9(4), November 1993, pages 81-88

Trying to Create a Community:
A First-Day Lesson Plan

Nick Carbone

On the first day of class in a networked computer-equipped writing classroom, many students hesitate at the door a second before coming in. They pause and look around, trying to find the teacher to double-check they're in the right room. The query goes something like this: "I'm looking for College Writing; my schedule says it's supposed to be in here, but there's computers."

I like this. I take it to mean that students' prior expectations are for the moment put on hold. Because they are unsure of what to expect of a writing class taught in a room with computers, it makes it easier for me to use the lesson plan described in the following pages to establish some of the classroom and community habits I'd like them to have for the course.

A room like the one I teach in--with 22 leading edge computers linked Via Novell NETWARE with Microsoft WORD 4.0 as the word-processing program and arranged in rows on tables that extend out from one wall, a white expanse of painted cinder block, with half the computers facing east and the other facing west--is still rare enough so that most who enter for the first time assume because it is filled with computers, a printer, and little else, that it will be a cold and distant room to teach and learn in. At least I get the sense that many of my students carry this prejudice with them.

What I try to do with the first-day lesson plan is to move the students out of this moment of uncertainty and hesitation directly into tasks that lead them to teach and learn from one another. I teach at a large state university which gives me a range of students whose experiences, writing abilities, and assumptions about life differ. I want them, with all their differences, to be able to work together as a community; thus, another intent of the plan is to have them do things which work to bring them together, to give them a common experience.

The lesson plan takes about two hours to do. The writing classes taught in the computer lab meet four hours a week instead of three, and almost all the classes have at least one meeting that lasts at least two hours. My schedule this year is Monday and Wednesday from 10:10-12:05. This extra time makes this a one day lesson plan, and I describe it as such. However, I have used the plan with a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule where the Monday and Wednesday classes were traditional 50-minute periods and Friday's class met for two hours. I stick to the sequence described below when this happens, and do it in two class meetings instead of one.

Part One: Students Introduce Each Other to the System

For the first step, I meet the first student through the door and prepare her to teach another student. I hand her a disk, have her take a seat, show her how to log into the system using my last name, get to the student menu, do a virus scan as a matter of habit, and then check the "Class News" where she is welcomed to the class and given directions for getting into the word-processing program, told how to call up a writing prompt from one of the class drives--a prompt which asks students to think about themselves as writers--how to split a window so she can read the prompt in the top window, how to write a response in the window below it, and finally how to save the response to another drive in the virtual classroom using a standard file-naming convention.

All of this takes me about three minutes to explain, and I walk the first student through all of it, having her save and name the second window before she begins writing in it. When I do this, I coach with voice only; I never take a keyboard from a student.

When the next student comes in, I tell the first student I helped to become the teacher, stressing that she too should not take over the other student's keyboard. Then these two students walk through the procedure the next two students who enter, and those four show the next four and so on until everyone in the class is online describing her- or himself as a writer. Of course, the timing on writers' arrivals into the class is not such that there is a perfectly orderly progression of this transference, but the overlap gets handled by having new people join an introduction in progress, then having someone start it over for that new arrival.

I make the students into teachers within minutes of their entering the classroom. They meet, talk to, and help one another immediately. All I do is show one person what to do and direct all others to their classmates. Soon the room is full of the clacking of keys and the murmurs of consultations, and what at first glance may have seemed a sterile authoritarian environment becomes a place humane and sharing, made more easily so by chairs with wheels, so students can scoot over to one another's screens.

To further encourage students to seek help from one another, I don't answer a student's question on software or the system unless they have checked with two other classmates for help first. If they still need help, then I show all three what to do at the same time; after which I place their names in a file I keep online along with the task they learned. This online file becomes the listing of who knows what, a guide to class software experts.

Part Two: Students Share Views of Themselves as Writers

To begin the second step, I encourage students to discuss the prompt with one another as they're writing their response to it. Students often ask me what I meant in the prompt, or what I want them to do, prodding for a hint as to what would be the correct thing to write, telling me they can't or don't think of themselves as writers. I refer them back to the text of the prompt and to their classmates. "Ask her if you can see what she's written to get an idea of one way to respond," I'll say.

Here's the latest version of a prompt. I don't save prompts from semester to semester because I like to force myself to think anew about what I want to say in them.

