Many times, I have vowed to keep a daily writing schedule; many times, I have failed to keep this promise. Each time I return to my journal, I realize that it’s been more than a week, a month, sometimes longer since I wrote my last entry. And yet, I have a story to tell, many stories to tell. What is it that keeps published writers to the grindstone? What is it that sustains their ever productive inspiration and endeavor?
In 2002, after many years of teaching, I decided to enroll at a New York City college to further my education. I had graduated from the University of the Ivory Coast in 1989-1990 and been teaching since then. Once in the United States, these credentials became worthless as I strived to continue my teaching profession; I had to do it all over again if I wanted to join the field of education here in New York. Maybe worthless is a bit of an exaggeration. But I was made to feel as if I had not spent four years studying assiduously at an institution of higher education. Out of the 175 credits that I had received for my bachelor’s degree in the Ivory Coast, only 17 were initially accepted for transfer. I would spend my first few months at the college visiting the admissions office to try to convince the employees in charge that I deserve much more than they had credited. Eventually, I would receive 37 transfer credits! Nothing more.
I was unphased and focused on completing my degree program as fast as I possibly could. I left the main campus, transferring to a satellite campus known as the Center for Worker Education, where courses carried four credits each. Each semester, I would sign up for four courses, a total of 16 credits per semester. The first time I chose my four courses, my advisor started shaking his head. “This is too much work. Are you sure you want four courses? Most people only complete three per semester.” I said, “Yes, four courses if there are no official rules against it.” The grades started coming in, Dean’s List, a series of 4.0’s most semesters! I was on a roll! Just to think that a mere year or two earlier, a two-year college was giving me a hard time, asking me to take noncredit courses before joining mainstream classes because, according to their calculation, I did not have a 2.0 GPA for full admission! How is that possible when I received honors at the University of Ivory Coast? The systems are different, and there has to be a better way to evaluate credentials from certain countries! Anyway, while working toward the completion of my degree, I signed up for an autobiography course in 2003. Although the course was in two parts, theory and practice (the actual writing of the autobiography) spread over two semesters, I took only the first semester. To be honest, I did not like the grade of B+ that I received on the course, so I said, fuck it! and stayed away from the second part of the course.
Now, during my first semester in the course, I had gathered enough material, acquired enough background to start drafting my autobiography. The work progressed rather fast and soon I had some 50 pages! As I write this piece, I have 124 pages completed 10 to 15 years ago. Once in a while, I will open the document, read several passages from the unfinished autobiography, promise to revise and build on it. But each time, days, weeks, months, years go by without the thought ever crossing my mind again. I am convinced that it has taken me so long to complete the piece, not through lack of skill. My English has greatly improved since moving to this country some 23 years ago. As an aside, I completed my bachelor’s degree in three years and went on to get a master’s degree in English Education from the same college. And I subsequently taught English Language Arts at the middle and high school levels before beginning to teach college freshman composition courses. So language skills are not the issue. I read abundantly and in a variety of genres, so I have more than one model to tap into. Yet, here I am with a piece of writing that could have been completed some 15 years ago!
Well, if language skills and writing models are not the issue, then what could be? I know I have been very busy, sometimes working two and a half jobs at a time… reading and providing feedback on student essays, observing teacher candidates in various public schools of the city and providing feedback on their teaching, and quite frankly a host of other things that have taken much of my time, drained me of much of the youthful energy I once had, and sucked out quite a bit of my initial motivation. The inspiration is very much alive, but the extra push that will keep me to the grindstone seems to have vanished over time. I don’t mean to make excuses; after all, we all have super busy lives. Who, in a large cosmopolitan city, doesn’t? But yeah, this is my reality. Still, I have not given up; never will. Maybe a sabbatical can help… but wait, I am not a full professor and a sabbatical is a luxury I can’t afford. Well, other people set time aside for daily writing, usually early in the morning. Okay, but I go to bed after one or two o’clock in the morning. Do you expect me to be up at four or five? I need my rest. Just speculating here and committing my thoughts to this document. But quite honestly, I have to find a way to continue writing more consistently. I have published several shorter pieces and still several projects on which I am currently working. I will finish that autobiographical piece. I am determined to get it done!
If you chance upon this piece and take the time to read it till the end and have any tips, please feel free to leave some here, and thank you!
It all began in the third week of March when we were told that because of a new virus that was killing people in great numbers, we would have to teach from home. Personally, I had been using Blackboard to supplement my in-person classes over the years, so I thought the transition wouldn’t be that challenging; and to tell you the truth, it wasn’t. I was able to adopt this CMS and move forward with it. I think the fact that I had completed my own degree entirely online was helpful. Of course, the set-up in the doctoral program wasn’t anywhere near the innovation that Blackboard offers. In my program, assignments and materials were uploaded to the course page, and students had to complete a certain number of assignments within the deadline and upload it to the assignment page.
