from the May/June
issue of The Horn Book Magazine
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By GraceAnne A. DeCandido
A Particular Intensity:
What does it mean, to teach?
To educate has all those wonderful Latin echoes and
overtones: educare, to bring up, to lead out. For me,
the basic action of teaching is to put ideas in students
heads that werent there before. If it is a good class,
they put ideas in my head that werent there before, either.
So I love teaching: its physicality, the personal back and forth,
the release of performance. Whatever else it is, teaching is
performance. The classroom, of course, by its physical dimensions
and presence, plays to the performance metaphor. So what does
it mean to teach online? How can one possibly match, or translate,
the teaching experience to an online environment?
In the autumn of 2000 and the spring
of 2001, I taught two courses for the Rutgers School of Communication,
Information and Library Studies Professional Development Studies.
These were courses for a fifteen-credit certificate in Youth
Literature and Technology, although not all of my students signed
on for the certificate. Using the software program eCollege,
the course indeed the program is conducted entirely
online. It is asynchronous, meaning that students never had to
be online at a particular time in the working of the class.
I envisioned the course as a journey.
I knew where I wanted it to go, and each of the books we did,
and the order that we studied them in, took us there. Of course,
the highways and byways we explored on the way were sometimes
very different from what I expected, but that was all right,
too. I taught Female Voices in Historical Narratives
and Writing a Life: Biographies and Personal Narratives,
both classes in childrens literature. The URLs for these
courses (listed at the end of the article)
offer a course description and the book list, accessible to anyone
on the World Wide Web. The courseware itself is available only
to those who register for a class, and then archived by eCollege.
Most of my students were school librarians
and teachers. Virtually all of them had very complicated lives.
Many of them had small children or aged parents to care for;
some had both. Several students were dealing with chronic illnesses,
their own or family members. Nearly all of them found conventional
classes logistically too difficult. In spite of this, perhaps
because of it, they were an unusually committed and devoted group.
There are as many ways of teaching as
there are teachers, but I am one of the kind who writes out lectures
beforehand. I tend to share outlines of those with students,
and after the initial presentation I like a lot of interaction.
I want them to talk to me, and to listen when I respond. I want
them to learn from one another. I sought ways of defining and
extending that kind of interaction online.
The single hardest thing about teaching
online was creating the entire course in my mind from beginning
to end and then producing it, whole and entire, before classes
even began, for the online environment. In online teaching, at
least at Rutgers, that is required, both by the structure of
the software and for the sake of the students, who, because they
are disembodied, as it were, from the classroom, need to see
the whole arc of the course upfront.
Although eCollege has options for audio,
video, and other nifty tools, my courses were pretty much completely
text-based. Partly I stayed with text because thats where
I was most comfortable. In addition, I soon learned that many
of my students were using elderly and cranky hardware, and too
many bells and whistles tended to crash their systems.
Make a leap with me, if you will, into
the online environment. Among the online spaces in eCollege are
places for essays, threaded discussion, chat,
and webliography. Heres how it worked. Each
unit, which generally lasted a week, began with an essay that
I wrote, akin to the opening class lecture, about the books we
would read and study in that unit. The essay was followed by
several leading questions I posed. The student responses to these
questions appeared in what eCollege calls threaded discussion.
To anyone who has participated in an online bulletin board, this
format would look familiar. Comments with the students
name and the date of posting follow one another as posted but
can be sorted by date, by student, and by response. Now eCollege
has added a mechanism to sort comments by read or unread, a great
boon in some of the longer discussions. (They were all longer
discussions, as it turned out.)
Students were graded on the thoughtfulness
and clarity of their responses to me and to their classmates.
They also each had a project to do based on the coursework that
had to be in a format that could be shared: an online bibliography,
or booktalk, for example. Some would post many short responses;
others preferred to write two or three longer pieces each unit
and post them instead. Students had access to all of the discussions
throughout the course, so they could go back to units we had
finished if they desired.
Besides discussions, we e-mailed each
other almost daily. Sometimes students e-mailed specific questions
to me, and my answers would often clarify things for the whole
class. Students also had the option of e-mailing me privately
with queries. Another online space available to us contained
individual student journals, to which only the individual student
and I had access, for private exchange.
The readings for each class consisted
of the assigned books (titles are listed on the Rutgers site)
and related websites with information about the book or the author,
commentary or book reviews, or lesson plans. Those websites appeared
in a webliography, another online space provided
by eCollege. Students could add and annotate other related sites
Once a week, I held chat.
Chat was always optional under the guidelines of the program,
everything had to be asynchronous, so I could not require students
to be in one place at one time. Chat is a live, real-time, online
discussion, where participants type in what they have to say.
Their comments appear to all who are signed into the chat. Many
students came to most chats, and I set up a few extra sessions
for students who couldnt be there at what became our usual
Thursday night times. Students who were not present (or those
who were) could read the log of the chat when it was over, complete
with typos and emoticons. Since chat was not required, we often
talked about work, and other things we were reading, as well
as class assignments. It gave a chance for personalities to reveal
themselves, and for us to sit around in our jammies and talk
to one another about books.
