Thanks, COVID-19: Ad-Hoc Solutions for the Sudden Shift to Online Learning

I don’t usually have a reason to talk about my day job on my author platforms, but over the past few days I’ve been seeing friends and acquaintances talk about how they suddenly have to shift to online learning, whether they’re teachers or students, thanks to coronavirus. Though the reason for the change is unwanted, school can still be in session with the help of a few simple tools.

Learn, School, Laptop, Tablet, Headphones, Children

You see, I’m not a teacher. I’m not an administrator. I don’t work directly with students. I have been developing e-learning content for the past 7-8 years. I’m the person that develops the content that Pearson or Discovery Education or whoever publishes, which your school or district then approves. A lot of what I do is ed-tech adjacent–I’m developing content that will be delivered through an online platform, even though I personally only deal with Google Docs and Microsoft Office files.

Given this, I’m used to thinking about how digital tools work with education. However, I recognize that while the “ed industry” has been prepared for virtual learning for years, your local school may not have the infrastructure or interest in that shift. So to have something suddenly forcing this shift may feel overwhelming.

It’ll be an adjustment at first, but you can use digital tools to replicate your brick-and-mortar experience as best as possible. In my opinion, there are two key components in making a digital solution work: real-time collaboration and file transfer. Your ad-hoc ecosystem needs to solve for these issues first just so you can continue with minimal interruption.

Real-time collaboration

Online, Course, Training, Teacher, Computer, Internet

Your sudden shift to the digital world doesn’t have to mean that you no longer have class times. Set up a Slack space or Discord server with your classes–something that enables you to have live voice and video chats. You can still hold your 11am class, just as a conference call. In Slack or Discord, you can set up individual channels for each class period to enable discussion. You could post a prompt in Slack and ask students to post their responses, or assign students small groups to watch a video and discuss.

Basically, you want a tool that will make quick communication organized and easy, with the options of video and voice conferencing.

File transfer

Finger, Touch, Hand, Structure, Internet, Network

Your students still need to submit assignments to you. One of the best solutions is to create a Google Drive folder (or several) for your classes. Provide students and families with clear instructions on how and where to upload homework files. A Drive folder will keep that work in a single place so it won’t get lost in email attachments or chats. Students can still complete writing assignments and assessments, and you’ll be able to leave comments on their work.

How this can work

Computer, Apple, Business, Workplace, Home Office

I’ll ground this in an English/Language Arts example, since that’s the main area of content development I do in the day job. And I’m gonna add anime references because why not?

So, in My Lit Course Academia, we’re reading Jane Eyre, but my school is closing because of COVID-19! How will I offer my course online?

  1. I make a Slack workspace or Discord server for My Lit Course Academia.
  2. I create separate channels for each of my class periods (e.g., #period_1, #period_7).
  3. I invite all of my students to the workspace/server and they use their emails or usernames to log in.
  4. I invite my #period_1 students to a Google hangout or other video chat for regular class at 8:00am. I hold #period_2 at 9:00am, and so forth, basically keeping the same schedule I had in the building, just online instead!
  5. For group or independent work time, I post a video clip of a film adaptation in Slack/Discord and ask students to discuss several questions about it. I give everyone a chance to respond and may tag specific students if they haven’t responded. (e.g., @Bakugo, we haven’t heard from you yet! How does this clip enhance or detract from this same scene in the book?).
  6. For homework, I post a link to a Google folder and ask students to write a paragraph explaining how Jane Eyre changes over the course of the chapter, then assign the next chapter for reading. I post a link to Jane Eyre on Project Gutenberg for students who don’t have a physical copy of the book.
  7. If I need to give an exam, I can make copies for each student to type directly in the doc. I can also schedule one-on-one video chats for oral exams. For multiple choice and other types of assessment questions, I can use Google Forms.

With a structure like this, I can continue giving my lessons without too much disruption. It’s not the best permanent solution, but it works for the time being.

