Ahead of the curve

Last time I was in a class full of students was on January 15th of this year*. After 3 months of online teaching (and yes, I can and will call that teaching!), I will soon be back in school for my first mask-to-mask class. It feels quite surreal, to be honest.

In these three months I’ve gone from “this is impossible!” to “wow, we just had such a great class!” – and that is, a four-hour class focused on intensely gaining EAP vocabulary, grammar, and *mostly writing* skills. Or a group debate session for 33 students. Or 3 hours of group presentations. What at first glance at the syllabus sounded like torture or a nonsensical way to spend our time glued to screens, in the end turned out just fine, and better. In fact, so much better that I think I am going to miss my Zoom days.

Setting the dark circumstances that brought us to THIS aside, I was determined to take this experience for what it could become – an exceptional learning opportunity, for me and my students. A chance to master and excel at some skills that will be indespensable much sooner than we thought. Yes, we were unprepared, untrained, put in undesirable conditions, and importantly, we did not choose to study or teach online. While so much was out of control, there was a lot to take charge of. What we could do was to learn together, and learn we did.

Below are my notes on what I think I’ve learnt on the steep learning curve, through my own experience in my online class *attending zero webinars or taking zero courses on how to use web tools/turn my Zoom sessions into fireworks of best teaching practice – simply because I never had time for those.* (That, I’ve learnt as well, was not what would matter for me.)

*** My personal, subjective, earned through eye-strain and body aches, key take-aways after the 3 months of online teaching, in no particular order ***

