Surprise and Emergence

In our writing classrooms, 2020 has been a year full of surprise.

In Pennsylvania, we had a warm, nearly snowless winter and sudden, snappy late frosts in in the spring, so it’s been a year of surprises in the garden just outside my back door as well.

Recently, I started taking some photos of striking color combinations that have emerged this year as the plants in my garden rise. I phrase it this way because although I am an avid gardener, I am no designer. I pay attention to the conditions each plant demands, but I don’t always think through which leaves and flowers will best compliment each other until I see them. I move things around, I tug out visual interruptions, and eventually I find juxtapositions that I like.

For me, teaching through the pandemic, suddenly deprived of my usual environment, has felt similar. I have asked myself: What can I move? What can I weed out? What emerging juxtapositions can I discover and enjoy, even if they were not by design?

To be clear, I found emergency online teaching was a challenge that sometimes felt discouraging.

For my final post of the year, though, I’d like to step back and share a few snapshots of positive surprises that emerged in this process. And I’ll punctuate these with some snapshots of surprises from my garden. If you’ll indulge me, I may even wind a metaphor between the two in some cheesy (and hopefully amusing) captions.

  1. Uninvited Shares

In our sudden shift to learning from a distance, our Writer’s Notebook routine broke down. I miss those personal moments when I’d look over a student’s shoulder and discover a wonderful turn of phrase, or a shy student volunteers for the first time to give voice to their words for the whole class to hear.

But something interesting happened. A student who had a penchant for writing poetry that I never knew about before online learning started emailing me her work. A young man who was able to write creatively with impressive volume during the first few weeks of lockdown emailed me a portfolio of his fiction pieces to read. Another student sent me a series of flower photographs he took and asked to submit them to our literary magazine.

This did not happen with most of my students. Many students wrote far less often than they would have in the regular classroom. And even some of my avid writers likely wrote less than usual during this strange swerve in our reality. So did I, and that’s OK.

But I always want to remember the few who turned to writing and art as their first form of solace and reached out despite our changed circumstances to share it with me. True to the name of this blog, it reminds me that as a teacher, I am always able to move writers, even in the midst of a pandemic.

As teachers, we handle not just writers, but hearts.

2. An Enduring Routine

One hallmark of my teaching is our Poem of the Day routine. We begin each class with a poem to enjoy, discuss, or use as a mentor . . . and sometimes for all three of those purposes. I tell my students that by the end of the year they will have read 180 poems and have had more exposure to poetry in the year than some people have in a lifetime.

This year, that changed. Suddenly, I had the opportunity to host live meetings weekly instead of daily.

Our poetry routine endured. I provided access to The Writer’s Almanac and resources for students to receive a daily poem via email. And we still started class each week with a poem. We gave voice to Rabindnarath Tagore and Nikki Giovanni and William Shakespeare and Georgia Heard, and we often wrote briefly alongside their words. We read Ross Gay’s “A Small Needful Fact” as protests raged around the world in response to the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, and we re-examined what it means when Hughes says that deferred dreams can explode.

The routine changed, but it did not wither. In a way, I like to think it drew us together.

Alliums proliferate in my garden; poems proliferate in my classroom.

3. Collaborative Writing

We wrote two poems together as a team of students about our experiences during COVID-19, and I learned how to use Peardeck to make this process simple.

While I have always valued frequent writing practice, I have seldom asked my writers to explore the power our words and ideas can have when we blend them together into a single collaborative piece. David Etkin noticed on Twitter how these poems work on the same principle as what Kwame Alexander calls his “shared poems” created by the NPR community of listeners, and the idea certainly resonates with Juan Felipe Herrera’s poem

Conferences and a workshop model emphasize community among writers in a classroom, but when that space is suddenly unavailable, online collaborative possibilities help to fill this void.

Read our first collaborative poem “Distance” here and our second collaborative poem “Distance II” here.

This completely unplanned “collaboration” of foliage in this picture presents an appealing color scheme. Distance learning encouraged me to find new ways to create collaborative writing pieces with my classes.

4. Passion Projects

The first writing project we tackled as a team was a research project: a short argument about a topic we felt passionate about, grounded in at least four different reliable sources.

I convinced myself it was going to be a disaster. How would they remember to apply proper in-text citation without my handy little MLA song I composed and share each year? Would they remember that my pet peeve is failure to paragraph their essay if I was not there leaning over their shoulders or putting it in garish bold on a rubric?

In truth, their work was not bad. It was not perfect either, and some of my usual irksome errors made their predictable appearance.

But the additional freedom, time, and choice allowed students to share in ways they had not before. I never knew one of my students was a competitive equestrian until she researched an issue related to the topic. I learned of dog breeds I did not know existed and how to evaluate which guitar to purchase. I learned lots about COVID from those who chose it as their topic.

Because this remote learning scenario was the Wild West for me and my students alike, I backed off, and their passion shined through in a way that was better than usual. The details I often emphasize did not suffer too much either. In April, they stepped up and accepted the challenge.

I will simplify my future approach to teaching research writing as a result.

I found the autumn fern in this picture dried up and neglected at the end of the season at Lowes. Like my students’ research writing, it has experienced a pleasant revival this spring.

5. The Feedback Haiku

I had more time during our state’s lockdown to offer written or voice-recorded feedback via my district’s LMS than ever before. My fear was that no one would read or listen to it.

Adapting an idea from Sarah Gross in one of our last teleconferenced class periods, I offered students fifteen minutes to go review all of their feedback on assignments large or small that have been returned online since March. Then I gave them a challenge: Using only (or mostly) words found in feedback from your teacher, write a “Feedback Haiku” that distills everything you heard that can help you to grow as a writer into just three lines.

Ethan wrote: I can hear your voice/The way you slow down the time/Share this with the fam

Gauri wrote: Evaluation/A detail or idea/A new perspective

Aleta wrote: I love the way/You blend snark and imagery/ “Rainbow assassins”

The experience not only helped my students to spend some of their final effort of the year on reflection, but it also offered me a mirror. What words am I using to shape writers from afar? Are they hearing what I want them to hear? Are these the words I had hoped they would remember from our time together?

The shape of these white violets, which I inherited from the previous owner of this garden, the silvery new growth of a stalk of bee balm, and the smooth gray of river rocks create a sort of haiku simplicity.

I’ll conclude my series this year with one last photo from my garden. You will notice a metal, malfunctioning fountain that my wife and I found on clearance at a garden center for $10. We liked the shape. We planted a few creeping sedum in it.

Just below the repurposed fountain, a hosta stretches it’s broad, leathery leaves. The form and color of the leaf mimics the metal behind it. The yellow stripes echo the sedum’s blond blooms above. None of that was planned.

But something good emerged from it anyway.

I hope that at some point we will be able to say the same of the way we moved the writers in our care during the spring of 2020.

Take care, be well, and see you in the fall.


What are your top five surprise takeaways from your distance learning experience that shape your future teaching? What hobby helps you think about your teaching metaphorically in the way that gardening does for me? You can connect with me on Twitter @theVogelman or engage on Facebook at to continue the conversation.  

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