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June 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 3

ISSN 1755-9715

Make It Human: In Between Screens and Faces. Reflections on Nine Weeks of Lessons During Lockdown

Csilla Jaray-Benn holds a Master’s degree in English language and literature and teaching English as a foreign language from ELTE Budapest as well as a Master’s degree in French language and literature and a French pre-doctoral degree (DEA) in theatre from Sorbonne Nouvelle Paris 3. She teaches English to adults and teenagers at her own training organisation Business English Services (www.bes-grenoble.com) in Grenoble and trains teachers at the Université Grenoble Alpes. She is a regular conference presenter and has published articles in the Teaching Times, Revue d’Esthétique and HLT. Her current professional interests are in collaborative and creative ways of educating in the 21st century. She was Vice-President, then President of TESOL France (www.tesol-france.org) 2015-2017. Email: csilla_benn@bes-grenoble.com

 

Introduction

Personal reflections based on nine weeks of lessons during Covid-19 quarantine via Zoom with teenager and young adult students and how we managed to make the lessons humane; what were the tools we used, what were the pedagogical aims, what type of creative activities were included and based on these experiences, what lessons we have learnt for the future. The following examples are taken from these classes but can easily be adapted to various contexts of adult language training.

 

Lockdown resources and skills

In March 2020, half of the world’s population found themselves all of a sudden locked between their walls and their fears, in general lockdown and physical isolation due to the health crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. We were left in complete incomprehension. Each and every profession had its own challenges to adapt to this unprecendented situation. Teachers around the world had a one-day, or some lucky ones a one-weekend deadline to embrace technology and get ready to meet their students on screen. Those 21st century skills that we have been writing, talking and lecturing about over the past few years, suddenly became reality. One of the numerous lists (Forbes, 29 April 2019), which I included in a workshop presentation I gave for TESOL France in Lille just before the lockdown, ranks them as follows: Creativity, Emotional Intelligence, Analytical or critical thinking, Active learning with growth mindset, Judgment and decision making, Interpersonal communication skills, Leadership skills, Diversity and cultural intelligence, Technology skills and the skill of Embracing change.

The common point amongst all these skills is that except for one, each one is part of our essential humanness, covering what is also referred to as soft, vital or life skills. The odd one out appears to be the ‘technology’ skillset. By a strange coincidence, the lockdown has promoted it to first place, becoming a gateway to all the other skills. In essence, distance teaching and learning during the lockdown has been forged by a blend of these skills that served as our principal resources. Teachers, as well as students needed, used and developed every single skill in this list without probably ever noticing it.

 

Online teaching and teaching online

Online teaching, blended or multimodal courses, have been part of the teaching and learning landscape for a long time. The main focus of an online course is to provide language content, models, exercises and create opportunities for practice relying on videos, podcasts and interactive platforms. The courses are developed by content creators, or teachers specialized in this area, often joined by technology experts. The teacher might or might not meet their students in person, but the online set-up is part of the pedagogy.

During this dire situation, we did not become online teachers overnight, but were pushed into an environment, felt by many as hostile, where we had to teach online. Interactive platforms might not have been part of our planned pedagogy. Teachers at home weren’t able to rely on support from dedicated technology experts, but often depended on help from more tech savvy colleagues who were ready to give some of their precious time to share their knowledge. This urgent need created a strong growth mindset in embracing technology, and we progressed together through active learning. Interpersonal communication skills became vital in order not to get lost in the unknown jungle of zooming, skyping or teaming. Teachers’ learning curve has been exponential and they have used their own resources to evaluate, compare and decide on tools to create a learning environment for their students in just a few days. They had no choice but to embrace change instantaneously.

Teaching online cannot be resumed by the use of one single online tool such as Zoom, Skype, Teams or a ready-to use online platform. In this new situation we needed to re-create an enjoyable learning environment and offer a positive learning experience, as if it took place in the physical space of a classroom or meeting room. The only way to achieve this, was by creating a ‘virtual’ space based on a combination of both synchronous and asynchronous tools enabling a supportive relationship, needed more than ever, between students and the teacher, as well as among different students.