Long-term planning

Students, Women, Female, Woman, Happy, Girl, Young

We don’t know how long the massive public concern over COVID-19 will last. But after you get up and running with an ad-hoc digital solution, it can’t hurt to plan for this situation being more permanent than we want it to be. You’ll eventually want to look into proper learning management systems (LMS) such as Canvas, Thought Industries, Moodle, or Articulate. These are platforms used to build and deliver entire courses online in a single environment. Most of these will include interactive page elements and auto-graded assessment capabilities. You or your district (most likely your district) may need to begin migrating your courses to an LMS. Some of these platforms will let you create an individual free account so you can try building your content sooner rather than later.

In an ideal world, companies like my day job company work with the content publisher to design and place all the stuff in the platform for you, but if you suddenly have to switch, you may have to do it yourself. While any new tool takes some getting used to, many popular LMS are pretty user-friendly. Canvas in particular has a lot of support documentation to explain how everything works.

COVID-19 may be forcing a faster shift into online learning, and there are still many barriers to overcome in making the switch. Some subject areas are much more challenging to teach virtually than others. But if you have to do it now, you can get started and make it work. You’ll hone your approach over time, but the switch doesn’t have to be as disruptive as you might fear.


This is an oddball post for me. I’m normally here to talk about writing and author things! If you like poetry, be sure to check out my books, Forgive Us Our Trespasses and Lest I Know Your Weakness. Both are available on Amazon. Forgive Us Our Trespasses weaves a tapestry of faith, doubt, hope, and bitterness. Lest I Know Your Weakness retells the vampiric love story of Carmilla in alternating poems.

Why Writers Need to Live a Healthy Lifestyle

I’ve been sitting on making this post for a long time because there are a million ways to approach it and a million more things I want to say about it, but now I’ve finally got some coherent, focused thoughts. Although the finite details of a healthy lifestyle may look different for everyone, I think as writers we should think more seriously about how these lifestyle choices affect our work.

The Harm of the “Stereotypical Writer” Narrative

Copy Space, Design Space, Diary, Feeling, Grayscale

As writers, we know the power stories have. So, what are the stories we often tell ourselves about life as a writer? With a massive bout of exaggeration (because of course jokes are fun), we writers tell ourselves that “being a writer” is something like this:

  • never sleeping
  • drinking an entire pot of coffee every day
  • eating junk food all the time to stay awake and meet deadlines
  • writing while drunk
  • editing while drunk
  • never leaving our desks because we’re writing so much

These make funny Twitter jokes, but if they are truly part of how we live our lives, then we are setting ourselves up for burnout and, sooner or later, our bodies giving up on us. What happens then? We can’t write because our health has declined.

Actually living like this is simply not sustainable. Although these are exaggerated cliches of life as a writer, they still are narratives I’ve heard for years and they are influential. When I was a bit younger, I’d say to myself “Oh I must be a real writer now because of how late I’ve stayed up or because of this wine I’ve got or because I drink a Starbucks latte every day.”

In other words, I’d absorbed the silly narratives about a writer’s life and incorporated them into my own habits because they were so normalized.

Sure, you can criticize me for having a weak mind back then and not having the fortitude to know that no, you can’t actually sustainably live like that, but we writers don’t live in a vacuum. Those of us in developed Western societies live in an entire food ecosystem that is determined to feed us cheap, nutritionally void food products for profit. These food products will only give us a temporary high as our energy spikes and do not give us complete sets of macro or micronutrients for truly balanced health.

Moreover, we often receive and perpetuate similar jokey messages that exercise is boring, torture, or punishment. I rarely see writers talking about exercise habits, likely because our online brands focus mostly on being an engaging person and selling our books or talking about writing. Yet we will share those coffee and alcohol jokes about “the writer’s life.”

I’m not saying you can’t ever have a drink or you can’t ever have coffee. I’m just asking us to look more closely at the narratives we tell ourselves when we talk about what being a writer is like. After all, if we believe that words matter, we will recognize the influence these narratives can have.

Real Food Sustains Us and Our Careers

Asparagus, Steak, Veal Steak, Veal, Meat, Barbecue

If we eat and drink ourselves into immobility and chronic illness, we will not live long enough to tell all the stories we want to tell. We will develop health problems that will take us away from our work. There are a zillion factors in this world that we can’t control ranging from who we are to our particular circumstances, but we do have a great deal of control over how we eat and how/whether we exercise.

