Concrete lessons from virtual classes
In order to sustain a classroom community when Carrie Conners moved her Introduction to Creative Writing class at LaGuardia Community College online in the Spring of 2020, Conners had her students write a collaborative poem “Out the window, I’ve seen.” Clarion commissioned the above illustration based on the final lines of the poem. To read about the collaborative writing project, visit tinyurl.com/collaborative-writing-project and read the full poem at tinyurl.com/out-the-window-poem.
CUNY faculty members now have a full academic year of remote teaching under their belts. When the pandemic first forced the city into lockdown in March 2020, the thought of virtual teaching seemed like a temporary emergency measure.
But it’s now more than a year later. And while PSC members are getting vaccinated and CUNY Central is adamant about returning to in-person learning in the fall, the “new normal” has been virtual learning for the past year, with faculty deciding what method of teaching works best for them and their students. In the following feature, members speak to Clarion’s Shomial Ahmad about how they structured their classes and their semester in a way that built shared classroom experiences in order to meet course goals.
I learned a lot really quickly in order to teach my classes asynchronously. It helped that I had already planned to teach an online Shakespeare course – one of my mad hat ideas from long before the shutdown. Shakespeare does not sound like a class that you can teach asynchronously online, but it’s worked enormously well.
Why? Shakespeare is a visual medium. When they can watch an actor interpret a character’s words, students connect more empathetically with the drama, and they better understand the poetry. Lectures are therefore interspersed with performances of relevant scenes, provided by such resources as the Royal Shakespeare Company, Globe Theatre and Folger Shakespeare Library.
My class is organized as weekly units posted to Blackboard. It’s a best practice to corral material in one folder to avoid excess clicking. Written instructions explain how students should proceed through the week’s materials. These are followed by the assigned reading, study guides, lectures and performance excerpts, and finally, the assigned writing. I record and embed thematically organized mini lectures, usually less than 10 minutes in length. One video may be about Hamlet’s grief, and the next about Hamlet and Ophelia. Short lectures are easier for me to edit, and they allow students to easily budget time. If a student has a ten-minute break, they can watch a video.
I’m surprised by how well this works. My students have submitted thoughtful discussion posts and well-crafted paper drafts; they’re clearly thinking and appreciating the material. When they’re stuck, they’re not shy to visit me in virtual office hours. I don’t think it’s a single intervention that makes the difference, but creating a reliable structure is enormously helpful. Students can then focus on mastering the course content over navigating the technology.
Hostos Community College
I teach my Math for Elementary Education with Algebra class asynchronously. I try to create community through weekly discussions, whether it’s a reading reflection or a problem-solving exercise. I do group activities so students are working together to create information as a community. The big challenge is getting them out there to just try so I’m constantly sending emails, encouraging students to share in the discussion.
I am using open educational resource (OER) videos developed by one of my colleagues whose approach is similar to mine. I scour the internet for resources: fun math raps, songs to help them memorize the quadratic formula, strategies for graphing a slope, math history or math in other cultures. It is good to have the videos under 10 minutes; attention spans are not long. I’m not testing because proctoring virtually is impossible.
I have office hours over Zoom, where I’ll meet with a student or a small group. I break down the grade with weekly discussions, group projects, homework, drill and skill activities, reflective blog/journal posts and a final portfolio, where students unpack five of their learning tasks and expand on how the concepts work and how they would teach them.
In a blog assignment, students research and write about the Asian origins of math concepts; some examples are Fibonacci numbers in Hindu culture, poetry and music, the Asian roots of algebra or the origin of the Pascal’s triangle in China. Some students have submitted really nice projects. It’s a good feeling when I know that the students will do good work in their own classrooms with their own students.
Department of Mathematics
Borough of Manhattan Community College
When we first transitioned to distance learning last March, I had two concerns about my classes: that they remain engaging and that they simulate an in-person environment as much as possible. I decided to use many of the same technological tools that I had been using in- person.
