It’s Hard to Teach Writing Online

A veteran educator’s tips for reaching students remotely

An illustration of a hand with a piece of chalk reaching out of a laptop
Jacob_09 / Bohbeh / Shutterstock / The Atlantic

Editor’s Note: In 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. In recent years, that number is closer to just three years leading a classroom. The “On Teaching” series focuses on the wisdom of veteran teachers.

We are in the midst of the most sweeping education experiment in history. The coronavirus pandemic has forced the majority of the U.S.’s 3.6 million educators to find ways to teach without what most of them consider the core part of their craft—the daily face-to-face interactions that help them elicit a child’s burning desire to investigate something; detect confusion or a lack of engagement; and find the right approach, based on a student’s body language and participation in the classroom, to help students work through their challenges.

The good news is that this is happening at the end of the school year, after teachers have had opportunities to build relationships with their students. And in the past few decades, many educators have been experimenting with some promising technology-enabled approaches, sometimes called “hybrid,” or “personalized learning” models—essentially, a mix of in-person and online learning.

Renee Moore is one of them. An English teacher of 30 years, she has been honored with the Mississippi Teacher of the Year Award and the prestigious Milken Educator Award, among others. Moore has been incorporating online teaching in her classrooms in the Mississippi Delta for more than two decades—first as a high-school teacher in predominantly black schools, from 1990 to 2005, and, since then, as an instructor at the Mississippi Delta Community College, where she teaches high-school and college students, as well as working adults. During our conversation last week, which has been edited for length and clarity, I asked Moore to reflect on some of the most important lessons she learned about teaching reading and writing online.

Kristina Rizga: What have been the greatest challenges in your transition to remote learning in the Mississippi Delta?

Renee Moore: The Mississippi Delta region is very rural, and our biggest issue is access to broadband and wireless services. Some of the students don’t have access to the internet; others don’t have devices. The bandwidth isn’t used to this heavy traffic due to the coronavirus. Mississippi Delta Community Colleges are solving this issue in an innovative way by allowing students to use Wi-Fi outside of the campus, in the parking lots. Students pull up in their cars and get their work done in the parking lot.

The other big issue is that many of the teachers don’t have the skills to teach online. They all had technical training, like how to work the buttons and set up the system. But they haven’t had the pedagogical training: How do you teach your subject, like writing and reading, online? That to me is the greater concern and the biggest need right now. Teachers will have to learn on the fly how to teach online, and there will be even greater discrepancy in the quality of instruction for students.

Rizga: How have you been translating this online?

Moore: It depends on the student. Some students work very well asynchronously. They are very comfortable working alone on a draft; I make color-coded comments in a word document or their PDF, and then I send it back. Some students need me to explain things to them in person before I send them the comments; we’ll do a video or audio chat. Others need even more interaction: I’ll hook them up to a videoconference, and we’ll go through all the comments together. Some students I need to refer to a grammar-brushup program or a YouTube video on how to do some of the mechanical stuff like uploading papers online.

Then there is the option of getting students to talk to each other online on discussion boards and videoconferences. Some students adapt to it quickly and like it. Some don’t, because it feels impersonal. You have to be patient with that and give them some time and space to adjust.

Rizga: Is there something you taught in person that can’t be transferred online?

Moore: So far, I haven’t found anything that I couldn’t move online, but some parts of teaching are much harder and take longer. Research papers, for some reason, are really hard for students to figure out how to do online. I think as long as they can feel that I’m there, and they can reach out, it takes care of many issues. Twice a week, I do a chat, and I’m always staying on top of my email inboxes.

Then, you have to think about accessibility issues. How will my vision-impaired and deaf students access it? Have I put everything in print? Do I have to put in some audio? There are whole series of checks you have to do for different access issues.

Rizga: What are some of your most important tips for online teaching?

Moore: My No. 1 tip: Pace yourself. You don’t have to cover everything. If they don’t read that play by Shakespeare, they will still live to be fine old people. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Don’t put too much pressure on your students. It’s not just a matter of taking what I do offline online. I’ve shortened my units because of the coronavirus. I have a lot of working parents; now they have kids at home. I can’t ask them to do a 25-page paper on pronouns in Shakespeare.

Figure out what’s really essential for learning, and what can be let go in the next three months. For my composition students, for example, my primary focus is always helping them express ideas clearly and coherently. I’m less concerned about the genre of writing or how long it is. I can do that a paragraph at a time.

For my more advanced students, they need to learn research skills: how to locate, evaluate, and use information. Online learning offers great opportunities for that, including with what’s going on in the news right now.

For my literature students, my emphasis is helping them understand stories that come from cultures other than theirs. Are they able to see the humanity and connections across the stories? That’s essential. Whether they remember all of the characters and the authors—that’s not essential.

This is a great time to individualize instruction and have students work at different paces. You don’t want 100-120 papers coming at you all at one time. Spread it out, and it will keep you from getting short-tempered with your students.

I’ve got some students who won’t turn on a camera in their house. They don’t want you to see inside their house for various reasons. Be aware of it; be very sensitive and careful with human beings.

Be prepared to let your students teach you. Students can be great help to us. Be each other’s tech support.

Rizga: Which resources would you recommend for educators learning how to teach online?

Moore: Research and books on digital writing by Troy Hicks, a professor of literacy and technology at Central Michigan University, as well as the resource page on digital learning curated by the National Council of Teachers of English.

Rizga: What are the most urgent things districts, government officials, and the business community can do to make this transition as smooth as possible in the next three weeks?

Moore: The best thing we can do in the short term is to do something like my own institution did it: We are pairing teachers who are novices online to those who are veterans online. We are putting them up in small groups to network with one another. In a rural setting, this might need to be organized as a statewide or region-wide effort to have teachers access experts in their own fields. For larger school systems, it can be done within a school and district.

The second most important thing is providing all students with internet access. If Mississippi Delta can do it, anyone can do it. We can open up parking lots, provide help with equipment and devices.

Many of the textbook companies have been putting their materials online for free. That’s a very helpful thing. You don’t want teachers to spend their limited time hunting for resources.

Rizga: When you think about families and students, what are you worried about the most in the next few weeks?

Moore: That they’ll get frustrated with school and give up on their education, period. A lot of our students need encouragement, because they’d been told all of their lives that they are dumb: “You are really scoring low on these tests. You can’t do this; you can’t do that.” So teachers spend a lot of time encouraging them face-to-face. Now that we can’t see them, it’s going to be harder to keep them motivated.

A lot of students have issues at home. When they come to school, they are able to put some of those home issues out of their mind. Now that they have to be home 24/7, those issues will be staring into their faces and they have to deal with them. I’m thinking of some of my working mothers; when they come to school, it’s the only time they have to study, read, write a paper. They can’t do it at home. It’s chaos.

School for many people is a place to get fed, a place to feel safe, a place to get encouraged. It’s a place to be around people who share your desire to learn. Now they are cut off from that, and some of that can’t be duplicated easily online.

Some issues are financial pressures—the choice of keeping the internet on versus getting some groceries, for instance. I have families living in a trailer with one light bulb, and they are trying to pick up a signal, and you want me to do what for your class? These extensive issues of poverty, homelessness, inequality, abusive situations are too big for any one person to solve, but all I can do is say the same thing I always do in school: I’m here for you. You can talk to me. Reach out to me. And I’ll do what I can from here. We only have a few counselors, but we’ve made all of our counselors available online 24/7. We try to remind students that there is someone available to talk to you anytime.

This article is part of our project “On Teaching,” which is supported by grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the Panta Rhea Foundation.