Mar 23, 2020
A note from the editors: We recently issued a call for submissions about teaching online, and Paula Teitelbaum, an experienced instructor of online Yiddish courses, agreed to share her advice with our readers. We are grateful to her for so speedily coming to the aid of teachers transitioning their courses to online instruction, even as she herself is scrambling to reinvent an in-person course for online instruction. If you have resources, reflections, or ideas to share on the topic of online Yiddish Studies instruction, please send them to [email protected].
I have been teaching online since 2013. Up until this term, I had only taught Yiddish online, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my ESL essay writing course, which I teach at LaGuardia Community College CUNY, will also be added to my online workload on Blackboard and Zoom. I teach non-credit classes for YIVO (now transitioned to Zoom because of the current pandemic) and for the Workers Circle on AdobeConnect, as well as my own private students individually and in groups of 2-4 on Skype, Google Hangout and WebEx.
There are many tips for teaching online in general easily searchable on the internet. Recently, new tips have appeared for teachers who were previously teaching in-person classes but due to the COVID-19 pandemic have had to transition to an online platform. These teachers may require some of the same information as previous online teachers, but there are also different concerns and expectations related to the abrupt transition and teaching under unusual circumstances, and with students and instructors under tremendous stress. Instead of repeating here what has been stated elsewhere, I’ll focus on what I have learned specifically from teaching Yiddish online. While many of the things I mention may also apply to teaching in person, and to teaching other subjects, they come out of my experience of teaching Yiddish online. Teaching Yiddish online presents challenges and opportunities to our goal of stimulating interactive learning. It also presents surprises.
1. Neither you nor your students can easily read non-verbal cues.
When teaching through videoconferencing, reduced access to facial expressions and body language is a challenge students and teachers must overcome. To help your students compensate, verbalizing all of your instructions is a must. What’s more, in the physical classroom space, we rely on reading students’ facial expressions and body language when assessing student response. However, in my large group Workers Circle class on AdobeConnect, I may be looking at an insufficiently lit postage-stamp image of my student’s face, in which I cannot easily read their facial expression. Some of the students are not even visible on screen; only their names appear on the side. It is absolutely necessary not only to stop for questions, but to test whether the students are getting what you are trying to teach by asking targeted yes/no questions.
2. Use chain conversation.
Pairing or grouping students for private conversations is difficult if you are not skilled in using the Breakout Rooms function in Zoom or Adobe Connect, or if you are using a different videoconferencing platform. Instead, I often replace pairwork and groupwork with chain conversation: A to B and back for a couple of turns, B to C, etc. This takes longer, but the positive side is that students get to listen to others doing creative things with basic conversation templates, as well as non-creative, set responses, which they may still struggle to master. Listening to other students and to the corrections may be helpful to students.
3. Writing Yiddish feedback in real time is challenging.
Some of the online videoconference platforms display punctuation on the right instead of on the left side of a sentence or question in Yiddish when using the chat feature. Also, many platforms display Yiddish typing going left to right in a textbox on the whiteboard, so it’s hard to estimate where to place the textbox. This makes it difficult to give a correction in print as well as in speech when a student needs it. Therefore, it is crucial to have as much material as possible prepared in advance in pdf or PowerPoint format, and only use the chat option for immediate feedback to students’ oral output.
4. Focusing students on text is easier online.
Although many texts, including textbooks for beginners, have small type and not enough empty space for the eye to focus, we have the ability to create materials with large type, free of visual noise and accompanied by illustrations. Of course, that takes time and effort. However, if you don’t create student-friendly visuals, you can still save students from squinting at small type. If you are sharing your screen on Skype or Google Hangout, or Zoom, you can magnify your pdf document and make the letters larger. That can help many of us who don’t have perfect vision. An added advantage is that you can focus the students on a piece of displayed text when using an online platform in a way that is often superior to an in-person environment. All they have is the displayed text and the voices of their teacher and classmates. Hopefully, they’ve found a quiet place to take their online lessons, have temporarily turned off the notifications on their devices, and are using a headset, so they are not easily distracted.