  • Take it easy! Relax and lower expectations – of yourself, of the students, of lesson outcomes.
  • Make everything clear. And by that I mean, as clear as you possibly can, crystal clear. Instructions on the slides, in the chat box, confirmed with students. Model as possible. And after all that be ready to patiently help someone whose connection was breaking and who couldn’t hear you well =)
  • Talk to them. Spare some time in the beginning/end of class to talk to students individually. Comment on their clothes choice of the day, virtual background, their learning room/space (in case of many of my students – bed), lunch and snack details, sounds you all hear when they turn on the mic. Be nice about it (obviously).
  • Ask about their conditions for studying: Is there anyone else in the room? Is it their own room or a common space like living room? Is it noisy or quiet enough? Is connection usually strong or unstable? The more information I have about their learning environment, the less likely I am to make assumptions when something goes “wrong.” Oh, and it might be a good time to reconsider your beliefs of what “wrong” is.
  • Vary activity types! I had to teach 3 and 4 hour classes, and ensuring that students spend that time (a) focused and (b) productively was not always easy. Much like in the real classroom, varying the pace and modes of interaction was key.
  • Organize some parts of your course to be completed asyncronously, as possible – it was not quite my situation, but given an opportunity, I would. For some activities, it did not make much sense to be in the Zoom room together at that particular moment.
  • Don’t be afraid! It is possible to do a lot online, even if it feels awkward or scary at first. Being flexible seems to be the key, and it is a really good chance to reflect what truly matters in an activity/assignment/course. Shed the insignificant layers, keep the core. Work with it.
  • Open up various ways for students to participate in class, to be visible, and to show their work to you and others: type in the chat box, talk and nominate a classmate to be the next to talk, explore all variations of breakout rooms (especially great for big classes!), Google forms, Google docs, what have you. Have them WORK and produce something in class, and share.
  • Give instant feedback! I absolutely loved this aspect of teaching online. As my students work individually/in pairs/groups, I can open their files and give my comments immediately, type them and help in the moment.
  • Ask students for feedback on your class/activity/course. That’s not ground-breaking, but I feel it is essential to hear our students now and know how they are experiencing our lessons.
  • Be patient! Be very patient. Breathe in, Anna, and don’t assume that silence lingering in the air after your question means anything at all. Move on and reflect on it later. =)
  • Open up space for questions. I learnt that too late, but I’m keeping it in mind for all of my future classes. Students might feel it impolite to interrupt you in an online session when something is unclear, and then there are gaps that might be hard to fill. I found it extremely helpful to share an empty document with the students at the beginning of the lesson encouraging them to type any questions that arise throughout the session, to be addressed at the end. The document did not remain empty for long!
  • Stay after class for 10 minutes, if you can. Some of the learners will feel more at ease to talk to you, ask a question, or confirm a task in that way.
  • Take a break during class!!! Things I did as students disappeared in their breakout rooms: turn off my camera, do squats and other quick exercise, walk around the room and stretch, make tea, eat some fruit. That said, it was essential to keep wearing wireless earphones at all times to hear if any of the students had been kicked out of our meeting and had to be invited back into their rooms (this happened SO many times).
  • One of the top 3 most significant learnings surfaced early and painfully: Time will slip through your fingers, so adjust the plan accordingly. It is plain impossible to complete everything  you usually do in a face-to-face class within the same amount of time online as there are too many unknowns. A student’s house has power outage. Another student’s Zoom suddenly doesn’t let her join the breakout room. Some other student is in class but doesn’t appear on the list of participants so can’t be invited to the breakout room. Typing in the chat is taking waaaay longer than you’d imagine it could. Students cannot access the documents on their computers. Students’ microphones worked yesterday but don’t work today and it’s their turn to give a presentation. And now another pair of students pushed “Ask for help” button in their breakout room and need you there… you get the idea. Breathe – and deal with the issues as they arise, patiently, watching the time you’ve scheduled for this task go by.
  • Train your students! It’s all new, for all of us. Develop your online class routines and give them time to understand how things work, what materials will be accessed and which pages need to be opened during class.
  • Some might disagree with this view, but for me it is fundamental to be honest with the students. Yes, I have only limited experience doing this but I am trying to make it work. Yes, it is taking time to load that audio – please be patient with me. Yes, it is really hard for me to teach a class when most of you don’t turn your camera on. Yes, I have that big pimple on my cheek today and it shows big on your screens and we are all staring at it. I am just as self-concious as you are about having my face on everyone’s screens… until I accept it, and we accept each other’s imperfect home backgrounds, morning hairstyles, cute noisy little brothers, and frowning grandmothers walking behind you preparing lunch. I will not create a “fake classroom” for you or pretend that online runs the same way as offline.
  • Another one in that top 3 most significant learnings: Keep it simple! Who cares if you don’t use fancy mindmapping tools or play Kahoot games. That said, stay true to yourself =)
  • Finally, recognize what the classroom is really all about for you. For me, it is about the people in it. Thus, my priority in the 3 months of Zoom meetings was to try and replicate the human element of the face-to-face lesson. I might have been successful less than 50% of the time, but I know I tried to find ways for us to reach out to each other, while keeping our distance.

 

Just for fun, here’s a list of things I never did in the 3 months of teaching Academic English to my university students (context is the king, I am aware!):

  • never used a poll function in Zoom
  • never asked students to use reactions button in Zoom
  • never used Zoom whiteboard (or any other whiteboard)
  • never used anything other than Zoom, Google Drive, YouTube, and Padlet during or for class

*****

*UPD: Last time I was in a class full of students was, in fact, yesterday – afternoon of May 4th. I will confess to taking a nap of exhaustion after I hit the couch coming back home… But that – “coming back home” to the energy of the real class – is a whole another blog post…

Do you think you might just miss teaching online when it’s all over?… I know I will. Let’s talk about it some day, too.

 

Thank you for reading, as ever.

3 thoughts on “Ahead of the curve

  1. Theodora says:

    Good luck and bee careful! I’ll be continuing online till the end of the term and then we’ll see!

  2. Sandy Millin says:

    This is a fantastic list of tips for those working on Zoom. I especially like the idea of the document for student questions. And what you said about being honest is vital: this is new for all of us!
    Hope things are going well back in the classroom,
    Sandy

  3. […] Loseva describes her experiences of teaching on Zoom without any prior training. The post is full of useful tips for anyone new to Zoom. I especially like the idea of having a […]

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