Learning Fellows in the Remote Classroom

Watching the video that was shot in my Latin 1 class months ago, I am struck by how fluid and how active the classroom is: students moving into groups, instructors and Learning Fellows moving around from group to group, communication not just within groups but between groups, passing around small whiteboards and grouping around the classroom whiteboards. The room we were in that quarter wasn't ideal: it was hot, it was noisy, it was small, we all constantly tripped over backpacks and chair legs. But I'd take it over remote learning any day.

Still, as we become more comfortable in this new learning environment, we have found ways to recapture much of what we had. Each of my Latin 3 classes is still divided into teams of 3 or 4 students, and generally after about 10 minutes together in the "big room" doing some retrieval work or introducing the new topic of the day, these small groups go to their Zoom "breakout rooms." There, they do much of what they did in the physical classroom: they work together through passages for translation, they work on exercises designed to solidify their grasp of grammatical constructions, they hone their English-to-Latin translation skills. When they are translating from the book, each group has a "tech captain" who is responsible for screen-sharing a .pdf of the text, so that the students can look at the text and their teammates at the same time, and so that they, and the teaching team when we are in their "room," can use the Zoom annotation tools to mark up the text. Gone are the small whiteboards and bags of pens that we used in our on-campus classroom, replaced by team Google docs, linked to our Canvas page, which I preload with some of the day's projects, and which everyone in the group can open on their own computer, so that everyone can contribute. The Learning Fellows and I have all the teams' docs open on our desktops, so we can quickly go from one doc to the other as we move from breakout room to breakout room. We can highlight mistakes and type suggestions on the google docs, and we can make sure that everyone is in there contributing. And after every class I take another look at the docs, and then I erase that day's work and preload the next day's, because I want to emphasize that it's all about the learning that happens while we work, not about the finished product. 

In just a few weeks, we have become fairly nimble at all this, students and teaching team alike. We've gotten to know each other, and the platform, and we're less afraid of talking over each other. We laugh more. Then at the end of class, I close the breakout rooms and we gather together in the "big room" for a few minutes to recall some of the major themes of the day, or to give general announcements, and then I send them on their way. I try to compel them to wave good-bye as they disappear. And then, when everyone else has gone, the Learning Fellows and I debrief and brainstorm. How were the various groups doing today? What worked and what didn't? Is there anything we should do differently, anything new we should try? Should we tweak the groups a bit to make them work better? We still have our weekly huddles, with all the instructors and all the Learning Fellows from all the Latin classes, and I value these as much as I ever did. But the daily mini-huddles I have with my Learning Fellows have become, for me, even more important.

Just as in the real classroom, in the remote environment the Learning Fellows make it possible to spend most of every class working together productively in small groups. In that classroom in Reed Hall, one of our biggest problems was that all the teams could hear each other all the time. Now, we have the opposite problem: once in the breakout room, the teams are completely isolated from each other, and when we are working with one team, we can't eavesdrop on another. I can no longer signal to a Learning Fellow to stay with one group. It's harder for a student team to call for help when they hit a snag, and harder for me to communicate with my teaching team once class has begun. Everything needs to be a little more scripted. It's harder to keep the energy up. There's no denying that we've lost a lot. But still, I am more grateful in this time of isolation for the Learning Fellows than I was, for the support they give students in the virtual classroom, and for the support they give me as we work together to make this the best learning experience for our students that we can.