Highlights from the quarantined classroom…
Like the rest of the teachers in the country, I was forced online for the last few months of the school year. Since my department of world language teachers has already used a lot of technology and has always been open to working together to try new things, I was probably better prepared than most. Not to mention that my school district is relatively well funded and was very proactive about ensuring that students had access to technology via Chromebooks, hot-spots, etc.
But what did all that really mean for teaching? Without going into a lot of pedagogical detail, teaching German remotely meant continuing with most of the material I would have done anyway, but in slightly different ways. We already use Google Classroom (an online platform for organizing and delivering content), so providing students with videos, online practice, etc. was easy. I left a few things behind which would not have been practical (such as my game-play unit in which students play card games together in German) and filled that space with other activities.
The most important change, and the reason for this post (in what is usually a blog focused on writing and book reviews) is flexibility: allowing students to show what they know and can do in a variety of ways. With inspiration from my fellow teachers both at my school and across the country, I found ways to encourage student creativity and motivate them to engage with the material at home. (By the way, do other occupations support each other in Facebook groups like teachers? They should! I get my best ideas from the German teacher Facebook groups!) Here are a few examples:
In one class, I gave students three weeks to complete a “Choice Board” — sort of a bingo card in which they had to choose activities from categories of reading, writing, listening, speaking, grammar and culture, complete the activity and reflect on their learning. For example, to practice writing, students could go shopping on a German department store website, choose ten items to outfit a dream apartment, and write about why they chose them. If they didn’t like shopping, they could write poems using some formats described in a document I found which was originally aimed at German elementary students. My favorite response from this choice board was from an extremely talented actress and musician in my class who recorded herself performing an Austrian yodeling song I had taught the class in the fall. She created a “virtual choir” recording singing the round in three parts AND playing the guitar–it was amazing. I never would have had that kind of creative response if I had still been in the classroom.
Everyone has heard about the run on yeast in stores because the whole world is taking this time to cook and bake. So I capitalized on that and had students try out some German recipes. My German 3 class was already doing a unit on restaurants and foods, so they each chose a German recipe to make at home and document the process, including a photo of a family member tasting their creation. Naturally I made allowances for students who were not able to shop for exotic ingredients, but there are many simple recipes like Kaiserschmarrn (a German type of eggy pancake) and potato salad which include ingredients most families already have on hand. Feedback on this activity was great– parents and students enjoyed trying out everything from pretzels to currywurst. My favorite example of this activity was the student whose sibling (also a former student of mine) just got back from a Fulbright year in Austria — he taught his sister to make Apfelstrudel (with dough from scratch) and they videotaped the entire process with time lapse. I have never assigned students to cook at home before, but I will put this in my repertoire from now on, at least as an optional activity.
Comic books and puppets:
How do students show you they understand something they have read? At the end of the year, my students read a short “book” called “Café in Berlin” — but instead of giving a conventional test on the content, I asked them to do a “retelling” of any chapter they chose in any way they chose: creating a comic strip, acting it out with legos, doing a skit, etc. One student did an impressive skit recording both parts using split-screen! Another acted out the chapter with beanie babies. An extremely talented art student created a comic book retelling of her chapter that would rival some of the best graphic novels. I was blown away by their creativity and I doubt I would have received some of those results if we had still been in the classroom.
Giving kids the option of showing you what they know in a way that is comfortable for them can be more difficult for a teacher because you can be comparing apples to oranges — how do I measure listening skills of a student who has “demonstrated” their skills by describing a news show they watched versus reviewing a new album from a German band they like? For now, that is a dilemma I am not going to worry about too much. The important thing is, kids were listening to German news and finding bands they liked and will continue to have in their playlists. That is pretty awesome. There are other “standard” ways I can test their listening skills later.
So, to sum up, would I rather have been in the classroom with my students for the last three months of the year– absolutely! But in the end I have been trained to look for “teachable moments,” and I found plenty, for myself and for my students. My students saw the difference in coverage of the Coronavirus in German news and in the US, they conducted scavenger hunts in their own homes to learn German words for common items like the remote control, they gave me a virtual video tour in German of their collection of hockey equipment, and they created their own artistic re-interpretations of famous German artwork (see below for a fun example). As for me, I learned to experiment with giving students more autonomy. Some of them will take the easy way out, but many more will show you a creative side you would never have seen otherwise.
By the way, if you follow this blog for writing and book reviews, thanks for sticking with me as I reflect on my online teaching experiences. I hope the message of breaking out of your comfort zone and finding creative solutions has some resonance in the writing world, too!