Three Ideas For Making A Success of Online Teaching
Christopher Walker is an EFL teacher and writer based in the south of Poland, where he has been working at International House Bielsko-Biala for the past decade. He is particularly interested in teacher and student motivation, how to teach writing to students, and in the new(ish) world of online teaching. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and can be found on most modes of social media by the same moniker.
It was a Thursday at the start of March, 2020. There had been rumours flying around, and finally they were confirmed: the Polish government was closing all of the schools in the country.
What were we to do?
My school, International House Bielsko-Biala, were quick to act (and on a side note, considering how I am the breadwinner for a family of four here in Poland, I am eternally grateful to the school for keeping me in active employment through what followed). We spent the Thursday and Friday training each other in how to use Zoom, and by the start of the following week we were online, teaching shortened group classes and regular-length individual lessons.
We were at the start of a steep learning curve that we have followed in the months since, but now, looking back on the lessons I taught in this strangest of all teaching semesters, I can happily say that I achieved some success in what I was doing, and that my students were able to continue learning English despite the upheaval.
In fact, in a couple of areas I would even say that the lessons I delivered online were better than my regular face-to-face offering. Here are three specific things that I was able to do online that made my lessons work – and that you can introduce into your own classes as well.
Integrate the whiteboard into web browsing
It happened by accident. Towards the end of one of my teen classes, after we’d finished all the work I had wanted to get through with them in the digital edition of the course book, we agreed together to play a game. However, I hadn’t figured out by that stage how to do the digital equivalent of a board race (side note: I still haven’t; some students join the lesson with a keyboard-enabled PC, while others have nothing more than a touchscreen mobile phone, and it just isn’t fair getting the two to play a game that involves writing on the screen), so I decided to show my students the online Google Street View game GeoGuessr (www.geoguessr.com).
The game is simple. You land somewhere on the face of the Earth, and have to figure out where you are. Sometimes you can move up and down the road, hunting for signs that might indicate what country or city you’re in, but sometimes the Street View image comes from a static point and all you can do is turn around in a little circle.
My students loved it. They called out different ideas, suggesting where in the world we should place our tag.
Sometimes, though, my students would miss an obvious clue, and would start talking in circles, far away from the right answer. But being the teacher, I couldn’t just tell them what they’d overlooked: I wanted to lead them to knowledge. How could I do that? I wondered.
Then I realised the perfect tool was sitting right in front of me: the Annotate function. Other online teaching applications have similar features, so if you’re not using Zoom yourself you can still do something similar. I opened the Annotate box, selecting the draw tool, and then I highlighted the relevant part of the screen.
“What do you think about this?” I asked. Slowly, one or two of my students realised what was going on, and the key to the location was found.
I reflected on the lesson afterwards, and saw that I had not gone far enough with my use of the Annotate function. I promised myself that I would plan an activity around it, and that is what I did.
At the start of the next lesson, I told my teens that we’d be doing a review of modals of speculation. I heard them sigh; the last thing they wanted to be lumbered with was a lesson on modals.
But then I loaded up GeoGuessr, and I saw their expressions change. They were curious. They wanted to know what was going to happen next.
“Where do you think this is?” I asked. They started to talk together about the possibilities. While they were doing this, I drew a big brown box on one side of the screen, and prepared to start typing. I elicited suggestions as to the location from the students, and collected their answers according to the degree of likelihood they expressed.
The results of what I gathered from them can be seen in Figure 1 below:
The great thing, of course, is that the text all stayed in place as I moved from map image to map image with the class. We were able to recycle the language throughout this part of the lesson, and the result was that, pretty soon, the students were using the target language automatically.
This system – of using the Annotate function in conjunction with something interesting on the screen – became a staple part of my online lessons, and added value to everything we did, whether it was looking together at authentic language on a web page or looking together at my students’ holiday snaps.
The perfect open-class feedback device: The Chat Box
This is another feature of most online platforms that I was slow to see the potential for, but that, when it all clicked for me, became an indispensable part of my teaching toolkit.
At first I only ever used the chat box when a student couldn’t hear me and I wanted to deliver tech support instructions. Sometimes I used the chat box to send a private message to a student who wasn’t ‘on task.’
For the majority of my classroom interactions, though, I tended to take an approach modelled on what had gone before – over a decade of in-class rapport and the sort of back-and-forth you get when you share a physical space with your students. As the days turned into weeks, however, and the lockdown showed no sign of ending, I noticed that my more confident students were becoming reticent, and my reticent students were silent. Open class feedback wasn’t working.
The solution was to do all open class feedback in the chat box.
A question like “Who can tell me what the third form of ‘sleep’ is?” would elicit no immediate response; those who knew wanted to say something, but politeness kept them from shouting out. The rest wanted to keep anonymous; though most had their cameras turned on, I saw that many had angled their screens up at the ceiling so that I couldn’t see the student themselves.
After making the switch to using the chat, the question became: “I want to know the third form of ‘sleep.’ Write your idea in the chat box.”
Suddenly, everyone was contributing. The silent students remained silent, for the most part, but they were nonetheless active in the classroom, typing their answers dutifully and remaining involved.
I started to ask longer, more involved questions, all to be answered in the chat box. “Obesity is a growing problem in today’s society. Why do you think that is? Tell me in a couple of sentences in the chat box.” This was great – I was getting much more interaction (and, more generally, work) from all of my students, and I was getting to see their language skills develop. They soon got used to writing their answers rather than shouting them out, and the chat became the most natural way for us to communicate in open class.
The best writing lessons are online writing lessons
I am passionate about writing. I have long dreamed of taking that love into the classroom, and helping my own students to become better writers.
