Teaching (or something) during a pandemic

This past March (which seems like decades ago) and when my school’s spring break began, I had every intention of devoting those glorious two weeks of down time to extra sleep, cooking, some creative activities that involved clay or scribbling, some good old fashioned exercise and more. My work colleague and I were almost giddy about the possibilities in the middle of a gray and glum winter and were soooo ready for break to happen.

And it happened! And then it didn’t.

We got word that our semester was going to change abruptly around day 3 into the break. From then forward it was a non stop pursuit of ways in which we could morph our curriculum, rethink our course goals and just throw things out the window if need be.

Our school’s Ed Tech and IT and Library staff worked harder than ANY of us to make this happen. Having once been on that side of the “helpdesk” I can only imagine what was going on behind the scenes while they could still be in the same room and then when they had to social distance. I immediately wanted to bake a billion brownies for all of them to say thanks. Without these folks, distance learning simply would not have happened.

I have to admit, I did not attack therevamping my course immediately. For one, I wanted to know how my students were doing. Did they have a safe place to live and study for the next 8 weeks? Were they healthy? Where were they? Which time zones were they in? For my seniors, what extra support might they need (or better said: where could I cut them slack) as they tried to finish their senior year, find a job after college, and prepare for a very uncertain future while in the middle of quarantine. What’s the sense of planning three stellar *cough* online presentations per week to mimic our face to face reality if no one had the brain space, the time or the bandwidth to take that on?

I also wanted to weigh my tech options. Our school was not telling us what to do, which was good, but it also led to lots and lots of “let’s download this free app and hope for the best” from many faculty (the students were both under and overwhelmed). There were training sessions in Microsoft Teams. So much tech not much wow. I decided to stay with the almighty and unwieldy Blackboard (our campus CMS) and add Zoom. It was the least amount of tech, and also the most I could mentally fathom.

It turned out that while I was pondering this many of my colleagues in other disciplines were rapidly grabbing up students’ time online: Scheduling course meetings that went for 2 hours at a pop, or assigning work with hard deadlines that meant lots of on and offline work. Suddenly no one had any time and everyone had all the time in the world simultaneously. This struck me as somewhat crazy. I mean, hello? Aren’t we in a global pandemic? Life is happening all around us and don’t some of our students need space to cope? Faculty had already decided that grades would be P/F. I had presumed that meant we could lower the bar a little and give ourselves some space to think and grow vs race and memorize. I guess my view was not the predominant one and many students were tasked with jumping through virtual hoops for weeks…all for the sake of “learning.”

My class and I decided upon one hour a week to meet face to face, plus three writing assignments a week and one video/audio recording assignment. They were a particularly agile group of language learners and had already progressed way beyond what I thought they could do in the first half of the term, so it did not seem unreasonable to slow things down, review and reuse some of the language we had already studied, and still get to the finish line with a level of proficiency that would allow those that could to move on to the next level…whenever and however the next semester would come to pass.

So I should say right here that my home life was pretty calm and collected compared to those of my colleagues who were trying to juggle child care or schoolwork or taking care of sick parents. Aside from four-yes-four very spoiled and needy dogs who zoom-bombed far too many class sessions or virtual office hours than I am able to count, it was pretty easy going here. Once I stopped reading the news headlines and started listening to the peepers and the birds who were finally coming back to the feeders, my general sanity improved. My kids moved home and our internet handled it (5 people working remotely simultaneously). We did lose power a few times, one kid turned off the furnace by accident (thank you service person for NOT laughing at us when you discovered the problem in 2 minutes), the back up generator had a small fit but did come on during the last black out and our well pump died a dramatic death, but otherwise things were calm on the homefront. Oh and everyone here was healthy, thank god. We were lucky.

I am writing this after having just finished my last simultaneous online class for the term. Zoom fatigue is a real thing and I haz it. So do they. I am so glad this is coming to an end…for now.

Before I close down the term (and this post… courage, dear reader, it is coming to an end) I thought I should write down what worked and what didn’t. In case anyone is reading this and is interested but also because I may have to do this again next semester and need to remember.

Ugh. Onward.

Remember:

  • Make sure your computer can handle all of this. My 5 year old MacBookAir really struggled with screen sharing and presenting and polling and and and… in zoom. I brought home my office machine (newer but still not powerful enough) and it also sputtered. So many minutes of my online classes were spent saying “whoops and now it is frozen, okay…plan B”
  • Have a Plan B..and C.
  • Faculty were (somewhat) trained about how to teach, but our students had no idea what to expect while learning. Be clear about the plan, the goals, the tasks. And what constitutes “participation.”
  • Breakout rooms in zoom are great but you need a plan. Model, practice while all together, make the time in the rooms SHORT, and then be sure to include everyone when sharing back to the group. Have a “why” as well as a beginning, middle and end for these tasks. Otherwise it is just fancy busywork.
  • Make time to quickly and informally check in with everyone at the start of each class. Have things changed since the last time we met? If so, how can I help or do you need to not be here right now? I did not obligate my students to come to the live classes (and I recorded them) but I asked them stay in touch. That helped.
  • Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. Sure I can stream audio and video via zoom and we can all listen/watch together. But is that the best use of our time together? And can my machine/network actually handle it? Can theirs?
  • Don’t assume anything. My students would automatically join zoom calls and mute their mikes. I thought they were just being passive until I had them unmute their mikes and the cacophony of their homes was amazing (siblings also e-learning, rattling pots and pans, TVs blaring etc)
  • Pivot. A lot. One of my colleagues in French was planning to teach a specific novel in her class and ditched it for Camus’ Le peste which worked brilliantly. We happened to be doing body parts and illness when our semester began again so we did a deep dive into different Spanish speaking countries’ responses to COVID-19 etc. Yay for synchronicity.
  • Forget the virtual backgrounds. My students saw my house, my dogs, and my family during class. In one class they had to practice giving commands and cooking vocabulary to my son in Spanish in our kitchen in order to tell him how to make scrambled eggs. Best.class. ever.
  • Remember that no one is doing a fabulous job right now. If they say they are then they are fibbing. And yet no one talks about their glorious failures either (which is why we all think we are failures right now). People who do this kind of teaching for a living often have had lots of training or have systems in place specifically for this purpose. If this semester felt like it was being held together with duct tape and twist ties, it probably was but hey that’s as good as it gets for right now. Don’t beat yourself up. Have a cup of tea (or stronger) and binge watch Bob’s Burgers for a few hours. Be kind to yourself.

I am sure there is more and if there is I will add it later. But for now I am going to get ready for their oral exit interviews/ sendoffs. It all feels so hollow and yet I know we accomplished a good amount. I look forward to the day that I can physically see these folks again and can give them a hug and say thanks for hanging in there.

Until that time, I am just hoping spring comes to this part of the world…and soon!

Weather map…in late April

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for 18 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and watch the Red Sox. Preferably not all at once, although that could be interesting. To see her online portfolio please click here!

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