When our team of five instructors learned that the University of Pennsylvania would shut down due to coronavirus, the only reasonable option was to keep going. We would continue our preparations for the Summer Workshop for Young Writers, but it would take place on Zoom, and not at the charming, Victorian oasis of Penn’s Kelly Writers House. Technical difficulties aside, the transition to online learning doesn’t begin and end with slight tweaks to a syllabus. For creative writing programs like ours, what happens outside of class is just as important as what happens in it. Could a group of young writers build a supportive community over just ten days if they weren’t staying up late in the dorms and sharing meals in the dining hall?
On a July morning, I watch as twenty-five young writers from around the country crop up on my screen for the first of many times, forming a mosaic of themselves: Maya joins the call from the Rocky Mountains; Wilton wears a ball cap on his quaint Asheville porch; Kenzie sits in front of a hand-painted, psychedelic tapestry; Parker perches comfortably beneath their lofted bed. In the excitement of our first session together, the students exchange messages on Zoom chat, and the conversation rolls on and on – even once we begin teaching. The conversation was almost always on topic, adding depth to class discussions, but as a new teacher, I had to question my instincts. Was it okay that students were essentially texting in class?
I ran this question by our workshop’s director, Jamie-Lee Josselyn, who led me to consider how Zoom chat can be used as a tool to democratize the classroom. When anyone can chime in at any moment without raising their hand or interrupting the person speaking, the instructor is no longer so centralized. As Jamie-Lee told me, “It allows the students to know that their commentary and reactions are just as important as mine.”
In my experience, the most rewarding part about being a writer is forming friendships with other writers, and growing and learning together over time. When I teach creative writing, I hope that students will learn something new, of course. But my greatest goal as a teacher is to help create an environment that allows students to build their own creative community, which can continue even after the semester (or summer program) is over. The best part about gathering a diverse group of enthusiastic students is making space for them to learn and teach each other, too.
So was their public, communal Zoom chat distracting? A little bit. But did it help form a community? Very much so.
The Zoom chat became an integral part of our classroom discussions, allowing students to get to know each other despite the limitations of remote learning. Especially in our memoir workshop – where sharing personal experiences is as normal as solving equations in a math class – the most impactful work happens when students develop the trust necessary to be vulnerable in their writing and workshop each other’s essays critically, yet with care.
Though the chatter helped fill the gaping social void of our residential-program-moved-online, it also offered something that we can't achieve in person: a constant stream of students' reactions to class content, interspersed with their inside jokes and “hot takes.” For quieter students, typing comments in the chat can feel less intimidating than going through the awkward ritual of unmuting, trying not to accidentally talk over anyone, and muting again. The chat can be a teaching tool, too – when there’s a lull in conversation, instead of putting a student on the spot, we can point to comments from the chat. We can see what students find most exciting, captivating, confusing, or troublesome, perhaps even more clearly than in a traditional classroom. Even at online literary events, the Zoom chat adds a new dimension to audience engagement – while a poet is reading, we can shout out our favorite lines, ask each other questions, and see how others are reacting. We can respond both to the writer and to each other in a way that conventional readings don’t always hold space for.
As writers, we are practiced in the art of approaching complex issues from a variety of perspectives. Why not approach the Zoom platform as a chance to experiment with the ways we learn and teach? In the midst of unfortunate circumstances, we need to bend the rules of the classroom. Though it might seem counterintuitive, I dare you: let the teenagers text.
Amanda Silberling is a writer and artist in Philadelphia with work appearing in the Kenyon Review Online, The Rumpus, Hyperallergic, NPR, and other places. She recently completed a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, where she taught in the Summer Workshop for Young Writers at the Kelly Writers House. Find her online at amandasilberling.com and on Twitter at @asilbwrites.