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.
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.
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!