Improvise, Adapt, Overcome

My High School Class Online in Virtual Reality. Mozilla Hubs

It may seem cliche, this “Improvise, Adapt, Overcome” idea. It’s been a meme, it’s part of the Marine Corps. code, and I remember it from my Army days as Army 21 the ‘forward’ looking military philosophy circa 1985. It is where we are at the moment, and in that spirit, I present how I improvised, adapted and will overcome the issues of education at a distance.

The first few weeks of online teaching here in Mexico are over. Spring break has fallen like the first heavy, cleansing rain of the year, and I can now take some time to reflect on everything I did wrong, what I believe I got right and how I can make things better for my students.

Initial design flaws: My style of teaching doesn’t fit well with online work. I use a dogme approach among others that emphasizes spontaneous and at times thoughtful conversational approaches.(For more information about dogme, click here).  I don’t use a lot of resources, other than arts and crafts supplies and the MacMillan English Campus platform,which I only use piecemeal these days. 

Cramming all that into an online format didn’t work too well for me.  I tried to anticipate what my students’ needs were going to be and I think I got that right, but the activities didn’t feel right to me. I guess that is to be expected. Here is what I did get right.

  1. I intentionally left a gap of a week without meeting directly online with my students. My thinking here was that students were going to be overwhelmed by demands from other teachers who have never taught online before.  Students reported they had more homework for the first week than they had ever had before.
  2. I didn’t demand my students sit with me, online, at home, for the entire two hours of class,  twice a week. I think the longest we went was an hour. Students are easily distracted at school.  At home the distractions are even more plentiful. 
  3. I was able to adapt some of the things I usually use in class,i.e. collaborative assignments, and paired exams that reveal competency in the subject.  
  4. I anticipated there would be no guidelines and that at some point some one or some committee would scrutinize what was being done.  I didn’t care.

Here’s what I got wrong:

  1.   I didn’t anticipate my students’ willingness to work together (at least in a few cases). They resist mingling with each other outside of class,  so, finding out that one group created a WhatsApp group just for my class was refreshing. I can use this information to my advantage next time
  2. I expected students to be a bit more independent and motivated than they were before. Simple instructions to tasks led to emails seeking clarification.  I found myself burning up my already short face to face time just explaining mundane tasks. 
  3. I didn’t continue my gamified approach to classroom management. At the university, I gave points for showing up to class early, brain teasers, and various and sundry other things.  I didn’t incorporate these things because, frankly, I was under a lot of pressure to be ready when the word came that we were switching to online instructions.
  4. In my rush, I grasped for anything I could use “off the shelf” to just get through the next few weeks.  I had a lot of things planned, but again, without that classroom environment I wasn’t sure they would work or maintain interest.  Thankfully, I did.
  5. I wasn’t worried about guidelines that might be installed ‘ex post facto’.  We had a ‘surprise inspection’ where we had to take a snapshot of our class meeting online. Luckily I had planned to be online with my group that day.  I know a lot of people probably got caught with their pants down, though.  

A new path forward:  I am going to change a few things to make the classes more dynamic. As I have no official guidelines yet, I will have to anticipate the university’s expectations for online instruction.  I will also have to rethink how these classes can work. I imagine I am going to keep a limit on the face to face time, encourage more responsibility from my students and to coax them to work collaboratively a little more.

As for the activities, I am working on VR. See the video link.  I tried it out yesterday with my high school students and they seemed to be engaged and were thrilled at the novelty of the environment.   I have also checked that all my university students have access to Netflix and will be able to use documentaries as part of the class activities.  

The action inside the Mozilla Hubs environment

I would also like to re-design my courses so that in the future, I can make use of the online systems in an efficient way that enhances in-class instruction. The ad-hoc nature of what we are using here in Mexico isn’t really online learning, so much as putting your course bits on line.  I think I would like to make the online experience as unique as its promised potential will allow. It can be done.

Becoming More Creative

 By admin    February 24, 2020 0

By Wade P. Alley, MA walley@up.edu.mx

Be creative! Think outside the box! Be different! Teachers and parents often exhort their kids to think and work creatively as if by magic creativity will flow.  In my professional experience, administrators and coordinators from the top to the bottom have all espoused the idea of having teachers ‘be creative’. Oddly enough the exhortation comes from people with very few creative skills themselves. If you could corner one of these cheerleaders into explaining how to be creative, I don’t think you could expect a reasonable answer.  That’s because being creative is not something you can just put on like a hat.  

To develop your own creativity as a teaching professional you will have to make a conscious effort. You will need to be part of a teaching and learning community that will support you, be open-minded about your own ideas, recognize the difference between a good idea and one that needs more time to develop and finally, above all else, you will need to be courageous. Following the steps below will help you become a more creative teacher.

Know who you can count on and build a trusting relationship with them.  The idea of communities of learning in an educational setting still seems far-off here in Mexico. A community of teaching and  learning should include people you can share ideas with, get feedback from, and from whom you can count on for support. Many schools here work on a top-down model of education…the top tells everyone what to do and sometimes how to do it, and communities of teaching and learning aren’t a priority, nor are they cultivated.  Luckily for you even in such a setting you are bound to find people willing to help you with your ideas and to assist you in avoiding conflicts with management. Often times the restrictions you face are the seeds from which your creativity can grow. Necessity is the mother of invention, but then again so are obstacles.

