Lion Taming in a Pandemic

By Kevin Anzzolin, Assistant Professor, University of Wisconsin-Stout

Kevin Anzzolin

For most if not all educators in the United States, spring semester 2020 can be largely defined by a single but weighty word: “pivot.” By mid-March, the COVID-19 pandemic had forced us to transition to online environments, and instructors, students, and parents faced a “new normal” characterized by Zoom meetings, a heightened reliance on learning management systems, and talk of asynchronous scheduling. Since then, “to pivot” has become an umbrella term (and an imperfect one) to describe a panoply of logistical, technological, and pedagogical issues related to shifting face-to-face classrooms to online environments. What oftentimes gets lost in discussions about “pivoting” are the soft skills involved: an instructor’s demeanor, their empathy toward students, and their willingness to go the extra mile. Beyond the proverbial “best practices” of teaching—an instructor’s rubrics, the appropriate amount of workload assigned, and choosing the most coherent test formats, our continuing need to “pivot” entails questions of personality, negotiation skills, and warmth.

Besides ostensibly being the first book on pedagogy to explicitly reference the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Kevin Patton’s Pandemic Teaching: A Survival Guide for College Faculty (Lion Tamers Guide to Teaching Book 1) is notable for emphasizing both those soft skills as well as the practical matters needed to successfully pivot to online instruction. The text should be of considerable interest for readers of FLTMAG as educators continue to consider how to best approach online teaching. Kevin Patton is currently an Emeritus Professor of Life Science at St. Charles Community College in Cottleville, Missouri and a Professor of Anatomy & Physiology Instruction at New York Chiropractic College in Seneca Falls, New York. His blogs, podcasts, and website entitled “The Lion Den” (https://lionden.com/) takes its name from Patton’s youthful experience as an apprentice lion tamer, an experience he likens to the act of teaching itself. Patton’s Pandemic Teaching: A Survival Guide for College Faculty (Lion Tamers Guide to Teaching Book 1) was published as a digital book on April 8, 2020, remarkably less than a month after the first US universities began to cancel face-to-face classes. Patton’s advice on “pivoting” is freewheeling and fun; his objectives are humble, and his recommendations on how to enhance online teaching are spot-on, both terms of logistical affairs but especially regarding the human element of pedagogy. With the following, I provide a quick list of ideas elaborated on by Patton, and which I believe may be beneficial to FLTMAG readers: 

  • Reboot your computer before settling down to create a video or to join a videoconferencing meeting. Videoconferencing applications can get glitchy when tasked to work hours at a time. A full shutdown gives your computer a chance to make sure everything is in working order.
  • Alternate the types of activities that students experience so as to keep things fresh and focused. For instance, if one week is scheduled for discussion board posts, the following week may focus on more explicit problem-solving. In a language class, instructors could alternate written responses, vlogs, audio activities, etc.
  • No matter how sophisticated our software is, no matter how many options our learning management systems offer us, face-to-face interactions cannot be completely recreated in an online environment. Instructors will be better prepared and ultimately more successful if they approach their online pedagogy as fundamentally different from what they normally do face-to-face. 
  • Plan for coursework to be mostly asynchronous, but with a “sprinkling” of face-to-face activities. Thus, students could respond to each other during the week via asynchronous vlogs even while scheduling a weekly or bi-weekly meeting in small groups with the instructor to discuss particular cultural topics, grammar points, etc. 
  • One ingeniously simple and compelling activity that Patton proposes for synchronous meetings or videos: look at stuff. As Patton states, “we don’t necessarily do our usual lecture or anything, but instead, let’s just have a casual chat” during which an object, a book, or an image provide stimulating conversation fodder. Souvenirs from travels could be apt fodder to talk in the past tense; gifts could be used to practice indirect objects (“My parents gave me this book”); articles of clothing could be referenced to discuss daily routines (“I usually wear this to work”). 
  • Accept your own schedule limitations as an instructor and make use of audio/video feedback in order to save time. Recording a message in order to evaluate your students may be both more personalized and quicker than typing out a response. Moreover, for language instructors, this may provide more varied input.
  • Model courteous and respectful webinar etiquette for students even while acknowledging everyone (and especially our students) have busy lives. This may take the form of providing students with pointers as to how to create an effective academic environment at home. Make recommendations as to how students can negotiate scheduling with roommates and family members in the home; use furniture or tape in order to mark off learning spaces. 
  • Patton suggests small verbal clues to indicate to students how their class performance can be improved. As instructors, we should use phrases such as “I’m here to help,” but also more emphatic statements such as “Remember in our syllabus that…” These nudges may be especially important in language classes, where persistence–rather than perfection–is the golden rule.
  • Since classroom activities can feel more impersonal and oftentimes more time consuming now that they are online, make sure to be explicit with students about the objectives for each undertaking. What is the intended learning outcome? 
  • Similar to many “Best Practices” lists online, Patton, too, suggests that requiring students to turn on their camera during videoconferencing is neither appropriate nor necessary; as instructors, we never know what stories are happening behind the scenes. Patton finds a unique compromise position by requesting that all students put a real photo of themselves in their profile. Thus, instructors will at least have something to focus on; meetings will at least feel more personal. Although Patton’s proposition is generally compelling, we should note that there is an inherently communicative character of our field: for language instructors, faces, personalities, and the ways mouths form words all feel especially pertinent. This said, we may recommend that Patton’s happy medium be prefaced by a first and honest explanation to students as to why language learning works best with a real video presence. 
  • One of Patton’s self-explanatory but crucial pieces of advice: “smile before you do anything online.” 

Perhaps the strongest part of Patton’s book is his description as to what students respond to—the type of feedback, the nudging, and the attitude that their instructors evince. He has a keen sense of today’s student body and the unique obstacles our students face. His most insightful statements may be those dealing with reticent students; his suggestion that we, as instructors, don’t always see where our students are coming from and what issues they may be dealing with. Writing about students who are hesitant participants in online activities and conferences, Patton writes: “I know several students on the autism spectrum, for example, who will take a failing grade on an assignment that requires audio or video rather than have to participate. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around that, but I’ve had one of them describe it as if we’re asking them to jump off a skyscraper. They just cannot do it.” Our students don’t always provide clinical documentation from professionals about these issues; we, as instructors, oftentimes feel left in the proverbial dark—unaware as to how to offer our students help. Although Patton does not always provide a solution to these dilemmas, recognizing that they complicate online instruction may point us in fruitful directions. 

Finally, while it could be argued that Patton’s text—by urging us to remember the human element of online instruction—makes the mistake of charging instructors with the work of others (psychologists, coaches, doctors, or even parents), I would argue that during these extraordinary times, showing our students inner calmness, modeling an ability to focus, and exhibiting how to mitigate everyday anxieties may be equally as important as the material we respectively teach. Probably more contentious is Patton’s suggestion that, when dealing with students, instructors tap into their “customer service skills.” Although we should push back on the notion that educators are mere content-delivery facilitators, the fact is that activating such a mentality may safeguard both students and instructors from greater emotional anguish in the long-run. This is not to replace academic rigor for a self-help pep rally but rather, to acknowledge the constant human element even during our high-tech interactions and during high-stress times. Regardless of the format of our classes–whether they be synchronous, asynchronous, in-person or remote– our lions need to be fed.

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