5. Muting students yourself may not be the best option.
When I started teaching online for the Workers Circle, I was instructed to mute all students, and only unmute them when I asked them to say something, or when they used the raised-hand-icon indicating that they had a question or comment. I found that to be disruptive to my concentration. Fortunately, as the students and I have gotten used to the Adobe Connect platform, I have stopped muting my students, except when I have to. They mute and unmute themselves as needed, and I am free to concentrate on other things.
6. Encouraging honest participation is equally essential online.
Just as in an in-person classroom, students must feel comfortable sharing questions, comments and confusion. Some can do so more easily, and others are reticent. It is the teacher’s responsibility to stop frequently and give students the opportunity to speak up. The logistics of videoconferencing — including unmuting themselves, connection delays, and the number of decisions required to begin speaking — can add a lag time to students’ ability to express hesitation or questions, so you should pause for longer than you are used to in an online setting when you are asking for student feedback. In my classroom, virtual or in-person, I let students know that every mistake, and every question, even those we have heard before, is an opportunity to learn. If I think other students can help, I let them do it before I step in. If the helper’s input needs to be rephrased or clarified, I do it and thank them. I also thank the student who asked the question for doing so. As we know, more than one student can have the same question, but be reluctant to ask. In a physical space, we can often read confusion on a student’s face, but online that student can easily hide. Creating a safe environment and fostering the growth of a supportive learning community in the classroom is essential both online and in regular classrooms.
7. Emailing after each class can help absent students remain connected.
Not all online platforms have a video recording feature. Even when the student gets access to a class video recording, it’s not as beneficial as attending in real time. However, it is useful. With or without the recording, I make it a practice to write an email with a class summary and homework, including the materials used in class, which I send to my students in my in-person classes as well as in my online classes. I find that students feel cared for and appreciate this practice. It also makes it possible for them to come back to class prepared, and overall promotes retention of those who would have otherwise felt that they had missed too much to continue with the class.
8. Allowing students to speak on topics that interest them helps them improve their speaking skills.
I have had and currently have some students who have studied in Yiddish classes and are continuing to study in classes or independently, who turn to me to help them develop their speaking skills. As a diligent teacher, I look for listening and reading materials to stimulate the content of their speaking activities and send them ahead of time. To my surprise, I have discovered that even those students who consume the materials want to talk about topics that are on their mind, and that may have nothing to do with the videos or articles I sent them. They want to express themselves, and they want to interact with me and with their classmate/s. There is never any dead air in my conversation classes online, and I have stopped worrying about it. I give them feedback on their vocabulary choices, help with their grammar, and provide more idiomatic alternatives to their output. I do it orally and by typing in the chat box. Also, I respect their choices as to content. To illustrate, I have facilitated a private student’s desire to learn gemore by taytshing in Yiddish though I myself have no knowledge or experience learning gemore. He explains to me in imperfect Yiddish and also English when necessary, what the loshn koydesh text means, and I put it into good Yiddish. Why does he do it? It serves an internal need of his to recapture the spirit of his grandfathers. By the way, this student can’t handle online video calls, so we study by phone.
9. Teaching online is physically demanding.
I find it very difficult to sit at my computer for teaching via videoconference for longer than an hour. My suggestion is to schedule your classes with a break long enough to do some stretching and massage exercises on a foam roller. Also, stand part of the time placing your computer on a higher piece of furniture and some boxes. Be aware of how your body is feeling. You may not realize that you are sticking your chin forward and slumping in your chair. Shift your position often.
10. Troubleshooting technical difficulties goes beyond bandwidth and connection.
In order to use any of the videoconference platforms, a person must have the required bandwidth and a good internet connection. However, several of my students couldn’t connect with me on Skype even though they had the required bandwidth. It was a frustrating process, and it took a while to figure out. It turned out that they had more than one Skype account, and they were trying to connect with me using an account other than the one through which they had established contact with me originally. I now ask new students to make sure and remember which Skype account they are connecting to mine.
I hope that sharing the things I have learned from teaching Yiddish online is helpful to current and future Yiddish teachers. I would be interested in reading about others’ experiences and what those experiences taught them.