That Summer When...

by Tracey Jones, Lecturer, Modern Languages & Cultures

Article reproduced from TexTESOL2 (Texas Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages) Fall 2020 Newsletter.

It seems likely that one could begin a narrative with “That summer when…” and launch into a description of high temps, high anxiety and trips canceled, with images of teachers pivoting, prepping and re-prepping and anyone who lived through it will nod knowingly and say: “That had to be Summer 2020.”

Many of us made an abrupt shift, beginning last March, to fully virtual teaching. I have been an online student in various programs since 2011, and this seemed to work to my advantage a bit. When colleagues were discovering the wonder of Zoom, I had been fortunate enough to be a student on Zoom since the application came out in 2013. I have experienced varying levels of teaching effectiveness from an online student perspective, and that background has afforded me a unique view as I put on my Online Teacher Hat.

When I go into an online teaching environment, I don’t think: “What do I do in class, that I can STILL do online.” Instead, I think: “What can I do online that is even BETTER than what I would do in class.”

Summer 2020 was that summer when I taught ESL Methodology, Spanish as a modern language and ESOL courses for international students in China. Start to finish, it was a summer of immersion in online second language acquisition and pedagogy.

And, I learned three things…

Comfort zones can be challenged, even from the comfort of home

I have always loved a classroom. When I was a public high school teacher in L.A., I created such a cool, comfortable, welcoming classroom. I adored that space. I even had students (“my groupies”, they called themselves) who would hang out in my classroom at snack and lunch breaks. Still, I’ve always felt a little bit restricted by the traditional classroom setting. Desks can get in the way of Zumba dance sessions, nearby colleagues are perturbed by music blaring in the target language, and the unquiet language acquisition classroom, touted decades ago by Dr. Stephen Krashen, is not always as welcome as it should be. Taking learning outside of the classroom has always been a passion of mine, and in the traditional setting, this is not always easy.

Experiential learning can be very meaningful and memorable. This summer, I paired my TESOL methodology students (who were unable to engage in an in-person field experience) with my ESOL students in China. Students connected through WeChat and Zoom. The reports and recordings indicated fruitful conversations among peers engaging across the globe. Real-world experience with proficiency levels was had and cultural connections were made. Perspectives shifted among all students. We could not connect in person, but we could still connect. This semester, my Spanish students will partner with Dual Language classes at a local primary school. What is language for, if not to connect humans through the ages, across the world, and now over the Wi-Fi.

SLA can be personal, even when not in-person

My most effective online instructors over the years have been creative, yet realistic, and rigorous while flexible. More than anything: they were real. I try to mimic my professors’ best practices. When instructors reach out to me before classes begin, that reduces anxiety. So, I sent my students an introductory e-mail with video and instructed them to text me (yes, to my personal cell phone) and to respond to a couple of brief questions. I replied to every text, and created a GroupMe for all classes. In the Group Text, I post reminders, and a daily meme, or TikTok, quote, or video related to course content. Again, these posts can warm up a cold, virtual space. Students can then direct-message me. For me, this is the most efficient way of communicating with students—fast and direct for all of us. My international Students in China message me and send GIFs via the WeChat app.

I love it when students I had semesters and semesters ago, contact me via text to share something they saw, heard or experienced that reminded them of me and our learning experience together. As last spring morphs into 2021, more and more of my students will never meet me in-person. This is a sobering thought. But, they can still connect with me as their instructor because being connected virtually doesn’t mean being only virtually connected.

Spanish and ESOL students were responsible for “show and tell” and daily “scavenger hunts” while on Zoom. These activities brought life, laughs and community to the Virtual Classroom while students were challenged to process their living/studying spaces through a bi/multilingual lens. And, these activities were much more successful and varied in an online learning environment than they would be in person within the confines of a classroom. Students had to connect “show and tell” to the current content, so in a section on well-being, a student aptly described her pet cat’s way of living a healthy and relaxed lifestyle. The newest, feline, on-screen classmate was a huge hit! Please note: we all have a lot to learn about well-being from cats.

Asynchronous can still be in-sync

When I say: in-sync, I don’t mean the boy-band, but getting into a rhythm can be part of it.

In online teaching environments, there are often online Discussions. My best professors were RIGHT in there in those Discussions with us. They didn’t just assign them and leave us to our own devices—as professors, they participated actively in the Discussions along with us. They would post comments on student posts, pose additional probing questions, suggest further reading, a TED talk, or a related YouTube video. They let us know when we had come up with something really original that made them think!

Online Discussions can be spaces that are incredibly alive and rewarding to be part of, and so I make sure that I am in those Discussions as much as possible, just like I would be in-person. And, really, these Discussions can be more fruitful because there is no classroom time-limit on them. I can even go back and add thoughts and comments if/when we circle back to the topic later in the semester. I can refer to a Discussion that is not just a faded recollection from a past class, but a virtual memory saved in cyber-space that students can click on and review.

That summer when…

Summer 2020 became that summer when I learned about my students, I learned about online teaching, and I learned that I still have a lot to learn. Still, it ended up being that summer when the connections made transcended those Zoom sessions. Second language acquisition over a screen has less to do with reliable wifi, and everything to do with individual, human connections, virtual though they may be.