Two thoughts on visuals for online teaching

You don’t need a live video feed to teach online.

Live video might actually hinder students’ learning by giving them too many things to look at. Visuals for online learning must give students some place to focus their attention during an oral presentation and reinforce the message of that presentation. You don’t want students wondering whether they should focus on the presenter, the whiteboard on which the presenter writing, the notes they were told to download before the presentation, or the fly on the presenter’s head.

Visuals for online teaching should teach.

If what you’re teaching lends itself to graphic images, that’s fine. Use them. But if what you’re teaching doesn’t lend itself to images, use the computer screen as the equivalent of the classroom white board or overhead projector.

The best visuals are mnemonic devices underscoring the lesson’s main takeaway. They don’t need to be works of art. They need only to communicate a message clearly. There’s nothing wrong with using text instead of images providing you limit the amount of content students must read at one time. Display text should reinforce your teaching, not be your teaching.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

I’m thankful I learned something

Since yesterday was Thanksgiving, I’ve been thinking about what teachers and students have to be thankful for in 2020, which has been a bummer by just about every standard you could think of. At the risk of sounding like a Pollyanna, I’m going to suggest that between now and Christmas, teachers ask students  to identify something they’re glad they learned this fall in their classes. What students learned may have little to do with the course content, but a great deal to do with students’ attitudes toward learning in general and academic learning in particular.

Let me tell you a story.

Although I was a psychology major as an undergraduate, the class in which I learned most about psychology wasn’t a course in psychology. It was a course in algebra. The professor had chosen a newly published program-instruction text in which we were to learn bit by bit how to do algebraic calculations.

I worked hard and got a C on the first test. Unsatisfied with a C, I  got tutoring from my roommate, a chemistry major, and from the math major down the hall.

I got a D on the second test.

I redoubled my effort. My roommate and the math major helped. The professor gave me additional help.

I failed the final exam.

Programmed instruction isn’t how I learn best. I’m someone who learns best when I start out knowing what I’m supposed to learn and why that knowledge is important. What I got in the algebra course was procedures without any context about what they were used for.

That algebra course was undoubtedly the most significant academic course I’ve ever taken. It taught me the importance of initially teaching students a subject using methods that fit the way they learn best. After college when I was hired to write instructional materials, I understood the importance of making sure that I provided both the big picture for learners like myself and step-by-step instruction for learners like the others in my algebra class who got the big picture by assembling the fragments.

What’s the story got to do with you?

This fall you may have some students in your classes who stumbled through distance learning the way I blundered through algebra. You can’t undo the unhappiness that students may have experienced because of the unfamiliar and, for some, unsuitable technology. You can, however, ask students to identify something they learned about themselves, and particularly about how they learn, that will be useful to them in the future.

I suggest you have students write about what they learned in 2020 about how they learn best. Ask them to reflect on how well their learning strengths and weaknesses fit the technologies they were required to use for classes. And, most importantly, ask them to identify one way they can turn what they learned—even if they hated every minute of their learning time—to their benefit in the future.

You, dear teacher, might benefit from doing the same writing assignment as your students.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Teaching writing online: Three practices that work

If you’ve been required to become an online writing teacher during the Covid pandemic, the difficulty of teaching students to write in an online class may have driven you to the point of despair.

I know that feeling all too well.

In recent years, I’ve typically been expected to provide an entire writing course online to employed adults in eight weeks. A writing course should provide a minimum of 100 hours of actual writing practice to get students to the point at which all that’s required for them to continue improving their writing skills is more practice. It is clearly impossible for me to give my students that amount of writing practice within an eight week period: They would need nearly two hours of free time a day to accomplish it.

In order to get anywhere near the minimum amount of practice, I’ve developed unorthodox procedures to eliminate any activities that are not absolutely necessary and give students as many hours of actual writing practice as I can possibly cram into eight weeks. The process is flexible, easy-to-learn, and it works for all kinds of expository nonfiction writing: It’s the process I’ve used for newspaper reporting, magazine articles, nonfiction books and what is politely called ephemera. (You may refer to ephemera as junk mail, but you won’t sound nearly as well-educated.)

You can reduce the stress of online teaching by adopting three of my practices. They’re equally applicable to teaching students grades seven through 12 as they are to teaching college students.

Here are three strategies that enable me to give students a maximum of writing experience in a minimum amount of time.

1. Don’t use traditional textbooks.

Icon represents textbooks
Teach writing without textbooks.

In lieu of a textbook, I have a list of eight writing strategies for expository writers. My list condenses what students must learn to do into eight imperative sentences, none longer than five words.

By learn, I mean not only that students memorize the 34-words list, but that they also are able to apply the concepts and skills inherent in those strategies to different expository writing situations. In some writing situations students encounter, they won’t be able to apply the strategies in their pure form, so they must understand the objectives of the strategies well enough to be able to accomplish them via some non-standard method.

