The first week of remote classes was challenging for all, teachers and students alike. Here is a story from Min-Min Liang, one of our instructors, sharing the experience of the first week, and what she learned from it.
I was extremely anxious to do remote teaching the first day. Before remote classes started on 3/30, my group worked so hard to help each other to get familiar with the Zoom tools and figured out what worked and what did not work. Despite all the preparation, however, the first day, to me, was not good. I was very upset because I have not felt this way about teaching for a long time (27 years experience). It was not about the technology but a sense of loss. Students were all there but the interaction was not good, and students who were usually active were unwilling to talk. It is a language class and talking and interaction are a must! My Chinese 108 course is designed mainly for heritage learners and advanced speakers so we don’t do a lot of audio-lingual method in the class but more about teaching students to speak a discourse to express their ideas because their speaking skills are higher than their reading skills. They are learning new grammar patterns and vocabulary through the content. I felt so defeated after the first class.
With my colleague’s encouragement, I picked myself up and faced it again the next day. I realized one thing. When the class is big (19 students), it is really hard to engage everyone. In a physical class, students know that they have to focus but online, they get distracted easily. While one student was talking, others might not listen. Therefore, I have to come up a way to keep them engaged more than ever. The next two classes, I tried to find ways to engage everyone all the time. For example, I had them read their written assignments (a letter to your friend due in class) to each other in their breakout room and while one partner was reading, the other one had to record facts from the person’s reading. Then later, everyone had to report to the whole class about their partner’s essay. I checked in with students in the breakout rooms all the time to make sure that they understood the instructions and were actually reading stories to each other in Chinese. It worked and they were so engaged. During their report time, I heard their frustrations of leaving school, online courses, missing friends especially the seniors, or the unexpected gains from this experience, and even the anger toward people who do not practice social distancing in their neighborhood. I felt that we were one step closer to the experience of a physical classroom and felt that we were a community again. During this activity, students could practice their listening and speaking skills and use the vocabulary from the new text. Some letters were really touching and I kept a copy to myself.
What I want to say is that the challenges are still there but we will overcome them. I really think that my colleagues are important to me. They are there to encourage me and help me to figure out a better way to do this job. This is also a good opportunity for me to explore new ways to engage students without being in a physical environment. It is not what kind of the technology that you use, but your constant adaptation and your heart. I don’t think that students like to use all kinds of different technologies because they are trying to adapt themselves to this new experience. Many of them don’t even know Zoom well so more technology or links just confuse them more. We need to listen to students with our hearts — not just what they said in class but also what they did not/could not say in class. My students used to say to me: “your class is the class that we laugh the most and we feel better after each class.” I took this to my heart and know that I need to do the same for them to forget all the trouble and focus more for an hour. By the last Friday, I felt much better about online teaching. This was my first week, a precious experience. I know that it will get better and better.