Open your mind to possibilities.  Like other creative people, I am an idea machine. I have more ideas by 9 AM than most people have all week because I am receptive to thoughts without being judgmental about them.  I can’t possibly act on all my ideas, and not all of them are good ones. Some of my concepts are really outlandish, others are smaller; almost like suggestions really. None are disposable. I don’t write anything off, nor do I reject any idea as a bad one outright.  I put these ideas on a mental shelf and wait for an adjacent possible moment (the adjacent possible allows for the alternative implementation of ideas and concepts). My experiences and past, my successes and failures, my interests and passions all inform the final concept.   I allow my ideas to grow and I don’t compartmentalize them or confine them. 

Ideas need food to grow. Your experiences have everything to do with making your teaching personal and meaningful for your students. I am going to stop here to describe my idea and creative process. This illustration is how it all seems to work for me and it is a helpful illustration of how to make a mundane task personal and meaningful.

Let’s take a common EFL task.  A teacher has to show her students how to write instructions for a process of some kind next week. It’s not an activity she is particularly looking forward to and her  students usually don’t have much fun with it. If the teacher is bored with an activity, then I imagine her students will be bored as well. If I were faced with this situation I would ask myself why might my students ever have to write instructions for a process in their own lives?  I think about my own life and why I would write a list of instructions to somebody. Well, as it turns out, I do it whenever I have to leave my cat in someone else’s care. That’s actually a very complex list of instructions, of course, and it’s super important to get those check off items correct. I want my cat to survive my absence, and keep my friend happy, too.

But what about the kids?  Not many of my students have pets. How can I get my students to view this activity with the same importance I naturally give it in my home life?  I know! I will buy everyone a cat. This is an example of an outlandish idea, but not a worthless one.  My conscience steps in and reminds me that cats and cat supplies are expensive and that not everyone loves cats.  That’s when my experiences interrupt and refer me back to a thing called a tamagotchi. Remember those? I can’t afford to buy tamagotchi keyrings for all my kids either, but maybe we could get everyone a free online virtual pet and have a pet exchange for a day or two of class. Great! Now all we have to do is have the students adopt a virtual pet, I look online and find a free of cost site for virtual pets. Wow. Now I have an interesting activity that could be continued and branched into other areas of language production! Voila! We have a vibrant, meaningful and personal activity to work with.

I used my own experience to inform the original task and make it personal and meaningful. It’s delightfully open-ended, meaning I can get many, many other projects, problems and tasks based on the original idea. It’s a sustainable learning object!

Don’t overthink your ideas.  The virtual pet idea didn’t start out as a completely formed idea, nor did I finish the description with a complete lesson plan or possible conclusions to the activity. Sometimes, it’s just as well to get the ball rolling on the idea and see what happens.  I can imagine there will be some difficulties with implementing the idea. Will I have internet in class that day when students have to take care of each other’s pets? What happens if my students get angry when a classmate lets their virtual pet die? What are the parents going to say to me about how their child was grief stricken for three weeks after her virtual rabbit when to the big farm in the sky?  Fretting about unlikely or negative outcomes is counterproductive and fatal to ideas and kills creativity. Learn to let go of the ‘what ifs’ and focus more on the ‘why not’s’

Do first, apologize later.  This approach to creativity isn’t for everybody.  If you have a very small community of teaching or learning, or if you don’t have one at all, I suggest taking a calculated risk on your activities.  The virtual pet activity seems harmless enough on the surface, but if you pass it through the filter of some administrators, or educational traditionalists, you would likely to get some resistance to the whole notion of making the idea personal and meaningful. An administrator might wonder if there weren’t better things that could be done in the computer lab.  A traditionalist probably wouldn’t understand why you would venture away from grammar and structure as it’s laid out in the textbook. That was good enough for them, after all. If you have a gut feeling that your project or idea will work, go for it. If it works well, you may not have to apologize at all. Be prepared though, original ideas and creativity are very seductive and will not always deliver a great result the first time.

Be courageous.  Of all the tips I can give someone about developing more creativity, I believe the most crucial characteristic you need is courage.  There will always be naysayers whom you will never convince of a good idea or any idea for that matter. There will always be corporate cultures that forbid straying from the well-worn path they want you to follow. Bad administrators, helicopter parents and lazy students abound in Mexico, it’s true.   If you embark on a path of being more creative you are likely to encounter all of these things because creative activities are by their very nature demanding. You are also likely to encounter the cowardly YOU. You have to learn to let go of preconceived notions about what and how you should teach. You may have to re-examine your own habits and notions of your teaching skills. Are you brave enough to admit you should change what you do?   Can you stare down the conventional wisdom and step away from the textbook? Can you forgive yourself for the inevitable errors you are going to commit? If you develop your creativity you will find ways to deal with those issues.

Be creative! Become part of a community of learning to find the support you need to launch your ideas.  Think outside the box! Give your ideas( all of them) a chance to grow by letting them mingle with your own experiences and other ideas. Be aware of those adjacent possible concepts. Be different! Have the courage to go ahead with those ideas and implement them in your classroom. If you do all these things, then you can become a creative teacher.

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