Hello Writer,
      Since for most of you thinking of yourself as a writer may be a new notion, I'd like you to recall your history as a writer. Your history can include talking about any writing experience you've had in the past, including shopping lists, essays in high school, letters, journals, any and all writing you've ever done.
      You can talk about how you feel about writing. You can talk about the best writing you've ever done. You can talk about what kind of writing you like to do. You can talk about what you think makes writing good. You can talk about what has influenced your writing.
      You can talk about your writing habits--where do you write best?, when do you write?, how many drafts do you do? You can be specific or general.
      Here, for example are some things other writers have said about writing. I'll start with one that is especially true for me.
      "I hate writing but I love having written."
     --Dorothy Parker.

The prompt goes on to include two longer quotes by writers on writing and a request that students write on this for 15 to 20 minutes as quickly as they can, without worrying about spelling, grammar, or punctuation. The prompt ends with directions about how to split the screen and save the response. After about 20 minutes, I check to see that everyone has at least a screen's worth of text before going on.

To continue the second step, I ask all the authors to stand at once. After they stand, I pause to let them get a look at one another and fidget a bit; then I tell them that I want everyone to read something from what they have written. Everyone remains standing as each takes a turn at reading.

I have them all stand so that no one stands alone and feels conspicuous, and I only ask that they read one screen's worth of text to move around the room quickly. I like that they all rise; it becomes for me a metaphor of what I'd like them to do as writers and learners--to stand together. If only one person were to stand, as she read from her screen she would only be able to see a handful of her fellows. For the rest, she'd see eyebrows and foreheads. We have no projection screen, no "head of the classroom," so there's no place for a speaker to stand and see everyone clearly. When everyone stands, everyone gets a better view of everyone else, and they all feel a little uncomfortable together.

Reading out loud also brings the oral into a classroom that by its very nature and my predilection relies more on online written communication. Reading aloud is a way to share writing, and in this instance, coming from a prompt that asks them to describe themselves as writers, the students discover a lot of common ground, common experiences with writing. They hear about other writers and their writing, so even if they are denying that they are writers, which a number of them do, they are sharing how they view writing from their own writing with other people who have written. They are immersed in writing and writing talk.

After this reading out loud, the class takes a 15-minute break, and they return for the second half of the class.

Part Three: Going to an Electronic Discussion

For the third step, I choose a student who didn't go to break, or one who comes back early, and show him how to log into Daedalus INTERCHANGE from the student menu and to send messages. Then, I have that person walk a classmate through it. Like the logging in that occurred earlier, the students keep teaching their classmates until everyone is logged into the INTERCHANGE session.

I enter the INTERCHANGE session before any of my students do and send a message--which will be visible to them once they complete their login--with two prompts. The first, a question--What did it feel like to stand and read aloud to the whole class?--gives the students a chance to share further a common experience, and most acknowledge having felt uncomfortable with reading out loud. The second, a request, asks them to remember what they had heard from classmates reading aloud, to comment on a classmate's experience most like their own, and then to follow that with a comment on a writing experience most unlike their own. From the messages written responding to these two prompts, a discussion evolves, one I read only, letting the students respond to each other.

As students talk about reading aloud, someone usually will mention how much more comfortable they feel with the electronic discussion. It's one of the reasons I enjoy moving so quickly from an oral mode to an electronic one. It surprises students. They are also surprised by how easily they find themselves contributing to the electronic discussion. Everyone contributes and gets a sense of everyone else's personality, more so, I believe, than they would have had we sat in a circle. Further, using the electronic discussion gives everyone a chance to respond in less time. In an oral exchange, waiting for everyone's response to the two prompts could well take up 50 minutes if comments were as full as the responses on the INTERCHANGE session. This approach would let everyone say something only once; there would be no real interaction, nor would we be able to do anything else in class.

We only spend about twenty minutes with this first INTERCHANGE session, just enough time to give everyone a quick taste-about three to four messages per student on the average. After students complete their final message, I tell them to go back to their response to the "me as a writer" prompt they wrote and read from earlier. Because at our site, INTERCHANGE is not integrated into the word-processing program, I then close the INTERCHANGE session and save the transcript for students as a Microsoft WORD document on one of the class drives where they can all read it.

