When I joined the Comité Exécutif of the CT chapter of AATF, it was brought to my attention that all members were expected to facilitate an event. I could not have been more thrilled, as this task rang true with the little girl inside who once dreamed of being a wedding planner. In all seriousness, I love to plan things, and so I immediately began brainstorming ideas. Couple this with my involvement with CT COLT and chairing their annual poster contest, and this girl was in project heaven… then the pandemic hit. As the reality of black Zoom boxes and constant mask wearing and cyber-communication-only settled in, so did the pervasive feeling of isolation.
As a French teacher, this feeling was oddly reminiscent of my first years teaching. I was a standalone, relegated to my classroom teaching all levels and all students who had chosen the language. Any free moment was spent planning, and I was released from any outside teacher duties due to the sheer amount of preps I was juggling. It was kind of my administration to allow me the extra time to prepare lessons and write curriculum, but it also left me feeling desperately alone. Now, as I consider my current program that supports multiple teachers, it feels like an eternity ago, but the sudden onset of COVID-19 quarantine brought back vivid memories of loneliness every time I sat down to open my class Zoom in the silence of my home office.
When a colleague suggested a virtual field day to the AATF board, I immediately offered to organize it as my event. Here. I thought, was an opportunity to facilitate some level of connection between French teachers and students. I was in the midst of transitioning the CT COLT poster contest to a virtual model and recruiting volunteer judges, and the response was overwhelmingly positive. Riding that wave of enthusiasm, I spent the following weeks brainstorming potential activities, learning new online platforms, meeting teachers across the state, and most importantly, attempting to anticipate any “snags” that would arise in a virtual model for both events. The resounding success of the digitized poster contest has already been discussed in a past article for the newsletter, as well as the widespread goodwill brought about by the virtual “Valise d’activités” I created for AATF members, but as I look forward to next year and relaunching these two events, I cannot help but reflect on the fresh perspective they have given me – a newfound appreciation for connection.
As World Language educators, we gravitate towards connection and collaboration. Our ACTFL World Readiness Standards have an entire strand dedicated to Connections, and another to Communities. Indeed, our entire discipline is grounded in connecting with others, is it not? Hence the added layer of difficulty brought about by the black Zoom boxes – how could we facilitate connection with students who were sometimes not even there, or unable themselves to take the first step out of their own isolation and turn on their cameras? I found myself examining the lack of connection in a whole different way, as I frequently had to put language learning aside and prioritize simply reaching these students on a personal level to forge relationships that would bring them out of their black Zoom box “shell” and interact with me and their classmates on even the most basic level. I realized I had taken for granted the simple convenience of having students physically present in my classroom; spanning the digital divide was an unprecedented challenge that I was woefully unequipped to take on.
But take it on we did, didn’t we? And though our degrees of success varied by lesson, by day, by student, we now have a largely expanded toolkit of strategies to create relationships with students, sometimes with nothing more than a keyboard. More importantly, after being faced with the stark reality that students cannot engage without some form of personal connection, education in general is embracing what we as World Language educators have known for a long time now – relationships are key to learning. As I consider next year’s poster contest and Valise d’activités, I find myself prioritizing changes that will bring about more connection with other educators and between students: involving more voices in a poster contest committee, expanding the artistic mediums that students can use to express themselves, creating new Valise activities that integrate student to student communication… Instead of feeling limited by technology, I now feel liberated by it. Funny how when it becomes a choice and not a mandate, what was previously a hindrance is totally reframed into a useful tool!
My new perspective and resurrected desire to connect has also emboldened me to step further outside of my classroom to reach other educators. Many years ago, when the isolation of being a new teacher and a program of one became too much to bear, I realized that I had to actively seek out collaboration and support to sustain myself in a field where it is all too easy to stagnate. Taking that first step outside of my own room to ask colleagues for input felt very much akin to hitting “send” on my email to COLT membership recruiting poster contest judges. I may have many more professional connections now and huge networks of potential collaborators, but the isolation of the past year has gifted me the impetus to engage with them.
In the year ahead, I am hoping to create a new CT COLT system to connect smaller world language programs and singleton teachers in the interest of sharing best practices and resources and… you guessed it, forge connections. The single most important gift this pandemic has afforded us is a new perspective and appreciation for each other, and I intend to capitalize on that sentiment to help foster and sustain quality learning for our students. By harnessing the power of the digital space to open doors to richer relationships and face to face connections, we can have the best of both worlds: virtual and actual. Thank goodness it no longer has to be either/or!