Inviting Students to “Ask Me Anything”

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Question Mark Sign by Colin Kinner, on FlickrLast week, I wrote about my goal to increase participation by having students track their contributions to discussions and in small group work. My hope is that by making the participation assessment more transparent, students will be more likely to engage in class discussions and activities.

Another of my goals for the new school year is to improve students’ communication with me. Too often on our campus, we hear stories from students in online courses who are surprised that there are real people behind the courses. They’re so used to automated modules and robograding that they are shocked when a real person responds to their questions.

I decided to try something that would let them know that I’m real from the first days of the course. I had already emailed them a “welcome to the course” message, and I included biographical details on the course website to tell them about myself. I’m not sure any of them ever read that information, though. I wanted something catchier, something more engaging.

I decided to add an AMA discussion forum in the CMS. AMA stands for Ask Me Anything,” a kind of discussion popular on Reddit. Typically a celebrity or an unusual or interesting person hosts the AMA session. Readers post questions, and the host replies. It’s something like a personal interview conducted by the public.

To introduce the discussion on our course CMS, I shared this list of ten things about myself with the basic instructions for the discussion:

Inspired by the AMAs on Reddit, I'm here to answer any questions you have. Since we are in Canvas instead of Reddit, this discussion forum will be open through Monday, August 29.

If you see a question from someone else that you want me to answer, click on the Like button. I'll answer your questions (within reason, of course). This forum isn't graded, but it counts toward your participation grade.

To get started, let me tell you a bit about myself.

  1. I graduated from Virginia Tech with a B.A. and an M.A. in English.
  2. I worked at a small educational software company in Austin, Texas, doing documentation, tech support, and software design.
  3. I next worked as a website manager, coding and writing content for sites used by English teachers.
  4. I blog about teaching and writing on my own sites and in a textbook publisher's online community.
  5. The first computer programs I wrote used punch cards. 
  6. When I was in high school, we had a computer in the math classroom with a telephone modem, and when we finished our work we could log on and play 21 against the computer.
  7. I like to make handmade cards and study how technical writing works among cardmakers and scrapbookers.
  8. I am a life-long Girl Scout and have been working locally with the nut and candy sale in the fall and the cookie sale in the winter/spring.
  9. Since I was 7 years old, my family has always had at least one poodle. We currently have three.
  10. I love stickers and washi tape.

I chose the facts that I shared purposefully. I wanted to share details from my work experience that demonstrate my qualifications to teach technical writing, as well as my experience with technology. The idea was to create some shared experiences with the class. I ended the list with some personal information unrelated to the class or technical writing.

About a third of my students asked me a question in the forum. Some questions were meant to clarify or expand upon the information I had shared. For instance, I was asked how many poodles we had had overall and what technical writing had to do with scrapbooking. I was also asked questions about what I like to read, restaurants I like, and how campus had changed since I was a student. By the end of the discussion, I felt that I had engaged students in a way that I hadn’t in previous courses, and I knew I had found a strategy that I would use again.

How do you connect with students so that they see beyond their stereotypes and assumptions about English teachers? How do you demonstrate that you are more than a robograder? I would love to hear your strategies. Please leave me a comment below!


Credit: Question Mark Sign by Colin Kinner, on Flickr, used under CC-BY 2.0 license

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About the Author
Traci Gardner, known as "tengrrl" on most networks, writes lesson plans, classroom resources, and professional development materials for English language arts and college composition teachers. She is the author of Designing Writing Assignments, a contributing editor to the NCTE INBOX Blog, and the editor of Engaging Media-Savvy Students Topical Resource Kit.