Applying Lessons in Writer Resilience to Teaching Online

Image Credit: Alan Levine

On the last day of the fall Zoom semester of 2020 (or should I say “doom semester?”), I burst into tears. Despite my best efforts to reach many of my students, I had to give out far more failing grades than I am used to doing. I knew it wasn’t my completely fault. After all, there is a pandemic going on, my students are struggling to learn online, and I don’t even know what their learning environment at home is like since most of them don’t feel comfortable turning their camera on. Still, I felt responsible, and with every F I entered into the grading system, I felt like more of a failure as a teacher.

After a few days of letting myself wallow in my feelings, and a week or so of resting over the holidays, I picked myself up, wiped the slate clean, and moved forward with my plans for the next semester. I came back to online teaching this past week with vigor and energy, trying to project the hope to my students that this Zoom semester will be better.

Throughout this pandemic, I have needed to find coping strategies to deal with the unprecedented challenges I’m facing as a teacher. I’ve realized that many of the strategies I use to remain resilient draw upon my years of a experience as an “emerging writer.” As someone who has been attempting to write and submit work for publication for almost a decade, I have experienced plenty of rejection and failure. The stakes are much lower that they are for teaching, because having one short story published here or there is not going to make or break my writing career (then again one student failing will not make or break my teaching career either- but it could be devastating for that student). But I think from these smaller failures, I’ve had plenty of time to practice the experience of being thwarted in my goals, which has helped me see the bigger picture when it comes to distance learning. So here are some of the ways being a writer has helped me remain positive at my high school teaching job even while trying to teach under the current undesirable circumstances.

  1. Celebrate the small successes, and don’t be discouraged by rejection. I’ve dealt with a lot of rejection as a writer since unless you already have connections in the writing world or are just a literary genius, the odds are against you. Whenever I do have a story accepted or an article published, I celebrate, no matter how “minor” of an accomplishment it might feel like. I was published in a local zine this past summer, and despite the fact that it’s not a well-known publication, I still felt proud to see my work in print. When it comes to teaching, I celebrate the moments where I can reach a student who I haven’t been able to make a connection with. Last semester, I had a student who responded to me with nothing but negativity. After I asked if she was OK for probably the hundredth time and pestered her about doing the work, she told me that she appreciated that I cared. Of course, that kind of breakthrough does not have the finality that publication has. I still have to cultivate a relationship with that student going forward. But it gave me something positive to cling to, which I really needed.

2. Have patience. This goes with my first point because you have to wait to see the results of all of your efforts, whether it is the hard work you put into revising a manuscript or the continual nurturing of connections with students. I am a slow writer, and I also usually have to rewrite or revise stories and essays at least a dozen times before I feel satisfied with them. It has taken me years to write a story, and years after that to place it in a journal. Still, as long as I have all the gears in motion, with some stories in the works, some out for submission, and some brewing in my head, I know that I will eventually see some success with publication. I know that it is twice as hard for students to learn right now, so if I see that they make progress over the course of the year, even if it is progress that I expected to only take one semester, I will still count it as a success. Since I teach 9th and 10th grade at a small school, I will probably see most of my current 9th grade students next year in the classroom (hopefully in person), and perhaps at that point, I may start to see the results of my efforts from all this past year come to fruition. I have heard from more experienced teachers that it can takes years sometimes to reap the results of the work you put in, that teaching really becomes the most rewarding once you see how your students are doing in five to ten years. As a second year teacher, I just have to be patient enough to get to that point in my profession.

3. Find a community with others who are pursuing the same goals. I’ve found some of the best encouragement in my writing from my friends who have taken workshops with me and from strangers I met on the internet who are friendly and want to help others succeed. I’ve also received some of the best teaching tips and advice from my teaching colleagues from my credential program or from educational leaders I follow on Twitter. During this pandemic, I’ve had both teaching buddies and writing buddies who I text and share ideas with on a regular basis. They have helped me feel less alone in the ventures of writing and teaching, which are both very isolating even in normal times.

