Teachable Moments in Unusual Times – The First Week

September 22, 2020 by Jennifer Campion

Well. THAT was exhausting. And frantic. And a little disheartening if I’m honest. And I feel like I just spent 3 hours herding cats … or maybe juggling cats.

I’m an experienced teacher. I’ve got 20+ years under my belt. I usually LOVE the first day of class. Today didn’t give me those usual feels at all.

This was nothing like I’d experienced before. It’s not like I was not prepared for class, or that I’ve never worked in Zoom before. I felt like a COMPLETE newbie. Remote learning really is a completely different animal. 

I’ve spent the last 5 or so months at Color Vowel supporting teachers as they converted to online settings. I’ve read hundreds of posts and comments in myriad teachers’ groups on Facebook. I’ve researched so many apps. But somewhere in the middle of today’s class, I realized I know NOTHING. … Or at least I FEEL that way. 

One week in–and I have already reached tech overload. So many apps out there that do so many things. … You can watch as many videos as you want to prepare, but using a new app almost never seems to go smoothly in class. I’m left asking if my choice is really only between feeling guilty for not trying OR trying the app but then having it end up feeling like a gimmicky gadget I used just to make my class “interactive.” 

Here’s the deal… I spend hours researching a tool and trying the free version of the tool only to learn that the feature I really need is in the Pro version that you have to pay for. … I then spend even more hours crafting the PERFECT activity using said tool — WAY more prep time than if I were to do that same activity in the classroom–only to find that, during the lesson, it again takes way more time to explain and execute than the same activity in face-to-face classes. … And in the end, you don’t get to half your lesson plan.  What you DO have is a few frustrated students who spent more mental energy on using the tool instead of focusing on the content. Should I celebrate that the students figured out how to use Jamboard successfully when what I really wanted was for them to realize that there were between 14 and 16 vowel sounds in American English?

I tried using AnswerGarden which got rave reviews from teachers online, but it was kind of a flop. The question was “What do you think you need to work on?” They all answered the same thing at first. (What is it about the ‘th’ sound!!???)  It took a long time to get the students to share their ideas. Maybe it was too soon for them to feel safe enough to share–even though it was anonymous.

My whole lesson plan went out the window. OK, to be fair, 19 students in a pronunciation class IS a lot to deal with–even if it were face-to-face. I’d be a little overwhelmed ANYWAY. Just getting everyone logged on was a feat. 

The college says everyone should have a computer, but if someone didn’t sign up until this week and doesn’t have a computer yet, I still have to help them the best I can. I can’t just tell them, “Sorry, come back when you’ve got the required electronics.” You REALLY have to be understanding of (what can be) your students’ less-than-ideal situations, and that’s when your white, middle-class, tech-and-WIFI-blessed, citizen privilege smacks you in the face… again.

Language classes are inherently multi-level classes but in adult ed, it’s not only their language skills that can be diverse, but also their tech skills. In a remote class, it seems that just one student’s lack of tech expertise or ownership can derail the whole class. In face-to-face settings, you can deal with the tech dinosaurs or the tech poor during break or after class. If I “lose” someone along the way in a face-to-face class, it’s easy to spot.  You see that puzzled look, that slight frown, the wandering eyes. I know how to deal with that kind of disconnect. It’s easy to know who’s missed what when someone gets up and walks out for a bathroom break. But what if you lose them virtually? How do you balance the needs of the class with helping the one or two who couldn’t hear or couldn’t see, dropped out, need to come back in, and now have missed the last ten minutes–all because their WIFI or their laptop battery died and you actually didn’t notice there was one fewer black box on your screen for all that time?? … Definitely not just herding cats but juggling those cats!

And oh, the black boxes. Teaching to black boxes. The Zoom landscape. Is it inevitable? What should my policy be? Am I insensitive if I require them to turn on their video? How do I teach pronunciation if I can’t see what they’re doing with their mouths? But can I really see anything anyway with everyone in 20 little Brady Bunch boxes?

Did I mention that I thought using two screens was going to be great? Whenever I shared something in Zoom, my windows kept opening on the wrong screen. It was too much to keep track of, and I still couldn’t see my students most of the time–which was the point of having two screens in the first place. I thought that I AT LEAST had a handle on Zoom. Apparently not.

This is all going to need some choreographing and practice. 

More cats to herd…or  to juggle. 

More slack to cut myself. 

More grace to extend to all involved.


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