If you’ve seen old films about World War II, you may recall situations in which the good guys in a risky situation have to devise a new way of achieving an objective. Soldiers might have needed to blow up a bridge, but they couldn’t accomplish that objective in the way they’d practiced, so they had to improvise to make use of resources at hand. A similar ability to improvise to achieve a writing objective when the actual writing situation is different from the “typical writing situation” is what I mean when I say students know the eight strategies.

2. Limit learners to prompts you assign.

one-way sign
Limit students to your choice of prompts.

I don’t allow a great deal of learner choice in the way you probably would define the term. All my writing assignments require expository nonfiction writing on communications-related topics. That’s how I give students authentic “English class” topics and still provide a way for them to bring in their out-of-class experiences. 

One of the writing prompts in my PenPrompts collection Ready, Set, Write for not-yet-competent writers is this:

“In an I/E text, discuss 2 to 5 words used to change public perception of some topic, issue, or product in each of three fields of human endeavor.”

Word choices are definitely an English class topic. My writing prompt allows students to draw on both their in-school and their out-of-school knowledge to identify fields in which the choice of terms affects public perception. This year, politics would probably be on most students’ lists. Other fields where word choices matter include such different fields as sales and marketing, education, science, law, economics, real estate, and teaching.

3. Provide everything writers need in one place.

a double-sided sheet of paper
Put all students need in one place.

All the formal writing prompts I assign to students I embed  in a self-contained writing lesson that’s rarely longer than both sides of a single sheet of paper. In lieu of having students look things up in textbooks, each lesson gives students all the information they need to get started on the assignment. For not-yet-competent writers that includes a working thesis that responds to the prompt and a writing skeleton™ so they can quickly “prime their brains” to notice information that may be relevant to their assignment. As they do each assignment, that writing prompt’s lesson drags them through a single  problem-solving process that is repeated in greater or lesser detail in each writing prompt’s lesson material.

A few final words.

I’ve been fortunate so far in being provided with learning management systems to use in teaching writing online rather being required to use a business presentation technology. My students and I have communicated entirely in writing, so every student-teacher interaction reinforced the need to communicate clearly in writing. If you are stuck with Zoom or some other program developed for oral presentations rather than for online teaching and learning, you will have much more difficulty teaching writing online and students will have much more difficulty learning to write in the online environment. I wish that were not the case, but that’s reality.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Teaching in a pandemic: A public service message

Learners do not need to see you in person or even in live video in order to learn long division, the causes of the American Revolution, or subject-verb agreement.

You may want to have face-to-face interactions with students, but it’s not necessary for you to have face-to-face interactions with students in order for you to teach or for them to learn.

Seeing you may even distract students from attending to what you are teaching.

Students forced to become distance learners must have teachers who can distinguish between what’s essential to teach and what’s not essential to teach. Students must have teachers who choose to focus on essentials—even if teacher and students can’t see each other.

Yes, it’s possible that not being able to see you will make students feel less connected to you, less connected to school.

But just because students feel connected to you doesn’t mean the students learn any faster or learn more thoroughly.  Being deeply connected to your students doesn’t make you a better teacher.

Frankly, any persons over 24 whose lives are shattered if they don’t spend face time with 7-year-olds five days a week has a serious problem that discovery of a Covid-19 vaccine will not cure.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Success in an unstable world

A writing prompt for students in 2020

I usually start an online writing class by having students introduce themselves as writers. I’m debating whether current events call for posing a different question this fall that recognizes students’ anxieties are about more than whether their bad grammar will make them fail first semester English.

Introduction to the proposed prompt

You are enrolled in an academic program at a time when much in our world seems unstable and unpredictable.

What tools have you developed thus in your academic program that will help you succeed in life? Are those the tools that are in demand in a stable world, or are they tools that will enable you to face an unstable, unpredictable world? If the world into which you’re entering is unstable and unpredictable, how can you prepare for it? How do you know what tools you’ll need?

The writing prompt itself

Write an informative/explanatory text of no more than 650 words in which you explain how well you personally are prepared to function as an independent adult in the world that’s before you. In your text:

  • Identify the information source(s) from which you deduced the tools that are needed in an unstable, unpredictable world.
  • Describe two, three, or four specific skills or knowledge you possess that either will or will not equip you to take up an adult role in this unstable, unpredictable world.
  • Tell readers either how you came by those skills and/or knowledge or why you didn’t acquire them already.

Comments? Suggestions?

I’ll have to give this some more thought. Many of my great ideas turn out to be duds. If you have any insights, please put them in the contact form.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Feedback is central to online teaching

I’ve been teaching online courses for more than 30 years. In that time, I’ve taken dozens of training programs about how to teach online. The one thing I can’t recall anyone ever talking about in one of those trainings is how much time giving feedback in an online classroom takes.

