. Usually, I introduce the element of writing we're covering and then give them exercises, but we've covered enough that they just need time and opportunity to do it.
We started with sharing a story from our week. When other students listened, they had to note down questions, then ask these at the end. What did the storyteller miss? Students needed to consider how they had chosen to explain events, but more importantly, what did their audience pick up on and care about.
A time of editing was followed by a second reading and more listener notes. Students were critically thinking about how each other writes and how to advise or challenge each other.
With this practice, the students were grouped to write a story together. They were told this time to deeply consider the elements we've covered so far: plot, character, POV, tense, figurative language, genre and philosophy. They also had to incorporate three things: a blanket, a puzzle and fake money.
Something amazing when they came back to share their stories.
We had fake money used in a childhood game playing market, to woo a best friend. A puzzle contained a map for a special birthday surprise during lockdown (yes, even my students are bringing it into their writing), and then...
A man lost his wallet, only to have it returned with extra money.
This was the perfect conclusion to the class, leading me so easily into rounding up with gives writing depth: our humanity. We love to read because it shows us or asks us to consider who we are and what it means to be human. When that scenario was introduced, every student picked up slightly, already curious about what they would do in that situation. Then, as they hard the events, they related it to themselves - "I wouldn't do that." "I'd buy something else." "I'd give it back." "I'd...".
Thinking through their own perspective, they reacted to the fictional actions and then waited for the consequences.
As Mark Twain wrote, "There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations."
None of the ideas my students suggested were completely original (although they were thoughtful and creative; I was very pleased). It was how they played with them and then engaged us and brought us into the stories that mattered.
|Finished! A surprise from a close friend - hard to explain this in-joke.|
A Tomato On The Tomato By My Tomato - Day Seven Online
|My tomatoes were dancing on camera to help teach articles and prepositions.|
My poor students probably had their most boring class yet on Tuesday. At least in other classes there was time and opportunity for interesting interactions that related to storytelling. Today, the most open time was while asking them to guess which preposition they thought matched a situation. And why.
Last night at midnight, the deadline for the second story draft passed. Students are now expected to do some peer reviews by next week's class. This means trying to proofread those awkward things like prepositions and articles, as well as suggesting areas that need revised.
While I'm teaching creative writing, I also have to remember that I'm teaching English as a second language, as well. It's easy to get distracted by the content aspect of the class and dismiss the difficulties my students have with the basics of the language. After all, that is somewhat the point of the class: learn through practising in contexts that are real.
Even those born in English speaking countries have problems with basic English grammar. It just so happens that those are the first things my students learn and it sticks with them so well that they don't make the common mistakes you might see online.
Their or there? Obvious to my students. We're, were, where? Simple. Affect or effect? No problem.
A/an, the or nothing? Ahhhh!
In, on, at, by, for, to? Help!!!
The biggest area of grading isn't in these minor points. Showing they understand skills of using language in creative ways is how my students earn their grade. So, for these short stories, or their midterm on Thursday, while they might lose a small fraction if their writing lacks clarity, they'll still pass with a great grade when they consider POV, tense, genre, philosophy and how to bring that all together using language that engages and evokes the reader.
My goal is to push them to think differently, mostly in creative ways, but also to assist them in becoming more fluent as they strive to share ideas with their readers in a clear and enjoyable way. We need the basics of language in order to do that. Let's just hope they had a little fun practising it with the help of my cuddly friends.
Midterms - Day Eight Online
|Hopefully more of the left than the right.|
The students were worried because anything we've learned so far could be on it. I was nervous because this was my first time setting it up online.
|Write your test answers in the comments section. ;)|
|How would you add your own voice to make this into a real story?|
Different Editions - Day Nine Online
My students are assigned two passages to read each week for the first five weeks. With midterms last week, we only got to reviewing the fourth set today.
The article gave tips for developing comedic writing, which the class elaborated on in terms of how it could help general writing skills. I then asked them to look for points in The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde where these tips were used for humour or to emphasise other points.
