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Engaging in Reading, Authoring, and Community Through Virtual Literacy-Casts

By Devery Mock Ward, Elizabeth Frye, Jason DeHart, and Beth Buchholz
 | Dec 14, 2020
Student at labtop

Is a university reading clinic a physical space, or is it the practices, interactions, and connections that occur across spaces? As reading education faculty, we have regularly discussed this question and consistently argued the latter. Then in March 2020, our university closed all buildings to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and we found ourselves outside our clinic’s doors with the opportunity to put our theoretical stance into practice.

After only a week of brainstorming and planning, we began the reading clinic “Literacy-Casts.” These interactive, hourlong sessions occurred each weekday and typically drew 60 to 80 devices. The participants included school-age children, parents, teachers, administrators, teaching assistants, and graduate students. Despite our limited technical skills, imprecise pacing, and clumsy classroom management, our participants continued to engage and we continued to learn. In this post, we outline six key takeaways from our experiences in over 50 sessions.

Fail boldly

When we began our Literacy-Casts, we had limited prior experience with Zoom. Nor was there time to master this platform. Technological failures seemed certain. We reluctantly accepted the risk, jumped in, and failed more than a few times.

For example, we initially conceptualized our Literacy-Casts as spaces where children and adults could interact and speak in real time. Theoretically, this seemed the perfect embodiment of literacy engagement; in reality, this unmuted space produced deafening sounds of echoing and feedback. With time, we learned to mute participants and eliminate the option for participants to unmute themselves.

We learned that many of our participants knew how to annotate, screen share, and change their screen names to things like “Poopy Pants.” We lost Wi-Fi, power, and access to Google slides, and in the midst of each calamity, we felt the familiar panic that often accompanies failure. We also remembered that failure is an integral part of learning.

Leverage the chat

LitCastPQ1When we muted our participants, we solved one problem but created others. Without hearing from our participants, we had difficulty gauging instruction. In response, we started using the chat function in Zoom. Honestly, this should have been a key component of our original plan: It’s the perfect way for students to engage in authentic literacy practices.

Throughout our Literacy-Cast sessions, we frequently asked participants to contribute ideas in the chat. We also made an intentional practice of reading chat comments aloud and attributing the comments to specific authors. This simple acknowledgement significantly increased the authentic reading and writing that became a key component of our Literacy-Casts.

Cohost, coteach, collaborate

To leverage the chat function, we reconceptualized the roles we assumed. Initially, we intended to take turns leading the sessions, but we quickly learned that collaboration was essential. Although we rotated the role of host, we began assuming the role of cohost, too. The host planned and implemented the session. Cohosts adopted different roles. One cohost focused on the chat and gave voice to posted comments and engaged in authoring their own. Other cohosts monitored the virtual space and problem solved when technological issues arose. This type of collaboration allowed us to create experiences that were both layered and fast paced.

Establish the setting

In our efforts to envision the clinic beyond a physical space, we lost sight of the importance of setting. At first, we focused on engagement and gave little attention to predictable routines and sequences. Fortunately, one of our graduate students contacted us to explain that her student could not follow the Literacy-Casts because he could not make sense of what was happening. We realized that virtual instruction challenged meaning making in unique ways.

We then intentionally worked to establish a familiar order and obvious setting. This included an explicit, predictable routine (as you can see in the picture of the schedule). Although some days were devoted to comics and others to poetry, the sequence of activities remained the same and established predictable order in an unfamiliar space.

Extend invitations

When we conceptualized the Literacy-Casts, we thought about the kinds of literacy activities in which children were likely to engage when left to their own devices. Specifically, we sought engagement beyond the hour allotted to the Literacy-Cast. We intentionally invited participants to engage in reading, writing, and creating. At the conclusion of each session, we invited participants to create and publish their work through the clinic blog, our virtual BookCreator library, and our Poetry Padlet. We extended invitations on multiple occasions and offered a variety of ways to reply. As a result of these efforts, participants across grade levels engaged in reading, writing, and creating well after the Literacy-Cast concluded.

Create community

When we began the Literacy-Casts, we didn’t know what to expect. Would participants join? Would they return? In practice, yes, participants showed up and returned, but we suspect that this had little to do with us. Our participants engaged in behaviors that laid bare their true motivations. Children would regularly shout hello to their teachers. They eagerly greeted one another and welcomed pets, including Speedy the python and Emerald the lizard. They announced birthdays, broken bones, and weekend trips. First-grade teachers commented on lost teeth when they noticed the gap in a smile.

LitCastPQ2These participants were showing up for one another. They were attending for the community that they missed. After realizing this, we intentionally worked to increase this sense of connection and began enacting rituals that bound us together even more closely. At the start and close of each session, we unmuted everyone so that we could say hello and goodbye. We began including daily Zoom-dancing and opportunities for children to share jokes. We even developed our own way (i.e., “Author claps, poet snaps, and comic zaps!”) to applaud the work that children shared. All these practices created a community to which we wanted to return.

Since March of 2020, we have completed over 110 Literacy-Casts, and our community has grown to over 200 participants. Together we have written poems, created comics, read graphic novels, and hosted guest authors including Sara Varon and Raul the Third. We have shared jokes, celebrated student authoring, and grown in both community and literacy. The collaboration that we began over eight months ago has continued, and we remain convinced that our university reading clinic is not simply a physical space. It is instead the practices, interactions, and connections that occur across spaces.

ILA member Devery Ward is the director of the Anderson Reading Clinic at Appalachian State University.

Beth Frye is a professor of reading education and serves as the graduate program director for reading education in the Department of Reading Education and Special Education at Appalachian State University.

Jason D. DeHart is an assistant professor of Reading Education at Appalachian State University.

Beth Buchholz is an assistant professor in Reading Education at Appalachian State University in North Carolina.

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