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Bring Your Pet to Class Day

By Steve Wilhoit

The students’ move off campus after Thanksgiving, along with their return to online-only class sessions, posed some challenges for the way I was teaching the concluding unit of English 198, Honors Writing Seminar. This is the project the students were working on: Find three images that captured particular goals you’ve established for your life, explain how each image is personally significant to you, and identify concrete steps you can take to make each vision a reality.

To the extent possible, I run English 198 as a writing workshop. Over the whole semester, students read and respond to their peers’ work throughout the composing process. I’d been teaching a blended form of the course in the fall, meeting with half of students in the classroom on Mondays, with the other half on Wednesdays, and with all the students online on Fridays. Most of the workshopping in the course took place on Mondays and Wednesdays when the students were meeting face-to-face.

Though I experimented a bit, I never did find an effective way to conduct workshopping online (though I know others at UD found methods that worked for them and their students). However, given the move off campus, for this last assignment in the course, I now needed to incorporate peer response and collaborative writing as best I could in an online setting.

I’d planned for the students to have an informal outline of their project due a week before they turned in final draft of their essay. The students were to have identified the images they planned to use and written a summary of what they planned to say about each one in their essay.

Normally, this exercise would take place in class with the students working face-to-face in pairs or small groups to share their plans with their peers. Based on past experience, I knew that workshopping this final essay could be a challenge for some students; I was asking the students to share very personal information about themselves. The life goals they write usually include careers they’d like to pursue, but also frequently touch on the kind of life styles they hope to embrace, the kinds of people they hope to become, past mistakes they hope to overcome, wrongs they hope to right. For the outline exercise to work, the students need to know and trust their peers enough to share; the peers need to be engaged enough in the exercise to provide genuine responses to the writer’s ideas and ask questions they think the writer should address in the final essay.

I was not sure how to promote that trust and ensure that engagement when the students were now sharing their work with all of their peers—not just the ones they had been working with in class—in an online setting rather than face-to-face.

On my syllabus, I was working with these due dates for the project:

December 4—Friday—Outline ready to share with peers
December 9—Wednesday—Rough draft ready to workshop
December 11—Friday—Final draft ready to turn in

Fortunately, during class on the Monday before the outline was due, purely by chance I figured out how I might structure class on the 4th to achieve the goals I wanted. As we were talking about the assignment during our Zoom session, one of the students’ dogs jumped up on her lap. The student was apologetic, but everyone was laughing and smiling and wanted to know more about her pet. When I saw that response, I asked the students if they would be interested in making Friday the first official “bring your pet to class day” in English 198. The idea was a hit.

That Friday when we gathered on Zoom, I began class by inviting students to bring their pets on camera and tell their stories: who is it, how they came to be a part of the family, how long they’ve been in the family, what kind of personality they have, what’s quirky about them, what they love to do—that kind of information. If the other students had questions, they could ask. About half of the students in class shared pets, and it was clear everyone was fully engaged, relaxed, and having a good time.

I then segued into reviewing the outlines the students had prepared for their upcoming essays, hoping the engagement and spirit of sharing generated by talking about their pets would carry over into the back half of the class session. It did. As the students shared the images they’d collected and the plans for their final essay with their peers, the mood stayed relaxed, informal, and collaborative.

For this outline exercise to work, the students needed to feel comfortable talking about themselves and the vision they had for their future lives. The supportive community of writers I’d tried to foster in the classroom had to be transported to Zoom. Happily, bring your pet to class day set just the right tone for the day and helped make the exercise a success.

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