We listened to the fiction passage (successfully this time) but it turned out that the audio version was slightly different from the edition I had asked my students to read. Oops.
Still, I think it was a great experience for students to read the shorter version of the story by themselves and get used to the language and style before hearing an extended edition read out dramatically. I had hoped to send the students out in teams to pin point some of these moments in the story and share these with their discussion thoughts.
With time running out, though, we had to move on to understanding the basic elements of the next class assignment. This task has students propose an idea for their final, longer story. We talked about methods of research and students pondered over what element of writing they wished to improve in order to make their next story stronger in literary expression. Another interactive activity I had planned on and usually do with students is to send them off to find possible sources for writing research. Perhaps I packed too much into this one lesson and should consider separating the topics next time I teach this class.
The biggest excitement of the day was that the bigger deadlines are looming. A few students had concerns about all the tasks yet to complete. It's natural that they would worry, after all, their peer reviews and notes from me have only just been returned and the deadline for the final version of their short stories is coming up.
In fact, looking at the class schedule last weekend, I considered swapping around the current classes and the following set. After seeing the heaviness some students had because one assignment was starting while another was yet to be completed, I have decided that I will swap these around next term. This is only a minor change compared to the mid way through term changes I made in the autumn and even as I edited the syllabus to teach this spring. It's good for teachers and writers to adapt and be adaptable. I'm sure my students are struggling with this skill enough as they read their review notes.
Questions Galore - Day Ten Online
Thursday's class was a day for asking questions. For too much of the recent classes, my students have been patiently listening, so today I set them a task to go think of what they don't know already.
In pairs, they chatted and plotted (for questions, ideas and writing). Then, I joined each group twice: once to clarify that they understood their current task, and a second time to answer further questions.
Some important questions were about the looming short story and flash fiction deadline:
- Do I have to edit and submit both drafts and a flash story? (No, just one and a flash, phew!)
- Is the deadline on Sunday or Monday? (End of Sunday night, before Monday starts.)
- Can I change my story completely to a new idea? (Sure! But you might not have any help.)
Since that class, one student did send me a new draft and asked if I might take a look. Thankfully I did have time and this student hadn't sent one of the draft options previously, so I thought it would be fair enough to give a few notes. It turned out that the student had been working on that new draft for a while and already made edits, so what I read was better structured and developed. It was easy to make encouraging advice on how to improve it even further.
Other questions were to fully understand the new 'proposal' task:
- Can I choose an element of writing that we didn't talk about in class? (Please do! We didn't go into detail for many important elements, including punctuation or small issues relating to different figurative language. Find what interests you.)
- Do I need to explain my whole story idea in the essay section? (Only what relates to how you will develop your use and understanding of the element.)
- How much detail should I put in the outline section? (Not much. Just enough to show thought and connection to the element.)
- Can I change my idea later? (Yes!)
- What is the difference between this proposal and the later post writing critical essay? (This is less formally structured and is to give you practice for the bigger critical essay.)
While students have been editing stories and contemplating what to do for their next project, I have been grading midterms. Just as in past tests done on paper in the class room, there has been a regular variety of types of answers. I can say with great confidence that my students seem to be smoothly switching to online learning and are grasping the concepts from class very well.
Any questions you have about our classes?
Achievements - Day Eleven Online
|Green for good mark ups.|
Success! Short stories and flash fiction has been edited and submitted for grading. That means it's time for me to focus on grading them and for students to explore their next project. We don't stop for a minute all term.
The Final Story Proposal was introduced last week, but today students were able to concentrate more clearly on ideas for research. This is all I wanted them to do today; think out loud. There was time for this in randomly assigned groups. Then again in teams with similar interests.
So what are my students interested in researching to help improve their own writing?
- POV: switching it to look at different angles
- character: how they change and the set types
- genre: formats to follow
- language: personification, subtext in dialogue
- senses: which ones add most interest and how to show, not just tell
Student Take Over - Day Twelve and Thirteen Online
|A slippery task for unsure students.|
There's been enough of me talking in class. Thankfully, last Thursday and this Tuesday, that changed completely. I hardly spoke at all!
