Darcy Lear: What will you take back to the face-to-face language classroom post-pandemic?
Like so many educators who’ve moved first to emergency remote teaching then to something more like online teaching, I have been overwhelmed by the information coming at me. At first, I eagerly attended all the Zoom workshops I could to get over the learning curve. Then I settled into a holding pattern that fit within my comfort zone for the online venue. Now I try limit my time on Zoom to the hours I am teaching or otherwise engaging with students.
Once the clutter and confusion cleared a bit, I was able to start to look ahead toward a return to face-to-face teaching. And what I’ve realized is that emergency remote teaching reminds me of some of the most important basics of language education—things I want to take back to the in-person classroom as soon as that is possible.
Here are a few of the things I am doing now that I want to keep doing post-pandemic:
1. Keep it simple—technology edition
Just because you can doesn’t mean you should. And just because a technology exists, doesn’t mean you should incorporate it into your classes—especially during forced online teaching due to a pandemic.
I have necessarily added the online teaching platform used by my campus: Zoom. Otherwise, students and I are using the same tech we’ve always used—the campus online learning system and the publisher’s online textbook and workbook materials. I know Flipgrid and Flippity and Padlet and Panopto and Quizlet and twelve different recording and transcribing options exist. I believe that some are great pedagogical tools and have true potential in the language classroom. But not now. There have been enough learning curves during the pandemic.
Don’t use bells and whistles gratuitously. Identify your problem first, then solve it using technology if and only if it meets your needs.
2. Keep it simple—curriculum edition
Simplify, simplify, simplify. Are high-stakes tests feasible in the new venue? Do I really need 8-10 course components? Are my own pedagogical materials consistent across different documents and platforms?
The first two questions were a pleasure to address when we were first forced online in spring 2020: high-stakes chapter tests and the final exam were eliminated and replaced by low-stakes daily online quizzes (this is stuff we’ve known is better for a long, long time). These were 5-10 item assessments closely tied to content covered in that day’s class. I told students, “If you can’t complete those quizzes without resources, that’s a red flag for you. Did you miss class and so it makes sense that it was hard? Do you need to brush up on a grammar point? Do you need to meet with me outside of online class? Did you forget to do the online homework (from which some quiz items are copied and pasted)?” This is what assessment is for—to measure student progress and see if they are ready to move on.
In the meantime, students’ course-long blogs and research projects formed the kind of project-based portfolio assessment we also have known for a long, long time is a better way to assess student learning than a lot of our old-school achievement tests (the kinds of tests people are fretting over how to administer securely online while ‘monitoring cheating’).
I folded some course components, such as recorded TalkAbroad conversations, into students’ portfolio projects so that students reported on them within the regular blog posts they were doing instead of in separate assignments.
By the time the spring 2020 course started, there were three major course components: textbook content, an online blog, and a research project. There were a total of 5 grading categories: daily quizzes, daily blog posts, in-class mini-presentations, a course-long research project, and a final presentation of the research project.
A single thread ran through the entire course so that the work to prepare for class led smoothly into the synchronous class period, which was followed by homework and assessments that reviewed all the content before repeating the cycle. Even though this is how it’s supposed to always work, it felt more focused and streamlined than any face-to-face course I’ve taught in recent memory.
In cleaning up my pedagogical materials, I developed a kind of check list: Do I even need to keep this content? Is there a way to fold this material into something else (portfolio assessments, online quizzes)? Do I use the names I have for assignments consistently? Do they make sense? Why were assignments described as “personal readings” in course documents and grade book columns years after they’d become “blog entries” in practice? Ditto for “documents 1-5” that were really “research project” components. Getting ready to engage in emergency remote teaching forced me to revisit a lot of content that worked inside my own head but didn’t make a lot of sense to anyone else, something I know is an issue when designing pedagogical materials, writing instructions, writing academic articles—you name it!
Can I simplify logistics for students? Can the various bits and pieces be streamlined so it makes more sense to students and flows better for all of us?
3. Keep it simple—classroom edition
As the teacher, do most of your work outside of class. With emergency remote teaching, most of my time was dedicated to planning before class, then grading and meeting with students after. In the online class sessions, I mostly just set up activities for students then hang out and listen to them interact. Occasionally, I interrupt to correct or explain, but mostly I wait for students to self-correct or reach out to me for clarification. I’ve noticed a lot more self-correction when I gave students the time and space to do it—well, Zoom did that for me.
This experience has reminded me of the kind of planning and preparing required of a novice teacher. I set up my lesson plan, re-visit it after a day or so, then run through it before class starts to make sure I have everything ready to go on my laptop:
Is the ebook opened to the first page I’ll reference?
Do students have the link to the Google doc I’ll ask them to use?
Do I have the PDF opened and ready to click on?
Is the PowerPoint presentation launched?
Do I know when I’m going to use breakout rooms and how many I will need?
At the beginning of each class, I share my screen to show students the lesson plan and run through the major topics as well as assignments that are due soon. It begs the question: why haven’t I been sharing my lesson plans with students all along?
Getting everything set up seems to take more time and energy than the Zoom session itself, but in the Zoom session I also shed the novice teacher and settle into the role of experienced teacher.
As soon as a Zoom class ends, I go back into planning mode—I post the day’s lesson plan and homework online for students to reference, then I prepare the first draft of the next session’s lesson plan. Before I polish the next plan, I spend a lot of time grading—reading/watching students’ work, making individual comments on it, and checking their progress with online activities and assessments. In the process, I make sure the homework and quizzes align well with the class sessions (something I haven’t dedicated enough time to in face-to-face teaching over the past decade or so).
Be transparent with students. Make most of your work happen in the prep and follow-up so class time can focus on smooth student activities.
4. Let students learn by doing: Be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage
Zoom is a horrible venue for “teacher at the front of class soliciting responses from individual students"—but so is a classroom if your goal is for students to build communicative competence in the language. But in classrooms it’s very easy to fall into old-school patterns of the teacher doing too much of the talking. Online teaching—where everyone is disembodied and there are awkward pauses combined with people talking over each other—forces me to abandon any remnants of the Atlas complex. If I’m talking on Zoom it's very obvious I’m delivering a lecture or a teacher presentation.
I do talk to the whole group at the beginning and end of each Zoom session, with some teacher-like explanations peppered throughout the entire course. But most of the time spent on Zoom has been students in breakout rooms interacting with each other in Spanish—sometimes discussing textbook content in groups, sometimes preparing brief presentations to give to the whole class, sometimes with student discussion leaders who are formally assessed on their performance. I pop in but try to leave myself on mute.
Find a way to put myself "on mute.”
5. Be flexible and go easy on yourself and others
Right now we’re in a pandemic, but in “normal times” there are always some individuals who are navigating crises. We don’t need to know the details, but we can make interactions with us easier instead of harder—extend deadlines, take late work, allow students to make up tests, and be understanding when they have to miss class.
Nobody needs a punitive work or learning environment—ever. Be flexible. Go easy on yourself and others.
Darcy Lear has a PhD in Foreign and Second Language Education from the Ohio State University and teaches Spanish at the University of Chicago. She regularly gives presentations on teaching strategies to departments around the country and has developed languages for special purposes courses at several institutions. Lear is also a career coach, helping people to position themselves to use their language skills in rewarding careers. She is the author of Integrating Career Preparation into Language Courses.