Guest Post: Melanie Jackson on teaching online during COVID-19

A 2018 CCBC-TD Book Week author, Melanie Jackson is the author of several books for young readers in the Orca Currents series including Tick Tock TerrorMedusa’s Scream and Death Drop. Every spring Melanie teaches a mystery unit at a Vancouver secondary school. In this guest post for the Orca Blog, she discusses her experience transitioning to online teaching due to COVID-19 and offers tips for anyone else in the same position.

From lockdown misery to locked-room mystery: How a creative writing unit succeeded online

By Melanie Jackson

No way this will work. That was my mental reaction. My out-loud one was more diplomatic, or possibly more cowardly: “Maybe we should put this off until after COVID?”

Every spring I teach a creative-writing unit to eighth-grade students at Vancouver’s Lord Byng Secondary School. We go through the elements of a story, with slides depicting the ups and downs of plot (character, conflict, etc.) via a roller-coaster setting. I read from two of my Orca young-adult novels and show scenes from a Hitchcock movie. Then students submit mystery stories which I mark and comment on.

For 2020, Byng’s English department head, Amy Hughes, and I planned the unit as usual. Ironic, no? In 2020, the year no one saw what was coming. By February, Amy suggested converting the unit to online. There’s a reason she’s a beloved teacher at Byng: she’s nonstop positive. So we did. We turned lemons into lemonade.

Closed in? Hmmm…

Usually we go with a doppelgänger theme. I read from The Big Dip and Tick Tock Terror, both featuring villains with a sinister understanding of the young protagonists. I show scenes from Hitchcock’s Doppelgängers On a—sorry, Strangers on a Train. The kids read an Agatha Christie short story. The kids’ assignment is then to create their own doppelgänger story.

But in this COVID era Amy and I wondered about the theme. Stuck at home in late spring, the kids had enough to adjust to in real life without having to get into a fictional doppelgänger mindset. Then we had an “Aha!” moment: The kids were stuck at home—we’d make the unit’s theme a locked-room mystery.

It was Edgar Allan Poe who invented this genre, with “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.” So, replacing Agatha Christie, I assigned “Murders.” This actually improved on the usual unit because Edgar Allan guest-stars in my Tick Tock Terror readings. And, in both Big Dip and Terror, the climactic moments find the protagonists literally stuck in tight spots. For Hitchcock, I showed scenes from To Catch a Thief, where the mystery is how a jewel thief gets into locked hotel rooms.

Video-conferencing software proved adaptable to everything I do in person. With the share-screen function I easily showed my slides plus movie clips. Inspired, I created more slides, e.g., Samuel Beckett’s exhortation to writers: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Which also seems appropriate for these current, often-discouraging times.

Five online-presenting tips

The more you present online, the smoother it goes. In fact, this fall I was already back online-teaching at Byng!

Here are five things I’ve learned:

  1. Don’t be shy. Position your face close to your laptop. You want eyes on you, not the distraction of your swishy home décor.
  • What is it with gloomy lighting? In so many online meetings I’ve attended, people sit in near-darkness. Do you see newscasters speaking as if entombed? No! Turn up the lights.
  • In person, I show slides and video clips by stopping to connect laptop to external DVD player to projector. But when you’re in person, the kids can’t get up and wander off for a break. Teaching online, I find it faster to show clips from YouTube. Before class starts, I cue the clip past the See-how-Suzy-lost-50-pounds! or whatever ads.
  • In a webinar I watched about online presenting, the host urged standing for the whole presentation. In person, I stand most of the time—but I can walk around. Alas, standing still while online would put my back out. So, I sit for my presentations. As I do in person, halfway through I get everyone, including me, to stand and stretch. But hey, if you’re comfortable with standing, go for it!
  • Don’t be discouraged if not all the kids pay nonstop attention. For some it will be too tempting to goof off. A Toronto friend’s son happily confessed that online learning was the type that “worked best” for him. Translation: he was gaming. I had to laugh. And I think he’d be a fun protagonist!

Find out more about Tick Tock Terror, The Big Dip and other Orca novels by Melanie.

And if you’re interested in having Melanie present, feel welcome to email her!

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