Recently, I went back to my ESL classroom to collect my teaching materials and close out the spring semester. This was the first time I had been to the physical classroom after more than three months of online teaching. I was a bit taken by surprise by how many emotions and thoughts arose during this brief visit. As we begin summer and ultimately look toward classes in the fall, I'd like to take a moment to share a few reflections about English teaching during this time.
Entering the classroom, what struck me the most was how the chairs and tables were arranged. It was if we had all just left class. And I realized how much I missed being with my students. The classroom is such a part of our lives during the semester. As members of a class, we share both a learning and a social experience, and we count on the encouraging regularity of class and one another's presence. Let's start by acknowledging this: Online learning cannot double as the physical classroom. Although we can offer virtual icebreakers and have strategies to keep students engaged, there are always going to be limitations to what can be done socially online.
Yet the opposite is also true. As I tidied the room and gathered my possessions, I also noticed the clunky audiovisual equipment—an old CD player, scratched CDs I had from a holiday lesson, and a moody DVD player. Although weak in social interactions, the online classroom offers possibilities for incorporating videos, music, and other digital content that the physical classroom cannnot equal. This is the strength of the virtual setting. And teaching to this strength is probably the best way to make online learning more enjoyable—and perhaps to create greater engagement and a sense of shared experience.
As I closed the door behind me, my mind turned toward the future. What will next fall look like? Will we teach online or return to the classroom? Will it be a mixture of settings? The last several months have been challenging, and they have required creative approaches to teaching in new ways. We have learned a lot about managing online classes. We have learned to value things about the physical classroom that we sometimes took for granted. Regardless of what the next semester looks like, I am determined to retain some aspects of online learning, even as a complement to the physical classroom, and to continue to seek creative ways to nurture a sense of classroom community—both online and in person.