Blogging Through the Slog of the Quarantine
To say the past year has been challenging for educators is an understatement. Still, when teachers everywhere scrambled to some version of online teaching in the wake of the pandemic, there was some comfort in the continuity of the educational endeavor itself and, perhaps surprisingly, healthy growth as we learned different ways of doing things and experimented with new exercises. One activity I created helped me and my students to find meaning in these trying times.
How the idea came about
I teach Portuguese language courses and direct the French Language Program at UChicago. In winter quarter 2020 I had already been thinking about creating individual student blogs for the spring quarter, primarily to replace the ePortfolio in our LMS (Canvas) for cultural activity write-ups. I was contemplating what else students could do on their blogs. Then the pandemic hit, we moved quickly to emergency remote teaching, and it became apparent that certain types of assessment like writing could be more complicated online.
About that time I came across Anne E. Bromley’s interview with UVA history professor Herbert “Tico” Braun, “’Write it down’: Historian Suggests Keeping a Record of Life During the Pandemic.” Below is an excerpt:
Q. Why do you feel it’s important to create a record of one’s daily life these days?
A. Our normal days in the now-suddenly-distant past may well have often dulled us into just getting through them. Our sudden lives now stop us, and lead us to wonder about our experiences and our feelings on many passing moments.
This [project] will, of course, not be routine writing and composing. That’s the point. There is much that all of us and each of us have already experienced in the past few weeks that is shocking, unexpected, unpredictable, unknowable, new; much that we have not felt before and not seen. What is it like to live today knowing that we do not know what tomorrow and the day after will bring?
Q. What are you suggesting your students do that others could also do?
A. I suggest that you keep a record—in one or more different forms of your own choosing, a journal, a blog, an e-portfolio, a film, a series of artworks, a short story, poems, a series of haikus—of your life in these unprecedented days. Each individual perspective is valuable, and adds to the whole.
I realized that my Portuguese 103 students—having learned the present, the compound future, and both the preterit and imperfect past tenses—could use their blogs for posts on aspects of their life during the quarantine. When I ran this idea by a colleague in the Humanities, she responded enthusiastically.
My supervisor agreed, and this turned into a series of 20 short written reflections over the course of the nine-week quarter. I decided to assign the blog posts for completion credit, worth 10% of the final course grade. I primed the theme by having students first post a video discussion entry on Canvas on how their life had changed during the pandemic, and to respond to their classmates’ posts. Not all students knew each other, as they were joining the class from different feeder courses, so it was an interesting way for them to become acquainted with each other. They were candid in their remarks and talked about how much their life had changed in the few weeks since the end of winter quarter and the start of spring quarter, with quick and unexpected transitions, jobs lost, plans thwarted, tricky living situations, and scarce commodities, and yet on the whole they considered themselves lucky.
The implementation of the idea
Within the theme of writing about life during the quarantine, I wanted students to have a lot of latitude. This was meant to be low-stakes formative writing practice, and not a measure of anything specific we were learning, although some students did make a point of incorporating what we were learning. Here are the instructions I gave in our syllabus:
Writing practice: Pick topics of your choice during this time of confinement, and write a short paragraph (3-5 sentences) 20 different times over the course of the quarter. IT should create individual blogs for you in week 2, and you can post them there starting then. I have read a couple of pieces on recording one’s thoughts, experiences, etc., at this time, for example: “’Write it down’: Historian Suggests Keeping a Record of Life During the Pandemic.”. I myself am using a system of half-size notecards to jot down thoughts, observations, or happenings, almost daily. I encourage you to write whatever you like, in Portuguese. It is completely free, though I urge you to include thematic, grammatical or cultural content we cover in class whenever possible.
After the quarter was over, I did an informal tally of the topics students actually chose to write about. Out of approximately 167 posts, roughly half (85) were indeed on life in the pandemic. About a third (54) were on how the day went, or the (new) daily routine. The rest were split: Eleven were related to class themes or Brazil in general. (Our program focuses on Brazilian Portuguese.) Eight concerned jobs, internships, careers or future plans. Seven were homework-related. And two were offered in thanks for the class.
