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Reflecting on a Challenging Year of Virtual Language Instruction

SEAP virtual language instruction
November 9, 2021

by SEAP's Language Instructors

As featured in the Fall 2021 Bulletin, SEAP's Language Instructors reflect on a challenging year of virtual language instruction by responding to the following questions: How is it to teach a language virtually? Did you try anything new? What was challenging? What did you learn? 

From Thúy Tranviet, Vietnamese language instructor

Teaching online had its challenges as well as its opportunities. Lesson plans had to be organized differently to allow students to practice in the breakout rooms instead of doing pair work in class. Homework collecting and grading was also a new learning curve. I would collect homework once a week instead of every day. While I wasn't able to offer feedback right away, this also gave the students the opportunity to have more time to do the homework. Grading or correcting a foreign language on Canvas is not as efficient as doing it the old-fashioned way with a red pen.  

However, online teaching also had its pluses. Most students tended to be on time because they didn't have to commute, and they didn't have clubs to attend to. While online, they seemed to be more attentive and even more engaged. Once they got the hang of doing presentations, they seemed to do them better, perhaps because they were presenting from a familiar environment such as their bedroom. In reflecting on this past year of teaching virtually, I believe a foreign language is best learned and taught in person. There is no technology that can replace human interactions when it comes to learning a foreign language.  

From Yu Yu Khaing, Burmese language instructor

This year (Spring 2021) I added new materials for all Burmese levels related to the February coup and the current political situation in Myanmar. New materials included slogans and cartoons for the beginner students as well as government letters, newspaper articles, and interviews for intermediate and advanced students. All students were very interested in this topic, and it became an intense experience, both for them and for me, as they were highly motivated to acquire the necessary vocabulary and understand new ways of using the language in order to follow the dramatic and shifting situation.

It can be challenging for students to stay engaged when all classes are on Zoom, but the wealth of new online materials presented an opportunity to make the instruction highly relevant and up-to-date. The most challenging part was looking for materials related to the coup in order to find appropriate texts for each level. It was also important to use factual stories and avoid misinformation. To achieve this, I found tips through trusted sources on Facebook and had help from friends who are working for the VOA and BBC news agencies.

From Maria Theresa C. Savella, Tagalog language instructor

Many articles have been written about foreign language teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was a very difficult year. Pedagogically, these include numerous challenges faced by language instructors with the switch to online platforms such as the need to adapt teaching materials within a very short turnaround time. This online adaptation involved two major components for me personally: first, the conversion of Filipino teaching materials for five classes each semester to PowerPoint/multi-media/fillable pdf files, ever mindful of preserving their interactive nature, as needed; and second, developing an effective web-based grading/assessment of students’ work on a daily basis.

Negotiating these challenges and making sure the students were always engaged in the synchronous Zoom classes day in and day out required so much more work and much longer preparation time. There have also been unsettling challenges raised by language faculty like possible violations of academic integrity with digital assessments. These still need to be addressed at some point in the near future. However, gaging from the feedback and performance of my Tagalog students, it looked like, overall, they were satisfied with the learning that they acquired in the past academic year. 

But now that I can afford to have some quiet moments, I would like to reflect a little bit more on this pandemic experience. I found the blurring of personal and professional space and time both strange and interesting. For more than a year, I only needed to step out of our kitchen to get to my office in the dining room with all the plastic storage crates holding teaching files lined up underneath the piano in the living room. I shared all three meals with my husband every single day in the past year except on the one day a week that he worked in the office. Our dog, Cliburn, must have happily wondered, at first, why we were home all the time. His excited yelping at people and dogs passing by our front yard had occasionally become part of the Tagalog Zoom class landscape.

There were difficult moments, too, some more grave than others. The Tagalog Fulbright Foreign Language Teaching Assistant (FLTA) for 2020-2021 had a stressful experience of trying to rebook her flight back to the Philippines numerous times starting in mid-March 2020 when Cornell decided to switch to virtual instruction due to the pandemic. She was finally able to leave Ithaca and get home safely in late May 2020. Additionally, two Tagalog students, who during normal times were doing very well academically, experienced difficult challenges in their mental and emotional well-being last Spring semester. Thankfully, with the combined assistance and support from the Dean’s Advising Office, the counseling services, as well as their professors and families, they were able to recover completely.

And then COVID-19 hit our families in Manila in March of 2021. Things got overwhelming with the sudden passing of my husband’s brother to cancer, followed by COVID-19 infection of six family members a few months after, one of them losing the battle after only a week of hospitalization. It felt so surreal since this virus not only takes lives like a thief in the dark, but also takes away from families all the norms of grieving and traditions of honoring the dead to help them heal.

It will take time to come to terms with the trauma and havoc that this pandemic wreaked and still threatens to inflict on millions of people. But for us, sharing our grief with loved ones, and the full recovery of the other five infected family members gave us a renewed sense of hope and gratitude. The kindness and generosity of friends and relatives during those times of difficulty was also very heartwarming and reassuring. READ MORE

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