Using Online Writing Groups in the Creative Writing Classroom

If you’re a grad student writing instructor (or any writing instructor), you’re probably in a bit of a panic right now transitioning to online instruction for the next few weeks or rest of the semester due to coronavirus. I know I am.

Considering the situation, I thought I’d share how I’ve been conducting online writing groups for my Intro to Creative Writing class this semester. In fact, all of the writing my students have completed this semester has been workshopped online, rather than in class (where we focus on discussing craft readings and poetry/short fiction models). This is the first time I have used online writing groups, and it was going well even before the sudden online transition–students will just keep submitting their weekly writing assignments as usual, and they’re already quite used to this process. However, if you’ve been doing workshopping/peer review in class, you’ve likely also been training students on how to provide effective feedback to their peers. These skills remain the same for online writing feedback, so it should be a fairly smooth transition.

While there are ways to conduct live, synchronous workshops/peer review using a platform like Zoom (in large-group through a regular meeting and in small-group using Breakout Rooms within meetings), what I’m describing today is how to conduct such workshops asynchronously using Canvas Discussion Boards. Canvas is my campus’s online learning portal; if your university uses a different platform, such as Blackboard, I imagine the same tools are available but the set-up process might be a bit different.

How I Set Up the Online Writing Groups

I decided to keep my students in static writing groups throughout the semester. My reasoning was that static groups would give students time to build trust with their group members (forming-storming-norming-performing) and allow them to get to know each other’s writing styles, strengths, and weaknesses over the course of the semester. The trade-off, of course, is that students only get feedback from the same classmates repeatedly. I thought this might be an issue, but when I gave students the option of switching up their writing groups at midterm, they unanimously voted to keep them as-is, saying they felt like they had developed trust and comfort with each other. However, they did suggest creating a separate discussion board forum that everyone could access as a space to share their “greatest hits” (the exercises or pieces of which they were the most proud) with the entire class, which I did.

I created writing groups of four students each. Considering I have 16 students in my class this semester, this division worked particularly well. I also think it’s a manageable number for the students as well, since they are reading and responding to three classmate’s pieces. You might want smaller group sizes if your students will be reviewing research papers or longer essays.

Step-by-Step Instructions for Creating Group Discussions in Canvas

A Group Discussion can be thought of as a “small-group version” of Canvas’s typical Discussion forum. In a Group Discussion, students can only view and respond to the work of classmates in their same group. You, as the instructor, can view all the groups. Your instructions will also be applied to all of the groups, which is convenient for you.

But before you can create a Group Discussion, you will need to set up what Canvas calls a “Group Set” (which is essentially your class divided into small groups).

Here’s how to set up a Group Set (in seven steps):

  1. Enter your course page on Canvas and click on “People” in the left-hand menu.
  2. In the upper-right corner of the “People” page, you should see a blue button labeled “+Group Set”. Click on this button.
  3. A pop-up window will appear with a form for you to fill out to create the Group Set. My “Group Set Name” is just “Writing Groups”. You can also choose whether to let students sign up for groups themselves, or you can randomly or manually assign them to groups.
  4. When you’re finished entering this information, click “Save.”
  5. If you choose to manually assign students to groups, you will then be taken to another page to set up the groups. Click the gray “+Group” button to begin creating your small groups.
  6. Another pop-up window will appear, where you can enter the name of your small groups. I labeled mine “Writing Group 1”, “Writing Group 2,” etc. Repeat this process for the number of small groups that you need.
  7. Now you can add students to each group. On the left side of the page, you will see an “Unassigned Students” column, with your students listed beneath it. Click and drag student names and drop them into the relevant group on the right. You can view the students in each group by clicking the little arrow next to each small group’s name. This information will automatically save; you don’t need to click a “Save” button.

Once you’ve finished assigning your students to small groups, you can create a Group Discussion forum in Canvas.