In a traditional classroom, students
get to know one another in a series of chance encounters: choosing
desks, getting coats or soft drinks, chatting before and after
class. In an online class, those encounters have to be created.
The first unit of each class I taught was called About
the course, about our community. Each student posted a
paragraph or two of autobiography, and I asked what I hoped were
leading and open-ended questions, such as Whats the
first thing you tell people about yourself when you meet them?
This gave students a full unit to become familiar with the software
and comfortable with the process of online reading, response,
and threaded discussion. The overriding spirit of the first course
I taught, Female Voices in Historical Narratives,
was definitely Old Tallow, the character who rescues the infant
Omakayas in Louise Erdrichs The Birchbark House.
We read The Birchbark House in the same unit as Laura
Ingalls Wilders Little House in the Big Woods, so
we could examine the contrasts between them. Tallow was a woman
alone: she threw out three husbands, took on male tasks, and
held herself separate. She is also crucial not only to the action
of the story but to its passion. Tallows crossing of gender
lines and her knotty character made us look at Jane Sharp in
The Midwifes Apprentice in a different way. She
echoed in our heads as we read about Queen Delilah in The
Pirates Son. One student wrote a brilliant analysis
of the parallels between Joan of Arc and Old Tallow, down to
each of them having a many-splendored coat. The arc of the class
discussion was very specific, because students could easily quote
one anothers comments from previous units, and build on
connections thus made. It made for extremely concrete links in
a way that live classroom discussion cannot duplicate.
Even now, months after my last class,
I remain touched by the intensity of it all. In a physical classroom,
you almost never get to know the quotidian details of students
lives the way I did in my online classes. I knew whose computer
resided in the room of a chronically ill parent, so that student
was never online late at night. I knew who only had access at
school, and who only did class work in the wee hours of the morning
when her family was asleep. And yes, I could monitor how much
time students spent online in class. That was not always an indication
of how hard they were working after all, much of the class
was reading and writing offline but it often corresponded
to the quality of what was being said.
I am Jesuit-taught, Jesuit-trained (Fordham
University). I long to tackle Big Questions, because I see them
everywhere. Childrens literature is an excellent ground
for that search, for the stories we tell to children are the
very ground of philosophy and culture. In Female Voices
the heart of the course was an examination of picture books about
Joan of Arc, so we could wrestle with heroism, sanctity, womanhood.
We tackled the question of historical truth with gusto, and just
whose historical truth. I placed as a mantra before my
students, Not all of it happened, but all of it was true.
In Writing a Life we studied the shaping of a life
into a story, sometimes, as in picture books, with great economy
In a physical classroom, you can feel
the electricity when such queries are raised. You can take note
of body language and tone of voice. You can see who speaks right
up, and who is silent. In an online course, there is simply no
room for silence. The only way you know if students are participating
is by what they write: attentive looks and thoughtful posture
counts for naught.
Its a struggle to find ways to
describe, to someone who wasnt there, the particular intensity
of an online literature course. It was as if we had our fingers
on each others pulses, all the time. I could log in to
class at any hour of the day or night and find new comments,
new questions, and different responses to what we were reading.
I cherish that experience, and I look forward eagerly to teaching
One illuminating vignette about the
power of teaching online comes from my colleague at Rutgers,
Michael Joseph (also the list-owner of the child_lit online discussion
group). Michael, a veteran of online teaching, began his course
In Search of Cupid and Psyche, an intensive study
of myth and legend in childrens literature, on September
10. When the class began to fragment in the wake of September
11, Michael took a brilliant and kick-ass path to re-imagining
the course. He created a motorcycle gang of his online class,
called them the Metaflaws, and encouraged each class member to
choose a name from mythos for themselves. This virtual space,
and virtual identity, allowed the students to find a channel
for their grief and fear in role-playing that could simply not
have happened in a conventional classroom. In a traditional classroom,
it is much harder to create a persona that is separate from the
way you look, or act. Online, you are freer to reinvent yourself
in just the kind of way Michael offered.
A great gift of online teaching is the
chance it gives to those of a more retiring nature to reflect
on their answers and then post them. I did, finally, when classes
were over, get the chance to meet many of my students in person.
I was astonished to find that one of my strongest and most direct
student voices was extremely soft-spoken and gentle in person.
Another rather tentative (at first) online student turned out
to be a mover and shaker in her own school community, inspired
at least in part by her online classes.
This absolute emphasis upon the Word
if you wanted to be heard, you had to write it down and
send it forth for all to see is what transmutes the virtual,
paperless environment into one where books are the center. I
was teaching about books: this was not a course in multimedia.
What kept us focused in the disembodied cyberspace we inhabited
was those books. We all read the same ones, we all faced the
same questions, we all heard one anothers answers. We read
together and then we talked about it, applying our ideas to classroom
situations, to library booktalks, to the work of our days.
Female Voices in Historical Narratives
Writing a Life: Biographies and Personal Narratives
GraceAnne A. DeCandido (whose e-mail
address is email@example.com) is a writer, editor, teacher, and
library consultant in New York City.
Return to GraceAnne's home page.