We are now close to the end of October and here we are, still teaching from the bedroom, living room, the basement, the attic, the bathroom, and who knows, maybe from the pigsty! Nobody knows when this thing will end! You watch the news and they’re talking about an average of some 70, 000 new cases every day! Lord, where are we headed? Just today, one of my students emailed me because she couldn’t take the midterm exam. I had already marked her absent for the evening since she never showed up or inform me that she would not attend. Well, her email had an attachment, and guess what? She tested positive for this virus! But you know what she told me? Teacher, can I take the exam? Resilience and determination!
What do you tell such a student? That she was absent, and that you would have to think about it? No, I don’t need to think about it. Here is a student who has just been diagnosed with one of the most deadly and feared viruses of our time, and what’s on her mind is that she missed her exam? No, she doesn’t have to ask me twice. I wouldn’t have marked her absent if I had known this. When I meet her for the conference, we will agree on a day and time for her to take her test. And I hope she does very well, too. And I pray that here symptoms are not of the worst kind. I pray that she will be up and about. I pray that she won’t spend a single day in the emergency room because of this virus. And I am sure she will be just fine.
How many of you out there have students who have tested positive? How did you feel? Sad, intrigued, scared? Did you pray for your student and ask whoever you believe in to come to his or her rescue? Maybe you said “Godspeed” in your heart. Share your experience and let’s have a conversation about the fears that this virus instills in us. But also the light that may come out of this unpredictable situation.
So we’re done reading. As usual, I took the time to scaffold the reading, making frequent pauses to ask questions to help my students process the reading. Today, we’re reading Who Was Rosa Parks, a reader for English learners. We’re working virtually, on Blackboard Collaborate Ultra, our consecrated distance learning platform. As usual, the students’ microphones are muted unless they need to ask a question, answer one, or make a relevant comment. Happy that we’ve done a good preliminary job of parsing up the reading, I proceed to the next step, which is summarizing the whole chapter, some five pages peppered up with illustrative drawings. So my question to the class: “What are some of the most important points of this chapter?” Silence. I repeat the questions after about 15 seconds. Dead silence. I rephrase the questions after another 15 seconds. Still silence. I decide to wait a little longer…
As educators, we know that language learners have a longer processing time, especially if the question or task they have to complete requires deep thinking. I have learned, when teaching a mixed class of native English speakers and English learners, to provide ample time for the language learners in the class to jot down their ideas before beginning the discussion. Just how much is enough time is any teacher’s guess. The circumstances may vary, so the processing time should be allotted according to the students’ backgrounds, and who, better than their teacher, knows how much time is appropriate? In general, my students would start responding or raising their hands to participate within ten seconds of my asking a questions. Well, that’s when they feel confident that they have the right answer. So in general, I am observant of the processing time. But an extended silent period can raise a red flag!
Now, let me say here that in general, my students’ cameras are off because of obvious technological issues. Some students don’t have access to a camera or have to choose between appearing on video and accessing the others functionalities of their devices, especially if they are using a cell phone. Also, the more videos are activated, the more chance there is that the system will begin to falter at some point. Maybe the audio might become affected, voices might become tinny, and the system might need to be refreshed. Such a situation might take several minutes before the platform has reloaded. So I am okay with videos off. Periodically, some students will turn on their videos, and that is perfect, too.
The reason why I mention the videos is that I have no idea what the students are doing in their bedrooms, dining rooms, or living-rooms, or whichever part of their apartment or house they have decided to turn into their circumstantial classroom. So when you ask a question about a selection or chapter that you have just parsed up with the participation of some students, and the silence on the students’ end lasts more than thirty seconds, there is cause for concern. Did they get it? Are they getting it? Are they really sitting in from of their computers or tablets or whatever devices they are using to log in to the virtual classroom, or are they slacking off? How motivated are they to make the best of this learning opportunity?
Michelle D. Miller’s book on how to teach effectively with technology can be a must read if you can relate to my situation. In it, the author delves into the psychology of learning both online and in a face-to-face setting. In essence, she speaks to the importance of motivation, especially in these times, where most of us, educators, are confined to our homes, distance-teaching students who might lack the ability to self-motivate. Miller stresses the importance of selling our curricula. In other words, the students need to understand the real-life implications of what they are learning or are expected to learn in class. She also suggests the use of an approach similar to the one used by electronic game designers, that is, the ability for the learners to retake say, a quiz several times until they have received a satisfactory school. The point here is twofold: the learner will have repeated the quiz, which may help retain information. Additionally, a better score or grade is likely to be a good motivating factor for the student who could then pay more attention in class the next time around.