The companies that make the vast majority of the processed foods we eat do not care one iota about our health. These manufactured products need marketing and advertising behind them because they have nothing else to offer but a temporary pick-me-up. Whole foods, on the other hand, give us full nutrients in a much more natural context. Whereas processing isolates nutrients and reconfigures them in a highly concentrated form, whole foods present those nutrients to us in a way our bodies have adapted to absorb them over thousands of years.

Eating real food can help prevent us from getting sick, meaning we won’t miss days of writing. It’s a way of loving ourselves and taking care of ourselves so we can keep writing books.

Exercise Can Help Us Mentally

Crossfit, Sports, Fitness, Training, Exercise, Athlete

Just about every writer I know, myself included, has some form of mental illness. Although my anxiety is rather mild and manageable with the lifestyle changes I’ve made over the past 18 months, it’s still there and it still gets the best of me sometimes. But regular exercise at the right intensity often feels like releasing a medicine in my head that untangles all the mental knots. I’ve had many workout days where I’m all twisted up inside, but then the workout resets everything.

I know I will likely always be prone to anxious thoughts. I think it’s my nature as a writer because coming up with the most dramatic scenarios is often the stuff of good fiction, but I often apply that dramatic flair to imagining things in my own life and that’s where the problems arise. Exercise helps to release that tension so I can more easily apply that dramatic thinking just to fiction.

Sometimes, our art comes from our heads being a little (or a lot) messed up, but sometimes that messiness can get in the way of our work. Exercising can release the valve. While it is no replacement for medications, it will certainly help.

 

Nutrition and fitness are huge topics, but I rarely see them intersect with writing life. However, maybe we should be talking about this more. Maybe we should think more critically about what we say a writer’s lifestyle is, what lifestyles we give to our characters, and how those decisions could influence our readers. This isn’t to say we need a moral puritanism about who and what to portray, just some deeper thought like we would give to any other aspect of writing.

Bullet Journaling: My Lazy Solution to Task Management

Around Christmas, my bubble of writer Twitter started buzzing with people talking about making 2019 bullet journals. I saw threads full of beautifully decorated notebooks, sticky notes, colors, and all sorts of other organizational tools.

All of which I viscerally hate.

Okay, hate is a strong word, but organizing with tabs, highlighters, labels–all that stuff has just never stuck with me. I’d tried in school, beginning the year strong with notebooks and binders neatly organized, but it only took a few weeks for those to be haphazardly stuffed with papers in any random order. With binders in particular, I chalk that up to a combination between my left-handedness and laziness.

Now as an adult, I do at least have folders for my most important papers. They’re not very organized and a few are quite overstuffed, but they exist. Note charts, idea webs, and basically any graphic organizer ever? No, thank you. I was forced to use them in school, but now? Tables and lists are about as far as I go.

So, the little I saw of bullet journaling did two things: First, it convinced me that it was an artistic organizing thing that those really crafty girls with bubble handwriting do. Second, it confused me.

Yet in 2018, I did start writing things down more: daily tasks, grocery lists, thoughts about books I’d read, writing ideas/scenes, seminar/panel notes, and, most frequently, workout logs.

All of these I kept in separate notebooks. I also keep a daily word count calendar in Google docs along with other brainstorming documents. So, you can see that I had a lot of moving pieces in a lot of places. This didn’t bother me much at all.

Then, over the holidays, I watched a megsquats video where she mentioned keeping food logs and workout logs in a bullet journal. What? But all the writers were using the same thing for writing. How could that same thing work for logging and writing stuff?

Now thoroughly intrigued, I read up on bullet journaling and…became more confused. It sounded like, if I figured it out the right way, I could use a bullet journal to keep track of everything I wanted to in one place: word counts, household tasks, events, appointments, workout logs, groceries–anything.

But the setup seemed complicated until I grabbed a blank journal I’ve had for years and walked myself through it.

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Reader, I married bullet journaling.

