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Distance Learning: Re-Imagining Student Conversations and Collaboration in the Digital Writing-Reading Workshop

by Lauren Heimlich Foley

At the end of each school year, I find myself reflecting. I wonder how I can enhance the order of my units, improve my mini-lessons and assignments, foster more meaningful student collaboration, and so forth. Students’ end of year reflections help me hone my best practices and prompt me to consider the ways I can better meet their needs. This year marked a first for me: asking my students to reflect on distance learning. Although there are best practices for the digital workshop, blended learning, and online teaching, teaching solely on the computer was something I had not yet studied or tried. I considered how best practices in the digital writing-reading workshop applied, contemplated my teaching philosophy, explored my district’s technology resources, and—most importantly–remembered my students.

During the last decade, my digital writing-reading workshop focused on a variety of digital, multigenre, and multimodal projects, the electronic portfolio, various online platforms to create and share work, and student collaboration using Microsoft products. These assignments were enhanced through student-student and student-teacher face-to-face conferences and conversations. Even when my district implemented Canvas, our learning management system, I balanced high- and low-tech assignments and class periods. I was cognizant that I re-defined the ways students used their laptops to ensure that technology enhanced and re-imagined materials, assignments, and collaboration instead of simply replacing pencil and paper and in-person interactions.

I found the discussion boards to be a strength of Canvas, but I did not want these blog-like forums to replace students’ verbal conversations. So, discussion boards became a place where they could post writing inspirations for their classmates, make book recommendations, receive feedback on writing assignments, publish their drafts, post a summary of their verbal table group discussion for the class, and share individual or group practice examples from mini-lessons. These boards housed information, writing pieces, feedback, and conversations for later reference and use.

Then, distance learning hit. I—once again—had to re-imagine how I could foster student conversations and collaboration as well as student-teacher conferences. One-on-one and small-group Canvas discussion boards and Microsoft Teams proved helpful. Weekly Canvas discussion boards enabled students to share their quick writes, book insights and recommendations, and drafting with their brick and mortar table groups. However, students often logged in to complete their work at different times. Although students could ask questions, offer answers, and leave feedback, their peers were not present to engage in real-time digital conversations. For our final unit, the electronic portfolio, I asked each class period to sign in at the same time so that they could read one another’s work and have conversations with each other. This invitation proved the most successful: it had the most participation. Additionally, our optional Teams meetings enabled students to ask questions, review directions, discuss books, and share writing pieces. Students signed up for these calls, and they left with new book titles, writing inspirations, and clarity.

Now, with more than a marking period of distance learning under my belt, I have begun to see its limits and possibilities. Armed with student reflections, my experiences, and new and old resources, I am asking myself these questions for the 2020-2021 school year:

  • How can I enhance distance learning practices to better meet the needs of my students?
  • How will distance learning change my best practices in the brick and mortar classroom?

Currently, I am exploring how Canvas and Teams can foster student conversations and collaboration. I returned to the work of Sara Kajder and Troy Hicks—two teacher researchers who, early on in my career, greatly informed my digital writing-workshop practices. The following research will inform my practices next year:

  • Lenhart et al. in “Teens and Social Media” (2009) posit, “The primary motivation for participation in a social network is to interact with friends and/or members of the participating community (as cited in Kajder, 2010, p. 18).
  • Ito et al. (2008) explain that digital adolescents use social networking spaces to “find a different network of peers and develop deep friendships through these interest-driven engagements, but in these cases the interests come first” (p. 14, as cited in Kajder, 2010, p. 18).
  • Students and teachers “can use blogs to offer responses in the form of posting, tagging, and commenting (Hicks, 2009, p. 41).
  • “Students can simply post responses to journal prompts or share links” and “they can write analyses of online materials, synthesizing across sources and building on their previous posts” (Hicks, 2009, p. 41).
  • “[Will] Richardson suggests that blogging invites writers to synthesize ideas and opens up conversation between writers through commenting on the posts of others and then incorporating those posts into one’s own writing” (Hicks, 2009, p. 41).
  • Blogging “demands that students read, respond, and write in ways that encourage more specific response and utilize features of a digital writing space. That is, students who blog are able to hyperlink to sources of information and inspiration, embed multimedia for specific rhetorical purposes, and engage in larger conversations about their topics” (Hicks, 2009, p. 41).

Kajder and Hick’s insight in social media networking and blogging is influencing the way I perceive Canvas discussion boards and Teams meetings. I am also considering how my students’ interests in YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, Facetime, and other social media can give me insight into how I can appeal further to their digital, social lives.

My students’ feedback confirmed the desire to share more through discussion boards and have more opportunities to socialize in Teams. They enjoyed the portfolio publishing the most out of the publishing opportunities because their group members were all present. They wanted different groups to share with and a variety of discussion boards for different purposes. And, they liked being able to use text, audio, and/or video to post. Moreover, they preferred when the discussion boards remained open, so they could access them and post without time limitations. Students praised the one-on-one office hours discussion board which replicated the conferences I would hold during independent reading time and our workshop time. In terms of Teams, students wanted set times for regularly scheduled meetings. Some appreciated that these calls were optional while others would have preferred them being mandatory. A common thread that surfaced was the desire for more and varied opportunities to share with peers.

