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Teaching on the Road: Lessons from Covid-19

On January 23, 2020, I boarded a plane to Vietnam from China, thinking I was embarking on a lovely eight-day holiday for our Chinese New Year (CNY) break and that our busy lives at Concordia International School Shanghai would pick up immediately afterwards. Right before we left, we had hosted our annual MUN conference (with over 1000 delegates), a local Global Issues Network conference and a half-day Shanghai-wide middle school Eco-Summit. Was I ready for a relaxing break? Absolutely!

We settled into an easy rhythm at the beach in Hoi An, enjoying morning beach walks, delicious meals, and sundowners with waves lapping at our feet. Our CNY plans did not fail to deliver some lovely R&R, and we were happy and relaxed (in fact, our Airbnb was even called “Happy Clam”, a very fitting name for how we felt that week!).

About halfway through the week, though, we received an unexpected email from our school updating us on the evolving situation with the Novel Coronavirus (which, at the time, had not yet been named COVID-19). Because the situation in China was rapidly escalating, all teachers abroad for CNY travels were strongly urged not to return. At this point, the speculation was that we would spend an additional two weeks outside of China and then return to open school.

Immediately, we engaged in hatching Plan B. Would we stay in Vietnam? Or go somewhere else? Where could we base ourselves to launch online learning in a successful manner? What inexpensive flight and accommodation options could we find?

We happened to be traveling with several colleagues from two different schools in Shanghai, and everyone spent portions of time on Skype with travel agents, trying to recoup costs from cancelled flights back to China and booking new travel plans for the weeks to come. We would gather at meals to compare notes and brainstorm ideas. While one person was able to get Expedia to agree to refund a return fare to China, another person was unsuccessful in getting through to talk to an agent. While one couple had decided to stay in Vietnam to continue traveling and working online, another family had decided to fly back to the US. The pros and cons of various options were debated and discussed, and there was electricity in the air. None of us (and many of us were long-time international educators) had ever experienced anything like this before, and the strangeness of the situation (which we assumed would be resolved quickly) produced a cocktail of anxiety and excitement.

My husband (also a high school teacher at Concordia) and I opted to fly to Thailand for two weeks. We found a little beachside cabin on Koh Lanta, on a very quiet stretch of beach, and it was the perfect spot to get our online classes running while also soaking up a bit of sun and enjoying some extra weeks of fresh air, both of which can be short supply in the winter months in Shanghai.

During this time, it became clear that we would not be returning to Shanghai as quickly as we had first anticipated. As COVID-19 numbers in China rose and the death rate became increasingly alarming, uncertainty multiplied. (The overall number of confirmed cases in China rose from 830 on January 23 to 9692 on January 30.) More and more questions surfaced: should we stay in Thailand? What was the situation with COVID-19 in other countries? What places were safe? Should we fly home to Canada? How much longer would we be in flux? Could we continue with teaching online using just our phones for longer than two weeks? Hours and hours were spent discussing these questions over meals and in the spaces between.

The technology question was a dominant one for us, because we had left our laptops behind in Shanghai. We wanted to travel light for our CNY holiday, packing bare essentials in tiny carry-on bags. We only had our phones, some beach clothes and travel yoga mats (thank goodness for those!). I had even left my Kindle behind, taking two novels with me that I was sure would be enough for our eight-day sojourn in Vietnam. As an English teacher and avid reader, the idea of running out of reading material was causing its own bubble of anxiety (although I rapidly assumed backpacker habits of finding coffee shops and used book stores where I could trade in my books for new titles, and this became a joyous pursuit as the weeks unspooled).

We had minimal tech, minimal clothes, and minimal extras. Well, I thought, this was certainly a time for me to practice what I preach about the minimalism movement and how we can have more with less.

And, as the weeks turned into months, this practice turned out to be absolutely true! In fact, I came to embrace the experience and learned several valuable lessons.

In the end, we spent two months living out of our suitcases: eight days in Vietnam, three weeks in Thailand and four weeks in Sri Lanka. We taught online for an additional six weeks upon our return to Shanghai (we returned just a week before the travel ban was implemented in China on March 28th, preventing foreigners with valid visas from returning). In early May, we experienced the reopening of campus with many rules and regulations governing safety and social distancing.

Has 2020 been a crazy and chaotic year as a teacher so far? Yes, and then some. Have there been surprising and unexpected silver linings at every turn? Absolutely. 100 per cent.

What will 2020/21 hold? I wonder if every teacher (and probably every parent and student, too) is holding his/her breath, hoping we can return to “normal” for the new academic year. I also wonder if everyone is feeling, like me, hopeful that we can apply some of what we’ve learned in these unusual times to our educational lives and paradigms moving forward. Can we do things better? Differently? With a more open mindset? I hope we can, and I hope these lessons can stick with me moving forward.

