from the May/June 2002
issue of The Horn Book Magazine

Call 1-800-325-1170 or e-mail to order the entire issue.

Field Notes
A Particular Intensity:
Teaching Children’s Literature Online

By GraceAnne A. DeCandido

What does it mean, “to teach”? “To educate” has all those wonderful Latin echoes and overtones: educare, to bring up, to lead out. For me, the basic action of teaching is to put ideas in students’ heads that weren’t there before. If it is a good class, they put ideas in my head that weren’t there before, either. So I love teaching: its physicality, the personal back and forth, the release of performance. Whatever else it is, teaching is performance. The classroom, of course, by its physical dimensions and presence, plays to the performance metaphor. So what does it mean to teach online? How can one possibly match, or translate, the teaching experience to an online environment?

In the autumn of 2000 and the spring of 2001, I taught two courses for the Rutgers School of Communication, Information and Library Studies Professional Development Studies. These were courses for a fifteen-credit certificate in Youth Literature and Technology, although not all of my students signed on for the certificate. Using the software program eCollege, the course — indeed the program — is conducted entirely online. It is asynchronous, meaning that students never had to be online at a particular time in the working of the class.

I envisioned the course as a journey. I knew where I wanted it to go, and each of the books we did, and the order that we studied them in, took us there. Of course, the highways and byways we explored on the way were sometimes very different from what I expected, but that was all right, too. I taught “Female Voices in Historical Narratives” and “Writing a Life: Biographies and Personal Narratives,” both classes in children’s literature. The URLs for these courses (listed at the end of the article) offer a course description and the book list, accessible to anyone on the World Wide Web. The courseware itself is available only to those who register for a class, and then archived by eCollege.

Most of my students were school librarians and teachers. Virtually all of them had very complicated lives. Many of them had small children or aged parents to care for; some had both. Several students were dealing with chronic illnesses, their own or family members’. Nearly all of them found conventional classes logistically too difficult. In spite of this, perhaps because of it, they were an unusually committed and devoted group.

There are as many ways of teaching as there are teachers, but I am one of the kind who writes out lectures beforehand. I tend to share outlines of those with students, and after the initial presentation I like a lot of interaction. I want them to talk to me, and to listen when I respond. I want them to learn from one another. I sought ways of defining and extending that kind of interaction online.

The single hardest thing about teaching online was creating the entire course in my mind from beginning to end and then producing it, whole and entire, before classes even began, for the online environment. In online teaching, at least at Rutgers, that is required, both by the structure of the software and for the sake of the students, who, because they are disembodied, as it were, from the classroom, need to see the whole arc of the course upfront.

Although eCollege has options for audio, video, and other nifty tools, my courses were pretty much completely text-based. Partly I stayed with text because that’s where I was most comfortable. In addition, I soon learned that many of my students were using elderly and cranky hardware, and too many bells and whistles tended to crash their systems.

Make a leap with me, if you will, into the online environment. Among the online spaces in eCollege are places for essays, “threaded discussion,” “chat,” and “webliography.” Here’s how it worked. Each unit, which generally lasted a week, began with an essay that I wrote, akin to the opening class lecture, about the books we would read and study in that unit. The essay was followed by several leading questions I posed. The student responses to these questions appeared in what eCollege calls “threaded discussion.” To anyone who has participated in an online bulletin board, this format would look familiar. Comments with the student’s name and the date of posting follow one another as posted but can be sorted by date, by student, and by response. Now eCollege has added a mechanism to sort comments by read or unread, a great boon in some of the longer discussions. (They were all longer discussions, as it turned out.)

Students were graded on the thoughtfulness and clarity of their responses to me and to their classmates. They also each had a project to do based on the coursework that had to be in a format that could be shared: an online bibliography, or booktalk, for example. Some would post many short responses; others preferred to write two or three longer pieces each unit and post them instead. Students had access to all of the discussions throughout the course, so they could go back to units we had finished if they desired.

Besides discussions, we e-mailed each other almost daily. Sometimes students e-mailed specific questions to me, and my answers would often clarify things for the whole class. Students also had the option of e-mailing me privately with queries. Another online space available to us contained individual student journals, to which only the individual student and I had access, for private exchange.

The readings for each class consisted of the assigned books (titles are listed on the Rutgers site) and related websites with information about the book or the author, commentary or book reviews, or lesson plans. Those websites appeared in a “webliography,” another online space provided by eCollege. Students could add and annotate other related sites there, also.

Once a week, I held “chat.” Chat was always optional — under the guidelines of the program, everything had to be asynchronous, so I could not require students to be in one place at one time. Chat is a live, real-time, online discussion, where participants type in what they have to say. Their comments appear to all who are signed into the chat. Many students came to most chats, and I set up a few extra sessions for students who couldn’t be there at what became our usual Thursday night times. Students who were not present (or those who were) could read the log of the chat when it was over, complete with typos and emoticons. Since chat was not required, we often talked about work, and other things we were reading, as well as class assignments. It gave a chance for personalities to reveal themselves, and for us to sit around in our jammies and talk to one another about books.

