“Inspiring and humbling”: Three GGP teachers share about transitioning to online language learning

When COVID-19 shut the Global Gathering Place’s doors, English teachers were faced with the difficult challenge of quickly pivoting to remote delivery of classes. They immediately developed stop-gap solutions to suit a wide range of clients. They persevered through learning curves and technology obstacles to recreate the classroom experience on Zoom. Importantly, they also provided valuable consistency to students in a time of upended routines.

In moving to remote delivery, emphasis has been on responding to student needs and capacity, which includes digital literacy and computer/internet access. Since mid-March, language training continues to be delivered through group video conferencing, independent class activities, and one-on-one meetings with students using platforms including Zoom, WhatsApp, Facebook, YouTube, and email, among others.

Students who cannot join the larger group meetings due to lack of access to necessary devices or limited digital literacy are still reached via other means such as by phone or mail to ensure they are able to maintain their studies and keep pace with the rest of the group. However, we have been able to help a number of students get online using devices from our new tablet lending initiative, which was developed in response to COVID-19. 

Hear from three GGP English teachers–Gail, Rachel, and Fred–below about their successes and challenges moving classes online.

Gail Klassen, CLB Fdn L-2L and CLB 1L-2L

The first days of COVID were spent reaching out to students to understand what devices they had and what they could do with them. According to the Canadian Language Benchmark descriptors, students at literacy levels rely heavily on gestures and are unable to comprehend English on the phone. My first instinct was, what do students do now? Watch videos. What can I do? Make videos. So I started a YouTube channel, Learn English with Teacher Gail. I was also calling students and mailed homework worksheets until we made the switch to Zoom.

It’s impressive that we are teaching students below CLB1 to use a computer and use Zoom (even though muting remains a challenge). Navigating devices can be difficult for anyone, and the challenges for the students who are visually impaired have increased during remote delivery. But, thanks to supportive family and personal determination they are able to continue learning alongside their classmates. I also want to thank GGP staff Abhinav and Sol, who went into clients’ homes as needed to help them connect and get on Zoom. The staff went above and beyond so students could keep learning!

I’ve found that family is an interesting added dimension to learning from home. There’s a balance of knowledge between parents and children; in some families the children know more English than the parents. I try to be sensitive to that by making sure to value the client’s language, and value them as someone who makes the decisions at home. The goal is to add to their knowledge with English while recognizing that they are language keepers for their own family. Their language is something they can give their children.

The students are incredibly resilient, so I’m not surprised at their ability to overcome obstacles in online learning. They have seen the world and have overcome more than learning new technology. Students will figure things out with time, patience, and the right conditions.

Rachel Thomas, CLB 3-4

Rachel GGP English teacher

Teaching two classes with CLB 3-4 students is interesting in general because these levels have such range. There are students who construct simple sentences alongside students making complex compound sentences. I don’t want to leave people behind, but I also don’t want to bore the higher-level students. Moving these classes online also added differences in digital literacy to the learning dynamic.

Pivoting to online English classes has been quite the adventure. I like aspects of online learning and we’re in a digital age where students need to learn how to use technology. Some have loved moving online because they can adapt the lessons to their schedule.

My classes have a blended format: I make videos of my PowerPoint presentations and send them to students to look at, and then we come together on Zoom. Afterwards, they have their homework. You can see how I use a few online tools in this short video.

A challenge of online learning is that it’s harder to know that students are doing their work themselves and not getting outside help, especially during online assessments. There has to be a level of trust, so students can continue to add to their portfolios. But I do constantly remind them not to cheat, and I check on them.

Consistency is always key in language learning, and that’s especially true for online learning. Keeping regular aspects in every lesson (like dictation and spelling) ensures continuity, which brings ease. I’m also trying to keep the same routine while also seeing what we can do to accommodate students. For the few students who struggle with our online platforms, I take homework to them and we have phone calls so they also continue to have contact and practise their English.

I’m surprised by how much I’ve learned and grown over the past few months. One thing I’ve learned is that teaching face-to-face energizes me. Online it’s not the same, although it’s neat to see that we can thrive in a situation like this one. It’s been interesting to see how students balance learning with kids at home and other responsibilities. I’m impressed by how many of our students have been able to make it work.

Fred Koop, CLB 3 and CLB 3-4

Making the transition to online delivery was a bumpy ride at first as I’d never done it before and didn’t know WhatsApp or Zoom. Initially I called each student individually, which students liked but it was time-consuming for me. And since the calls didn’t feel like school, students would sometimes forget them. Early on some students asked, “When are we going back to the classroom?” It was hard to convey that we are continuing school in a different format.

Switching to Zoom helped me and the students mentally. I try to keep the structure the same as in a typical classroom with breaks, so when we do go back, there won’t be a big shift. I created a website for each class as a depot for materials, including a daily agenda, which is important for keeping a routine. There’s also a daily goal I hope to accomplish, which focuses the class and teaches students about goals. Additionally, there’s an optional journal activity in which students write or type their thoughts on a certain topic, like how COVID-19 has changed their life.

A benefit of Zoom is the breakout rooms, which encourage people who don’t speak in larger groups to talk or ask questions in a smaller group. I understand those students because I’m the same way. If a student needs to catch up or missed a class, I’ll put them in a breakout room with a volunteer, which is really helpful. I also use breakout rooms for speaking assessments.

We can’t expect everyone to embrace technology and the main challenge has been certain students feeling overwhelmed by the technology. One student got a tablet from GGP’s tablet lending program so she could finally join the class. Another student only had a phone with data and didn’t want to use Zoom; we offered him a tablet that he declined. A third student wasn’t on Zoom and felt very isolated. I’m grateful to GGP staff Muhammad and Abhinav who helped her learn to use Zoom and WhatsAppnow she’s able to come to class and feel more connected!

I’ve tried to work at building personal relationships with my students because I find that building trust is when real learning can start to happen. Since online learning I feel like I’m more available than I ever was before. Students sometimes send me work and personal notes and ask questions beyond classroom hours. Through this process, our interactions have opened up.

We are so grateful to all of GGP’s amazing teachers who have gone above and beyond, and to the students who have shown remarkable resilience. We look forward to the day we can all meet in-person again but until then, we know that students’ language learning continues to be in great hands. 


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