I’ve been fortunate (although I didn’t feel fortunate at the time) to teach 3-credit college writing classes in half the length of the same course in a physical classroom. I prepared with the knowledge that, in order to give students enough time to do a semester’s worth of writing, I had to eliminate more than half the material I typically presented in a semester.

As a general rule, you can’t see students in an online classroom, at least not well enough to tell whether they are getting what you’re presenting or not. I’ve been fortunate to teach primarily asynchronous classes in which instruction was delivered in writing, students learned at their convenience, and I delivered feedback in writing at my convenience. All that writing took time, but it didn’t feel pressured.

By contrast, a synchronous classroom requires you to “teach” less, dropping the presentation of non-essentials entirely, because unless you strip the curriculum to essentials you won’t have time to receive and give feedback as you deliver information orally. It is feedback that teaches, not presentations. Feedback makes learning personal. It also puts a lot of pressure on teachers.

Recently, I’ve participated in some training sessions for online teachers given by Russell Stannard of TeacherTrainingVideos.com. Russell is a marvelous teacher. He has great information, logically arranged, and well-presented. He also understands that presenting is really the smallest past of online teaching. During one training, Russell spent over an hour on material that participants probably have read in ten minutes if it had been written. He worked at getting feedback from participants and  delivering feedback to them so that everyone finished the session able to do what Russell said he was going to teach us to do..

If you are going to have to teach online in the future—and you probably need to be prepared to do just that—you must develop mechanisms for getting feedback so you aren’t teaching blind. And you must prepare to devote a great amount of time to getting and giving feedback. Just because you’re live on screen doesn’t make you an entertainer. Feedback is what distinguishes teachers from performers.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

Zilliacky shows how to teach online

Teaching online requires teachers to focus on the essentials: There isn’t enough time for “nice to know.” This quirky set of procedures gives you a basic set of procedures for preparing for online teaching.


Take any principle, rule, concept, definition, etc. in your curriculum that students absolutely, positively must know well enough to apply unassisted. Substitute that topic for the word zilliacky in these directions.

Define your job.

Your job is to:

  • Teach the essential skills and information so that students can do zilliacky,
  • Craft appropriate activities so that students without your help can actually learn to do zilliacky.
  • Verify that all students actually can do zilliacky.

NB: You must do all three to earn your paycheck.

Prepare to do your job.

1. Your fellow teachers all teach astocum before teaching zilliacky. Does a student have to know astocum in order to do zilliacky?

If the answer is no, then astrocum is not worth teaching. That doesn’t mean astocum isn’t worth learning. It simply means astrocum is not something you must teach before students can learn to do zilliacky. You might need to remind students of what they know about astrocum or direct them to information about astrocum, but those activities are different from teaching astrocum.

2 . Some teachers also teach domical and gergrundium before teaching zilliacky.

Does a student have to know domical in order to do zilliacky?
If the answer is no, then domical is not worth teaching.

Does a student have to know gergrundium in order to do zilliacky?
If the answer is no, then gergrundium is not worth teaching.

3. Based on the answers to questions 2 and 3, decide what essential skills and information you must teach before students can do zilliacky.

4. Based on the answers to questions 2 and 3, create activities that allow students to do zilliacky.


OK, teaching online may be just a tad more difficult than I’ve made it out to be, but the basic, must-do activities are just about this simple. You strip away all the non-essentials and then you teach what’s left.

©2020 Linda Aragoni

Curse the curse of knowledge

Affinity Publisher Screenshot
LEARN is a prominent option in the black ribbon above the graphic.

The “curse of knowledge” is that once you know how to do something you can’t imagine not being able to do that action or activity. Teachers are particularly susceptible to the curse, and their students suffer as a result.

I’ve been experiencing the effects of the curse of knowledge as I began to learn to use the  Affinity Publisher program developed by Serif, which was, quite by coincidence, as the Covid-19 epidemic roared into New York State. Serif has a variety of aids to available to learners, including written materials and videos in which graphic specialists show and tell what to do.

I do not learn well from videos: There are far too many distracting elements,  I often can’t visually isolate what it is I’m supposed to see unless an audio track describes the appearance of what I’m to look for, and presenters often obscure or cover the vital element. After watching a video clip, I have to, for example, click on all the elements in the upper left corner of my screen to see if I can figure out which of them the presenter clicked.

To work around my video handicap, I began by using Affinity Publisher’s written instructional materials. For realistic practice, I’m using the manuscript of second edition of my Writing Teacher’s ABCs, which I have to have to the printer in June.

I was able to build page templates and use them to make pages into which to put my content, but the process wasn’t easy or intuitive. Tools had different names than I was accustomed to seeing in other page layout programs I’ve used. And there didn’t seem to be any logic to how tools were grouped:  I kept finding the graphic equivalents of ladies’ hats in the underwear drawer.