One of the Miller’s suggestions that speaks to me personally, and which has proven to work in the brick-and-mortar classroom is chunking. This approach implies teaching materials in smaller chunks and assessing the students’ learning frequently. So instead of waiting until the end of the week to assess the students on a set of chapters, test them at the end of each chapter. They will remember the information better and longer. With the latitude to repeat a quiz until they have received a score that is to their liking, they are likely, to develop an interest in their learning or, at the very least, to become a little more confident in case their challenge was in this area.
In an online setting, the students need to feel their instructor’s presence. One way to achieve this is through frequent assessments, but assessments are just one way to make your virtual presence felt. Whenever possible, you should interject in group discussion when workin synchronously. If the students are participating in an asynchronous activity, say a discussion board, take the time to show them your interest in the quality of their ideas. Comments on their contributions without being too intrusive. Recast any thoughts or ideas that seem unfocused without deterring the students from further future participation. You do not have to respond to every student’s posts; there just isn’t enough time for that. But by responding to several posts, especially if you make sure that you respond to a different group of students each time, they might begin talking to one another about your comment. If nothing at all, they will become more alert, which might lead them to aim for quality, knowing that you take the discussion board contributions seriously.
So if you’re done reading and the silences start getting too long, hold your students accountable for their learning; quiz them frequently, but allow them to retake a quiz or test until they have received a satisfactory score or grade. Chances are you will become less frustrated, they will build more confidence, and learning will most likely improve.
I sat in my corner in the bedroom from where I have been interacting with my students since the beginning g of this crisis. I have just finished a weekly meeting during which the faculty share updates on the progress of their classes discuss challenges, and reflect on possible changes for the week to come. I quickly run to the bathroom so I won’t have to interrupt the class with a bathroom break. The meeting ended about five minutes ago and I have to be in my chair and ready to fire up my students in the next five. Motivate them the best I can, which is to call their names one at a time to ask them how their day went and how challenging the independent assignment they had to complete twice a week went.
Last night, I had spent some time reviewing their previous assignment and assigning grades, and marking some absent for failing to complete the independent assignment, which is used, apart from the stated learning objective, to determine attendance on Tuesdays and Thursdays, our asynchronous days. Nearly half of the class had completed and submitted most assignments, so I decided that some pep talk was in order. As we waited for more students to sign in to our virtual classroom, I shared some useful announcements about the exit test and the summer semester. Some students had expressed concerns and asked questions that I had been unable to answer during the previous synchronous session. The students mostly listened silently. Occasionally, a student would try to justify why they still haven’t uploaded an assignment or completed a survey they were to have completed about two weeks earlier, which would have provided information to the administration about their desire to attend the program in the summer or not.
At last, class begins around 5:15 PM with some 15 students logged in. Some would disappear from my screen and log back in. Technology or connection issues? Hard for me to say. Ordinarily, there would be 25 in the classroom. Since the beginning of the crisis, some students, who used to attend regularly had gone AWOL.
It’s been a challenging ride, to say the least. But I do know that using video clips or short movies or documentaries has been much easier. Consequently, I feel that I have enriched my teaching beyond the use of worksheets. Now, students can watch several videos about say, the use of the passive voice in English. A video would introduce the concept, another one would break down and explain the structure, and yet another video would provide some “real-life” communication context, and finally, there is ample time for group and individual practice. Yes, sometimes, we may look at teaching virtually as potential chaotic on account of the blank screens and unresponsive students, but we certainly can’t discount the benefits.
When school reopens, I would like to be in my classroom just as I used to be before the coronavirus came along. When school reopens, I want to see my students sitting at their desks, working independently individually, in pairs, in groups. When school reopens, I want my students to be able to learn from one another, to be able to joke around with one another when they need a light moment, to be able to smile at one another. When school reopens, I don’t want to be sitting in a little corner of my two-bedroom apartment in the South Bronx, a laptop on my lap, stuck in that blue office chair that used to be our living room computer chair and having to teach standing because of hemorrhoid that popped out of nowhere two weeks after transitioning to distance learning. When school reopens, I want to be able to circulate the classroom to exchange with my students as they work in groups to complete various tasks. I want to be able to interject when a student strays away from the task. When school reopens, I want to restore the human touch to my teaching; I want to do all the things I normally do in class that I cannot do virtually.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Computers are important learning tools. They can complement in-person teaching. They can be used for wholly virtual learning if that is the learner’s deliberate choice. I completed my terminal degree online, but I want to work in person with the students who need this human touch, students who log into the same class session more than twenty times because of faulty connections, students who are trying to put forth their best effort but may fall short because they do not have the technical wherewithal to excel… students who are still acquiring new literacies.
