By Claire Fisher
The first sign of trouble was a student whose cousin got forcibly quarantined because of suspected exposure to a new coronavirus. She had a panic attack worrying about him and didn't feel up to attending our regular Intensive English Program (IEP) session. I responded to her email with my standard "feel better; the homework is X."
There had been reports and headlines for weeks about something going on in China, where most of my students were from. Some had mentioned how they were happy they had flown to NYC the week before the lockdown. Although the news was scary, it all seemed very far away - until it wasn't. Like so many others, my institution's changes happened without warning, with minimal interdepartmental coordination, and so quickly that it felt like all our plans unraveled overnight. In my final in-person class, I reassured students that they weren't being kicked out of the country and that classes weren't canceled. "You'll just be doing online courses from your dorms, on your normal schedule," I insisted. Two days later, the dorms closed indefinitely. I spent that last class training students on Google Classroom, but I shouldn't have bothered: within a week, all but one of them had moved back to Chinna and behind China's Great Firewall, where there is no legal access to Google. There was no time to even write a school policy on how to handle students in different time zones. Most of my Chinese students attended courses from 8 PM-8 AM, yawning into their screens from the quarantine hotels where they were staying, waiting for test results.
Within days, my job description as an ESL professor stretched beyond recognition. First, I became a technology trainer. Dropping the idea of Google Classroom, I gave myself a crash course on Moodle and Zoom. Between March 12 and September 30, I also had to teach myself Canvas, Perusall, Padlet, Google Sites, Blackboard, WCOnline, and most of the Adobe Suite - and then teach my students everything I'd just learned!
Next, I became a global internet policy expert. Wedged into a home office that had previously only housed my cybersecurity engineer of a husband, I took to swiveling my chair around and asking things like, "How can I check whether this website works in China?" and "What's the best way to get a YouTube video onto Bilibili?" Soon, other IEP professors were emailing me with questions like, "how do I run YouTube-DL from my computer's command line?" My husband called out answers in between his own set of frantic meetings, which I passed along as quickly as possible.
Finally, I became a combination public health educator and therapist, encouraging my students not to give up, even if they were confined to a single room and losing all emotional regulation. One night a student logged in crying, apologizing for missing a deadline because the Chinese health authorities had whisked her into four days of isolation over a common cold. Her relief when I offered an extension was palpable.
Spring turned into summer, and the university started to plan for the long haul. For the IEP, that meant teachers accepting courses that began at 8 AM or ended at 11 PM. Even though international students make up 40% of our institute's total student population, however, some departments still scheduled synchronous classes with only Eastern Standard Time in mind. IEP professors tackled a fresh set of questions: How do you keep academic English interesting and engaging when nobody in your class has slept in days? Should we be more or less lenient with deadlines, assignments, and grades now that our immersion classes have transformed into EFL courses? For that matter, how do you attract students to your virtual program when one of its main selling points has always been the New York City location?
Unsurprisingly, enrollment dropped as incoming students deferred. This sent shockwaves through the institutional budget and led to four semesters - Summer I, Summer II, Fall 2020, and Spring 2021 - in which course assignments couldn't be finalized until days before classes began. On one occasion, I found out at 4:30 PM on a Friday that I would start Monday at 8 AM, and I'd be teaching a level I'd never taught before. Twice I had to file for unemployment and then cancel the application because a course assignment came through at the last minute. No matter how frustrated IEP professors got, we responded to our administration's apologies with, "No problem! We can make this work." And we always did.
Teaching first-year students in the fall was tough, though. Our students were scared, traumatized teenagers attending a college from the other side of the world. We faced heavy student attrition, absenteeism, and disengagement. Many students were depressed, sleep-deprived, and unresponsive to outreach efforts. Consequently, lessons, materials, and assessments that had always succeeded in-person failed to spark any interest when translated to the online format. At one point, I asked my department head, "Is there something wrong with my teaching? Please, tell me if it's just me!"
Her response was, "I wish I could tell you it was just you, but it's not. This is happening across the board."
Even though we spent months feeling like we were floundering, eventually, our efforts began to pay off. Slowly, painstakingly, the IEP department built new ways to make it all work. We wrote best practices for online learning from scratch. We developed asynchronous units on common topics, such as Verb Tenses and Avoiding Plagiarism, so that they wouldn't eat up synchronous time and contribute to Zoom fatigue. We developed our list of China-friendly resources, including figuring out which apps our Chinese students could use to contact Indian students and vice versa. In other words, we went from being language experts to experts on navigating a global crisis, doing more with less, and being infinitely flexible.
By January of 2021, I had stopped comparing our online results with my memories of in-person success. Instead, I learned to love the flipped classroom, the high teacher-to-student ratio, and the class that ends at 11 PM on Friday nights. I let go of rules I'd once insisted on, such as all group work taking place in English. Since there was no way to enforce that in a Zoom breakout room, I replaced it with making sure each group's members had the same L1. Then I told my students, "Multilingualism is a superpower. Use any language you have if it helps you do the work faster."
Similarly, because most incoming students had never visited the US, I stopped telling students about the lovely Brooklyn neighborhood where their school's physical footprint was. I skipped over the Guggenheim and MoMA for virtual field trips and instead took them to the Huntington Museum of Art in West Virginia. After all, they will still see New York someday, but they might never make it to Huntington. Online learning, it turns out, has certain advantages: we're going nowhere, but we can pretend to be anywhere.
Being online constantly is still difficult, and it will be for the duration of this pandemic. Nevertheless, one year in, I'm proud of myself and my IEP colleagues for how creative and resilient we've been.
Claire Fisher is a graduate of the New School's MA TESOL program. In addition to her work as an adjunct professor at Pratt Institute's Intensive English Program, she tutors ESL students at both Pratt and The New School.