I’d click a dozen times on the arrowhead  icon to flow text from one block to another and nothing would happen except that I’d  cause the program to hang up and have to close it, reopen it, and recover the text.  I discovered quite by accident after I’d built more than 170 pages of my book that to flow text between blocks the cursor must be within the link “from” text block before you click the arrowhead icon.

The problems I’m having learning to use Publisher aren’t happening because the graphic specialists don’t know their jobs, but because they know them too well. They’re victims of the curse of knowledge. They no longer recall what they needed to know before they could do anything, let alone learn the fancy stuff.

Unless the pandemic magically disappears, we teachers are going to be doing a lot more online teaching where we have manifold opportunities for displaying the curse of knowledge. It’s vital that we make sure we aren’t assuming students (and/or their parents) know more than they actually know. You probably have relatively few opportunities to get feedback from your students or their parents now, so you really have to double-down on scrutinizing what you plan to present and ask yourself whether you are assuming students know some prerequisite information or skill that they may never have acquired.

It won’t be easy to get through the rest of this school year, but if all the pandemic does is teach you to avoid the curse of knowledge, it might just be the best learning experience you ever had.

©2020 Linda Aragoni

Linda taught me how to learn

lecturer speaks to class
Teachers are people who devote their lives to working themselves out of a job.

Last week in this space, I told you that the one thing you must do when in online learning classes is to teach your students how to learn your subject. Today I’d like to tell you a story about how I came to that conclusion.

It was due to a student in a first year college writing class I taught a few years ago. The course was an eight-week, online, asynchronous course conducted entirely in writing. I was supposed to turn the students out with a semester’s worth of writing skill.

My typical writing classes were 75 to 80% male (women tended to drop out when they saw my first published book was about installing steam turbines) and usually every hour of the day some of the students were at their jobs. By some fluke, each of the students in this particular class was employed full-time, each worked days, and each was a woman.

Because the students were able to be online evenings, I made a point of being available in the “course room” evenings. The format became much like a seminar, with students interacting with one another and with me through written messages. Many evenings there would be a half dozen student and myself on line discussing their work.

One of the women, who I’ll call Alice (I’ve forgotten her name), was bright and hard-working, but she had a mediocre high school English program to overcome. All the other women liked Alice.  To encourage her, they sat for many hours when I’m sure they had other things they could have been doing while I explained to Alice what she didn’t get in high school.

Alice really struggled, but she earned the B she needed for her employer to pick up part of the tab for her course.

The last night of the class, the women were saying their farewells and talking about what courses they would be taking next. Alice posted a note saying that she wished she could the writing course over again. She hastily added, “I can’t believe I just wrote that. This course was so hard for me, and I had to work so hard, but when I started, I did not know how to learn. Linda taught me how to learn. Now that I know how to learn, I could really benefit from taking the course again.”

I consider that student one of my greatest success stories. She no longer needed me. Learning how to learn enabled her take charge of her education. She could learn what she wanted, when she wanted, whether she had a teacher or not.

The reason I teach is that I want students to be able to learn without me.

What’s your reason for teaching?

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni

 

The key to successful online teaching

If you’re an online teacher, you probably were forced into online teaching. That’s how many people get into distance learning: There’s a need, you’re here, you start tomorrow.

That’s basically how I got started teaching at a distance about 30 years ago. I’ll tell you about that another day.

Today, I’d like to tell you the one thing you absolutely must do when you teach online. teacher presenting to class

You must teach your students how to learn your subject.

Please read that last sentence again slowly. This concept is critically important.

Teaching students how to learn your subject is different than teaching them your subject matter. Online classrooms aren’t good places for delivering the drill necessary to get most students to do well on bubble tests. (Offline classrooms aren’t either, but they have the advantage of more time for drill.)

In online settings, your live presentations (or your prepared and posted ones if you’re teaching an asynchronous course) must focus students’ attention on how to go about learning what they must learn.

Even in classroom settings, you cannot expect your presentations to teach everything students must learn. Online teaching requires even more selectivity. Your distance learning presentations must focus on teaching the terms, facts, patterns, and strategies that are required for learning your subject. Most of students’ learning will need to occur after your presentations.

All subjects aren’t learned the same way. Students don’t learn algebra the way they learn history.  So, in addition to teaching that relatively small core of essential terms, facts, patterns, and strategies, you must craft appropriate activities that enable  students to learn to apply those patterns and strategies on their own after your presentation.

If you are an elementary or middle school teacher thrown into online teaching during this pandemic, you have two sets of students instead of one. You have your pupils, of course, but you also have those pupils’ parents. You should try to

  • put the essential terms, facts, patterns, and strategies where parents can access them and
  • make your follow-up activities parent-friendly.

Giving third graders assignments that mom and dad can’t do won’t win you friends at the PTA.

©2020 Linda G. Aragoni