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.
March 27th, 2020
It is 12:45 AM. I wrote my last entry exactly two weeks ago. Back then, I couldn’t have imagined that we would have another break, that my wife would have been right about students’ access to the technology they need to complete their semester. Unfortunately, this happens to be the case. Beginning today, the classes are suspended until April 2nd. This is called the “recalibration” period. This is supposedly to make some time for the students who do not have the right technology to secure it. I believe CUNY will buy additional laptops and tablets to ensure that all the students who need them can borrow them. Now, this may sound like a whole lot of time, but with essays to provide feedback on, the time will go by really fast.
On a personal level, life has changed, not dramatically, but changed all the same. Leaving the house is not exactly a problem, but you have to constantly be aware of what you touch when you’re out there. You need to wash your hands as soon as you’re back in the house or whenever you get a chance because you don’t know what’s on the surfaces that you touched outside. This Coronavirus has taken many lives already, but it is very far from over. Its destruction curve is still on the rise, as New York City has become the epicenter of the pandemic in the United States. The chief of the White House Coronavirus task force even suggested that people who travel from New York to other states self-quarantine for at least two weeks. This is as serious as it gets.
Around the world, Italy has been hit the worst of all! Dozens of dead people, sometimes hundreds in a single day. Watching the cortege of military trucks carrying the bodies of the dead to be cremated without their loved ones to pay their final respects is heart-wrenching! But this is the world we live in today. All we can do is outsmart this virus by hunkering down for as long as it takes to vanish, to go away. In the meantime, we pray for Italy, for ourselves, and the rest of the world. The invisible enemy has taken over! How much longer will it endure?
Coronavirus is more powerful than the most powerful of this world. It has affected people in the highest echelon of society in more than one country: Canada’s First Lady, top professional athletes, senators, and congresspeople. Nobody is spared! But in the midst of all this, life must continue. Many everyday activities or routines like exercising have mostly transitioned to the virtual world. Karate classes offered by instructors using their cell phone cameras or other live cast platforms, distance education for all students from pre-K to college. Even my wife has been working from home.
Now, don’t get me wrong. It feels good to see my wife still at home when I wake up in the morning. She works on the desktop computer in the living room while I sit in a little corner of our bedroom to teach my classes, two of which happen on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Obviously, I have my Hostos CLIP class, which normally meets five days a week from 5:00 PM to 10:00 PM. But because of the current situation, I teach synchronously for two hours Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and reserve the remaining two weekdays for independent, self-regulated assignments. Life under the Coronavirus regime is different, to say the least. Walk into the supermarket to buy groceries. At the checkout line, all the cashiers have their masks on. These are unusual times. We all need to be careful. No more handshakes, no interactions at close proximity. It has even become problematic to visit family and friends. We’re all struggling to keep afloat and alive when this is all over.
April 25th, 2020
Mr. Coronavirus is still reigning like sovereign! My wife dragged me out of bed at 6:00 this morning. I was snuggling under my cover when I heard, “Honey, time to get up!” For what? I said. It’s too early! She said we’re going to the meat market. I labored out of bed, brushed my teeth, pulled on some jean, my sneaker, a hoodie, and we were gone. Off to Casablanca Meat Market on 110th Street in Harlem.
Casablanca is typically jam packed on a normal day, but since the beginning of this crisis, and because of the social distancing rules, most customer line up extra early so they can be the first in and out. We pulled up in front of the store at 6:45 a.m. strangely, the was nobody in line. The line typically form on the sidewalk and customers would be allowed in a small group at a time. We sat in the car, waiting. But soon I decided to step out to see the signs on the door. They said nothing about a potential closing. Normally, they would open at 8:00 a.m. By 7:30, there were two or three other customers ambling around, no doubt waiting for the place to open. About 15 minutes later, we saw a woman gesturing at us. We lowered the can window to hear her inform us that the store would remain closed for the next month.
Back at home, I sat down at my computer to try to figure out whether something had happened, maybe a death in the owner’s family or something. This little search led me to discover Casablanca’s Facebook page. It turns out they had been closed for a while. A message dated March 20th already mentioned social distancing and advising customers to stay safe and healthy. Then there was the “online orders only” message, and then “We will remain closed for the foreseeable future.” The stated reasons: “to keep our employees and customers safe.”
We are in this together, this was the essence of the message I posted on their Facebook page after taking the time to thank them for their service to the community and wishing them well.
Every year, millions of high school graduates enroll in colleges (NCES, 2011). Among those new students, many are unprepared to read the challenging …Teaching ESL Reading Comprehension: Objectives and Approaches