Working Alone Together: Joint Construction in the “Hybrid” Writing Classroom

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

My school has adopted a “hybrid” mode of teaching since the summer semester last academic year. I know there are competing definitions for “hybrid” and “blended” learning, but to us, “hybrid” simply means a blend of online/face-to-face classroom.

Technology-wise, managing devices and chatrooms is not very difficult. During meetings with colleagues, I shared practices of using the desktop for teaching, and the mobile device would be for monitoring the chatroom, as well as doing markups on the screen (functions available on Zoom and PowerPoint), so that I can walk away from the lectern and speak in front of my students.

What’s troubling me is classroom management and student motivation. Maybe I aren’t thinking out of the box, but in general a perception goes: academic writing/grammar is boring to non-language majors. A reviewer visited my class a while ago, and reminded me to be “learner-centred” and “outcome-based” — what we’ve been embracing in tertiary education anyway — in order to engage students in a variety of tasks to maximise their learning experience.

And so I did — based on what I intend to teach, and to have them take away, I designed some writing activities for them to do together with me. Technically this is called “joint construction”, following the Sydney School genre-based approach. I laid down some ground work in the previous lesson, such as introducing the kind of text we are to write, and explaining the language resources for writing that text. The joint construction is just like a short writing sesh with a teacher before moving on to finishing that writing task by themselves.

The wishful thinking I had was that they could use the model to form the body paragraphs of an argument essay.

Just that it didn’t quite work in my hybrid classroom setting. To be fair, let me reflect on what I didn’t do well first.

I didn’t give them enough time before the class to digest the materials. I have a 2-page data file with text extracts for the students to use in the writing activity. Having to explain one text after another ate up much class time. I should also have let them prepare before the class by writing a few points based on the materials, so that they don’t have to churn up something on the spot. So it seems that a “flipped” approach would work better for daunting in-class tasks: covering the essential information through video-recording the materials, to prepare them for open-ended tasks in the class.

I still find the need for pointing out some students’ issues — it’s bilateral. I think the core problem is how they actually consider the writing subject in relation to their discipline subjects influences their motivations and attitudes. I do have keen and engaged students, but again, as a college teacher in his sophomore year, I would wish everybody would care. I guess I’m not the only one who thinks like that?

It’s not difficult to find students, who are behind their laptops, working on other projects or assignments when I ask them to take part. On the other side of the classroom, i.e. Zoom, almost no one would even type anything except for saying “hello” and “thank you bye”, let alone having them to speak through their mics. Who would really try to “save” me from the awkward silence are the brighter students, but at the same time I don’t want them to keep answering my questions. If the class don’t intend to engage, there’s no way they can move forward, however enthusiastic, lively and passionate I am in the classroom.

Of course, you would wonder if I or (and) the content is boring. Given the many technologies we can use… the breakout rooms, YouTube videos, PollEverywhere, you name it… we do try helping them apply what they’ve learnt.

Did I tell you no-one spoke at all as I tried to put a class in breakout rooms and tried moderating their discussions?

Did I tell you nearly no-one tried the Google Doc writing task when I was there, trying to help them prepare for an upcoming assignment?

Oftentimes, their interests just reduce to joining Socrative MC quizzes or quick PollEverywhere surveys. What about answering a longer question? Not for me. What about speaking up in the class? “I don’t know the answer.” What about encouraging them to type? *lonely blinking cursor in the void*

Finally, it turned out that I only got one topic sentence from the class, and I had to finish the paragraph myself. As they didn’t try it out with me, they would have to try the individual writing exercise on their own (unless they ask for my advice or until the answer key is up).

It’s nice to know joint construction may not work in an undergraduate lecture hall with students who are present both physically and virtually, at least in my case. But there’s such a gap between all the monologues explaining the language skills and the individual writing assignments.

I’m yet to know what to put in between to support them. But for now, I’m gonna prep for next week, and binge in the weekend.

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