Nowadays, when we talk about how our school year has been “mostly normal,” we all know what that means. Kids have been sitting in our classrooms, and we’ve been teaching them face-to-face, even if those faces have been occasionally covered by masks. Our Zoom classes have become only for a small minority of students. We’re discussing and teaching and interacting in person, and it feels so good to see the virtual classroom in our rearview.
However, I would like to point out something pretty significant that we have all seen become a reality for many of our students: online college courses are an affordable and convenient option, even while students are still in high school. While our pandemic-based, slightly experimental virtual education was challenging in so many ways and we’d really rather not dwell on it, it might be valuable to consider how what we are doing in our classrooms today can provide lasting help for our students as they continue their education virtually.
I interviewed Sarah Oaklief, an instructor with Colorado Christian University since 2008, a resident of Michigan who teaches English and writing courses to students from all over the States. I found her perspective about online instruction to be helpful for those of us who are preparing students for the path ahead, which may include college courses, whether in-person or online.
BG: What has your experience been in education?
Sarah: I have a BA in Secondary English Education and an MA in Creative Writing and an MLIS in library science. Immediately after graduating from college, I taught grades 6-12 at a boarding school in Vermont for two years. Although it was an amazing experience, and I still have so many friendships with students, faculty, and administrators, I realized that I was more interested in research and teaching at the collegiate level. So, in 2006, I started my masters degrees. During that time, I worked as a TA and an instructor, mainly in my library science courses. I also worked and published articles as a writing center tutor. In 2008 I graduated, and since then I’ve been teaching English composition, research writing, and creative writing at various colleges/universities. I’ve worked at several community colleges, but I’ve been with CCU since 2008, both in-seat and online.
BG: What has been your favorite aspect of your years in education?
Sarah: I love teaching online. I especially love connecting with students who are afraid that online courses won’t be as personable. If students really work at engaging in online discussions, they can have just as many “ah ha” moments as students who are in-seat. I love surprising students who get to those “ah ha” moments. And I enjoy Zoom meetings as well. I always go over time, usually by 30 minutes, connecting with various students or getting caught up in a discussion. Before COVID, a lot of research was happening in online education, and COVID skyrocketed all of that research to the forefront. If done right, online education works very well at the university level. I have experienced this myself, not only as an instructor, but also as a student: I took about 50% of my own courses online through the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
BG: Do you have a sense of how the remote (online) learning platform helps and/or hinders students? How do you seek to overcome hurdles in this kind of instruction?
Sarah: I am a big fan of online/remote learning. My experience is in asynchronous education at the university level, so I am not an expert in K-12 education. Students are allowed to have “ah ha” moments by really engaging in online discussions. My advice for these discussions would be to not grade on grammar. Allow students to “think out loud” in discussions. Take away the fear of having to be perfect, and let students brainstorm/think. I am always surprised at what sort of ideas that students come up with in discussions. They dig deep into higher-order thinking concepts if allowed to have freedom. This does, of course, necessitate that students are closely reading/analyzing the texts with which they are working, including other students’ responses. It’s essential to teach how to do a close reading/analysis.
Zoom has done a lot for overcoming hurdles because I can see students face-to-face, and they can see me. But I find that the students who have issues are the same students that would have issues with in-seat courses as well, anything from not submitting assignments on time to not meeting the assignment requirements.
BG: In what areas do you see a need for growth in students as they prepare for college level education? How do they seem unprepared? How could they be better prepared?
Sarah: The first week of my English composition class, we work on introductions and conclusions, and so many students struggle with it throughout the whole class. A few students get it and apply it, and this leads to success throughout the whole course.
If middle school and high school teachers could strip back to the basics and just focus on a solid introduction/conclusion with a detailed thesis statement, I would be thrilled. I don’t want fancy writing in my courses; I want extremely organized writing. Of course, if a student knows how to write an effective introduction/conclusion paragraph, then I give them the freedom to get creative, but maybe one student out of every ten to fifteen students knows how to really do that well. Focus on introductions/conclusions, organization, development, and thesis statements.
As we look at the assignments we give and analyze the classroom discussions we facilitate, regardless of our subject matter, it may be time to consider how we can teach in such a way that prepares our students for the kind of work and discussions they may be involved with in their near future, with professors they see in Zoom meeting rooms and fellow students they interact with only online. Stretch their thinking to read closely and pay attention to what writers (both published authors and fellow classmates) are truly saying. Give them freedom to explore new ideas without being tied down to correctness in their writing. As Sarah emphasizes, stress the basics in writing style and organization.
The path that lies ahead of our students may include some aspects that are unfamiliar territory to us, but Sarah Oaklief tells us that here’s something important that we definitely know how to do: we all can help our students learn how to better think, read, analyze, grow, listen, organize, and write.