Teaching Writing in a Remote Classroom: Meeting the Emotional Needs of Students

In the spring of 2020, students the world over, on seemingly a moment’s notice, went from the safety of their brick-and-mortar worlds—worlds that both students and instructors were comfortable navigating—to a new frontier: the remote classroom. The ensuing months have offered little stability and additional turmoil. Students fear for the health and well-being of themselves and loved ones amid a global pandemic; the college landscape has drastically changed; and our country reckons with its racial past and present. It’s in this light that educators enter their virtual classrooms daily, and it has become clear that we teach at a time when our students need emotional support like never before.
For the writing teacher, this knowledge adds another dimension to our new normal. Many instructors never intended to step foot in the virtual classroom, but it’s one we must plan on teaching in, at least occasionally. The virtual classroom is an interesting space: a room with many nooks and crannies, a place full of shadowy corners, and an emotional minefield for students. But these virtual settings also offer opportunities for educators to integrate social-emotional learning strategies into their writing pedagogies.

Changing Relationships With a Letter

During the past six months, the phrase “meeting students where they are” has taken on new importance. Promoting 21st-century skill development remains paramount, yet for those of us who teach writing, the space where skill development intersects with emotional support forms an axis.
A student-writer has always needed to trust their mentor in order to take risks necessary to find and develop an authentic voice and prose style. This hasn’t changed. What has is the gravity of this truism. A (literally) remote relationship will yield a (figuratively) remote one. Given the emotional challenges our students face, the student-teacher relationship has never been so important.
I came to this understanding as a writer myself, having learned the lesson from two book editors with vastly different styles. The first editor I worked with delivered feedback in a right-versus-wrong manner with little to no discussion. I soon morphed into the student writing to please his teacher. My next editor asked questions and made me feel like he was there to support, not just edit. 
At a time when students peer at instructors through a Zoom box, trust can be hard to come by. There are several ways to gain trust and build authentic relationships. First, turn the student-teacher relationship into an author-editor relationship, and allow students to have a say in the feedback you provide. For each essay, I ask students to submit a cover letter detailing what they attempted to do, their perceptions of their draft, and what feedback they’re most interested in receiving. I go through the essay as I otherwise would––using a rubric designed for that particular essay––but the cover letter allows a student to tell me, say, that they wrote three different introductions before settling on the one I read or to let me know they aren’t sure the supporting examples in the third paragraph are effective. We’re no longer simply teacher and student (or writer and grader); now we’re author and editor. The cover letter allows the student to see me as someone in their corner, someone working with them to help them produce their best work. It also gives them a small say in how I assess their work: I spend more time on the parts of the essay to which they’ve directed me. This provides students with autonomy not often yielded in the writing process and encourages self-awareness and metacognition practices.


Cover Letter/Self-Assessment
For each written assignment, unless told otherwise or writing a timed essay, you will be asked to attach a paragraph above your essay (before the title) in which you explain your feelings upon completing the assignment.
This brief (no more than half a page) self-assessment should discuss:
1) what you attempted to accomplish in the work, 2) what you learned from writing it, 3) what challenges you discovered, 4) what areas of your writing where you see improvement over past assignments, 5) what parts of the paper you think still need work, 6) what specific questions you have about the piece that you want feedback on (perhaps what you think are problem areas within the work), and 7) what you might do differently in a revision.

Scheduling One-on-One Conferences

One-on-one meetings with student-writers have proven enormously beneficial in the distance-learning setting. While providing individual feedback, these virtual sessions offer students familiarity. I use the Google calendar appointment feature to schedule these meetings. Students select available time slots, and I see the live schedule.

These meetings build on the social-emotional practices that the cover letter promotes. Students have the time and space to talk––at first, not about their writing––and know they’re being heard. I begin these 10–20-minute sessions with questions such as: How’re you doing? Is everyone in your home healthy? This replicates conversations we might have with a student in the hallway or after class. More importantly, it creates space for the student who wouldn’t stay after class or chat with you in the hallway to talk about their life away from school. It’s a chance to reach a student you might not otherwise reach at a time when all students need emotional support. Not every teacher will connect with every student, but these conferences provide a venue for a connection with every student.
When we get down to the business of writing, the student shares their screen, projects their work, and reads it aloud. My role is that of a listener, offering reactions, asking questions. I’m not marking the paper; my feedback comes in the form of authentic inquiry and reactions: Do we need all those details in the introduction? I’m confused by the conclusion. How do you want me to feel when I read the final sentence? The student leaves with fodder for reenvisioning aspects of their work. More importantly, they leave feeling validated, knowing an adult in their life is concerned with their well-being and homelife; validated, too, as a writer: Their “editor” takes their work seriously and entrusts them to make choices that will improve their writing. All of this, again, promotes the shift from writer-grader to author-editor and supports students emotionally.

Using Voice Comments

Another way we can support our students emotionally when we don’t see them in a physical classroom setting is by letting them hear our voices. I have used many methods to comment on student writing––scribbling handwritten narrative notes, typing formal comments, using speech-to-text apps, even employing audio/video recordings to supplement marginal notations. I ask students which method they prefer. Overwhelmingly, they want to hear my voice. Given all that’s going on in the world around them, their requests to hear my voice makes perfect sense: Similar to conferences, students find comfort in the human interaction offered by a voice comment. Tone means everything to a young writer receiving feedback, and the inflection of your voice transcends the boundaries of the virtual classroom.
Voice comments are easily created by instructors and received by students. Learning management systems, such as Canvas, easily record and embed voice comments into essays, including papers uploaded as PDFs. For those using Google, the Read&Write extension for Chrome allows for one-minute voice notes to be attached throughout a Google document. Other tools, such as Kaizena (a Google extension) and Explain Everything, are also user-friendly and intuitive.
Eventually, the tumultuous emotional and physical landscapes students have navigated in recent months will ease into the next phase. There will be things we can take from this transition period, one of which will be that remote writing teachers need not be remote.
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John R. Corrigan

John R. Corrigan is the director of the writing program and student publications at Northfield Mount Hermon School in Gill, Massachusetts.