Just Your Typical Day of Online Classes

Before devotions, I look over my schedule and carefully pack all of the day’s necessities. Even though I have a nice office space, the wifi on the elementary side where my office is located is so bad that through experience I’ve learned that, unless I’m willing to hotspot my computer and use up all my phone data (even the extravagant 13 Gigs a month that I can get for $16 CAD), I need to move over to the high school side. (The high school side is equipped with better wifi since teachers generally teach their online classes from that location.) I pack everything I’ll need into my backpack, and I head over to the “hallway” of the high school. (It’s an outdoor space that is covered by a roof but open on the sides. I think North Americans would call it a porch in any other circumstance.) I set up at the table that my Spanish teacher Gladys and I refer to as my “second office” – laptop, binder, textbooks, pencil case, AirPods, phone – everything out and ready so I can begin classes as soon as devotions are finished. 

As far as views go… can’t complain about this one! It’s just a little breezy…

After devotions, I come back out to my workspace. I send the link for the class through the WhatsApp group that we use to communicate with students when they’re at home. I join the Google Meet myself, and I begin to welcome the students as they enter the online classroom.

“Good morning, Eunice!” 

“Good morning, miss!” I hear in response. 

“Good morning, Jazmin!” 

“Good morning, Miss Pasma!”

I greet each student by name as they enter the class. As I greet each student, I check off their name on my class list, the best way to keep track of attendance and to know that we’re ready to begin. But really – more important than the attendance is the connection with students individually and not just as a homogenous group on my screen. Students spend 6 hours in front of their computer or phone on days of online classes, and how much of that time is authentic connection? I have a feeling it’s not much. 

In fact, it’s this lack of authentic connection that is my most frequent frustration when teaching online. It’s very easy for students to stay muted unless I call on them. I finish teaching a concept, and I ask, “Do you have any questions?” Students stare blankly at me. Maybe one or two students will bother to shake their head to indicate that they do not have any questions. I have commiserated about this lack of authentic communication with Seño Gladys, my Spanish teacher, on a regular basis. She told me that sometimes her students stare at her, staying so still, that she will say to them, “Students, breathe!!! Are you still alive???” It makes us laugh when we tell each other the stories of our experiences, but obviously we both agree that the best classes for students (and teachers!) would have students at school in person every day. 

If I turn my head and look to the side, I have this beautiful view from “my second office” 😍

My students have come a long way in their ability to use technology and to use it well for their online classes. My grade 11 students received classes exclusively through Zoom last year, so they are well used to this format. My grade 10 students, who were in middle school last year, only had videos posted to a Facebook group that they watched asynchronously, doing worksheets to show their understanding. Of course, there were some benefits – students could watch a video multiple times if they were having trouble. They had extra flexibility in their schedules – easier to share a phone between multiple family members. If they had internet issues, they could watch the videos later. Synchronous online classes are a whole new ballgame for them this year. And wouldn’t you know it, their very first online class of the year was English.

I did have an in-person class with my students on the first day of school, and I tried to prepare them for their first online class. “I’ll send you a text in WhatsApp with the link to our class,” I told them. “Even though students aren’t at school, teachers still meet together for devotions. And think about today. Did we finish devotions exactly at 8:00?” A few of my students shook their heads no. “We will not start class until after devotions, but devotions often finish at 8:10. So don’t worry if I don’t send you a message until 8:10, or 8:15 or even 8:20!”

The next morning, I indeed sent them a text around 8:10 with the class link. I only received one frantic text before that from a student saying (in Spanish, of course), “Miss, I can’t connect to the class! I don’t have a link!” The students successfully joined the class, and by 8:20 – yes, a full ten minutes to get everyone connected to their first class 😂😭😂 – we had begun class. 

And then we tried to do English class online – a totally new forum. It was PAINFUL. I discovered quickly that I could not ask a question and wait for someone to volunteer an answer, a technique I can easily employ in an in-person class. If I didn’t choose a person to answer, students just stared at me, all deer in the headlights. Each time I asked a question and then asked a specific person to answer, we had to wait through an uncomfortable 20 to 45 seconds of silence waiting for the student to figure out how to unmute in order to give the answer. I asked students to type answers to a question in the chat so that they could all participate. Two students out of 15 typed something in the chat. That concerned me so much that I looked up “chat” to see what the Spanish word was – maybe students just didn’t understand the English terminology in an online class! Since the Spanish is “el chat”, I knew that wasn’t the problem… 

Thankfully students have come a long way in their ability to navigate technology. Students can easily type answers or questions in the chat, and they can use the “raise hand” function to let me know that they have a question. Now we never have to wait longer than 5 seconds for someone to unmute, unless their internet connection isn’t great and they’re having trouble hearing. That is the more continuous problem – poor internet. As I teach, I can often see a student or two “leaving” the meeting only to re-enter immediately, a sure sign that their internet is so weak that they lost connection to the meeting. Occasionally I’ll get a text from a student as we are working on a workbook page saying, “Sorry, Miss, my internet failed and I didn’t hear the instructions. What are we doing?” 

