Your Online Class as Your Work of Art

October 26, 2018


Are you an artist or a teacher? Can you be both? As a teacher wanting to thrive in the online medium,I think we have to first assume our role as creators—artists, designers, writers—even more than with on-site teaching. If you are creating an online course, it has life beyond the moment of delivery;hopefully, it will continue to inspire and change lives for years to come. An artist brings presence through their work. If the work comes from a fresh, inspired place, those gazing at the painting/listening to the piece/eating the extraordinary meal/ reading the written words, will come into their own present moment with an “ah-ha.” That’s what we are going for.

A core principle both to art and transformational teaching is presence. No matter how good or bad your content is, to be fully present with your students carries great power. In an on-site class, you begin, before even arriving to the physical classroom, by becoming present to yourself: perhaps through a few deep breaths, or meditation, or just lovingly looking over your class design—tuning into what you want to give to your students to bring out the best in them. Once the class begins, creating presence can start with a group meditation in which all get grounded in the moment and let go of what came before. It also shows up as eye contact with each student, listening not just to their spoken words, but their unspoken body language, “energy,” etc., and then feeding back what you hear them say. More than anything it is an intangible thing you embody.

But how do you create this presence in an online course? What practices and online tools can you engage to create and foster presence?

In a future blog I’ll write more about presence and attention, and how you can use cool online tools to help, but for today let’s put on our creator cape and further explore our artistic side. Natalie Goldberg, who wrote the classic Writing Down the Bones, is an artist and teacher who has, for decades, encouraged anyone who wishes to stake their claim as an artist. We do so by picking up pen or brush and just practicing. In a workshop I took with her years ago, she said, “Good writing is giving the reader your present moments.”

If you are fearless in writing what is true, rather than merely trying to impress, some of your work will stop the reader’s breath for a moment, and when they exhale it will be an “ah” that resonates. It doesn’t have to be fancily worded or perfectly crafted—the honesty and your life experience behind the words will be enough to spark transformation.

First step; bring your presence to your online course like you do to all your best creations. Good writing gives you and others sparkling present moments. It helps you and others come alive. A well designed course does the same thing. 

“If you read a great poem aloud - for example, "To a Skylark" by Percy Bysshe Shelley - and read it the way he set it up and punctuated it, what you are doing is breathing his inspired breath at the moment he wrote that poem. That breath was so powerful it can still be awakened in us over 150 years later. Taking it on is very exhilarating. That is why it is good to remember: if you want to get high, don't drink whiskey; read Shakespeare, Tennyson, Keats, Neruda, Hopkins, Millay, Whitman, aloud and let your body sing.”

Natalie Goldberg

You might read the above quote and think, “I just want to give my online students a few helpful tips and skills. I’m not an artist—I don’t create anything that special.”  But you are. And you can! You can deliver your own present moments, in your own way.

To get started, you can go back to my June and July blog where I gave some timed writing exercises specific to course design. Below I’m putting the most basic rules of writing practice by Natalie Goldberg, but definitely check out her books Writing down the Bones and Wild Mind for further explanation and inspiration. 

Natalie’s five rules for timed writing practice

1.   Keep the hand moving

2.   Don’t cross out

3.   Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar.

4.   Lose control

5.   Don’t think. Don’t get logical.

6.   Go for the jugular.

For Natalie and for myself, a lot more surprise, honesty, and revelation happen when writing practice is done with pen and paper. With a computer the staccato pecking of typing can hamper the flow, but worse is the great temptation to edit along the way! I do recommend that you try writing practice both ways but, when doing writing practice with a computer, do turn off all internet access: there is nothing worse to choke the creative stream than getting text messages and other notifications while you are practicing!

Once you have done several timed 10-minute sessions of writing practice, you’ll have (along with lots of filler and repeated stuff—hey you have to keep that hand moving somehow!) some surprising gems of real value;honest moments of revelation that are a gift to you and all. These gems can then go into your course content and design.

I’ll end with a quote from another favorite writing teacher.

“I want to show you that millions of human beings, with education and without it, think and feel things that are worth saying and then can write them just beautifully, like great men and women and true poets.” - Brenda Ueland, If you Want to Write.

If you are reading this you have something beautiful to say and to share that is even greater than you currently may think. When you teach, you hook into that larger dimension from which all artists draw, you expand and learn new things, and the world is made better when you share it!

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