Each student had about ten minutes to share a story for the class to read and then ask questions about interesting use of language that would help reveal deeper meaning in the text. As they began this activity, everyone was a little on edge and unsure, but they soon realised that they had the answers and I wasn't setting them up to fall.
That initial session brought up interesting ideas, which included:
- Why is this the father's reaction in Oysters by Anton Chekhov?
- What is it like to want to laugh alone like the officer in Give It Up by Franz Kafka?
- Why is this behaviour shown at the end of Borrowing a Match by Stephen Leacock?
- How is the mood of New York connected to the narrator in The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath?
- Since we're not from a Western culture, how can we know who 'Nicholas' is in Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman?
It was impressive to see how students approached the task, some by revealing the questions before reading, some by asking more about little details and others by opening more for general reactions to the tone of the pieces.
This continued with students on Tuesday asking:
- Why is this mood created in Likable by Deb Olin Un?
- How can we assess the use of POV in this version of Salubrities Abroad from Punch Magazine?
- What does The Zebra Storyteller by Spencer Holst imply about the function of us as writers?
- What is plan A in the story Plan B by Nicolas Julian?
These sessions of sharing stories and leading discussions is intended to build up the students' abilities and confidence in sharing with each other about literary intentions. In just a couple of weeks, they will be doing something similar as they critique each other's final story drafts.
For now, the students are on holiday until next Thursday. In South Korea, we just happen to have a couple of holidays in a row (Buddha's birthday and Children's day) to make it a longer break. Yesterday they all submitted their proposals, so it's time for them to relax and approach the first draft of their final piece.
I Can't Draw - Day Thirteen Online
|Representing The Zebra Storyteller by Spencer Holst, Plan B by Nicolas Julian and Salubrities Abroad from Punch Magazine|
At end of class, the Tuesday before last (before our long holiday), we needed an activity that would somehow have winners. The prize was first priority on the sign up sheet for the coming peer review workshops. By signing up for workshop A, B, C or D, a student also decides their deadline for the draft, edited piece, critical essay and presentation based on the date of the workshop. It's kind of a big deal.
I usually ask students to fill in the blanks of a story sentence. (Something like "I was _______ at the _______ before ________ because I needed _________.")
Since we're on zoom these days, I thought it would be fun for students if we used the whiteboard. I added text to show the dates for different deadlines and then tried drawing pictures that related to the stories we had read recently.
This was a mistake! One student was quick to guess that I had drawn the French flag, and another could work out that the next was a double-decker bus, but no one could work out that these were a clue to remind them of the french pronunciation that was mentioned in the story about people from London (Salubrites Abroad).
My next drawing was of a cigarette, followed by a broken mug, but still students did not connect it to the narrator's explanations in Plan B.
Finally, my worst drawing of all, a zebra. By now, I had revealed the connection of the pictures to give clues to the stories, so this might be how the students were able to guess what these squiggles were supposed to become and that it was inspired by The Zebra Storyteller.
Well, we ran out of time and the sign up became a free for all. Next time, I'll stick to what I know. Speaking of, what would your answers be to the gaps in the sentence? Here's my random answer.
I was _singing_ at the _kitchen sink_ before _I started washing dishes_ because I needed _to encourage the water to heat quickly_.
The Return of Online Teaching
So Irritating (A Short Story) - Day Fourteen Online
|Is this the most irritating sound in the world? Or is it hearing an echo on Zoom?|
After a refreshing break, I've pondered over the best way to share these online teaching experiences. With the class motto "show, don't tell" already being repeated back to me by the new students, I have a strong desire to do just that. So instead of telling you what happened in the lesson I'm covering today, I'll list the key moments and write a rough story inspired by them. (We'll see if I can keep it up in future posts.) Based on true events, but completely made up, including characters, here is: "So Irritating".
