I am certain that all of us have been challenged by technology and teaching in a vastly new way this year. As a veteran Spanish teacher with a huge teacher tool kit, I along with everyone else jumped into a teaching situation in which we had to reinvent almost every activity and attack the online challenge with creativity. Prior to the pandemic, I employed a myriad of ways to connect with students. However, these techniques mostly functioned with in person classes. When I was thrust into the new model of distance learning, I found it almost impossible to build individual relationships with all of the barriers both literal and figurative. How does one build a rapport with students without all of the side conversations we are accustomed to having? With a mammoth effort and lots of collaboration with my colleagues we discovered new ways to function. Using an altered lens we carved out vastly different expectations of ourselves and our students. We pulled up our bootstraps to navigate Zoom, Nearpod, Edpuzzle, Kahoot, Quizlet, Blooket and hundreds of other methods to engage language learners. Using new platforms in hybrid classrooms proved overwhelming for even the most tech savvy. But wait, there’s more. This year has taught me significantly different lessons than the last 26 in this profession, and now as I reflect on the past 18 months, I have a new perspective and a few added tricks in my teacher toolbox to share.
Trick number one: SURVEYS can be amazing! In non Covid times, I asked for verbal feedback from my students with regularity. I only formally surveyed my students a few times a year with Google Forms. I knew that most of my feedback this year was going to be digital so I made a point of doing lots of small surveys and polls embedded in my lessons. Initially I feared the eye rolls and, “Ugh another survey” comments. (Side note – even though the theme music to Kahoot makes my eyes roll, the students never tire of it.) Well, on the survey front, I was wrong. The more I surveyed, the more information I received. It seemed the isolation of distance learning was making my students more receptive to my attempts to include them. Students who reluctantly responded with one word answers at the beginning of the year began to write sentences and even paragraphs. My favorite responses came when I asked the question, “What do you wish your teachers knew about you?” All of this usable and valuable feedback improved my instruction and actually eased my anxiety. Moving forward I hope to embrace my new fondness for weekly formal Google surveys but also reincorporate the daily verbal feedback from students. The more they own their learning and reflect on their mental health, the more engaged my students and I become.
Trick number two: FAILURE is good! I know and preach to my students how essential it is to make mistakes while learning another language. I celebrate those good mistakes and encourage students to move out of their comfort zone without the fear of being docked points. In performance-based assessments we all do this. However, I have never been able to model the art of making mistakes more than in the past year. Sure, there have been student questions that have prompted me to reply, “Let me get back to you on that” or the occasional “Oops, who can find the typo in the document?”. But never had students watched me struggle to get technology to work, witnessed me flounder to try so many new approaches to things, seen me attempt a new platform, only to have to ditch it until l could troubleshoot the issues. Never had my students watched me fail multiple times to get results. This year gave us the opportunity to learn right alongside students, to be in it together for real. Students began to feel comfortable suggesting, “Hey Señora, how about trying it this way?” or, “Could you please share the screen!” or “My algebra teacher does it this way.” I plan to keep trying new things but to share the experience of failing along the way, something I kept to myself in the past. Small failures can be powerful, especially in the World Language classroom, where mistakes are inevitable. But on a totally different level, I learned that the way I react to small failures is a useful venue for me to connect with my students, who now see me in a more “human” light, and thus became more comfortable taking risks and making mistakes as well. As an added bonus, I felt their genuine sympathy for MY troubles. I finally began to feel that human connection, something we get almost immediately during a normal year.
Trick number three: SPEAKING APPS are essential. We all struggled to get our students to talk this year. Wait times and just plain reluctance to say anything, not to mention having to speak over Zoom or through a mask and face shield… I think we can all agree that, at times, the silence was hugely awkward and often unbearable. That being said, I soon recognized that this was the unforeseen opportunity to really utilize FlipGrid or other recording platforms to hear student voices. With further exploration my colleagues and I began to create simulated conversations. We had no other choice but to put in the time to troubleshoot and then train our students in this technology. And it was painful. However, by the end of the year, all of my students had become accustomed to recording and listening to their own voices and those of others. An activity that had taken me half a class period was now accomplished in minutes and with few complaints or little hesitation. Next year we will certainly embrace speaking in real time with those in front of us, but my plan is to also have students record themselves weekly in and out of class. What better way to train our students to succeed on the AAPPL and AP exams, both of which use similar activities to simulate interpersonal communication?
We still do not know what this next school year holds. I am confident, however, that we can do it and do it far better than the last. With a new awareness of social emotional needs, new technology and a return to the old-fashioned appreciation of being together again in a classroom, our students will grow and learn. I now feel armed with new strategies, new perspectives and new tools which now must be meshed with the old tried and true. Inevitably there will be additional tricks to learn this school year, but we are primed and after a good rest, will be ready. I am humbled to know that this teacher of 26 years can still make mistakes, learn, and do so right alongside my students.
By: Sarah Meshanic
E. O. Smith High School, Storrs CT