The freedom to teach anywhere
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The freedom to teach anywhere

Remote ESL teaching revives my teaching career as it connects me with my students

Merrill Silver reads remotely to a class at Montclair Pre-K.
Merrill Silver reads remotely to a class at Montclair Pre-K.

When the pandemic catapulted into our lives, I had just become a grandmother.

Twice — within a few months!

I knew my life would change, but I could never imagine the joys and challenges ahead for my family and me. At the same time, the pandemic would dramatically change my 45-year teaching career. On March 18, 2020, the non-profit organization where I teach English as a Second Language to adults abruptly closed the door to my classroom. Instead, I was asked to begin teaching virtually, using Google Classroom and Zoom meetings.

Is “YIKES” the same in every language?

Here, finally, was my opportunity to retire. The idea of teaching remotely overwhelmed me. I thought I already had reached my technological peak by using a Smart Board. Let the agency hire a young teacher, I thought; someone who doesn’t break into a cold sweat at the idea of virtual teaching.

Furthermore, without the dynamic interaction inherent in a traditional classroom, where would the energy be? And how would my students ever adapt to remote learning, with their tiny smartphones and poor Internet access? It would be a fool’s errand. Besides, teaching had suddenly lost much of its appeal, once I had two little cherubs to get to know, somehow, during a pandemic.

But the political climate in the country regarding immigration haunted me. In the media, I saw children in cages and families separated. I pictured the Dreamers, with their dreams deferred like raisins in the sun in Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem.” Maybe, in my very small way, I could continue to advocate for my students and offset some of the xenophobia poisoning America.

Plus I loved my job. If I retired, I would miss the students’ stories, especially their dreams.

Moreover, I realized that if my students had the confidence to come to America to start a new life, they could figure out how to submit an assignment in Classroom and join a Zoom meeting — even on a smartphone, where everything is designed for Lilliputians. As a matter of fact, I suspected that many of them were much more tech-savvy than me.

Therefore, I decided to give virtual teaching a chance. It didn’t hurt that my daughter shamed me into learning something new. On a more serious note, it would give me the scheduling flexibility I craved. Here was the perfect solution — a way to continue teaching while providing childcare for my grandchildren. So, with a few hours of professional development courses, my husband’s help with some basic computer skills, and my sheer grit, I was ready to cautiously open my virtual classroom.

The classes are organized into three-month sessions. At the outset of each session, I “invite” students to join my Google Classroom and a Zoom meeting. “Invite” is Google and Zoom’s terminology and I love it! To me, it’s more welcoming and warmer than “registering” for a class.

Merrill Silver

Since I am a night owl, I extend invitations late at night. To my surprise, I find a special kinship with all the students who “RSVP” at midnight or 1 a.m. Night school takes on new meaning. Doesn’t anybody sleep anymore?

Suddenly, my Google Classroom’s stream fills with greetings from students originally from Peru, Ecuador, Columbia, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti, Russia, Ukraine, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, and Guinea. I feel like I have pen pals from all over the world — except these correspondents live in nearby towns.

What do I learn when they introduce themselves? They love baseball, gardening, and cooking. They miss their families. Some are employed; others are laid off due to the pandemic. They are single, married, divorced, and with or without children and grandchildren. They are juggling work and childcare, particularly the logistics of kids learning at home. Most importantly, they are trying to stay healthy.

They are just like my friends and me.

In our virtual classroom, student assignments and teacher comments fly back and forth at all times of day and night. I am never bored or lonely. Checking classwork submissions at all hours has become my obsession.

Morning and evening Zoom meetings allow me to match faces with written work. With a Zoom gallery view, I can see each smile, each nod of the head or look of consternation. Not only that, I occasionally meet spouses and children, and they meet mine.

