07 April 2020

Coronavirus Quarantine Diary: Day Whatever, Entry Eight, Ordinary People, Running Into People, Teaching People (Preferably Not Online)

I google imaged "ordinary Americans" and this is one of the first images that appeared.
Here was a paragraph in a story I read on CNN this morning: "On social media and in interviews with CNN, a number of people of color — activists, academics and ordinary Americans — expressed fears that homemade masks could exacerbate racial profiling and place blacks and Latinos in danger."

What struck me about this was “activists, academics and ordinary Americans.” I gather from this that one would not consider either activists or academics to be “ordinary Americans.” My questions is: why the hell not? Is there something extraordinary about people in academia that separates them from normal people? And aren’t most activists "normal" people who are concerned and trying to do something about wrongs that they see in this country?  I would argue that being an activist should be considered the height of normalcy in the U.S. You might just as well say “carpenters, voters and ordinary Americans.”

It reminds one of that odious phrase, that has variations such as “when you get out in the real world,” or “you’re not living in the real world” or “it’s just not that easy in the real world.” For chrissakes it’s all real. Every second of every part of life is “real” whether you’re in a Fortune 500 boardroom, a public market or Disneyland, it’s all real. Every bit of it.

Sunday I went for my daily stroll and happened down a street not far from our humble abode that I don’t believe I’d ever traversed before. There sitting on his fronts steps with his wife was a former colleague of mine from my middle school teaching days, they were talking to two people who stood in their driveway. This couple was comprised of another former colleague of mine and his wife. What a stroke of luck! (For me, anyway, the wives didn’t seemed thrilled to see me.) Anyway I was thus able to engage in — you should excuse the expression — social intercourse. In person conversations have these last few weeks been limited to the wife, oldest daughter and my pharmacist. Adding to the joy of being able to chew the rag with living breathing humanoids was the fact that I’d not seen any of them in several years. What fun.

In my last blog post I wrote off how teaching online (as I did via Zoom for the previous three weeks) was about a third as effective and a tenth as much fun as teaching in an actual classroom. A reader (I do have some, ya know) asked in the comments section if I would expand on this.

First of all I will concede that online courses are not so bad in some cases, I’m thinking of college classes that are done lecture-style (as opposed to ranch style) with dozens of students. Although I’d still prefer to be in the classroom, that might not be so bad. However my teaching experience is comprised of nearly nine years of teaching ESL classes with seven to 18 students and prior to that 20 years of teaching middle school classes with 18-32 charges (usually right around 25). In those circumstances not being in the same room is a huge disadvantage.

For me teaching is about relationships. You have a relationship with each student and one with the class as a whole (classes quickly take on unique personalities). It is most difficult indeed to maintain a relationship with people and with a group when you are not in the same physical space as they are. You can’t look people in the eye. You cannot — and this is crucial in effective teaching — read the room. It’s difficult to tell when a student is bored, distracted or has a question that they are afraid to ask. Reading the room successfully allows you to speed up or slow down a lesson, expand one aspect of it, cut something out or move on to the next thing. I do what I refer to as “calling audibles” all the time while teaching, which simply means deviating from my planned lesson as needed. I noted that while teaching online I didn’t do this at all. This is not good.

The worst thing about teaching online is that you end up talking way too much. I try to keep TTT (teacher talk time) to less than 20% of class time and would say that I am successful almost 100% of the time. I start most classes with students getting into groups and talking. They read something, they get into groups and share their thoughts. They write something, they get into groups and share it. They work on some grammar exercises, they compare answers with a partner. Students constantly talk in my class and I am the conductor, the facilitator, the time keeper. This is nigh on impossible to do online.

I also meet with students every week to go over their writing. This is, of course, is best done face-to-face. With the Zoom class I was able to correct student writing on google drive and give written feedback, but that’s a poor substitute for going over their writing in person and answering questions and expanding on written comments and corrections.

Mostly though I like to circulate around the room, check in with students. I’m a physical teacher who adds panache to my lessons with gestures, leaps, bounds, stretches, hops, contortions, anything to give attention to a point I’m making and liven up the proceedings. I also like to get close to students (always appropriately, of course) and even offer a pat on the back, a high five or fist bump. But mainly I like to — nay, need to — look students in the eye. I like to be able to focus on one student but still be able to tell what’s going on with everyone else in the room.

I suppose other teachers — particularly those who are more tech savvy — are better able to adapt to the brave new world of teaching via Zoom, but I’m a rather old dog capable of only comprehending a few new tricks at a time. Like everyone, I hope this pandemic is over sooner than the current models predict. I look forward to re-entering a classroom. I’m certainly not going to take the classroom for granted anymore — if I ever did. It’s a great place to be.


Leslie said...

Thank you for the discussion of online teaching. It seems like trying to teach or improve language skills would be especially difficult online. You sound like an excellent teacher, though. (And I'm sure those colleagues wives were actually delighted to see you!)

Richard Hourula said...

Thanks, Leslie. I'm terrible at a lot of things but I'm a pretty good teacher.