4. Look for models in mentors. See what they are doing, and try it out yourself. Writing allows you to have mentors who you have never met or even corresponded with. I view my favorite authors who inspire me to keep writing as mentors, while I also keep in touch with professors who have helped me personally improve my writing. In graduate school, my professor Yiyun Li told me that one of the best ways to work on your writing is to emulate the style of another writer– not with the goal of having that work published, but just as practice, since trying on other writer’s styles can help you develop your own style. I think this also applies to teaching. By imitating the style of a mentor teacher you may admire, even if it is just for a day, you may be able to experiment with your own teaching style and decide whether the way a mentor or a colleague teaches feels natural to you. You may decide it is not how you want to teach and switch directions, even mid-lesson, but it can help clarify what is working in your teaching and what is not working. I used this technique during my student teaching, and now that I am teaching online, one actual advantage is that I can experiment a bit more than I was comfortable doing in-person. I hope this experimentation allows me to return to the physical classroom as a more dynamic teacher who is more assured in my own teaching style.

5. It’s OK to take breaks and come back to things later. Well, of course, you can’t leave your class during the middle of a zoom meeting or a class period, but if you need to take your prep time to meditate or take a walk instead of grading, you can. With writing, I’m the type of person who needs a long time to mull over a draft before returning to it. I usually work on one thing for a couple weeks, put it down for a couple months while I’m working on something else, and then return to it. Teaching can’t replicate this same fluctuating rhythm, but you can break up grading with planning, if one makes you happier than the other. One way humans learn well is through spaced repetition, where you practice a skill or memorize information in a systematic way in which you focus mostly on the newest ideas or skills and occasionally on the older ideas and skills to reinforce them in your mind. With teaching, I don’t always have time to fit in vocabulary every week, but I know that if I come back to the same words with my students after a week, and then revisit the same words after a month, it might feel inconsistent but it might actually stick in their minds better that way. I give myself permission to not get to everything done in every lesson every week knowing that my students will benefit more if we go deeper into fewer concepts while circling back to the same ideas a few weeks later.

Being an English teacher and a writer means that I’m constantly thinking about how to help my students become better at writing while also keeping my own writing on the backburner in my head. I was worried that the pandemic would make balancing these two identities even more challenging, but I’ve been lucky that they’ve been able to reinforce one another. For both writing and teaching, resilience is essential to keep going, especially when we’re in a global pandemic. So, if you are a teacher or a writer, or both, I hope you are able to take some time to take care of yourself so that you can bounce back from whatever challenges you are currently facing, or even just muddle through them.

By the way, here’s an essay I wrote that was published in McSweeney’s recently, in case you need a good laugh.

What I Learned from Organizing a DIY Online Writing Workshop

Photo Credit: EdTech Stanford University School of Medicine

My favorite classes in college and graduate school were undoubtedly my creative writing workshops. At the large public universities I attended, they were an oasis of humanistic growth and communal support. I was able to develop my craft while also getting to know like-minded peers, some of whom have become lifelong friends.  I had not taken a workshop or had much time to write at all since graduating from my MA in Creative Writing program, but when the pandemic and the shutdowns started, I had a strong urge both to write and to seek out connections to my writer friends whom I had lost touch with. So, I organized a free, do-it-yourself online writing workshop over Google Meet this summer with friends and acquaintances I met on social media.

I learned from this experience that I didn’t need the official stamp of approval from a university to create a communal environment where peers could share their work with one another, receive feedback, and bond over the experience of writing during a pandemic. However, having participated in many types of writing workshops before, including university courses and weekend writing retreats, I can see that this type of do-it-yourself workshop is not a panacea. There are some things you just can’t replicate online, and there will be some missed insights when there is no established author in the room. Here are some of the pros and cons that I discovered from this experience.

