Office Hours: Teaching English Virtually with a Newborn (Will Pewitt and Jennie Ziegler)
Updated: Jul 6
Out of necessity, faculty have creatively transformed their classes since the pandemic began. In this series, West End Learning celebrates their efforts and shares best practices, lessons learned, and recommended resources that extend into the future of higher education.
Will Pewitt and Jennie Ziegler (University of North Florida)
University of North Florida English faculty Jennie Ziegler and Will Pewitt were busy taking care of their two-month-old baby when they suddenly had to reimagine their courses to accommodate COVID precautions. They talked with West End Learning about how they worked through their personal and professional challenges. Their quick thinking led to new ways to incorporate community-based learning virtually and foster successful engagement online. Their new teaching methods fared so well that the pair plans to continue expanding them in the non-pandemic future.
Jennie, an Associate Instructor in UNF’s Department of English, discussed the changes she made to her senior seminar literature course, which focuses on reading.
“It implements community-based learning and instructs students, especially English majors, to fall back in love with the active readings,” Jennie noted. “Since we're trying to address reading burnout at this stage, we pair it with a reading outreach program, where we typically would go into a local Title 1 elementary school and mentor reading. Of course, through the pandemic, we were unable to be physically present in the classroom. That took some problem solving.”
Driven to replace her prior in-person mentorships, she quickly secured a partnership with Communities in Schools of Jacksonville just a few weeks before classes started, which opened up several virtual initiatives. Many of Jennie’s students chose to upload videos of themselves reading books for the young students to view. After-school teachers would project the YouTube videos in their classrooms after school. Though not as fun as one-on-one reading with the young students, this was the safest way Jennie’s students could interact with them.
Other students took different approaches to engaging with young readers, through creative methods like setting up a book matrix (which provides middle school readers with recommendations for new books, based on what they’ve already read and enjoyed) or erecting a little free library in an area of town that didn’t have one before.
Engaging Students Remotely
While Jennie provided instruction for upper-level literature students, Will sought to engage first-year students. Will, who taught World Literature, Western Literature, and Intro to College Writing, realized he’d need to do more than fashion a “digital replica of what they do in the classroom. And I think, as most of us have learned, it's just not that simple. The dynamic is different, the experience of the space is different, the attention spans are different.”
Used to in-person discussion-based courses, Will was skeptical of how students might engage virtually. “I kind of assumed anything that we do online is going to be flat, or it's going to have less substance to it.” He recorded lectures, which was a first for him, so that students could review them before they met for synchronous class discussions. Lectures allowed him to walk the students through the text’s meaning and his notes about what each author was conveying. However, to make this happen, he had to find the time when the baby was quiet. “I was getting up at about 3 a.m.,” Will admitted.
Will began with short, scripted lectures relying on image, video, and his own background in fiction writing in hopes of enhancing student engagement. Will said, “I was pleasantly surprised that putting the lectures first in this version of a ‘flipped classroom’ enabled the subsequent essays, class conservations, and discussion posts to become much more nuanced and multidimensional than in previous years.”
Though these—and other—approaches were created out of necessity, both Jennie and Will plan to keep the techniques and partnerships that have made the biggest positive impact when they teach future classes.
So how did they make it work? “It was just playing basically hot potato with the baby,” Jennie said. They also juggled a dog that barks at the mailman and, according to Will, “snores incredibly loud,” while they lead class discussions over Zoom. “It was just a survival mode year,” Jennie said, “It took a lot of communication and a lot of strict planning.”
They both credit UNF for supporting faculty through the challenges of the past fourteen months. “We felt very lucky with our university,” Jennie said. “The administration as well as other faculty were very understanding, very flexible working with people throughout the pandemic… to support our students, to support our classes, to support the work-life balance that was completely obliterated when work infiltrated our homes.”
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