The necessity to prepare online classes amid this unexpected coronavirus shutdown has put a lot of pressure on teachers and administrators. It certainly has created new stresses for students as well. It’s normal to feel helpless and frustrated … and unprepared. That feeling is a normal human response.
The current situation of uncertainty reminds me of my first teaching job, as a Peace Corps teacher in Lomé, Togo, in West Africa. Not the circumstances, but the feeling of uncertainty, the feeling that “I’m not prepared for this, ” the feeling of “how did I get myself into this mess?”
Though I was given ample training and practice teaching leading up to my assignment and lots of coaching from veteran Peace Corps teachers, I truly was not prepared for the impact of my first day on the job. Large classes, from 80-100 students in each class. No books or photocopies. Only a portable blackboard in the front of an open-air room, a few pieces of colored chalk. Imagine, all of those eager faces, waiting for me to guide them.
Is it possible to do it?
So this is the question you ask yourself: Can I do it?
The answer depends on four things, in my experience: the resources you choose, the support of your colleagues, and the motivation of your students. Oh yeah, and the fourth is you, your own decision to take responsibility, to do the best you can in the circumstances.
And I did discover some hidden resources! Not only in suggestions for what materials and activities to use, and in my supportive colleagues, but also in the students themselves. The students had a real desire to learn, and they understood – better than I did – that they had to provide the effort to pay attention, they had to take copious notes of everything I wrote on the board (everyone had a brand new English notebook and several pencils!), and they needed to inject energy during classroom practice (much of it choral work).
Embrace the concept of “blended learning”
Even when teaching in high school in West Africa, without any technological resources, I knew the importance of extending the lesson beyond the classroom. During class, I had my students copy dialogues from the board into their cherished cahiers. This was actually one of our main “go to” activities. We’d practice a bit in class – often through choral repetition. Then I’d ask them to rehearse the dialogues at home before the next class – it was a very successful course extension. This was a surprise to me, but I discovered that I was tapping into the students’ real energy – their desire to prove to their family that they were diligent students, worthy of the family sacrifice to put them through school.
Whatever circumstances you have taught in, you probably realize the fundamental truth here. Learning may be fueled in the classroom, by you, but it is what the students do outside of class that solidifies the learning.
It’s easier today… or is it?
The growing prevalence of technology inside and outside the classroom should make teaching a whole lot easier today. But the technology is just part of that “resource” piece – you still have to account for the other factors: your responsibility for “making it happen”, your colleagues’ (or school’s) support, and your students’ willingness to learn, their motivation.
Rule of thumb: Engagement
However much or little technology you use, you need to realize that the key to learning is…engagement. For in-class or at-home activities, I still believe in the importance of keeping your students engaged with your activities.
With any subject you’re teaching, but particularly with language instruction, we need to have students review, rehearse and reflect outside of class time. Yet, it’s not easy to know when to introduce this type of extension to a class, or how much to ask students to do, and whether or how to monitor it.
I suggest trying to create a blended classroom, where work takes place partly online and partly in the classroom. Everyone will benefit – including the teacher!
OK, OK, I already know this. But how exactly do you do it?
Here are the keys to creating a successful blended class and how to deal with some of the challenges you’ll face along the way.
- Start slowly and offer support
I know that extending the classroom can be very frustrating. Requiring students to do extra learning on their own time can be a huge waste of effort when they don’t do what you’ve asked – or even worse – when some do and some don’t! To get over this hurdle, it’s important to start slow and provide ample orientation. This ensures everyone understands what they have to do – and solves any difficulties with the technology they might face at home.
For example, if you’re using supplementary videos for your class, the first assignment could simply be to have the students access the video, watch the first minute, and write down one new vocabulary word they heard.
In the next class, model the exact behavior: display the video if you can, watch the first minute together, and then solicit new vocabulary the students heard. You can gradually increase the out-of-class (extension) demands on the students, but only when you have buy-in from the students – that is, when they agree on the value of the extension activity.
2. Provide the students with choices
When possible, provide some choices for students for their extension work, as this improves both engagement and motivation.
For example, if you’re using supplementary videos, provide a choice of two or three videos (or two or three sections of the same video), and have the students select which one (or which part) they want to watch and report on. You may also provide choices of working alone or in a pair or small group.
3. Monitor work that takes place out of class
Provide a consistent system of monitoring out of class work. The most straightforward way to do this is to have an immediate follow-up activity in the next class. This could be an activity that involves integrating what the students have done on their own.
If you have online resources with a learning management system (LMS), monitor students’ work automatically, but even with an LMS, I think it’s more important to have student buy-in and commitment than just aiming for compliance with course requirements.
Be sure to deal with mixed levels
It’s not always straightforward. Differentiated instruction – catering instruction to students with different proficiency levels, different levels of interest and commitment, and different communication styles and different learning styles – is one of the most persistent challenges teachers face.
I have taught general English courses in large Japanese university classes in which there were some true beginners alongside students who had lived in the UK, the US or Australia, where they had spent their entire high school years and had become fluent in English. It was a challenge, to say the least, to select the most appropriate course materials, to plan classroom activities that challenged everyone, and to create a class culture where everyone felt welcomed.
Although there is no agreed answer for dealing with differentiated instruction, I was able to discover some operating principles and teaching strategies that seemed to work most of the time:
1. Offer a wide mix of activities
I recommend frequently changing activities. In a 90-minute class, I would typically have six to eight short activities – and frequently changing the groupings, so that students stayed active and got to know all of their classmates.
2. Assign group work and encourage peer support
I’ve also used a lot of group tasks in class, forming groups with students of differing abilities. This meant the weaker students would learn from the stronger students, and the stronger students understood their role of helping the weaker ones.
3. Provide assignments of varying difficulty
Beyond that, I’ve tried creating different assignment choices for out of class work, to allow students to choose an appropriate level of challenge.
I’ve even tried using individual assessments. In the first class, after giving everyone a placement test and score, I announced that if they progressed one ‘level’ in the end of term test (and had good attendance and class participation) they would get an A in the class.