Online Fall

The trees have stared changing their bright-green color, and a new semester has slowly crawled up to us. Here we are – September, 2020 – the year of Covid-19, quarantine, and online studying for everyone involved in the education. In Canada, most schools resumed in-person classes while the universities opted for online education for the whole semester. The decision about Winter semester has not been made yet, but I feel that Covid-related cases will soon go up and the second lock-down is very real in the near future.

Last week was the first time I used Zoom after two months of a summer break. I was nervous to meet up to 200 students online – I am teaching five different courses at two universities this semester. It is such a strange feeling to see my students as little boxes of moving faces instead of me standing in front of the audience and reading everyone’s body language, hearing the tone of their voices, and feeling the overall atmosphere of the room. Even though the first impression can be wrong, seeing someone in person gives you the much-needed information to establish a healthy relationship – compared to meeting a person behind the screen for the first time and trying to catch as much emotion as possible from a tiny square in which everyone is enclosed. It is such a fragmented sense of people and environment.

What I noticed right away this semester is that if before, the students would come to my class and rarely talk to each other to make friends as all of them were from different departments, and they met together in this classroom only for the required English course – if before it was like that, now, I guess, after months of no social contact and isolation, they are really hungry for communication, thirsty for any human contact. I noted this right away. They told me they were happy I chose Zoom (not asynchronous type of teaching) to meet regularly and discuss the material. They did not mind turning on their cameras. They wrote 100! messages in the chat (one of Zoom options) during our first class to greet each other and exchange their social media information. And you know, I am happy that my class can contribute, even a little bit, to the students’ feeling of belonging, sense of community, and healthy communication in these lonely times.

So, here we are – Fall semester. Cameras are on, volume up, zoom in and zoom out. It is new. It is weird. But at least we are all in this together. So, let’s get the best of this year and have maybe-the most memorable semester in our life. Zoom-zoom!

30 pairs of eyes

30 pairs of focused eyes. They are all concentrated on the task I gave them for the whole class. 30 students, 30 different lives. I see them 3 times a week, yet I do not know much about their lives outside academia. What do they love to read? What will they have for dinner tonight? All I know is their major, their attitude to class, their score, their skills in my class. Is it enough?

As an academic lecturer, I have to be professional and help my students with their studies and skills for future careers. I am not their mother, or therapist, or even their best friend. And even though there are moments and situations when a student opens up and shares some personal things with me, it is always an exception, rather than a rule. We keep it professional. Subordination.

Sometimes I wished I knew them better. I could have understood why she left the class earlier. Or why he did not want to take part in a group work in class. Why she was so upset with a “B+”. Or why he had a smile on his face for the whole class. Sometimes I want to know why he has tears in his eyes or why she has an absent-minded look. What moves them? What makes them come to class? What do they want to do in future?

I look at them and imagine their lives. Their parents, friends, and first love. I make up details in my mind – their hobbies, passion, and free time. But why? We meet 3 times a week – 3 hours together. I do not spend as much time with my friends or parents. Yet, little do I know about these 30 pairs of eyes. I wish I knew them better.

When people surprise you

Do you agree that it is one of the best feelings in the world when someone surpasses your expectations and does much more than expected?

Recently, I have been teaching my students the poetry unit. Usually, the students take my Junior English course because they are required to do so, not really because they are super eager to learn more about literary texts. It is a required course, not an elective one at the university. In our course, we talk about poetry, drama, novels, and short stories.

I do not expect all of my students to fall in love with poetry in my class. I simply want them to pay attention to it, to get familiar with it, and to appreciate the art of writing in such a concise form. So when I asked my students to write their own sonnets (after studying traditional English and Italian sonnets) last week, I expected resistance or complete lack of interest or motivation. I even prepared a grammar task in case they really did not want to be creative in class.

You could only imagine how surprised I was when I saw the genuine smiles on the faces of my students. They immediately got to the task. It was a warm atmosphere of fun, joy, and mutual effort. Each group was writing a sonnet on a different topic. I was cruising around the classroom and eavesdropping their heated discussions about the next rhyme in the sonnet. In my 5-year experience of teaching at the university, it is the first time the sonnet challenge has received such response and reaction.

They spent the whole class working on the sonnets, and none of the groups was able to finish. They worked with such enthusiasm that no one even noticed that the class was over. I let them go and congratulated myself with a good lesson.

So imagine my surprise when the next class they brought complete sonnets. All finished and ready. I did not ask them to do that. I did not expect them to work outside of the classroom or to spend their weekend, writing sonnets. I thought it was a one class thing. But it was not. They came to the next class and expressed the desire to read the sonnets out loud. To the whole class. And we listened to them. There were sonnets about the breakup. Sonnets about winter madness in Alberta. Sonnets about the futility of university degree. Sonnets about 8 am classes at the university. There were traditional sonnets. Sonnets with a twist. Contemporary sonnets with slang and pop culture references. It was like a poetry reading.

I could not stop smiling. It made my day. It made my week. It left such a warm feeling inside me that I decided to devote a blog post to that. To keep the memory of this class alive. To smile. To remember how people can surprise you when you least expect that.