Attendance is taken digitally through Mentimeter, mini lectures are presented via PowerPoint or Google Slides, course material is posted on Blackboard and Google Classroom, and in-class assignments are conducted in groups via the Google Suite of Apps for Education. With so many different technological options available, the conscious decision to use these applications was to lessen any potential learning curve to the technology’s use at a distance, which provided students with an extra sense of comfort and certainty in their ability to use the technology.
The obvious change of meeting in a Zoom room rather than a room on campus provided its challenges in building a sense of community. In an effort to alleviate some of the stress that comes with participating in an online course, I open each class session asking students how they are feeling, what challenges they are facing, and if they have any updates they want to share with the class. Students have expressed that this time talking with their peers made them feel more comfortable in the class as well as feel that their voices were being heard during this incredibly difficult time.
As part of ensuring the class is engaging, I make an effort to change the task the class is working on regularly and not spend too much time on any one presentation or assignment. Whether it is a small group activity, full class discussion or in-class assignment to engage with the material covered in class, the switching of tasks helps to prevent Zoom fatigue.
Secondary Education and Youth Services Department
To my surprise, there have been some remarkable benefits in teaching acting online as a hybrid, part synchronous, part asynchronous course.
Theater provides audiences with a sense of connection – with each other and with the actors on stage. While the online platform may seem antithetical to the art of theater making, it can indeed provide a focused and intimate personal experience. For example, discussion boards have offered students who might normally be insecure to voice ideas in a large group, an opportunity to engage in dialogue with fellow peers.
To make the most out of the virtual platform, I divided my acting classes up into two distinct “parts” for each week of instruction. In the first, I would meet with the whole class. During this session, students would present monologues and respond to each other’s work. In the second session, I would divide up what would be normally the second class meeting of the week into smaller 15-minute sections. During this time, the smaller group sizes allowed for students to receive more detailed instruction and more specific peer-led feedback. It was during these smaller sections where students really seemed to experience a deeper connection to each other and the work.
At some point early on in an acting student’s training, they will be assigned a monologue: a particular kind of performance where an actor is creating the illusion that they are speaking to another being, who, in most cases, is in fact not on stage. The actor is, in essence, talking to a spot on the wall. Conducting this exercise via Zoom turns out to be an excellent means in which to reinforce the concept of “talking to a spot on the wall!”
Consistent virtual office hours with a link to these meetings readily available in my e-signature and on my Blackboard page, also proved invaluable. I also maintained weekly reflection questions on Blackboard, where students would respond to short writing prompts and discuss ideas with each other. These prompts were essential, as they provided a way for the students to stay connected to the material during the time between full class meetings.
During my time teaching acting online, I have observed students more clearly articulating their understanding of the basic concepts of acting. This, I believe, is largely due to the smaller group meetings, which allowed students more opportunities to collaborate in a safe environment with fellow classmates. Good theater is made through healthy collaboration; teaching acting online reinforces this idea.
Department of Communications and Performing Arts
Kingsborough Community College
My graduate-level classes last around two hours, with eight to 20 students in each class. Even with smaller classes than a typical CUNY undergraduate class, I encounter some of the same issues when teaching virtually.
It’s important to create a sense of community among the students and them with me. I’ve encouraged students to make an appointment to see me in person over Zoom for my “office hours.” I’ve also opened the Zoom class sessions 15 minutes early and stayed on at least 15 minutes after class ends to encourage my students to chat informally with me or with each other.
I have always tried to balance group discussions with small breakout groups to give students a chance to talk to one another regardless of whether I’m teaching in-person or remotely. I want students to learn and exchange ideas from their colleagues, and not just me. I use Zoom breakouts, where students assemble in smaller groups and designate a reporter to bring back a summary of what they have discussed in their breakout sessions.
But it’s easy to lose track of the “silent minority,” especially on a Zoom screen that has 20 little windows. In order to encourage those who are reticent speakers, I sometimes insist that every student after a Zoom breakout say at least one or two things to the reassembled group about what they learned in the breakout.
I have always had a tough reputation for assigning a lot of reading, and I’ve modulated my expectations post-COVID, given the other very real pressures my students feel in their work, personal, and community lives. COVID has made me less rigid as a teacher and more empathetic to the pressures my graduate students have to deal with.
Professor, Program in Urban Education
The Graduate Center