 

My essential online tool ‘combo’: clean, collaborative, creative, familiar & friendly

Teenagers and young adults made up my one-on-one or small groups of students, therefore using technology was not an issue. My main concern was to make sure that the tools we used allowed for maintaining a personal relationship without being too distracting; tools that leave space for the person and let them express themselves in a natural way in order to establish a natural and meaningful communication during and between lessons. We could call them easy-to-use, transparent ‘clean tools’. My second criteria for selecting online tools was to use platforms where we could collaborate and co-create content following the Collaborative Creative Learning (CCL) framework which my students were already familiar with. And finally, it was also important to keep a balance between new and familiar tools, ones that the students already knew. As I’ve already mentioned, the teachers’ learning curve was steep, and we can say the same for the students. They had to learn and adapt in parallel to many different platforms required by each teacher. After discussing with the students, we decided on some basic tools together from the beginning. Involving them in the planning process and the choices we made, gave them a feeling of empowerment and autonomy, they felt responsible for their learning and were engaged both with the content and the environment. As motivational research has confirmed (Csizér, Dörnyei 1998, Pugliese 2017) the principal element in helping students motivate themselves is creating a positive learning experience in an enjoyable, relaxed and supportive learning environment. The teacher’s role is to design this environment where learning can happen, should it be face-to-face or distance learning. In the CCL framework, students act as co-designers both of the environment and content, making it personal thereby pleasant and most importantly, human.

 

Real-life communication

With these three principles in mind to co-create our new, online learning environment, we first set up a group on WhatsApp, already used by students, for informal communication between lessons, or for instances where we might encounter technical issues to connect. Informal communication can be just a short wellbeing check, or a song on YouTube, an image or a short article to comment on. As some examples, we learned to make a face mask following a tutorial, students recorded the process how they made it; washed hands to the tune of a favorite song (www.washyourlyrics.com); shared the image of an Act of Happiness calendar for April that students drew on paper shared reflective ideas on the video ‘The Great Realisation’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nw5KQMXDiM4) and most importantly, connected regularly through short, but meaningful personal messages. The WhatsApp group gathered students from different groups, which made interaction livelier and more natural.

 

Real-life content

I strongly believe in the power of personal content in language learning, drawing on students’ lives, interests and thoughts. The student is by far the best resource we can build on when selecting or creating content. Online collaboration tools make this personalized and collaborative content creation incredibly easy.

Following the ‘clean tool’ principle, we decided to set up a shared folder on Google Drive, used as a library where all of us could upload files, should it be an article to read, exercises to do, homework completed. Within this Google Drive environment, we started one single Google docs for a course log that we called Lockdown Diary, and also used it as a white board during the lessons to take notes, note down emerging or content related vocabulary, language points to practice.

Topics of the lessons follow a chronological order and they are mostly related to the current situation, how students experience it, what thoughts they have about changes, impacts and the future. Activities involved a lot of brainstorming, questioning, prioritizing, evaluating, which all engage and help develop divergent and critical thinking, judgment and decision making and a lot of spontaneous creativity. A few examples for the topics as they emerged week by week: Things I do differently today; I’m responsible for…; My strategies to cope with the lockdown; Acts of Happiness Calendar for April (students drew a calendar with one act for each day); What I’ve learnt over the past five weeks (students created a survey using Google form and sent it to friends and contacts); Lockdown Report to the Prime Minister (students wrote a report based on the survey results). We are still working together remotely, therefore topics are evolving as new ideas and concerns arise in students’ lives. As a final outcome, we are going to publish the Lockdown Diary as a recording of these weeks of remote learning and collaborative experience. Writing in one single document has given equal voices to all students and the teacher, has taken off the anxiety related to proficiency expectations and has clearly shown how we can progress together.

We continued using a Padlet board for gathering content from the net (articles, videos, podcasts) that students or the teacher found compelling and relevant, as well as for posting audio recordings we created during the live sessions. The board also contains a link to the Google document with the Lockdown Diary, thereby assembling all lesson materials in one single online environment.

 

Live sessions: Zoom fatigue and how to avoid it

The most daunting challenge forced on us by the lockdown undeniably was to re-create a face-to-face classroom environment, group dynamics and personal interaction via different screens. Whether Skype, Zoom, Microsoft or Click Teams, the effect is the same, it’s utterly draining both on students and teachers. “I’m tired of technology”, my digital native students would say just after a few days of online schooling. What took a few days for students to realize, took about a month for research to discover. Several articles were published around the same time, between 21st and 24th April, about Zoom fatigue in distance working as well as schooling.