Pros

  • It’s free. I have no objection to established authors and poets who make their living from writing workshops. It is only fair that the people who have the most expertise should be able to charge for it. But for people on a budget during a pandemic, like me and my friends, it’s a hard sell to pay several hundred dollars for a weeklong online workshop or to pay tuition at a university for a part-time creative writing program. I have paid for workshops in the past, and I think those workshops were absolutely worth the price, but I also think that banding together with your friends to create a writing group is also valuable because it is accessible to everyone who has the time to do it.
  • You can receive genuine feedback without external pressures of grades or competition. When I was teaching creative writing during grad school to undergraduates, one of things I liked the least about it was having to assign a letter grade to people’s creative writing. It left me with an icky feeling. I worried that I was just giving high grades to students who adhered to my literary aesthetic. In my online writing workshop, no one had to worry about pandering to the professor’s tastes because there is no professor. We also didn’t feel like we were competing for the favor of the professor or the institution, as grad students in MFA programs often must do to secure fellowships or book deals. We were genuinely interested in helping each other improve, and we could also be explicit about our vision of what we want our writing to accomplish. That way, we could give each other the feedback that we needed to steer ourselves in the direction we want to go. It’s more democratic, although it is not immune to the pitfalls of people’s tastes. I know the MFA workshop has been critiqued before for marginalizing writers of color and women because it prioritizes the perspective of the dominant culture in advising people what literature should sound like. Since all the people in my group are shaped by dominant American literary culture in one way or another, we probably still passed on some of those biases in our feedback. Nevertheless, I tried to establish at the beginning of the workshop that if someone objected to advice they are being given, even if it was a view shared by several people in the workshop, they were free to raise their objections or even to speak in their own workshop if they felt the need to.
  • Another major advantage to setting up your own workshop is being able to set your own rules and norms for the group collectively. At the first meeting of my writing workshop online we discussed what we thought should be the norms of our group and why. This probably should be a feature of most writing workshops, regardless of the setting and who is hosting them, but this was the first time I was in a workshop where I felt everyone had a voice in creating the agreements on how much people should submit and how often, whether the writer should be able to talk during their portion of the workshop, and how we would approach sensitive topics. I try to create community agreements like these with my high school students whenever we are having a discussion, so it felt natural to do so for the writing group as well. After having many writing professors who swear by certain aspects of the workshop and craft being inalienable, it was nice to have the flexibility to make our own decisions.
  • You have a reason to hang out with other writers once a week. Many of us writers are introverts, although, not all, but even for the introverted it can feel like a Godsend to have structured social time planned into your schedule. I have hardly socialized with anyone in person for 6 months. It was really rewarding to get to know some new acquaintances who joined my online workshop through friends of friends and to forge deeper connections with friends I’ve had for years who live far away.

Cons

  • Your workshop is only as good as the writers you invite into it. I wouldn’t recommend creating a DIY workshop to writers who have not participated in a writing workshop before in any setting. If there are a few less experienced writers in the group, you will probably be fine, but if you’re relying on your peers in the group to critique your writing, you need them to have some experience with creative writing and some knowledge of craft because you are relying on them for support. Alternatively, you could incorporate readings from a book on writing such as Fiction Writer’s Workshop by Josip Novakovich (an excellent resource, in my opinion) into your group to give you insight if everyone in the group is a beginner, but it wouldn’t be the same as having the mentorship of folks who have been in the writing world for a while.
  • Online meetings can feel awkward at times. By now, nearly everyone is familiar with the strange pauses that accompany online meetings, where you want to speak, but you’re not sure how to signal that you want to talk. You signal that you are ready to talk by turning on your mic, but then your sound and video are delayed for a few seconds, so by the time you start talking, someone else is speaking too. It’s harder to establish a rhythm when you’re discussing a piece in an online workshop, but using an online platform does have advantages as well. I’ve noticed that the chat function makes it easier for people to echo people’s ideas or express their enthusiasm without having to repeat phrases like, “I totally agree with what X said.”
  • There’s no incentive to revise unless you build it in to the workshop. In most of the workshops I’ve taken in an academic setting, the final grade for the class is based on a portfolio of your work that you submit to the professor during finals week containing some new writing and some revised work. This time, there are no grades to motivate me to revise my pieces, so I will probably leave my notes from the workshops in my notebook for a while before I return to them. Still, being in a writing community with others is motivating enough to overcome this hurdle. Reading other people’s work is invigorating, and hearing comments, both positive and negative, about my own writing is a powerful incentive to keep writing.

My summer workshop is over now, but I’m hoping that I can continue to cultivate writing partnerships with the folks who have been in my workshop so that we will hold each other accountable for continuing to work on our writing and our craft.