Here’s how to create a Group Discussion (in seven steps):

  1. Click on the Discussions link on the left-hand menu to get started.
  2. On the Discussions page, click the blue “+Discussion” button in the upper-right corner.
  3. Add the title of discussion forum and the instructions to students in the relevant text boxes. All students, regardless of their small group, will see these instructions.
  4. Once you’re finished with these instructions, scroll down until you see the “Options” section. Select any options you want to apply to this discussion.
  5. Look down a little further in the “Options” section, and you will see a check box next to the text “This is a Group Discussion.” Check that box.
  6. A drop-down menu will appear for you to select your Group Set. Choose the Group Set you just created (e.g. Writing Groups) from the drop-down menu.
  7. When you’re finished, click Save & Publish at the bottom of the screen.

For future discussions, you can re-use the same group or create new groups by adding another Group Set on the People page.

How I Conduct the Online Writing Groups

In my class this semester, students post a piece of creative writing every Friday. During the poetry unit (first half of the semester), they posted poems written based off of a prompt I provided them. Now that we’ve moved into the fiction unit, they will be posting a combination of fiction exercises and eventually drafts of their short story or microfiction stories-in-progress. They also post a short Author’s Note, where they describe how the writing of each particular piece went for them and can ask for specific feedback from their group members, as desired. Students are then responsible for responding to each of their writing group members’ pieces by Sunday night.

After a lot of reflection, I made the decision not to respond to my students’ writing in their writing groups. I noticed in my past experience teaching creative writing that students would default to my feedback and disregard their classmates’ feedback if it differed from mine. I understand that–I’m the teacher, after all, and our school system trains students from a young age to work to please the teacher. So I took the risk* of not responding to my students’ writing, and instead focus my efforts on responding to their feedback to each other, as needed.

What does this look like? Since the first week of the semester, I have been working with students to develop their ability to provide effective and constructive feedback. This process has involved framing our examination of published poetry and fiction in class as an analysis of the writer’s choices and considering the possible reason for and effect of those choices. (Honestly, this is how I approach writing in other, non-creative writing classes as well. For several semesters now I have assigned Mike Bunn‘s excellent article “How to Read Like a Writer” during the first week of the semester to frame how we will read and discuss writing in the course.) We have also spent a lot of time in class discussing what effective and actionable writing feedback looks like. Finally, I read through students writing and feedback every week and email students who need help (or a push or redirection) in their feedback. I am, in a sense, assessing their feedback and not their fiction or poetry itself.

You might still be wondering why I think this strategy is worthwhile. In part, it’s because I believe training students to effectively “read like writers” will have a larger impact than helping them polish a particular poem or story–especially at the introductory level. But I also think this is a question of trust: if we want to de-center ourselves from the student’s learning process, we have to be willing to trust that students can support each other–and learn from reading and responding to each other’s writing–if given the tools and freedom to do so. Additionally, I cannot follow students through the rest of their writing lives, weighing in on their writing choices. However, if they build trusting and productive relationships with the members of their writing groups, they have the option of continuing these groups beyond our work together this semester. I, at least, believe that having a group of people with whom you feel comfortable sharing your writing and can depend on for constructive feedback is one of the biggest blessings a creative writer (or any writer) can have–and one of the hardest to find. By not inserting myself into their group’s dynamic, I am not undermining their trust in one another’s abilities.

What’s Been the Outcome?

Overall, I’ve been very happy with the feedback students have provided one another in their writing groups. They weren’t perfect overnight, of course, but by continuing to revisit feedback strategies in class, and reinforcing these practices individually as needed (through my aforementioned emails), I have noticed a steady improvement across the board. Some students have needed more guidance than others, and this is also to be expected. I have also noticed an increase in the confidence with which they guide each other’s writing development, and between the three peers who respond to each writer, at least one of them usually identifies the areas I would have commented on anyway. I also want to be clear that most of my students this semester have never written fiction or poetry before our class, much less taken a previous creative writing course. So these results are not due to students having a lot of prior experience with these tasks.

All this is to say that yes, you can conduct effective online writing groups/workshops/peer review, if the coronavirus has forced you to suddenly move such work online. I hope this post has given you enough practical information to guide you and soothed some anxiety. If you find the post useful or have any other advice/strategies to offer, please share them in the comments.

*I say “risk,” because not responding to student writing runs counter to much of what I have been taught in writing pedagogy over the years.

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