We were humbled by the resilience and hard work displayed by faculty across the English Language Center (ELC) as they transitioned to distance learning delivery of their classes as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Normally preparation for changes in curriculum and curriculum delivery occurs over the course of weeks and even months. Instead, ELC faculty switched from teaching in classrooms to remote learning using Zoom and Canvas over the span of three days. Now, three weeks later, teachers have continued to be resilient in adapting their teaching styles, sharing resources with each other, and supporting students academically and emotionally.
The first step in the migration to digital educational delivery was to ensure that department leadership, faculty, and staff, could host meetings in a cloud-based software called Zoom which allows classes to take place via video conference. Dr. Sherry Steeley, a distance learning expert and TEFL Certificate faculty, Dr. Suzanne Matula, ELC Associate Director of Programs, and other faculty played a key role in mentoring those who needed pointers on using Zoom technology and Canvas to transform physical classrooms into digital gathering places. According to Stephanie Gallop of the Intensive English Program (IEP), “Everyone is trying in whatever way they can, [to share] whatever resources they have.” Others have been able to integrate tools that add to the classroom environment and allow students to demonstrate knowledge in an engaging way, or view and annotate readings online.
Sharla Rivera, also of the Intensive English Program, adapted her classroom lessons to switch between recorded video and live real-time discussion, adding to the instructional benefit, though creating new pressure to adapt her lesson planning. Gallop has also used instructional tools like Kahoot, an online learning game, and is considering recording some of her educational content so that students have more than one opportunity to hear her lessons.
One of the most important aspects of adapting English language teaching to a distance learning environment is ensuring that students make the most of their interactions with one another. As stated by Gallop, in-class discussion helps deepen reading comprehension and “also helps us to maintain [a] sense of community because students are still having the discussions that they used to have in class.” Rivera, continues that, “[m]y class conversations are almost as fruitful as they were in class…” “…The actual person part of this is the same.”
IEP Faculty Andrew Screen has been able to adapt some of his face to face assignments to an online format. In one he calls “Ask Americans,” he requires students to start conversations and conduct interviews with people around them. He has recreated the task in this new environment by inviting friends and family members into his Zoom classroom for students to interview.
“I think it’s an opportunity to rethink how you’re interacting with people” said Professor Screen, “you just have to think outside the box.”
Nearly all students are short-term residents of the Greater Washington, DC-metro region. And ELC faculty are adapting and innovating to provide a sense of community during a trying time. Mandy Kama, Associate Director of the Intensive English Program, sums it up in stating, “they’ve transitioned to teaching remotely while maintaining the close relationship they have with their students, addressing students’ concerns and fears, and delivering the same level of exceptional instruction that administration and students expect from them.”
Classes provide an opportunity for faculty to support students as they come together and process difficult feelings regarding the COVID-19 crisis that they might not have had without our programs. For Rivera, “Something [Professor Gallop] and I talk about a lot is the importance of compassion [at] this time. Just being understanding of everyone around you and trying to keep in mind that everyone is doing their best and their best isn’t perfect but it’s good enough.”
One strategy for de-stressing and creating a feeling of togetherness amongst the class can be found in Elizabeth Meredith’s Evening & Weekend English class. According to Meredith, “…students close their eyes for about three minutes or less and think of their happiest moment during their life and to think of that moment and breathe in and out…enjoying that memory. They [then] share about something new that they are trying to get rid of during this isolation period. They pen it down and tear it and throw the paper away.” After this, it is easy to start the night’s lesson.
Adapting to distance learning during the COVID-19 crisis exemplifies the ability of English Language Center faculty to maintain a student-centered servant leader focus through classroom education during extremely difficult times. In doing so, faculty provide both academic and emotional support and more broadly, continuity for students.
Co-authors Regan Carver and Madeline Templeton are both Program Coordinators in the English Language Center.