One student said in his first post that he wanted to treat the blog as a quarantine diary, to gauge his progress in Portuguese but also to see how his thoughts changed in quarantine. Indeed, his posts reflect the constant ups and downs of the fluid situation in his home and setting, abroad, and his reaction to them. Taken all together, all the students’ blog entries give a slice of life in quarantine: students living at home with family for the first time in a couple of years or “stranded” with relatives because they couldn’t get home; moving cross-country during the pandemic; eating, shopping, cooking, exercising, giving or getting haircuts (or not), and socializing during the pandemic; finding creative ways to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations virtually and socially distanced; navigating the challenges of learning during the pandemic; acquiring new skills; having more leisure time for reading or hobbies; long laid plans being postponed or cancelled; worrying about the future, for graduating fourth-years. In their posts, students mostly just wrote, although some students included pictures. Posts were thoughtful, funny, matter-of-fact, regretful, upbeat, downcast, resilient—the mix of dispositions one might expect. And others were simply informative, as students pursued and wrote up an academic interest.
I was unsure about having students reply to each other, so I asked their opinion. One student was adamant about the blog being private. I thus chose not to share the blogs, though some community building that could have been gained in this area was surely lost as a result.
This is what a blog post could look like (used with permission of the student, who is a very strong language learner and a two-time recipient of a Critical Language Scholarship in Portuguese):
The University of Chicago Library’s Special Collections Research Center subsequently put out an appeal for people to contribute to the UChicago COVID-19 Archive to help document University life during the pandemic. I encouraged students to offer their blog if they wished, which Armando did.
Caitlin, an untiringly enthusiastic student of Portuguese who made amazing progress over the course of only three quarters, had this to say in her last entry (used with permission):
È meu reflexão final! Gostei de escrever isso e acho que provavelmente continuar a lo fazê quando não for mais um aluno também. Não sei certo como posso continuar meus estudos em português, mas eu amo esse idioma e quero continuar melhorando! Fico feliz por ter encontrado muitos livros, filmes / programas de TV e muita música que gosto nesse idioma. Ainda posso interagir regularmente com o idioma. Não sei quanto tempo terei, porque não sei se vou ter um emprego ou não, mas vou ter certeza de encontrar tempo para o português!
A MAPH TLO student, she was studying an East Asian Language concurrently, and had knowledge of another Romance language besides. Here’s my translation of what she wrote: “It’s my final reflection! I liked writing this and I think I’ll probably continue to do so when I’m no longer a student, too. I don’t know for sure how I can continue my studies in Portuguese, but I love this language and want to continue improving! I’m happy to have discovered many books, films/tv shows and a lot of music that I like in this language. I can still interact regularly with the language. I don’t know how much time I’ll have, because I don’t know if I’ll have a job or not, but I’ll for sure find time for Portuguese!”
- that even a short paragraph was a viable writing exercise that could contain a lot of information, structures, and vocabulary;
- that students could “clean up” their writing themselves, as for some students I found myself making fewer corrections as time went on;
- that this was a great space for students to both practice (lots of past tense use, for instance) and to try things out (lots of vocabulary looked up);
- that students for the most part took this seriously and wrote thoughtfully and sincerely;
- more about students personally which created a stronger class bond.
Perhaps the blog is an example of “how the content itself could change to meet this moment” (from an email dated 9/18/2020 sent by The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Beckie Supiano referencing an April interview with Jody Greene, “Think Creatively About What You Teach” on p. 21 of Online 2.0: How to lead a large-scale transformation of virtual learning). I feel very privileged to have been the reader of my students’ blogs, an often intimate window into individuals’ lives during this traumatic time. I believe the blog will be a remarkable record for students to look back on, as it chronicled adjustments in day-to-day living, new habits established, reactions to events, and (for many) an unexpected time with family. Even with a vaccine on the horizon, life is still not “normal,” and may never be. How we adaptively live, teach, and learn will be in flux. I recommend having students keep a reflective blog on life at this singular moment as a worthy writing exercise in the target language for those with sufficient linguistic skills to do so.
Author: Alice Musick McLean, Sr. Lecturer in French & Portuguese, Dir. of the French Language Program, University of Chicago