I was surprised when one time my students in my Secondary Class, who were wont to have their camera often turned off, had the grids of my zoom screen animated with their faces, some with their foreheads. I asked myself, what did I do right in the previous meeting that they suddenly decided to present themselves in the camera?
The changes and disruptions from the normal that COVID-19 brought to educators and learners have been immense. Ranging from technical – that involved the urgency to acquire digital literacy in a so short amount of time; to behavioral – the change from the controlled environment of the classroom to the more relaxed environment of home challenged classroom management; to learning materials – from papers to screen, pen or pencil to a mouse; to learning activity procedures that needed to be adapted from 360 degrees physical, three-dimensional space to 11 by 17 inches two-dimensional virtual space.
There was too much to consider in the beginning that the rate of stress among teachers and students had been very high. I had students who would meltdown whenever I introduced a new website for an online game. Some would just shut down and give up trying. From the perspective of a teacher, there was the constant worry of lesson objectives not being met and the skepticism that online learning wouldn’t work especially for lower-level classes.
Atmosphere of Safety
I started teaching a few months before COVID-19 spread. New to the job, I had to educate myself on how to approach my students as well as my teaching methods. I relied mostly on Early Childhood Development and Development Psychology theories. It was from this framework that I intentionally created an atmosphere of safety in my online classes.
During the first months of online learning, half of my students would come to class late let alone unprepared. Creating a low-stress environment for my students eventually paid off. I attribute the positive change in their attendance not merely out of getting used to the habit of studying online but mostly to our ‘check-ins’.
Before we would start with our lesson, I would project emojis on our screen. Most of the time the students would circle ‘happy’ and ‘silly’. There were times ‘sad’ got circled because one student had a toothache; ‘tired’ because one did too much homework; ‘angry’ because one had a fight with his brother. Most of them would share their reason if they were asked. I had one student who wrote to me “I hate my parents” after circling ‘sad’, another said her cousin cut her hair after circling ‘angry’.
The feeling of safety and belonging, something at stake during these times, is essential to their development. A stressful environment causes a child to stay hyperaroused which manifests in either irritability, or anger, or impulsiveness, or a mix of all. A space where kids have their emotions acknowledged and validated is just what they need to process their feelings they otherwise would not know how to deal with. An intentional environment of safety where basic responses to stress like boredom or irritability are stabilized helps students become more adaptive to learning.
Low Stake Invitations
There were two scenarios during the beginning of my online classes: one, students were rowdy and noisy; two, students were distant, disinterested, and non-responsive. It was easier to deal with scenario number one than to go along with the lesson in a classroom of zombies. I was initially authoritative in my approach to my zombies but I realized that it just made them shut off all the more. Viewing it in the context of the pandemic, I had to adapt the perspective that my students were responding to various stress stimuli. Their attitude of disinterest and non-responsiveness could be their defense mechanism. The stress they were experiencing from the sudden changes within their environment may have made them resort to a defensive mode through flight.
I saw a fellow teacher invite his students to speak at the very beginning of class by making them say their names. I adapted this routine and later on found out the value in this approach. Saying one’s name doesn’t require any effort which makes it the best invitation for a conversation. When a student starts from a low stake activity, he or she is more likely to put another foot forward. After months of doing the routine, I saw how my zombies slowly turned to life. They were recently debating whether to use “will” or “going to” in our grammar drill.
Divergent thinking versus convergent thinking
Divergent thinking is the thinking process of creative individuals. It basically means finding solutions from or through different directions. Its opposite, convergent thinking is the thinking process of analytic individuals. Convergent thinkers narrow down solutions through logical inference.
Creating an atmosphere of safety in a classroom promotes divergent thinking. Online language activities that require a sense of safety include speaking, creative tasks like draw-and-tell, projects, and collaborative tasks. The less pressure the teacher gives to the student in these activities, the more expressive and open the latter gets.
While it’s great to have a sense of safety in the classroom, it is equally important to optimize the brain’s survival mode which is usually utilized in convergent thinking. Fear makes one focus, but make it intentional and not because you’re retaliating. Creating a sense of urgency in the classroom by modulating a stricter teacher’s voice makes the student turn to their analytic thinking mode. This is effective when teaching grammar rules and structure, listening, reading, and writing.
Students’ learning journey during these trying times will be far more substantive if we rather provide them with a protective cushion against the impact of our collective trauma from the pandemic. Fundamentally, don’t we teach them because we want them to have faith in the future (better than this current mess)? That faith, that seed of hope could only grow if they see it, feel it, and live in it.
Please don’t imagine my classes are heaven with all the things I’ve mentioned above. That scenario of my students opening their cameras without me having to ask them was just a single incident. I still have to prod them. They’re back to their old self hiding behind the screen. After all, COVID-19 is still here and there’s still too much uncertainty. The least I can do is not to force my ways on them, but provide them with a sense of consistent emotional security through acknowledging their struggles in our shared virtual space.
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By Dumay Solinggay, an expat in Vietnam