The screen flicked over to a plot list. "You might remember this." S1 read the first line and her lungs immediately filled as if she was back to last week, planning how to use any type of metaphor, simile or even onomatopoeic word to help her grade. "Yes, it's from your mid-term test. We'll use these points to create something new today." S1 knew there was a perfect word to describe this moment. She scanned back in her notes. There it was: cruel. "We've focused on senses for description, talked about characters and we know about plot. Today we're going to think about how to put these together more professionally. It's not easy!"
Workshops (A Short Story) - Day Fifteen to Eighteen Online
|Korean spicy rice cake (tteokbokki).|
Post Writing Critical Skills (A Short Story) - Day Nineteen to Twenty-One Online
Final Assignment Preparation (A Short Story) - Day Twenty-Two and Twenty-Four Online
Publishing (A Short Story) - Day Twenty-Three Online
What is at the End (A Short Story) - Day Twenty-Five and Twenty-Six Online
Reflections on Teaching Online
|Little things help.|
It's been a long, tiring year of training to teach well online and updating about the creative writing classes with explanations and stories. With classes continuing online for Spring 2021, though, I've found it helpful to look back on the posts to help improve the lessons going forward. Here are a few thoughts about the last year and this series about teaching online.
General Thoughts about Teaching Online
The technical term for what I have done over the past year is Emergency Distance Teaching. My class is not designed for online learning, and it is only because of the coronavirus pandemic that I have had to adapt. The institution I work at chose to keep classes for our department online over the full year of 2020 because they wanted to minimise any risks of outbreaks and students had responded favourably to experiences during the first term of the year. It is unclear how long this will continue, but it certainly isn't ending soon.
Over the first term, it truly was an emergency situation. In the first place, our start date was postponed by two weeks because of the new outbreaks within South Korea at that time. The official announcement of starting online came only about a week before classes officially started. Of course, there was speculation about both of these beforehand, so in a way we were mentally prepared for the possibility. This helped, but didn't make it easy.
Experience in being an expat in South Korea actually prepared me in some useful ways for this. We talk about "balli balli" culture here, where anything can change in a moment and is expected to get done immediately. ("Balli" essentially means "quick", "fast" or "hurry up".) In my first few years of teaching, any rumour of change would send me into deep planning to make the most polished lessons I could before I had to teach even the first one. Of course this was an impossible task, so over time I have learned to let go of this perfection and trust my own skills and my students. Thankfully, in this position, I have had time to understand what my students truly need and practice adapting to those needs fluidly in the in-person classroom. Once I knew that the technology offered ways to teach in the way I know my students enjoy, my lesson plans were easy to adapt.
Speaking of technology, from living abroad, I'm well used to video calls and have even joined a few online learning sessions for various topics. So last year, even though I was only able to download the software less than a week before the first lesson, my prior experience led to a smoother transition than expected.
In the end, I've actually enjoyed teaching online. There are some great perks, like taking a quick nap to re-energise and help my eyes, or cooking a healthier lunch each day at home. It has also saved on certain aspects of class preparation, like printing worksheets or assignments. In fact, it has helped to streamline all grading to be electronic, whereas in previous years I did a mix of online and paper, and this took careful organisation to complete and record accurately.
Some readers may have noticed that the classes end at "day twenty-seven". There are usually thirty classes each term, through teaching twice a week for fifteen weeks. When holidays happen on a class day, we do a different activity at a different time to make up for this lost class time. For my students, drafting time became a formalised activity to satisfy this requirement. They worked through a worksheet to understand the draft tasks fully, plan out their idea and get down a rough draft. This was done through our online portal so I was able to check submissions and keep up to date with how each student was doing. It didn't seem too exciting to include this in my reviews, but in case anyone was wondering about that, now you know.
Leaving some writing time within the class is important for students for apply their new knowledge and help them actively participate in the course, even through out-of-class assignments. I always enjoy doing this in person, as I can individually assist and encourage students in the moment, while also giving space for them to see that it's okay to just sit and think sometimes. It is a pity that this activity for class becomes more isolated as they sit alone in their rooms or face unresponsive partners in breakout rooms, but I have made even more effort in classes to work on group stories in reaction to this.
