Whether you are a parent with kids suddenly home all the time, or a teacher who suddenly had to go to the internet, I think we can agree on one thing: What a long, strange semester its been.
But I mean “strange” in a non-judgmental way. Because I didn’t hate my semester at home.
I mean, there was the obvious things to like: having a nice fresh cup of tea whenever I wanted in my normal mug and not my metallic travel mug; Waking up, brushing my hair and sitting down to teach class; grabbing a quick nap between two classes; Being able to use my own clean toilet whenever I wanted instead of holding it in for hours to avoid the stinky public ones in school. I think everyone working from home enjoys those things.
But there was also some surprising things that actually improved my class. Like, how much my students talked. While I projected my face for everyone to see, my students rarely turned on their own cameras. (They only turned them on for a presentation or speech. I found that the more students had their cameras on, the more technical difficulties everyone had, so I didn’t insist on seeing their faces every day.)
And I noticed that presentations, which usually take one class took three classes to complete. And while starting microphones and the “can you hear me?” accounted for a bit of the extra time, I realized students talked more because they felt more relaxed.
Free from the pressure of standing up in class, with thirty pairs of eyes on them, my students just talked longer. In class they can’t use phones or computers, so when each student stands up to talk, everyone turns around to face them, and it makes them so nervous their voice shakes, they stutter and they want it over as fast as possible so they can retreat to the safety of the crowd. But alone, with no one looking at them (besides me) and the other students just a black box on the screen, they didn’t feel pressure and seemed to actually enjoy chatting longer.
As for me, I was fine with talking to “no one” as well. Maybe it’s because I’ve gotten a lot of practice with my Youtube videos, but I’m totally comfortable speaking to the camera, assuming people are watching and not feeling silly at all.
Also, my students were pretty active, constantly typing “hhhhh” in the chat part when I told a joke, or sending the applause emoji when I said something interesting. They also would never dare interrupt me when I’m speaking in class, but online they could ask or say any comment anytime knowing I would respond to it when I finished my thought (which I made sure to always do so they knew their comments were important). In class they are trained to sit quietly and listen, while online they were surprisingly active and chatty.
And also them being at home gave them more opportunity to talk about things they couldn’t at school. For instance their midterm was “Show-and-Tell” and their final was presenting and important personal photo. In both cases they had a much wider range of stuff and we ended up seeing childhood pictures and toys or family items or even in a few cases, family members. One boy was in charge of babysitting his two-year-old sister when his parents went back to work, and another was interrupted by his grandma. (Both were very cute to see.)
In writing class I noticed more communication than normal as well. Normally they do writing in class and hand in their papers at the end of class. Then I write my comments on their paper and return them, never to see it again. But since everything had to be done over email my comments could include questions or thoughts that they now could reply to. They weren’t required to, but many did, and it started some dialogues that never would have happened if we were writing on physical paper in class.
Of course it wasn’t all peaches and sunshine. There was plenty of technical problems and sometimes I would have to restart my computer 3-4 times in a class. We had to use special Chinese software approved by the school (no Zoom here!) and it definitely had some problems. Although that was also a benefit as it gave me a quick break to go to the bathroom, or grab more tea.
I’m not suffering from delusions of grandeur though. I don’t know how many students actually paid attention, or actually watched me every class. Several times I called randomly on students, and within 20 seconds they turned on their microphones and started speaking, so I know they were at least listening. And a few times students microphones came on randomly and I heard them breathing or chuckling at what I was saying, which was encouraging (one girl had her microphone accidentally on while we were watching Rupaul’s Drag Race. I didn’t tell my students the premise of the show and when she realized what a drag queen was, she gasped, the whole class hearing. I couldn’t stop laughing at that one.)
So while I feel fairly certain they were listening, I’m also fairly certain they were in the kitchen eating a snack, in the bathroom peeing, on their phone texting with friends or playing video games all while half paying attention to me droning on in the background. But I’m not gonna get upset about it.
I heard some teacher at my school insisted that everyone turn on their camera so they can make sure every student is watching, but I ALSO heard that some teacher asked their students to do reading and the teacher would forget to turn off the microphone and the students could hear them chopping vegetables or talking to family, clearly not paying attention to the class.
So I can’t expect each student was listening to me every moment, but I got enough feedback that I knew some students were listening to me some of the time, and I figured that’s the best I could hope for.
I made a decision early on that I wouldn’t be tough this semester. I mean, I’m a super nice teacher anyway, but this semester I upped my average grade from 85 to 90 just because I know how hard it was everyone. When we started class we were scared. This “mystery virus” was raging through Wuhan and spreading to the rest of China, and dealing with that kind of anxiety while also trying to learn isn’t easy. Then as things got under control and safe, many of my students STILL weren’t allowed out of their house by their overcautious parents. More than 50% hadn’t been outside even once for more than 70 days. That brings about another kind of stress.
And then came the boredom. For the first few months we were kept in a kind of limbo, unsure of when/if students would return. But one rule in China is classes won’t begin if parent’s are still nervous and when the university offered the kids to come back, students (and their parents) decided they didn’t want to. It makes sense as they come from all over the country and it is big—and potentially dangerous—trip for just the last 6-7 weeks of class. But once we knew they weren’t coming back, boredom hit them and standards slipped. Students had to sit in front of their computers for 5+ hours everyday, with few breaks and no social life between classes, it’s no wonder they lost motivation.
So who knows what will happen next semester. China has proven they will go to great lengths to contain and control the virus (they tested almost 9 million people in the weeks following a small outbreak of 200 cases in June), so more canceled school is always a possibility. I’m not sure what I’m actually rooting for, cause I kinda liked being at home, but I missed the energy of the classroom. So I guess I’ll just take it easy and not worry about it too much and just figure it out as we go along…which is basically the motto of everyone in 2020.