End-of-semester thoughts on teaching Spanish online

Today is the last day of my teaching semester. My students will take their (online) final exam this afternoon and I should have their grades in by dinner.

Teaching Spanish online has been interesting, but it isn’t an experience I’d care to repeat, for several reasons.

The first is that despite being friendly and outgoing, I am fundamentally not much of a “people person.” This is in part because I am face-blind, but I expect it’s a more deeply-wired characteristic. For example, I struggle to keep track of my friends’ offspring — their kids’ names, ages, and so on — and have to store this information in my Google Contacts and/or rely on my husband to remind me of it before a get-together. I could never be a politician.

This deficit means that getting to know my students is a major hurdle that I face every semester. Multiple students with the same name, or multiple girls with the same hairstyle, are particularly challenging.

Teaching online plays into this weakness because the students appear as squares on my Zoom screen, with their names conveniently displayed so I don’t have to make the effort to learn them. They are abstracted away from their actual selves. Moreover, the routine activities that usually help me learn my students’ names and faces, such as taking attendance (in person) and handing back corrected papers, no longer exist. The result is that even now, at the end of the semester, there are a handful of students that I feel I don’t know at all.

A second reason is that, from my own experience attending online meetings, I know that just because a Zoom participant is focused on the screen, this doesn’t mean that they are actually paying attention. They could be reading the newspaper, playing a game, or chatting with a friend online. (I have been guilty of all of these distractions myself during meetings.) Sometimes when I call on a student it is clear from their response that although their face was on my Zoom screen, their brain had been somewhere else. Not good.

A third reason is that even when students are paying attention, it’s hard to get a brisk oral rhythm going. During my live classes students are always answering my questions, repeating or otherwise reacting to other students’ answers, asking questions of other students, and so on. A brisk pace really helps with this type of learning, and is hard to achieve in an online class. There is always a lag.

A fourth reason is that many ingredients in my usual bag of tricks are useless when teaching online. Some examples are conjugation (and other) drills that student pairs randomize with dice (1 = yo, 2 = , and so on); one-page ‘booklets’ with questions on the outside and answers inside, which students use while working in “teacher-student” pairs; and little slips of paper with questions (or prompts) that students use in quiz-quiz-switch fashion as they circulate and converse with each other.

As still another reason, all my students’ work this semester has been in electronic form, and I prefer to grade on paper. I usually write a lot of free-form comments that are difficult to replicate on a screen. I have ended up highlighting different parts of an essay in color and then writing notes below in the same color. This takes a long time. Also, when I grade tests I prefer to grade one question at a time rather than one test at a time. Blackboard (our online teaching system) has a mechanism for doing this, but it is awkward to use so I always end up grading one test at a time. Finally, if I want to change some aspect of my grading in retrospect I have to go back and find the tests affected. This is much easier with a stack of printed exams.

Even though our students all commit to doing their own work, as opposed to using Google Translate or other systems, I am less confident under these circumstances that I am getting a true picture of their actual Spanish abilities.

I even missed my commute! Taking the train to Fordham guarantees me almost an hour of walking in total, some peaceful minutes in the train, the beauty of Fordham’s campus, and a myriad of small social interactions. Humans are social creatures, and it’s good to be out and about.

For all these reasons, I am looking forward to teaching in a real classroom again this fall.

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