The unexpected benefits of distance learning

By Alexis Buschert
@SrtaBuschert

We all know the challenges that we faced (and often overcame) with distance learning last spring.  Our social media accounts are full of memes and articles about all of the problems and struggles that we had. 

But I have yet to read an article or blog celebrating some of the unexpected benefits that came along with distance learning!  There were some aspects of distance learning that I LOVED even as a public high school teacher with a huge caseload of students.  I experimented with different techniques and technologies and I learned some valuable lessons along the way that will help me be a better teacher in the future.

Here are some of the successes that I had or helpful lessons that I learned during my time as an online Spanish teacher during the spring of 2020:

Quality individualized feedback is meaningful to students.  Normally when students are in my classroom, we are focusing on interpersonal communication. While we do some writing each class period, I rarely read it or give feedback on it because I see 90 students every day!  By assigning short-answer questions or paragraphs once every other week during distance learning, I actually had time to see students’ writing and provide quality feedback.  I had a much better sense of where they were and what they were learning and students appreciated the individualized comments in return.  Many of them commented back and actually took the time to make improvements.  When we finally do go back to the classroom, I would like to take some time at least twice a month to really read and respond to student writing.  It is so easy to get caught up in planning and grading everything and I want to set aside time to thoughtfully look at and respond to student work without having to assign a grade.  This is so hard with 180+ students on my caseload but if I plan a few a day, it could be manageable.

Introverted students had an easier time connecting.  As many language teachers are, I am loud, crazy, and very animated in my classroom.  Many students identify with this type of personality and gravitate towards it. We need to remember that our quieter, more introverted students can be alienated by it.  By asking for individual writing from each student when we all moved online, many of my shy students opened up to me in a way that they never would have in my crowded, boisterous classroom.  I learned so many cool things about my quiet kids that I never would have learned before if it hadn’t been for the privacy of one-on-one written interactions outside of the classroom.  Distance learning truly helped me build better relationships with these students!

Cheating isn’t personal.   I was so frustrated at the beginning of distance learning with the amount of Google Translate that was used to complete assignments.  For the most part, we know what our students have learned and we know when something doesn’t seem like Spanish that they wrote.  I was so discouraged with all of these obvious examples of translating!  It is important to remember that students use translators for a variety of reasons but for the most part, they aren’t a personal attack on the teacher (even though it can feel that way).  In order to encourage authentic student work in a sensitive and caring way that doesn’t discourage our students, we need to make adjustments.  I changed my overall message of expectations to students, altered assignments so that they were accessible yet allowed for some creativity and flexibility, made the translation policy very clear, and assigned work that they couldn’t easily copy from other students.  Even though it was a bit more work, the results were worth it!

Embrace student errors.  How do I know that a student turned in original work?  The errors!  The beautiful, original, authentic errors told me that they tried hard to write in their own Spanish and could still get their message across despite the imperfections.  When we have 30 students sitting in front of us, we tend to focus on the right and the wrong.  How would students feel if instead of worrying about being corrected, they felt safe taking risks?  This is my biggest takeaway: we need to celebrate errors in the classroom and encourage them as signs of learning and effort!

Look for messages instead of answers.  This ties into providing quality feedback. While I did teach grammar and assign writing that included that grammar, I wasn’t commenting on grammar while giving feedback. I was looking for the message.  My comments ranged from “This is very clear and I understand your message,” to “This is confusing, why did you choose this word?”  And even, “This doesn’t seem like your writing. I can’t provide effective feedback if I don’t know what you can do.  Please rewrite with your own Spanish and resubmit for credit.”  By looking for the messages, I was able to still see their attempts at the grammatical concepts without burdening them with a list of corrections.

Focus and declutter.  I was very limited in the amount of work that I could assign students online.  While I didn’t do a very good job this last spring, I now know what I will prioritize in the fall.  For distance learning, we need to let go of what we are “supposed to get through” and analyze what we “want to get through.”  If I only have those students for 90 minutes a week, I need to make those 90 minutes exciting and engaging.  This means I might scrap my usual “going to the doctor unit” and jump ahead to “healthy foods from around Latin America” because that is way more interesting when they are exploring on their own.  No matter what topic we are covering, they are still working on improving their proficiency and that is what is truly important.

None of us really know what will happen this fall.  Instead of preparing for everything, I am taking a step back and waiting.  There is no use in stressing about the unknown and I know that whether or not I am in my classroom, there are still aspects of teaching that will bring joy and excitement to my job!

Alexis is certified to teach Spanish, French, and ELD and has spent the last 9 years teaching Spanish in large public high schools in Oregon. Her classroom is part-time desk-free and moving more and more towards proficiency-based teaching and learning every year. In her free time, Alexis travels to Spanish-speaking countries to improve her own proficiency!

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