High Schoolers Embrace Virtual Learning at Reynolds Workshop

December 3, 2020

When Chaya, a junior high school student in California, read her flash fiction piece at her first open mic event, she wasn’t in a dimly lit bar on a makeshift stage or at a podium in her school’s auditorium. She was in her bedroom, video-chatting on Zoom for Denison University’s newly online Reynolds Young Writers Workshop.

During her reading, she occasionally glanced at the chat bar, the listeners’ live reactions popping-up on screen — “You’re doing great!” “Love that line!” Her peers and faculty of the program listened and responded, some quoting particular lines that they liked.

“It really helped me learn what exactly in my work resonated with readers, which was cool because I don’t think I would’ve gotten that feedback if I was reading in person,” said Chaya.

For the first time in its 26 years, the acclaimed, weeklong writing program for high schoolers, annually held on Denison’s campus in Granville, Ohio, was entirely online. After colleges and schools across the country switched to remote learning amid the COVID-19 pandemic this spring, and as mandates for social distancing persisted into early summer, Reynolds program director, Professor of English Margot Singer, and the rest of faculty had to decide whether to cut this summer’s Reynolds Workshop or adapt an online mode.

Luckily, with help from Denison’s educational technology specialists, the Reynolds staff developed a plan to conduct workshop classes and events on Zoom and created a schedule with writing and reading resources which were posted on the course management system, Notebowl.

“It took a lot of planning. Online teaching is all about keeping everything very organized,” said Singer.

Singer was pleasantly surprised by the program’s success and the positive feedback she received from students’ program evaluations. This year’s class was double the usual size, with a record 136 applications, ultimately accepting a record 88 students, who logged in from their homes across the country, plus one student based in Vietnam.

The online regime offered the same, fun but intense pace that usually occurs on campus. Students started each morning in their three-hour workshops with their designated group according to time zone. Daily, they hopped from workshops, revision consultations, independent writing time, faculty readings, student open mics, open discussions with acclaimed writers, and games and trivia in the evenings, all of which took place over Zoom.

The June program followed a stressful semester for the high school students. Chaya, like many others, didn’t return to school after her spring break — an unexpectedly abrupt end to in-person learning.

For students, Reynolds was a space to meet new people with similar interests online, while the country continues to socially distance, and to focus on their writing while gaining mentorship.

Izzy Antonelli, a recent Denison graduate who served as a teaching assistant at Reynolds, enjoyed watching students form connections over Zoom. Antonelli facilitated the student open mics and hosted the trivia and game nights, which gave students the chance to bond outside of workshops. She said, “It can be hard to focus on Zoom and it can be nerve-racking to read your work in front of an audience for the first time, but the chat bar was so lively during the open mics which really showed how present and supportive everyone was.”

“I learned how to build a story with greater depth. I gained friends, writing and speaking skills, and my ability to conquer the world with my talent”

The connections made at Reynolds might be everlasting. The students exchanged social media handles and created a messaging group via Discord, where they continue to discuss and share their writing.

Emmanuel, a high school junior in Virginia, said that he was surprised he was able to make friends, which he didn’t think was possible in online classes. He logged off from the program having a few more friends and newfound confidence in his writing.

“I learned how to build a story with greater depth. I gained friends, writing and speaking skills, and my ability to conquer the world with my talent,” said Emmanuel.

Alison Stine, who was a Reynolds student 25 years ago and is now part of Reynolds faculty, saw perks to the online mode, such as having more students from far and wide.

Students from across the country attend the program every year, but the price can limit accessibility for some applicants. Costs vary, as students or parents must arrange travel to campus, in addition to paying for the all-inclusive program. However, students can apply to receive financial aid through the Reynolds endowment.

This year, without the on-campus costs, like housing and food, Professor Singer was able to dramatically reduce the price of attendance and expand the class size, while still offering financial aid to some students.

Stine sees deep value in the traditionally residential program. “When I went to Reynolds as a high school student, that was one of the first college campuses I had ever seen and those were some of the first professors I’d ever met. I had never been in a university library like that before. I think getting high school students to experience that is really great and inspiring,” said Stine.

Ordinarily, Reynolds students get to preview the college experience — they stay up late and talk in the dorms, eat in the dining halls, write under trees on the academic quad.

Stine has ideas for the future, such as blending in-person and online teaching. “Maybe we could, in tandem, offer remote work, too. Maybe we could have students who live far away join us over Zoom,” she said.

With remote instruction came screen fatigue and other challenges that pushed faculty members to innovate.

Visiting Assistant Professor Michael Croley, who has been teaching at Reynolds for three years, saw the need to break up the workshop time. “It’s hard to focus on Zoom all day. I decided to give them more time to write in class, just 20 min bursts here and there,” he said. “Teaching is always a lot of work, but when you’re doing stuff online, you have to be doubly engaging,” he added.

Stine encouraged students to get off-screen during writing exercises, to write in a notebook while she played music. For one writing exercise, she asked students to take 10 minutes to find an object in their house that says a lot about where they live.

“I think students really need this community, however we can make it. Reynolds has always been special and important in that we do become a kind of writing family, and now the family is online, but it’s still a family,” said Stine.

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