Beyond the technology side of poor connections, small, sometimes frozen screens, time lag, the main reasons emerge from the lack of the basic elements of communication. We miss body language, perceiving the body in space, eye contact, in short, all the non-verbal cues which are essential in communication. Without these details it takes a lot more effort, with less results to understand intentions, meaning and most importantly, to detect and match emotions for the sake of fluent communication.

Another reason touches on perceiving the world, other people and ourselves as separate entities. The fact that we see ourselves on the screen, from the same perspective as other people, yields to a sort of schizophrenic state of mind. Faces, including ours, are all framed in the same box, with no difference between I and you, without personal depth. Boundaries between subjective and objective perceptions are blurred, which our mind tries unconsciously to constantly readjust, thereby putting an extra strain on our brains.

The loss of physical space surrounding our bodies and being reduced to a face, makes us somehow feel deprived from our completeness. Different people cope differently with the constant self-awareness caused by seeing our face on the screen, and it may hinder our natural way of communicating, being ourselves when juxtaposed with many other faces in Zoom’s multi-screen gallery view. As limits between I and Thou, with words by Martin Buber, are not clear, it becomes difficult to understand and follow the other person’s thoughts and feelings, predict and react to their actions, in short to empathize with them.

Silence is an important element of communication as well as of thinking. In most video calls we feel obliged to speak all the time in order not to lose connection with the other person, thus disturbing the balance of a natural conversation. Screens are also a home to endless different types of activities mingling the realms of our private and professional lives, both for students and teachers. Online sessions thereby can be a temptation to multitasking, which will increase exhaustion even more. Setting up clear rules such as “Turn off your email notifications, chat messages, etc” from the beginning should be a rule of thumb. Zoom, as any other video conferencing platform is a tool which allowed thousands of teachers to connect with their students literally face to face. The question is, how to use them to connect the whole person to a whole person in a pleasant learning environment with pedagogical consistency?

 

Activities to overcome Zoom mental load

A pleasant learning environment can only emerge if we manage to alleviate Zoom’s, or other video-conferencing tool’s draining effects. One thing to always bear in mind is that a live session over a video conferencing tool is only one part of the learning experience. Learning happens through meaningful relationships, by creating meaningful content, facilitated by different online tools as described above. Here are a few tested hands-on activities that help overcome the mental overload and embed the zooming lesson into a complete and enjoyable learning experience. With smaller groups, they can be done as a whole group, with larger groups, the breakout room feature in Zoom allows to put students in several small activity groups.

 

During the live session

Re-establish the boundaries between ‘I and Thou’. Help students to focus on the other person, observe the other person and their surroundings.

Example:

Describe the room, imagine the rest of the house, observe the outfit of the other person, then change something and tell what has been changed. Observation activities promote empathic skills in general. Doing them via the screen has an added value of not looking at one’s own face, but focusing on the other person as a whole person, with gestures, facial expressions and their bodies.

 

Focus on tasks to be completed on other platforms or paper instead of focusing on the faces on the screen.

Example:

Do a collaborative writing activity as a Google drive document. Each student can have different parts of the same story and write simultaneously. In paper format, do a creative writing activity that you share orally via Zoom. Throughout the activity, their attention will be drawn to a stable content, rather than passively watching moving faces on multiple screens. The lesson will have a creative and pedagogical outcome, as opposed to a simple live chat session with friends.

 

Collaborate in a meaningful way to complete a task.

Example:

Create an online survey about a current issue using Google forms to be sent out to friends and family.  This collaborative creating activity will highly engage students’ thinking, interaction and writing skills. The teacher’s role resumes in coordinating, overseeing the activity and helping with technical issues.

 

Include non-screen activities to recreate physical space around the body.

Examples:

Stand up, walk around, leave the screen and come back with an object. Describe it so that other students find out what it is. They can either name the object or make a drawing of it.

Look outside and draw an image of what you can see outside from your window.

Do a short cooking class and create a video tutorial. These activities will help recreate a whole-person experience and create a natural environment.

 

Allow time for silence.

Example:

Use the collaborative Google doc (or any other collaborative platform) to produce either together or independently a piece of writing, should it be a poem, a short story, or a letter. To be creative and produce something needs time, self-reflection and silence. Sharing the written pieces will be all the joy that Zoom will allow.

 

Give voice to students.

