I am planning to teach an online “zoom” class. It feels like everything I know about teaching will work in this milieu and everything I know about teaching won’t work. The last time I taught was in Tanzania last year-in a nearly open-air school with dirt floors, snakes and a single blackboard with the smallest pieces of chalk I’ve ever seen. I felt the same way as I do now: I know how to do this and I have no idea how to do this.
As teachers we learn after a few years what works and what doesn’t. The early years of endlessly planning lessons, many of which bomb, you arrive at a place where for the most part you know how to do this. And then something happens, like Covid-19, or like moving to Tanzania, which throws you off your game. Part of you panics and part of you embraces the challenge.
Teaching around the world has changed (even in Tanzania I suspect although I left before the schools closed). It is both familiar and foreign. Teachers working virtually have new sets of challenges but so do those working in classrooms with social distancing and masks and hand sanitizer. As teachers we are committed to student learning and while lamenting what cannot be, look for ways to make this work.
I am wondering how to engage university level students are #zoomhausted from online learning. Lecturing into a screen with minimal feedback (and did they really turn off video to go to the washroom?) isn’t nearly as engaging as a live lecture where feedback lets you know whether to keep going (they are leaning in and laughing) or to change tracks (on their phones, heads down). My teaching has always included group work, turn and talk, figure this out together. Will breakout rooms work as well? While it feels comfortable to stop by and listen to a table group, entering a breakout room feels a little more intrusive.
But I remember teaching in Tanzania, speaking English to a group of girls who were far more comfortable in Swahili. I had to adjust my jokes, my pace, my vocabulary otherwise it was exactly speaking to a screen of blank faces. I had to work extra hard to get them to do group work as this was a new concept to my Tanzanian students. They could not believe that I actually wanted them to figure out the math problem together! I learned tricks like only giving them one writing utensil, allowing them to speak in Swahili, even to me, when they were discussing the question, and getting them to switch their partners around. It was exactly the same as teaching in Canada and totally different.
Today, teaching in our classrooms today, virtually or in schools, is also exactly the same and totally different. I am heartened by stories of teachers who are figuring out ways to continue to have student talk – through google classrooms, using Zoom whiteboards, with group chats, using Jamboard and padlet and student conferencing. It would be easier, I think at times, to revert back to “transmission teaching” or the “sage on the stage” where the teacher provides the information and the students regurgitate it back to us. But we aren’t doing that. Teachers everywhere know they can do this – it’s exactly the same and totally different.