Lessons learned while teaching on the road:

1. Online teaching can be rich and meaningful: I teach AP Literature & Composition, and discussions are the backbone of so many lessons where we explore rich literary texts. I could not have imagined how we could replicate this in a meaningful way online but, to my surprise, my students loved our online forums, discussions and activities. They were able to link Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby to their own experiences and their own vision for life beyond high school and beyond Covid 19 with incredible wisdom and insight.

As an example, here is an excerpt from a discussion post one student wrote about thematic ideas in The Great Gatsby: “The cycle of hedonism and downfall that plays out in the life of Jay Gatsby parallels the economic issues that arose from the Roaring Twenties and maybe even aspects of our lives today. For example, the focus with which Western nations have tried to prop up the economy after the longest bull market in history has resulted in what could be one of the worst recessions in history. Also, trends like globalization and international air travel were great for the world while they rendered benefits but are starting to show cracks as they permit coronavirus to spread throughout the world. Again, this cycle of massive growth can be seen; benefits, growth, and seeming invincibility are followed by downfall, loss, and pain. Perhaps these trends will repeat themselves in future crises that hang over humanity, such as climate change. Overall, the trends of hedonism and growth, followed by death and destruction portrayed in The Great Gatsby seem to show remarkable prescience in the economic, political, and social worldview of F. Scott Fitzgerald and do not bode well for the present and future humanity.”

Some students were able to show a deeper engagement with the texts we explored during our virtual school sessions than in the “normal” face-to-face environment. I’ve unpacked this with my students and many of them said they felt our online conversations were more open and truthful, and that they felt they could take more risks and be more honest and vulnerable with their peers in the online environment. I want to consider this and figure out better strategies when we’re back in a face-to-face context. I wonder if I should experiment more with flipped classroom strategies.

2. Literary studies lend themselves beautifully to online platforms: Our exploration of texts tends to follow a pretty tried-and-true pattern (read, respond, analyze, write, repeat), and this cycle is well-suited to online learning. In fact, streamlining my units into an online format allowed me to pare things down to the essentials in a way that made the learning really logical for students (and for me!). I think that in a face-to-face context, I can get distracted and side-tracked and, while this can sometimes provide excellent learning opportunities, being more focused with planning and executing lessons produced good results. Again, this leaves me wondering about exploring flipped classroom possibilities, moving forward.

3. Tech – I can do it!: When faced with teaching with just my phone as tech tool, I panicked. How could I do this? Amazingly, I learned to use our learning management system on my smartphone, and I got creative with recording voice comments and mini-lectures, plus using WeChat (China’s version of WhatsApp) for class chats and additional file sharing and voice messaging. Some things took longer as a result of having limited technology, and grading so many AP Lit essays on my tiny device certainly fatigued my eyes on occasion, but it was possible, and I feel more tech-savvy now.

4. Connection should always be the top priority: Building meaningful relationships and connections with our students is the core of teaching at any time, and I was worried this would be compromised by teaching online. However, once a lot of the busyness of our normal school days was stripped away, I found I had extra time to focus on my students. Using Zoom, WeChat, email and Canvas discussion threads, I had more time to listen to students and connect in meaningful ways. I learned important things about some students that I don’t think I would have known if we had remained in our normal routines. The take-away for me is to ensure that my co-curricular and administrative tasks during face-to-face instruction don’t get in the way of making time for building relationships with my students.

5. Simple is best: During our time working on the road, we had to take a simple approach with everything. With curriculum, with extra commitments at school, with packing, with travel and accommodation plans, with life in general. Virtual school stripped everything down to essentials and, in some ways, it felt like cleaning out some big closets at home and school. There were some parts of my units and lessons I had to throw away during virtual school and some of those things need to stay in the trash bin. For example, I was not able to run a group analysis activity with excerpts and close reading strategies during our exploration of The Metamorphosis, but replaced that with an individual task that was simpler and yielded deeper learning. Often less is more.

6. Flexibility is beautiful: The nature of teaching online offers more flexibility in terms of allocating time, pursuing passions and taking advantage of bursts of creativity and productivity. I am returning to my normal school routine more conscious of protecting flex time in my day or week so I can be a more satisfied and focused teacher.

LeeAnne Lavender is an English literature teacher and Service Learning Coach at Concordia International School Shanghai. She has been teaching in international schools since 2006; before that time, she was an English teacher in Ontario, Canada. She is a co-founder and leader of the Shanghai Service and Sustainability Network and an advocate for global citizenship initiatives that help students become change agents to make our world a better place.

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