I’ve been teaching people how to write at a distance since 2004. In the past year I’ve tutored students in Shanghai, Singapore, Jakarta, Sydney, Detroit and Los Angeles via Skype.
They are almost always learning to write college essays for undergraduate admissions, Ph.D. programs, and fellowships, but occasionally I get the odd request from a professional who needs help with a LinkedIn profile – or just wants to be a more effective letter writer.
Some of my students come from elite private schools; others have special needs or come to me after serving time in jail or prison. Some are teens; others are deep into their careers. Distance learning is what they all have in common. Here’s how we make it work:
- Focus on relationships. Everyone misses the face-to-face interaction of a traditional classroom. I spent 10 years in one at the college level, and I miss it. It is important to recreate that closeness. When we start, I give my students a virtual tour of my home office, introduce my ever-present dog Rosie, and always tell them a little bit about my day and what I’ve been reading or writing. My students love to show me their rooms and what’s important to them, everything from Megaminx puzzles to musical equipment. It’s what that wonderful teacher in the Broadway musical The King and I called “getting to know you.”
- Some of my students in Asia are separated from me by a 12-hour difference in time zones. Distance learning is not a 9-to-5 way of teaching. My students are willing to connect with me early in the morning or late at night, and I’m willing to do the same. We also meet on weekends and even holidays.
- Technology is key. I Skype with my students, but Zoom is another good option. Google Docs is invaluable, since we can work together on breaking down a piece of writing and figuring out why it works or doesn’t work. A stumbling block with distance learning is the lack of access to technology that many students face. This March, one of my students in Detroit did not have a computer, so we did our work over our mobile phones. Not ideal, but we adjusted. This technology barrier is a societal problem that must be addressed.
- Family support. Most schools are set up to support teachers, with counselors and other staff who can help encourage students and hold them to account. This now falls to the parents, grandparents or even older siblings. I hold informal “parent-teacher” conferences that usually start before any sessions. I talk about my approach, what my expectations are for their student, and answer any questions or concerns. I’m also available to touch base with them whenever they would like. Parental support includes setting up a quiet spot for the student to work, quieting a barking dog, and providing lots of love and encouragement in this unfamiliar setting.
- Dealing with emotions. When I taught writing in traditional settings at Michigan State University, Oakland University and Wayne State University, I brought a holistic approach to the classroom. My students are not robots; they are people with feelings. I’ve laughed and cried with my students, even if we are separated by 10,000 miles and have never been in the same room together. The bonds are just as strong as if we were physically working across a desk from each other.
Does distance learning work?
Yes, judging by my students’ results, which include acceptance letters from MIT, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Brown, Northwestern, Boston College, NYU and others. More importantly, they are ahead of the curve when it comes to adapting and adjusting to distance learning.