Kidding. The change in my life is not exactly earth-shattering, but it sure is helping me get things done. No, my bullet journal is not full of pretty colors or stickers. Right now, it’s strictly rapid logging with daily tasks and other regular lists I keep. Sprinkled here and there are a few writing notes, writing sketches, and thoughts on movies. I’ve made collections in my index for different writing projects, health tracking, and seminar notes. I’ve got my events for the next six months marked as well as events/appointments for this month. My daily pages are just large enough to list that day’s tasks, events, word count, and other short notes while my workout logs and grocery lists take up a page each.

Sounds confusing without looking at it, right? But that’s what bullet journaling is. It makes tons more sense once you set one up yourself and figure out not only what you want to keep track of, but how. Aside from the basic setup of an index, a future log, a monthly log, and daily pages, you can make a bullet journal be whatever you need it to be.

Personally, I don’t use mine for a lot of writing planning, but I have jotted down quick notes which I then transfer to my massive Google doc where I keep all my world building, character notes, and plot notes. The best part about bullet journaling is that I can keep all these different types of things I write down in one place, which actually makes me better at writing down daily tasks, appointments, and events. Because all of it is in a single book, that book is important for me to have around and to keep track of, unlike a separate reading thoughts notebook or a separate to-do list notepad. All of this stuff that seems unrelated can just exist together and it’s organized in a way that makes sense for me.

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I am too lazy to keep track of a notepad for grocery lists/tasks and three different notebooks for everything else. Bullet journaling, thankfully, isn’t asking me to color code or make tabs or any of that stuff unless I want to (and I don’t).

With a new book coming out soon, another book I’m trying to finish, workout routines to keep up with, household tasks and projects to complete, and social and church events, I have so much more to track than I thought until I started bullet journaling. I used to keep most of it in my head or occasionally use the calendar app on my phone, but now I’ve got an organic method for keeping it all together.

Organizing like this will become more vital as my writing career develops. All the launch prep and promotion I’m doing for Lest I Know Your Weakness came together from small, daily tasks. One day, I might find myself needing to manage drafting one project, editing another, promoting a third, and plotting a fourth, each with their own deadlines. That on top of my other life stuff would just be too much to keep in my head.

I’m only a few weeks into bullet journaling, but so far I’m loving the simplicity and the flexibility. One notebook for everything I want to write down? Perfect.


Like poetry? Like Carmilla? Pre-order my new poetry collection Lest I Know Your Weakness today!

A twisted love story told in alternating poetic snapshots.

Intrigue, tension, darkness, beauty–Carmilla and Laura experience it all as they traverse the ups and downs of their relationship through poetic dialogue. Love is alluring and terrifying.

Kindle: amazon.com/dp/B07MGFDZ1L

Nook: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lest-i-know-your-weakness-taylor-ramage/1130202500?ean=2940161501207

Paperback: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/lest-i-know-your-weakness-taylor-ramage/1130202500?ean=9780578435992

Why I’m Supporting #HamiltonElectors

Over the past couple days, I’ve been watching the #HamiltonElectors movement grow. If you haven’t heard of it yet, it’s an effort led by a group of actual electors to spread awareness of the Electoral College’s role in elections and to encourage GOP electors to consider voting for another Republican candidate such as John Kaisich or Mitt Romney.

Though it’s a shot in the dark, it’s a perfectly legal effort. The Electoral College was designed to prevent a popular figure unfit to wield power from assuming the presidency. Everyone’s favorite Broadway star A.Ham proposed this system to prevent a “tyranny of the masses.”

As I’ve expressed in the past, the work of the Church to uplift the oppressed and bring justice to the marginalized continues regardless of who controls the State. Only God’s kin-dom/kingdom is truly just, but until it arrives in full, Christians must work to keep that as our vision and not become too cozy with any political regime. At the same time, we must still be active in the broken systems that we must deal with and we should be knowledgeable of how they work.

I support #HamiltonElectors for several reasons.

