Masked, bimodal and distance teaching

Masked, bimodal and distance teaching

Radio silence since September! Did I lose my voice? What happened?

Well here’s what happened. I fumbled my way, masked and panting through September. Quite often breathless and sometimes even dizzy as I rushed from classroom to classroom.  I became expert at mad gesticulating to make up for mumbling in a foreign language. Only muffled sounds came from my mouth.  I adjusted my body language, coordinating different degrees of shoulder shrugging and hip swaying. Yes, you’re dead right. No, try again. Can anyone help? Eyebrows became increasingly important. I started pencilling mine in. After all there was no need for lipstick. I practised smiling with my eyes.

Advantages? No need to worry about food stuck in your teeth. But an obligation to be very careful about mask hygiene. A stain on a white mask is not a good look, even if it is only coffee.

 It proved exceptionally difficult to fix students’ names and personalities, not only because they were masked but also because of the fact that, after the first two weeks, students only came in every other week. Like many students, I personally felt grateful even for this reduced presence. It came to feel like a privilege to be present on campus, even if it did seem to sorely test many teaching teams. There was little consensus on what exactly we should be doing; blended learning, bimodal teaching, distance teaching, how exams should be conducted, how lines of discussion and communication should be kept open for a constructive exchange of ideas. Interaction became tricky. Voices became increasingly strident.

There were quite a lot of technical and existential problems of what was called bimodal teaching, that is to say teaching with half of the students in class and the other half AT THE SAME TIME at their homes via a laptop. In a creative writing class we experimented with writing dialogue via devices with conversations being written between present and distant students. One word of advice. Don’t do this. Not like this anyway. Proof that some ideas just don’t work when put into practice. I’ve tried to represent the cacophony this activity unleashed in the following document:

On the left you will find the chat conversation that was carried out between teacher and students inside the live conferencing link (the BigBlueButton incrusted into Moodle) and then on the right various simultaneous chat conversations that (present and distant) students had using the chat tool in Moodle. And don’t forget the conversations going on in the classroom, which I have mercifully spared you. White noise to put it mildly.

Some of this was fun. But it was also sometimes deeply unsettling when you’ve been teaching for a long time, to lose control of your classroom and feel like a rookie again. Particularly when in another teaching context you also teach how to teach.

Other colleagues have shared their sense of discombobulation (this is my favourite word at the moment). In an email exchange with a creative writing colleague last week she put it like this: ‘we live in an age in which the human race is hanging on by the skin of its teeth and while this does not make writing impossible it makes it a painful project’.

Writing requires processing. And if you can’t process you can’t easily write. Unless writing becomes part of the processing. And sometimes this can’t happen if there is too much crackling or static going on.

Alas, as you may have understood, this post is already outdated because as of today the universities in France are locked down and all teaching is now from a distance. Let’s hope that this second time round will prove less traumatic than in March. One big difference is that we are more comfortable with online conferencing tools so hopefully we will be able to put them to more efficient use. Trying to look on the bright side, you don’t need to teach in a mask if you are teaching from home. So I can smile with my mouth as well as my eyes. And students should be able to hear me clearly.

Sending smiles across miles.

And before signing off, another reason to smile: poet and friend Zaro Weil and illustrator Junli Song won the 2020 CLIPPA Poetry Prize for their children’s poetry book Cherry Moon. Big congratulations to Zaro who is solid proof of how hard work and determination and grit pay dividends. And who is ALWAYS smiling.

Thanks fig_tart for beautiful flowers

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