Coronavirus, virtual classroom. It’s as if the two terms have become interchangeable. At least for the teacher that I am. Since the beginning of this crisis, when it became clear that going the a brick-and-mortar classroom would expose all of us to a deadly virus that has taken the world by a storm, we have been convening online for our daily, weekly and by-weekly classes.
This morning, like every Tuesday and Thursday, I am poised to start my English 130 class. The course had started toward the end of January, and every time I drove to Queens from the Bronx, I was a little nervous, or maybe apprehensive, not because I wasn’t prepared for class, but because I was always moved by the desire to do the best I could to get my message across to the very best of my ability. As a self-proclaimed perfectionist, how could this be otherwise? I have been in this profession since graduating from college, and, apart from my three-year hiatus as a dishwasher and customer service representative at a sporting goods store, I have close to 30 years of teaching under my belt. And I am still going strong! I intend to continue teaching part-time even after I retire.
In my English 130 class, a course focused on writing about literature, a writing-intensive course as you may have guessed, I have students for whom English is not the first language. Some have been in this country for less than five years, so you can imagine them reading short stories and novels of varying lengths and writing critical essays about various story elements, elements of literature!
I was an English learner myself, starting my learning curve as a 12-year old in my native Ivory Coast. Do I need to say how much I can relate to the English learners in my class? I am one of them, and I know the countless hours they have to put in to produce a fraction of the work their native-speaker classmates produce in the same amount of time… countless hours, long nightly hours trying to make sense of an assignment, afraid to contact the professor because unsure of his reaction! So I decided that I would share my experience.
This is what I told my students. I want to thank y’all for signing on today. Honestly, I have never seen such a group of dedicated students. We started at the end of January with 24 students, and despite the challenges of the day, at least 22 of you have been attending consistently. I am very proud of you. See, I know some of you are apprehensive, maybe a little nervous as the end of the semester approaches. I want to reassure you, nobody will fail this class because you have consistently shown me that you care about your education. You have consistently signed on to our class platform and put forth your best effort. I know a number of you, especially those who are users of English as a second or foreign language, are apprehensive; you are not alone.
I was born, raised and educated in the Ivory Coast, a former French colony. As you can imagine, most of my education was completed in French, the official language. But in most schools in my country, students are required to take English beginning in middle school until they complete secondary school, the equivalent of the 13th grade if such a thing existed in the USA. I studied English for four years beginning in middle school before specializing in philosophy and literature for the last three years of secondary school, as is the practice in most French-speaking countries that follow the French educational system, where students may choose various concentrations. I subsequently went on to study English and American studies in college.
Once in the USA, I decided to continue my teaching career and enrolled in college for a BA despite having obtained a master’s degree from the University of Ivory Coast. After my undergraduate degree, which I completed while teaching middle school English, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in English education. It would take me one year to graduate. To make a long story short, I went on to get an Ed.D. And this is why I take the time to provide feedback not only on the ideas developed in an essay, but also on the language used to convey them. I pay particular attention to the language production of my English learners knowing fully the challenges they face. As I spoke with my laptop on my lap, sitting in the little corner of my bedroom that has become my classroom for my virtual sessions, I saw, “Professor, you’re awesome” written in the chat bubble!
4:00 PM, Netflix, watching “Becoming,” which features Michelle Obama. Flashback to my class this morning! Challenges, belief in oneself, weathering the high tides… tears… and a renewed commitment to be the best I can be as an educator, to make sure none of my students, with all the effort they have put forth throughout this coronavirus crisis, fails… Lord, did I cry! Lord, did I shed a tear! I need to rewind “Becoming” or at least the last thirty minutes of it.