In a traditional classroom, students get to know one another in a series of chance encounters: choosing desks, getting coats or soft drinks, chatting before and after class. In an online class, those encounters have to be created. The first unit of each class I taught was called “About the course, about our community.” Each student posted a paragraph or two of autobiography, and I asked what I hoped were leading and open-ended questions, such as “What’s the first thing you tell people about yourself when you meet them?” This gave students a full unit to become familiar with the software and comfortable with the process of online reading, response, and threaded discussion. The overriding spirit of the first course I taught, “Female Voices in Historical Narratives,” was definitely Old Tallow, the character who rescues the infant Omakayas in Louise Erdrich’s The Birchbark House. We read The Birchbark House in the same unit as Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods, so we could examine the contrasts between them. Tallow was a woman alone: she threw out three husbands, took on male tasks, and held herself separate. She is also crucial not only to the action of the story but to its passion. Tallow’s crossing of gender lines and her knotty character made us look at Jane Sharp in The Midwife’s Apprentice in a different way. She echoed in our heads as we read about Queen Delilah in The Pirate’s Son. One student wrote a brilliant analysis of the parallels between Joan of Arc and Old Tallow, down to each of them having a many-splendored coat. The arc of the class discussion was very specific, because students could easily quote one another’s comments from previous units, and build on connections thus made. It made for extremely concrete links in a way that live classroom discussion cannot duplicate.

Even now, months after my last class, I remain touched by the intensity of it all. In a physical classroom, you almost never get to know the quotidian details of students’ lives the way I did in my online classes. I knew whose computer resided in the room of a chronically ill parent, so that student was never online late at night. I knew who only had access at school, and who only did class work in the wee hours of the morning when her family was asleep. And yes, I could monitor how much time students spent online in class. That was not always an indication of how hard they were working — after all, much of the class was reading and writing offline — but it often corresponded to the quality of what was being said.

I am Jesuit-taught, Jesuit-trained (Fordham University). I long to tackle Big Questions, because I see them everywhere. Children’s literature is an excellent ground for that search, for the stories we tell to children are the very ground of philosophy and culture. In “Female Voices” the heart of the course was an examination of picture books about Joan of Arc, so we could wrestle with heroism, sanctity, womanhood. We tackled the question of historical truth with gusto, and just whose historical truth. I placed as a mantra before my students, “Not all of it happened, but all of it was true.” In “Writing a Life” we studied the shaping of a life into a story, sometimes, as in picture books, with great economy of language.

In a physical classroom, you can feel the electricity when such queries are raised. You can take note of body language and tone of voice. You can see who speaks right up, and who is silent. In an online course, there is simply no room for silence. The only way you know if students are participating is by what they write: attentive looks and thoughtful posture counts for naught.

It’s a struggle to find ways to describe, to someone who wasn’t there, the particular intensity of an online literature course. It was as if we had our fingers on each other’s pulses, all the time. I could log in to class at any hour of the day or night and find new comments, new questions, and different responses to what we were reading. I cherish that experience, and I look forward eagerly to teaching online again.

One illuminating vignette about the power of teaching online comes from my colleague at Rutgers, Michael Joseph (also the list-owner of the child_lit online discussion group). Michael, a veteran of online teaching, began his course “In Search of Cupid and Psyche,” an intensive study of myth and legend in children’s literature, on September 10. When the class began to fragment in the wake of September 11, Michael took a brilliant and kick-ass path to re-imagining the course. He created a motorcycle gang of his online class, called them the Metaflaws, and encouraged each class member to choose a name from mythos for themselves. This virtual space, and virtual identity, allowed the students to find a channel for their grief and fear in role-playing that could simply not have happened in a conventional classroom. In a traditional classroom, it is much harder to create a persona that is separate from the way you look, or act. Online, you are freer to reinvent yourself in just the kind of way Michael offered.

A great gift of online teaching is the chance it gives to those of a more retiring nature to reflect on their answers and then post them. I did, finally, when classes were over, get the chance to meet many of my students in person. I was astonished to find that one of my strongest and most direct student voices was extremely soft-spoken and gentle in person. Another rather tentative (at first) online student turned out to be a mover and shaker in her own school community, inspired at least in part by her online classes.

This absolute emphasis upon the Word — if you wanted to be heard, you had to write it down and send it forth for all to see — is what transmutes the virtual, paperless environment into one where books are the center. I was teaching about books: this was not a course in multimedia. What kept us focused in the disembodied cyberspace we inhabited was those books. We all read the same ones, we all faced the same questions, we all heard one another’s answers. We read together and then we talked about it, applying our ideas to classroom situations, to library booktalks, to the work of our days.

Web links

Female Voices in Historical Narratives

Writing a Life: Biographies and Personal Narratives

GraceAnne A. DeCandido (whose e-mail address is is a writer, editor, teacher, and library consultant in New York City.

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