But there have always been problems.
In the days before the lockdown, I occasionally tried to run a good writing lesson. When the discussion of the content points had been completed, my students would turn their attention to writing, and they would take a piece of paper and their pen and begin to scribble away.
Try as I might, monitoring was practically impossible. I often couldn’t make out what the students were writing – Polish handwriting can be indecipherable at times – and if I saw they’d made a mistake, pointing it out meant interrupting their writing flow, but more seriously it also meant making a mess of what they’d produced.
And if the mistake was more serious than a misspelling – if they’d put the sentences together illogically, and structural revisions were in order – well, sometimes the student would look at me as if I had told them they were ugly, and would get ready to rip their work up into pieces.
Giving feedback on the content of their piece would then be fraught – it might be a mess of crossings-out and odd insertions – and, such was the size of their paper, something that only I could readily take part in: the other students in the class would likely not get the chance to read each other’s writing.
A few weeks into the lockdown, when my self-confidence as a teacher had returned (to a degree) and I felt ready to experiment, my thoughts returned to the idea of teaching writing in the classroom. I wanted my exam classes to work on exam writing tasks; I wanted my adult class to investigate how the passive was used by writing a short biography of a famous person; and I wanted my teen class, always keen to work together on a project, to put together an animal fact-sheet poster.
The platform for all three of these activities, I decided, would be Google Docs.
I logged in to my Google Drive, and created a new folder for each class. From there, I prepared templates for my students to build their work around, and made copies of the template for each of the student groupings within the classes. Finally, I made sure to change the ‘Sharing’ settings for each document so that, when I sent the links to the students, they’d be able to both access and edit the document in class.
And then the moment of truth. The first writing class was with my teens. I crossed my fingers, hoping that certain students would not choose that lesson to be absent. Why those students? You may well ask. Well, my idea of using Google Docs for the writing lesson was heavily dependent on at least one student in each group having a PC. It’s no fun trying to write in a Google Doc when you’re on your phone.
This time I was in luck. I had 9 teens in the class, and sent them off with their instructions to three Breakout Rooms, organising the rooms ahead of time so that each one featured one student on a laptop (there were three of these, so my maths skills were not taxed too heavily).
I monitored from outside the Breakout Rooms, feeling that my students would appreciate the chance to work without their teacher breathing down their necks. This is where the forward planning really paid off. I had the folder open in Google Drive that contained the files the students were working on, and I could switch from Doc to Doc to make sure that the groups were doing the work they had been assigned: the files all updated themselves in real time.
That was the problem of monitoring solved: I could see everything the students were writing, as they were writing it.
Next I dealt with the issue of spelling and grammar issues. This too was easy to handle – as I observed the students writing, I would add comments in the margin of their work, asking them to look at the spelling of the word, or the verb form they had used. Sometimes I would select a longer clause and highlight all of it, leaving a comment suggesting what kind of change might be required. If the students ignored these comments – most did not – I would then go into the Breakout Room and speak to them directly.
That was the problem of error correction solved as well.
After a while, the posters were ready. An example is shown below, in Figure 2, where you can see a piece that is close to completion, but where the students must still address my one remaining comment.
It was time for feedback. Here, several approaches can be used. In this lesson, I shared the screen in Zoom so that each group could see the others’ work; the group that had produced the poster could then take questions. Oh, and when nobody wanted to ask any questions out loud, I by then knew that I could simply ask the students to write their questions in the chat box instead.
Another approach to feedback – and to student-led error correction – is to send the link to the document to another group, and ask them to edit for mistakes. My adult class looked at writing biographies, producing text like that in Figure 3.
Group A produced a text about the Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk, while Group B wrote about Clint Eastwood. When they had finished, I told each group to close the document they were working on, and to then open the new link I was sending them – which was to the other group’s biography. They had to edit the document for mistakes first, and then add any content points they thought were missing. Finally, when this stage was complete, I sent the original links back to each group – so Group A was looking at the edited version of the Tokarczuk biography – and asked the students to see what had changed, and discuss whether they agreed with the changes.
In my exams class, I wanted my students to work on their use of cohesive devices. We planned the writing task thoroughly, deciding what the content points would be in each paragraph. Then I sent each student a link to their own Google Doc. They started writing; but when they had finished the paragraph, they were instructed to stop, and to then continue but in a different Google Doc. This is circular writing for the lockdown, as socially distanced as it needs to be. The effect, though, was exactly what I had hoped for: when one student’s paragraph was hard to follow, the next student would see why (and link the reasoning to the idea of cohesive devices), and would go back and change what needed to be changed.
And that was the problem of giving feedback solved.
The lockdown has been difficult for many of us, for a host of reasons. For those teachers living and working in isolation I can only imagine the mental strain they have experienced. I have been fortunate: thanks to the lockdown I have spent more quality time with my daughters in the last few months than in the last few years.
We might think that the lockdown is behind us, that we won’t be back in that situation again. I like to think so too, but the pessimist in me thinks there will be a second wave of this virus, and that, shortly into the next school year, when everyone has returned from their travels, they will find that the virus has bounced back and the schools have to close again.
It serves to be prepared. The three tips I have outlined in this article might help some teachers, some of the time, but we have the opportunity now to expand that list, from three to thirteen to thirty, and to build a new teaching toolkit for the online world. And who knows? Some of my students seem to have enjoyed the experience of having their lessons online more than when they had to travel (sometimes for more than an hour each way) to the school to attend their lessons. It could be that we see more and more of our teaching moved online, virus or no virus. And for that, it always serves to have as many ideas as possible.
Please check the Pilgrims courses at Pilgrims website.
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