A lesson on Zoom is not a webinar, in the same way as a lesson or training session is not a lecture. Role-plays and pair work activities can easily be carried out on the zoom platform with clear instructions. The most decisive element of all remote sessions is the personal contact with the students and continuous support in a relaxed atmosphere where students and the teacher have equal voices.

The teacher’s role during these activities is to provide support, be a partner in learning, to be present without being too visible, in short, to provide seamless guidance. Using Zoom doesn’t mean that the teacher always has to be visible. Don’t hesitate to turn off your camera. Let students know that you are there by popping into breakout rooms, giving supportive feedback and making sure that the conversation is on going.

 

Bridge between live sessions

One of the challenges of distance teaching and learning is to lose track of students. Over the two-month period of distance schooling, large number of students has dropped out by simply disappearing from the established platforms. Regular contact is therefore crucial to follow up not only on students’ work, but mainly on their presence. Using a light online platform to regularly connect with each other in a meaningful and personal way can make all the difference. We used correspondence via Google documents, Scrabble online game, short WhatsApp messages in which we shared something that we had read, seen and found interesting to share. These short, personal interactions ensured continuity, kept students on the track and became part of the learning environment. The combination of several online tools, used both in synchronous and asynchronous ways, allowed us to re-establish a real, person-to-person communication in time and space while engaging every single 21st century skill mentioned earlier, and most importantly to overcome the limits of a virtual face-to-face online tool so as to connect with the whole person in a meaningful way.

 

Lessons for the future

The lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic threw all of us in deep water and we have learnt to swim together relying on inner resources and collective knowledge. Students and teachers have learnt, practiced and further developed life skills mentioned earlier in a collaborative and supportive way. Teachers probably learnt just as much from their students than students from the teachers. The experience of teaching online reinforced the fact that mastering a tool can be insufficient and even counter-productive without being able to build, maintain and further develop a positive relationship with your students.

Beyond using new tools, we have all learnt how to adapt and be flexible. Without any doubt, we embraced change and this is probably the most important skill that we will need in the near future; being able to change our ways and adapt to new frameworks of life. The Collaborative Lockdown Diary will remind my students of their learning journey through these turbulent times through their own voices and experiences.

Hopefully the current context of Covid-19 will be behind us one day, but there are other contexts where we could make use of this experience. Prisoners, children in hospitals, refugee centres, students in under-developed countries could all benefit from what we have learnt while we stayed at home.

 

References

Csizér, K. & Dörnyei, Z., (1998). ‘Ten Commandments for motivating language learners: results of an empirical study’, Language Teaching Research 2,3. pp 203-229.

Jiang, M. (2020) The reason Zoom calls drain your energy. BBC. 22 April 2020. https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20200421-why-zoom-video-chats-are-so-exhausting?ocid=ww.social.link.facebook&fbclid=IwAR1R-Ka62gs8K2PznprhJEUHKHbxIZfcLGmNHQszlOzZqgb9OJpCbhYU_Pc

Pugliese, C. (2017). Creating Motivation. Helbling Publishing.

Sacasas, L.M. A Theory of Zoom Fatigue (2020). The Convivial Society Blog. 21 April 2020. https://theconvivialsociety.substack.com/p/a-theory-of-zoom-fatigue?fbclid=IwAR3mZ9tob9jGFxtcY-24m_WBGmmwzcjB4Mtp7UMn8uG4D3EIspmzUe3sBtI

Sklar, J. (2020) ‘Zoom fatigue’ is taxing the brain. Here's why that happens. National Geographic. 24 April 2020. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/04/coronavirus-zoom-fatigue-is-taxing-the-brain-here-is-why-that-happens/

Vergara, I. (2020). « Zoom fatigue »: pourquoi les discussions en visioconférence sont si épuisantes. Le Figaro. 23 April 2020. https://www.lefigaro.fr/secteur/high-tech/zoom-fatigue-pourquoi-les-discussions-en-visioconference-sont-si-epuisantes-20200423

 

Please check the Creative Methodology for Using ICT in the English Classroom at Pilgrims website.

Please check the Creative Methodology for the Classroom course at Pilgrims website.

Please check the How to Motivate Your Students course at Pilgrims website.

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  • Make It Human: In Between Screens and Faces. Reflections on Nine Weeks of Lessons During Lockdown
    Csilla Jaray-Benn, France