  1. It’s a practical way of attempting unity without quietly accepting a man who appoints white supremacists to powerful positions. The fact of the matter is that GOP electors would never in a million years vote for Hillary Clinton instead. Thinking that they would is the result of the liberal/progressive echo chamber, which like all echo chambers shows no signs of understanding the other side’s language.
  2. The President-Elect has appointed a white supremacist a chief strategist. This should alarm every Christian, especially those who proudly proclaim that they support Israel and the Jewish people. No one who takes the calling of Christianity seriously, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum, should passively let this one slide.
  3. Even though we hold that only God will reign in the end, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t exhaust every possible avenue to prevent such violent ideologies from being further justified here and now.

To be clear, no president or politician is a savior and they shouldn’t be treated as such. Injustice will persist this side of the eschaton no matter who is in power, and so will resistance to injustice. We continuously must look for avenues in unjust systems to prevent further injustice. That is what I see in this attempt to utilize the Electoral College as it was established in this manner (yes, the Electoral College system itself is pretty unjust), and I would encourage Christians who take seriously the command to love thy neighbor as thyself to consider it among other forms of resisting oppression. Some may think this is just a bunch of people with their panties in a bunch who can’t accept the outcome of the election. For me, at least, it’s more than that. I see a President-Elect who is legitimizing and emboldening violent, deep-seeded mindsets and my faith simply cannot let me be utterly silent in the face of this.

To learn more about this effort, visit the Facebook page and Twitter account.

 

Interview with Jo Marshall, author of Twig Stories

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Hey folks! Today we have the honor of hearing from author Jo Marshall about her book series Twig Stories. A few months ago, Jo asked if I would review her books and now here we are. I hope you enjoy her insights. 

(Note: My comments/questions are in bold and Jo’s are in purple)

Taylor, if I could first thank you for the opportunity to say hello to your fan base and followers, and tell them a little about Twig Stories and myself.  You’re a kick to know, and I’m so happy you enjoyed reading my books, even though they are for young kids.

 1)    What gave you the idea for Twigs (the creatures)?

The western red cedars in my back yard. They’re huge and beautiful, and mesmerizing.  They are full of wildlife, so it’s easy to imagine all sorts of creatures living there. To amuse my daughter, I used to pretend Twigs lived there, and watched us – similar to The Borrowers, only in trees.  Around this same time, we also made up stories about fighting climate change impacts on forests like wildfires and bark beetles, and we wondered how stick creatures could survive such events.  So naturally our stories evolved from our imaginary Twig friends.

2)    Are there any books or authors that inspired you for this story? If so, what/who are they?

Well, yes of course. The Borrowers series by Mary Norton was great fun.  Those were my favorite stories.  I enjoyed the adventures, resourcefulness, and bravery of such tiny people.  The strong friendships and kindness of the characters in Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne made a lasting impression, and Twigs emulate these qualities along with their courage and perseverance.

As far as feeling a responsibility to actually accomplish something with my writing beyond entertaining kids, authors like David Quammen, Bill McKibben, William DeBuys, and Tim Eagan, who write about environmental concerns, are a great influence.  It’s what drives the stories’ purpose – to share royalties with conservation nonprofits.

 3)    Your message of environmental conservation comes across very strongly, but isn’t preachy. It can be difficult for authors with strong messages to balance what they want to say with a story. How did you approach that dilemma? What advice do you have for writers whose work is or may be perceived as overtly political/religious/what have you?

 Twig Stories are all about the stories first.  I concentrate on creating a wonderful story for kids in the 4th to 6th grade. That is always the objective.  However, it’s impossible to create these stories without acknowledging the terrible events happening in the Pacific Northwest due to climate change.  Taking it all at once can be overwhelming for young readers, so I made each story about only one impact at a time, so there is time to digest each idea.  Kids are much more enlightened about climate change than we are, so, the theme is actually very easy for them to accept.  It helps that the characters are funny and daring, and the adventures are full of dangerous animals.

 Anyway, don’t all authors try to share some ideal or value with their readers?  I’d have to advise any writer who wants to share a message to be sure the actual story comes first. If it isn’t any fun to read, who cares what you try to impart?  You shouldn’t sell a reader short, either. Even young readers pick up the subtleties woven into a plot. There’s no need to shout it.  And if a reader misses the point, perhaps it will come to them later. It’s ok. At least, I hope they enjoyed the story!

