Online Teaching: What To Do When No One Does the Reading Homework

Photo credit: The Macaulay Messenger

My English Composition 1 class is completely online and we are required to have synchronous meetings. To make the course as accessible as possible, I limit our synchronous sessions to once a week and I devote much of this time to completing assignments.

Part of the “pre-work” for each class is to respond to a discussion question on our Blackboard discussion board. These 200-word responses are due by the start of class. As a warm-up in the class we had on Tuesday, students spent the first 5 minutes reading one of their peers’ posts and responding to it in about 50 words or more. I played some Mozart (I prefer playing music to dead silence because it seems to maintain our momentum, connection, and mood) while everyone wrote their responses and then we came back together as a class to discuss what we read and what we wrote about. What I enjoyed most about this activity was hearing students use one another’s names as they spoke. This activity helped them learn each other’s names and it sparked a discussion related to the writing prompt, “What should we be writing about right now?” Responding to one another on the discussion board is a required part of the assignment anyway, and doing this to start class helps everyone focus on the topic at hand, kicking off a discussion online and then a verbal one, instead of doing this asynchronously.

Next, for this class meeting, we read (or, rather, we were supposed to read) June Jordan’s “Poem About My Rights,” and two essays by Audre Lorde from Sister Outsider, “Poetry is Not a Luxury” and “The Master’s Tools.” We read Jordan’s poem, first quietly to ourselves, and then again while listening to a recording of Jordan performing it aloud. We discussed the sound of her voice–students described her voice as “grounded,” “frustrated,” “authentic” and “calm”–and then how Jordan breaks away from typical traditions in poetry (meter, rhyming, and other limiting structures) to express herself in her own voice, effectively discarding the “master’s tools” (i.e., poetic traditions of a white male dominated canon) to write poetry that is, in her own words from the poem, “my own my own my own.” 

We then moved on to discuss Audre Lorde’s essays and there was dead silence. I really admire my students for being open and upfront with me that they did not read the essays in advance. Some had forgotten, others are still getting used to reading a syllabus (most are first-semester freshmen), and many are overwhelmed by the pandemic, a lack of childcare, and work obligations. I know these essays like the back of my hands and so, given how overwhelmed I myself am in this pandemic, I had not re-read them either. I was using the same lesson plan I had used dozens of times. Thanks to this frankness, we all realized it would be more productive to read the essays during class to give everyone time to pick a salient point or sentence that resonates with them. While we read, I played some more Mozart.

Students picked sentences from Lorde’s essays that stuck out to them and then shared and discussed their sentences in breakout rooms of 3-4 people, which I randomly assigned to groups. During this group work, I sent “broadcast” announcements to all groups (this is one of Zoom’s features) to help them keep time, warning them when they had 2 minutes left, 1 minute left, and 30 seconds left. I also reminded them, via broadcast message, to pick a spokesperson to share with the class what was discussed in the group.

Students picked a spokesperson for each group to summarize (we’re currently working on distinguishing between summary and analysis) what was discussed during group work. After a total of 5 minutes of group work, we all came back to the main Zoom room and those spokespersons shared what they talked about, generating a fruitful class-wide discussion. Each spokesperson named their peers who were in the group with them before they began sharing–another way to learn one another’s names.

We talked about intersectionality, how patriarchy oppresses both men and women, and the sociopolitical importance of poetic expression, especially how poetry can be a bridge to new imaginaries and futures that are equitable and just. Students referred back to Jordan’s poem as an example. One thing I’m realizing (it was true when teaching in person and is even more true when teaching online) is it’s better to pick shorter readings so we can go into more depth, and, if need be, we can read them together on the spot when folx don’t have time to read them on their own.

What could have been disheartening (it’s so hard when no one does the assigned reading!) was actually lovely and empowering. Breaking into groups is what I would do in the same scenario in person, and it still works online, it just looks and feels somewhat different.

This was adapted from a blog post I wrote on our class Group page on HASTAC.org. Read the original post, published on September 10, 2020.

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