Next year, I will use Canvas and Teams to tap into my middle schoolers social and digital nature. They will have more online opportunities to forge connections with peers and make new friends while simultaneously thinking creatively, critically, and empathetically as they enhance their reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills.

I have been doing some brainstorming. Below are the ways I would like to employ Canvas and Teams next school year whether we are teaching remotely, in school, or a hybrid of both. Some ideas I have tried before in my brick and mortar classroom and during distance learning while others I will experiment with for the first time next year. I am sure this list will grow and change as the summer continues and once school starts.

Canvas Discussion Board Creation Notes

  • Create groups based on friends and interests.
  • Rotate groups weekly or by unit so students can interact with new/different classmates.
  • Include small-group and whole-class posting opportunities.
  • Create groups with students from my different class periods.
  • Vary what students are sharing and commenting on.
  • Consider the names of discussion boards to help students and me locate conversations.
  • Provide commenting sentence starters.
  • Set clear expectations.
  • Provide directions for using the boards.
  • Stress the different ways they can post information: text box entries, Office 365 uploads, attachments, pictures, audio recordings, and webcam videos.
  • Find out if there is a way to see all posts even if students edit or delete them.
  • Keep discussion boards open and ongoing.
  • Remind students that they can share digital media along with their own posts such as external links, videos, articles for research, links to books, pictures, music, videos, related online texts, etc.

Canvas Discussion Board Topics and Purposes

The following items could be adapted for small-group and whole-class discussion boards.

  • Collaboration: a place to share and create materials for group projects, to discuss book club books, and to receive feedback on writing components
  • Student examples for reading and writing mini-lessons
  • Receptacle of genre study or whole-call novel questions that other students and I can provide answers to
  • A place to share drafts throughout the writing process for revision and editing feedback as well as publication celebrations
  • Foster topic and genre brainstorming and rehearsing in which students ask each other to expand and reflect on their initial writing ideas
  • Conversations that build off of previous conversations with their peers or professional posts  
  • Replication of brick and mortar quick write shares and informal table group book talks
  • Book recommendations with links to Goodreads and/or Amazon for their peers’ further exploration
  • Create separate threads for students to reply to which would focus around student-selected texts for mini-lessons, poetry analysis, book passes, common themes in independent reading books, recommended books in different genres, genre study mentor texts, etc.
  • Create separate threads for jigsaw lessons
  • Sharing of mini-lesson ideas or workshop inspirations such as strong words I’d like to use in my own writing, literary devices, figurative language, conventions to experiment with, ways to include MLA in-text citations, authors’ mood and tone, etc.
  • First book chapter or page posts: reader responses, observations, recommendations, first impressions, etc.
  • Independent reading book posts: analysis, read like a writer observations, writing inspirations, and mini-lesson application

Teams Meetings to Support and Enrich Canvas Discussion Boards

  • Create a standard Teams meeting time each week. At this point, I am unsure whether attendance will be mandatory or encouraged, and I am waiting to see if there is a directive from my district.
  • Conduct small-group Teams meetings based on students’ needs and/or similar interests (e.g. table groups, weekly discussion board groupings, interests, genres, book topics or themes, and/or skills differentiation), which will either be mandatory or encouraged.
  • If we are back in the brick and mortar classroom, but social distancing, I can use Teams to have one-on-one or small-group conferences with students from across the room. I imagine us sitting six feet apart and plugging in our earplugs to quietly talk to one another.

Since my district has a partnership with Canvas and Microsoft, I am primarily using them; however, these ideas can be easily applied to a variety of platforms such as Google, Zoom, and Flipgrid. Kajder and Hicks also reference a variety of platforms that are available to teachers.

With summer almost here, I anticipate plenty more personal reflection and professional development. I look forward to what September brings.


Hicks, T. (2009). The digital writing workshop. Heinamann.

Kajder, S. B. (2010). Adolescents and digital literacies: Learning alongside our students. National Council of Teachers of English.

Call for Distance Learning Blog Posts

The PAWLP Blog would like to hear from you! What does distance learning look like for you, your students, and your school district? How will distance learning change or enhance your brick and mortar routines and best practices? What does Fall 2020 look like for you, your classroom, your school, and/or your district?

Blog posts will be featured in our Distance Learning column each Monday. Please email the PAWLP blog if you are interested or would like to find out more information.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. Troy Hicks #

    Thank you, Lauren, for your thorough and thoughtful reflection on the challenges that distance learning brought this spring… and how you plan to adapt for the new school year.

    I would very much appreciate hearing from you again as you work to create these opportunities in Canvas and Teams for your students, especially thinking about the balance of asynchronous and synchronous activities that you will employ.

    All the best for a restful summer, and I look forward to hearing more about your — and your students’ — work!


    June 21, 2020
    • lhfoley #

      Hi Dr. Hicks,

      Thank you for your positive feedback! I look forward to sharing my reflections, students’ feedback, and Fall 2020 plans in upcoming blog posts. Enjoy your summer! Warmly, Lauren


      June 23, 2020

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