Essential Pedagogical Shifts: Prioritizing Student Engagement and Self-Care during Lock-down

By Ivannia Soto

I have just completed my fourth week of teaching college-level courses online. With each class session I have had to make new pedagogical shifts, which are as applicable in a K-12 online setting as they are in a higher-ed environment. I mostly teach preservice teachers at Whittier College, a small liberal arts college in Southern California, known (for better or worse) for being Richard Nixon’s alma mater. My specialization is second language acquisition and designing equitable environments for English language learners (ELLs) within school systems.  Historically, ELLs in classrooms have been relegated to little or no classroom participation. ELLs have not been required, or oftentimes, expected to speak in the classroom setting. As I oftentimes remind my preservice teachers, the person talking the most is learning the most, so we must require all students to speak and be engaged in the classroom setting. I am taking this lesson to heart as I transition my own classrooms to an online setting, where students can easily become passive and disengaged, whether they are K-12 students or preservice teachers themselves.

Now, as an online instructor, I have been pushing myself pedagogically to approximate the same kind of student voice and engagement that I typically use in face-to-face instruction. In my own courses, I use what I call the 15-minute rule, where I don’t speak for longer than 15 minutes (the typical amount of time that young adults can actually actively listen) before having students make personal meaning around what they just heard. This means that my students often engage in a partner discussion, or work on a collaborative activity based on I have just presented.

The best way to do this in an online setting, I have discovered, is via Zoom breakouts and chat boxes, which takes careful planning. One of the things that I also espouse in the classroom setting is that we must intentionally and carefully plan open-ended questions, so that ELLs benefit most from classroom discussions. This has become evident for me as I plan for when students will move into Zoom breakouts, as well as what kinds of conversations they will have once they are in those breakouts. Whereas in the classroom setting I might organically see a conversation going in a particular direction, on Zoom I am finding the notion of intentional questioning and pre-planning of questions to be essential. These strategically placed questions require student participation, equity in voice, and active engagement. I then make sure to join each breakout group, in order to listen in on student conversations, clarify thinking, as well as to hold students accountable. When we all come back together from the breakouts, I make sure that I have pre-selected students from several groups who will share thoughts that will take our thinking and learning deeper. These “Zoom-moves”, as I will call them, are similar approaches to when I have students discuss topics with each other in-person while I “power walk” around the room to listen in on student conversations, before bringing back the conversation to the whole class with a few students who share.

Similarly, I have found the chat box to be my pedagogical friend. When I don’t have students move into breakouts, I make sure to have students respond in the chat box, and then we discuss a few of those responses as a whole class. For example, for homework, I asked students in my research methods course to draft interview questions for their research projects. After providing an interactive PowerPoint presentation on effective questioning during interviews, I asked my students to review one of the homework questions and revise it in the chat box. Once students completed their revisions, I selected a couple of students to share how they revised their questions and connect it specifically to one of the effective questioning techniques we had learned in class that day. The chat box feature also takes careful thought and planning, but has been very helpful in my pursuit to keep students engaged in an online setting.

Lastly, one of the most important pedagogical shifts that I have made in this time of the pandemic is to begin each class session with a self-care prompt. I have allotted at least 15 minutes at the beginning of each class session to discuss each of these prompts. For example, the first week, we discussed ways to cope during isolation, including:

  1. Maintaining a routine
  2. Connecting with others
  3. Implementing boundaries around consumption
  4. Practicing self-care and compassion

With this prompt, we discussed our areas of strength, in order to start our discussion from an assets-based model, and then moved into a goal that we had for sheltering in place. The following week, we checked in on those goals. Another week, we discussed students’ rose (best part of the week) and thorn (worst part of the week). After sharing my own responses to these questions (as I’m trying to model self-care), I put students into breakouts to share their own self-care responses and perhaps find ways to support each other. This, perhaps, has been the most humbling pedagogical shift that I have made. Hearing from my students (many of whom are first generation) about their worries about having parents who are essential workers, and on the frontlines, or that they don’t have a quiet place to study, has certainly made me realize that Maslow is also our friend during this pandemic. We must not forget to address students’ basic needs and help them to develop ways to cope and thrive during these trying times.

Ivannia Soto, a professor at Whittier College, directs its Institute for Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching. She resides in Whittier, California. Ivannia and Debbie Zacarian’s book Responsive Schooling for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students will be out July 2020.

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