Of course, teaching online does have a few benefits. Students are not allowed to bring any technology to school when they’re here in person, and I don’t have the projector that I’m used to from my classroom in Canada. We do almost everything “old school” when we’re in person. When we’re online, I’ll take advantage of the tech tools at our disposal. One day we were playing a Kahoot (for those of you not in school yourself, Kahoot is a fun competition-based game platform. We use it to practice or review grammar concepts or vocabulary), when suddenly the electricity went out at school. That, of course, meant we lost our internet signal, and I got kicked out of my own class. By the time I set up my computer to hotspot internet from my phone and rejoined the class, I was greeted by the faces of only six students, all waiting patiently. The other nine had also been affected by the electricity outage. As we continued the game, students slowly trickled back into the class and rejoined us in our game. 

Basically any response to these experiences is one part shrug emoji (🤷🏻‍♀️) and one part flexibility in figuring out what will work in the moment. For the past week, we’ve had all of our classes online as we await an inspection from the ministry of health to ensure that we’re practicing all the pandemic restrictions required. I’m so tired of only online classes and can’t wait to return to our hybrid method. My Spanish teacher told me just yesterday in our Spanish class that on Thursday, she had to cover another teacher’s class, and she had no free periods, spending literally the entire day from 8:00 to 1:30 in classes with the short recess break as her only reprieve. She said she has a whole new appreciation for how students experience their online days. 

I fervently hope that mandatory online classes are very soon a thing of the past in both Canada and Guatemala. By the time I’m back in Canada, I hope to never need to teach an exclusively online class. But I hope that when we use digital tools, I’ll remember the joys and frustrations I’ve experienced here and have a little perspective. In other words, I won’t complain about poor internet again!

Bethany’s Life in Guatemala Volume 10: All Done Homeschooling

I’m all done with my stint in homeschooling. 

I sent the boys off with a whole sheet of stickers to enjoy at home (with apologies to their mother! But they have strict instructions to share with their siblings and not stick them onto anything that shouldn’t have a sticker!) and with some sadness in my heart. I know I’ll still see the boys here at school, but it’s been so great to have classes with them almost daily. I never want to teach a whole class of grade 1 or grade 3 students, but it’s really nice just having two kids, and since almost all of my students are online (and I don’t even get to interact with them – it’s all asynchronous learning), it was really, really nice to have in person classes. 

Plus they’re really funny! They’re seven and nine, so there was a lot of joking and play fighting (sometimes some moments of actual fighting), lots of solar-powered robot demonstrations, rocks brought from home to show me, compass explorations, lots of playing with my Apple watch, and lots and lots of love. 

I’m happy to have a little bit more flexibility in my schedule, but otherwise I’m very sad to pass them off to Eden who will be taking over the homeschooling. She told me that she’ll invite me as a guest speaker and/or guest audience any time they need one! 😆

The extra flexibility in my schedule will be very helpful since I’m starting an AQ course on Monday (Ontario teachers, you know what I’m talking about!), so it’ll be nice not having to take little bits of work home with me to finish at work. I should be back to finishing everything during the school day. Here’s hoping!

Bethany’s Life in Guatemala, Volume 9: Today’s Reflection

Vacation. Sweet, sweet vacation. 

I’m so used to having a March break, a glorious week off of school in mid-March. This isn’t technically March break – it’s semana santa, our Holy Week break. So it actually starts in March this year, but of course, timing varies from year to year based on the actual date of Easter. 

Regardless: I am happy to have a holiday. No days at all off of school – except for last week’s exciting trip to Migración to renew our visas – has been strange for me. 

This is good work. Good, but hard. It’s hard to be teaching students I’ve never met. (Side story: Two weeks ago as we walked through the plaza in front of the Catholic church in Jocotenango on our way to church, a little girl ran up and hugged Tegan and then ran off. We speculated that it was one of her students, but she didn’t say anything, not a “hi”, not a “Miss Reschke”, nothing. Later Tegan got a text saying it had in fact been one of her students. At church, Eden had two different students come up to her and talk, and then outside of the grocery store, another student waved and said hi as he went past with his dad. I had no one. Not a single student greeting me. Poor me!)

It’s hard not knowing students personally. I’m sure it’s incredibly hard for students to be learning only through a video. Probably hard enough for their other subjects anyway, but especially so for English. They would normally be doing so much talking and listening and more talking in class, but who do they get to talk to now? (I had them send me an audio message for their final test of the first quarter. It was so great to hear actual voices and to ensure that my students were doing a little bit of talking, but it’s nothing like what it would be in class.)

When students drop off their work at school every Friday, some of them create these fancy title pages for their work. I’ve never asked them to. They just do it. Small signs that tell me they really care about their work.

If my students are struggling, I just have no way of knowing why. In class, there are lots of hints you can pick up on. Are they just having a bad day? Are they struggling in general with English? Is a particular unit hard? Is one skill particularly hard? I feel like I have no idea right now. Is it because they aren’t watching my teaching videos before they do the homework? Are the instructions unclear? Is there no parent at home ensuring that they do their homework? Are they helping out in a family business for a significant number of hours a day, leaving little time for school work? Who knows?! Certainly not me!

My heart aches for students who can’t be at school and who really need to be. It’s so hard. It’s so, so hard. 

At least now we have a week off to enjoy, guilt-free.