I ask students to take 15-20 minutes and to work on their piece, telling them at this point that I would like to them to generate an essay from all that they have written. They are free to include ideas or words from their own or classmates' INTERCHANGE comments, which they can now view concurrently in a split window. At this point, I choose three people at random and show them how to cut and paste from window to window in case they want to copy anything from the INTERCHANGE discussion into their papers. I then announce to the class that these three people know how to do that task, that they can be consulted if someone would like to cut and paste, and that they are listed in the class's online software-expert file.

Part Four: Giving Two Kinds of Peer Feedback

For the fourth step, I instruct the writers to save their files to a drive reserved for revision and feedback. I tell students that these working documents, as rough as they are, represent drafts for their first essay. Once all the files are saved, and each student has a blank Microsoft WORD screen, I have them enter the command that lists all the files on the feedback/revision drive. Students locate their file on the list, then, each student loads the file listed below her or his file. Every student now has on her or his screen the file of a classmate. Students have exchanged papers without having to print.

They do two things next. First they read the draft and at the top of the file write from memory a description of what they read, trying to recall as much of the draft as possible. They separate this from the draft proper with a double row of asterisks. After they've done this, they return to the draft itself, read through it again, and when they come to the draft's end, they double space away from the last line and continue writing the draft as if it were their own.

This gives the writer two kinds of feedback: one is what the reader hears in the piece; the other gives a sense of where the reader thinks it can go. The writer is free to leave the contribution in her draft if she likes it without attribution, as if she had indeed written it. This introduces the writers to peer review in a startling but nonthreatening way, asking them to respond as readers and fellow writers rather than expert proofreaders and grammarians. It also indicates early the degree to which I encourage and allow collaboration.

Because most of the drafts are still short and rough, this feedback doesn't take a long time to do, and it is easier for the writers to continue someone else's work; they're not imposing on a finished piece, they're adding ideas to other people's early thinking, taking a ride on their train of thought.

As the class ends, the writers are told to continue working on the draft; I ask them to make it about 1,000 words. This usually seems a lot to them until I tell them that comes to about four double-spaced typed pages. Then it doesn't seem so bad. I tell them to make sure the expanded drafts are online when class begins.

Part Five: Things I Don't Do

There are things I don't do on the first day that matter too. I don't do most of the usual things students might expect teachers to do on the first day: give out a syllabus, show and ask that they buy the handbook, do a complete overview of the course (or the virtual classroom for that matter), and introduce myself formally, I don't really need to do these things right away, and if I did do them, they would pull students away from the writing and teaching I want them to do, would pull them away from meeting and hearing each other, and would force them to listen to me.

The syllabus, my contract with my class, awaits online, and I have students read it for homework after they finish the first essay, which usually comes after the disruptions of add/drop days at their worst. They read the syllabus and write me a letter about it, leaving the letter on a drive reserved for letters (Letters are saved as files--we don't have a classroom electronic mail system for students.); I respond to their letters and any follow-up comments or questions they have. The syllabus contains a complete course overview, and the exchange of letters lets us clarify how we understand the course.

The syllabus also gives the details on the handbook we'll use, but since I don't use it until after the class has completed two essays, there's no reason to draw attention to it right away. Students discover the virtual classroom (which consists of nine drives for the class to use as they need to) on their own, but for those who like an overview, there is a "directory map" they can view from their student menu that lists the drives and what kinds of files can be found or placed in each.

I do stress that students should arrive for the next class with their work already online, and that they should not miss any more than three classes all semester. But this takes about a minute to say and gets said in the last five minutes of class when I tell them about open lab hours and other computer outlets on campus.

And as for my introduction, they meet me online. I sign my "Class News" greetings and notes with my first name, Nick, and they use my last name, Carbone, to log into the system. I never stand before them all and say, "My name is Nick Carbone, and I'll be your teacher." Part of that is shyness, but it also means they meet me online first, through my greeting in the "Class News" and the prompt. My physical presence complements this virtual presence by steering students to one another and referring them to their writing--theirs and mine--that lives online. I want students to start by learning and writing immediately, and I want that learning and writing to be from and with each other, so that--from day one--a community of learners and writers evolves. I do two things I find essential to these goals--give them integrated teacherly and writerly tasks and don't give them the usual first day teacher talk that they may have come to expect. Many students understand the first day that the class isn't what they expected at all, and that's worth building on.

Nick Carbone is a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Nick Carbone 's e-mail address is NICKC@ENGLISH.UMASS.EDU.