 4)    Does music help you at all in the writing process? Are there any songs or genres that specifically inspired ideas for Twig Stories?

 Sounds funny, but I listen to Big Band music or movie soundtracks like The Bourne Identity when I’m developing a story.  I like the tempo. Since the stories always take place over three days, I have to move the action along pretty quickly, so a fast beat is always in my mind while I write.

 5)    How did you approach the writing process? Did you use any special techniques or writing programs (besides Word)?

 Because each piece of the plot has to fit together like a puzzle, I outline a story over and over, and set up a detailed timeline.  I take notes on the characters, not only their appearance, but also their personalities to keep it all consistent.  David Murray is a Disney and Universal Pictures freelance artist, and is the illustrator.  His art is a wonderful inspiration. Sometimes I have trouble picturing a character until I see his version.  He’s great.

 Sometimes I use Powerpoint to storyboard a scene or chapter. It helps me sort out the action. I suppose that’s why so many fans say the stories would be great as animated features.  Storyboarding helps a great deal.

 Weaving endangered wildlife and climate change impacts into a story is relatively easy, since the stories take place where I live in Washington state, and nearby in British Columbia. Unfortunately, it is here that many species are facing extinction due to habitat loss. Forests are dying from bark beetle infestation and one result is devastating wildfires. Glaciers are melting at record rates and the warm winters contribute to floods and drought.  Twigs have no choice but to confront the challenge of a warming world.

6)    What made you choose self-publishing over traditional publishing?

After talking to a few agents and publishers, I realized the stories might become better through their process of editing and art, but I wondered if they would end up being my stories, or simply ‘marketable’ stories.  Because my daughter had contributed so much of her own imagination developing them, I didn’t want to lose that innocence, either. When David signed on as the illustrator for the whole series, and not one publisher would guarantee he could stay on board, I knew I had no other choice.

The only down side is distributing the books on a wider basis. But since the goal is to donate more to conservation nonprofits, that isn’t really a consideration anymore. Many environmental nonprofits contact me now, and ask for Twig Stories book donations so they can use them for their fundraisers. That is really enjoyable.  Just donating Twig Stories.  I really get a kick out it, and it helps support their message of caring for our natural world beyond just sharing royalties.

7)    Once Twig Stories is over, do you have other writing projects you plan to work on?

Well, Twig Stories seems never-ending right now. Leaf & Echo Peak will be out next year, and that completes the first four-book collection of stories.  My daughter wants the next four-book Twig collection to take place in the redwood forests of Northern California and the Sierras, and after that she wants four Twig stories to take place on the Olympic Pennisula, and focus on marine life.  So when I’m about 70, I figure I’ll have time to write that nonfiction study of Lake Tahoe that I’ve always wanted to write!

8)    Do you have any other comments about Twig Stories, yourself as an author, the publishing process, or anything else?

One of my goals now is to find an excellent ‘freelance buyer’ for bookstores, so someone could actually represent my books across the country. If there are such professionals now (because of the changing industry), perhaps Twig Stories will enjoy that wider distribution market after all.  If you know anyone like that, please give them my name and email!

I’d just like to add some links.

Facebook book page: http://www.facebook.com/twigstoriesbooks

Facebook author page: http://www.facebook.com/twigstories

Also, I offer a 20% discount, if they go through the website’s Twig Store page, http://www.twigstories.comOtherwise the books are available on Amazon.com and most online stores.  Here’s Amazon.com’s:

Leaf & the Sky of Fire (book 2) ~

http://www.amazon.com/Leaf-Sky-Fire-Twig-Stories/dp/145630092X/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1306174492&sr=8-2

Leaf & the Rushing Waters( book 1) ~

http://www.amazon.com/Leaf-Rushing-Waters-Twig-Stories/dp/1461135788/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1322030239&sr=1-1

Please look for Leaf & the Long Ice, which just released on Thanksgiving.

Thanks, Taylor. I really appreciate all you’re doing.

Jo

Thank you, Jo, for reaching out and sharing your work with me!