Taking a Break
As the first term of online teaching progressed, it became difficult to manage so much screen time from teaching, grading and writing. It was important to find some balance in general, and that meant taking time off from writing about how the classes were going.
It's important to take care of ourselves and realise when or how stress reveals itself. Before it gets to any extreme level, small things can encourage us and make the work we have to get done a little nicer. One simple way to do this, for me, was swapping my regular mouse for this pretty strawberry shaped one in the picture, which I got while in university and surprisingly kept to even bring across the world. It's quite amazing how just a small touch can brighten your day and keep you entertained. Going into the next term, I hope to incorporate more hobbies that I've already half started to appreciate small pieces of beauty and relaxation more.
Walking was also helpful during the long, lonely days stuck in one space. A while back, I took to walking in the forest area of the mountain behind my house, so I began to appreciate my regular routes even more. However, due to an issue in my hip, I was forbidden by my physiotherapist to walk through uneven paths. Now, taking a daily walk has become less exciting as it's just along the regular city road. As I approach classes next week, though, I'll have to make it a priority again. It may be helpful to mix this up with other activities, but that is still limited with higher levels of social distancing in South Korea.
Change of Style
Once I got back into writing my experience, I found that my memory wasn't too reliable. Combining reviews with conducting current classes got a little confusing, but it did lead to thinking up a good solution: writing fictional stories based off the events.
This not only gave creative freedom in not having to stick to the exact facts of the classes, but it also helped get back to how I wanted to write on this site. As I mentioned when explaining my break originally, for a time it was difficult to see a point to writing here, but switching the style of this series helped connect back to the purpose of the site altogether.
Since part of the purpose of posting is to experiment and practice writing, that had to come into the stories for this series in some way. It was important to me to change the focus of the review so that it was not centred on my own experience. In order to do this, and make the stories more focused and interesting, I decided to try out different POV and tense for each lesson review. In the past, I played with POV during the Wedding Stories series in 2016, but combining this with tense made it different and for some stories this combination lead to very different forms of writing.
Part of the reason for purposely selecting a different POV for each story was to find a way to connect the students together and to the readers. To do this, I used subtle relationship details and reactions to between the students within the first few stories. It would have been fun to push this further with a multi-character storyline that would weave through each post, but as the ideas progressed, it didn't make sense to push too hard to keep this going. Instead, I allowed a little freedom in form and this produced letter writing for the publishing class and picture stories for the presentation classes.
With only so three basic options in tense, it felt a little limiting at times to use this as a point of experimentation. It was nice to try mixing up the POV through use of different tense, though. One interesting thing was to try writing in the future tense. It made sense when talking about how the students were planning for their final presentation to go with the future aspect of their perspective and this led to a bit of an instructional form. This fits well with 2nd person point of view usually, but I enjoyed using it for the third person plural instead.
While I had hoped to make the teaching review series more of a live event, in the end it actually helped my class development to spread it out over the full year. I couldn't have known that I would still be teaching online even now, so it seemed like a bit of a failure when I took a pause initially. However, as I got back into the updates, it helped to reconsider activities and adapt within the two different terms. It was also exciting to revamp the way of sharing my experience to reflect the purpose of this site more.
I've learned through this review and through teaching online that I cannot do everything all at once, but that is okay. In fact, it can make things better when we prioritise and allow for breaks. As I write the first draft of a new novel, again I'm learning this lesson. Because of the positive experience of learning not to be too hard on myself from the last break I took, I'm able to appreciate better what my mind and body need in order to produce better work.
I still want to have every idea finished yesterday. But so often I see how I couldn't have written a certain story or certain scene in the way it had to be done without the experience I had during the time I fought this frustration over time. The same with teaching; I learn how to do better as I see how some things do not work and keep open to learning from current experiences. Life isn't about having all the knowledge already or having it together. I'm not even sure it's about the journey, but perhaps that's a thought for a future post. For now, I'll get to know my new students, do better again at guiding them through the course and enjoy the stories they come up with along the way.