I see Ana’s four children before they go to their own public school “classrooms” in different corners of the apartment. Ajmiry introduces her son, who is going to college in the next room. Satourou introduces her husband, who will babysit for their 13-month-old son during class-time. Sometimes Thamarra joins the meeting from her friend’s apartment, which has better Wi-Fi service. There, I see her friend cooking Haitian patties in her tiny kitchen, while we conduct an ESL lesson.

We begin classes with small talk. It feels like a conversation with your mom or best friend. “How are you?” “How are the kids doing in school?” “How’s work?” “How’s the job search?” “What’s for dinner?” When we hear about someone’s trip to the emergency room or a student winning a Thanksgiving lottery at work, our ears perk up. The discussion takes an unexpected turn. What I love most is when students respond to each other and I fade into the background, like sepia in an otherwise color photo.

We learn that Missole arrives late to the evening class because she is just coming home from work at 8 p.m. Tatiana leaves the morning meeting a half-hour early to pick up her grandson from school. By the way, this tidbit of information gives us an opportunity to compare how neighboring school districts are attempting to manage the pandemic.

Some students struggle with the language more than others, but isn’t that why they come to class? To practice and gain confidence. My motto, “We love mistakes,” works equally well in a traditional classroom or with distance learning.

Merrill Silver reads in person to her grandson Micah.

The lesson officially begins when I share the screen. We review homework and introduce new topics. What an exciting time to be an ESL teacher, to incorporate civics and government into our curriculum during an election year. Songs about the electoral college and colorful maps of red, blue, and purple states grab everyone’s attention. I tell my students that I won’t be satisfied until they dream about the number 270 — the requisite number of electors for an electoral victory. Omar tells me, “I still have two years to become a citizen — but I assure you I will vote.”

Independence Day gives us an opportunity to learn American history. Students also share information about the flags and anthems of their native countries. I ask their opinions about whether or not American athletes should kneel during the singing of our national anthem. I remind them there is no right or wrong answer.

The lesson flows to a discussion about racism in America. Peter suddenly speaks with the passion of a pastor, not a student in an intermediate ESL class who recently arrived in America. “You need to start when kids are young. Children don’t know how to hate. You need to teach them in school what is right.”

On the computer screen, I see Karla shaking her head in agreement, eager to express herself. “My son came home from school one day and said, ‘Mommy, I want to give a flower to a girl I like. She looks different than me but I want to be her friend.’”

I tell them if they were in my physical classroom, I would give each of them a big hug. In a Zoom world, they must settle for a virtual hug.

If I had retired at the beginning of the pandemic, I would have missed these moments. I would have missed singing a song of peace together on Veterans’ Day. Although it sounded cacophonous due to Zoom’s audio lags, it still brought tears to my eyes. I would have missed meeting Maria from Guatemala, who started working when she was 7 years old and hasn’t stopped since. She cleans medical offices six nights a week, but never misses a Zoom class or the opportunity to watch a recording.

I am humbled that my students make time in their busy schedules to participate in these classes.

I realize I have barely tapped the surface of what is possible in remote learning. However, as a technology Luddite, I am thrilled with my results thus far. I still get opening night jitters before each Zoom meeting, but once the first student appears on the screen, always with a big smile on his or her face, my adrenaline kicks in. I click “Record,” “Share Screen,” “Annotate,” and “Mute” with abandon. When I stumble, my students are patient and offer assistance.

At the end of the meeting, there are simple words of gratitude. One night, a student gave me a big shout-out. “A big thank you to Mrs. Merrill, who has a lot of patience to do this work.” I say “Bravo” to the students who work so hard. Israa tells me our meetings are the highlight of her week.

Although the class meets again in just a few days, I am always surprised at the heartfelt good-byes. Maybe it’s my imagination, but when we say good-night to each other, it feels a little like the Waltons’ closing moment on the classic TV show. Despite our fancy 21st century technology, there is an old-fashioned sweetness in that lingering moment.

We are months into the pandemic now. I wonder when it will end, and what the future will look like. As an educator, I imagine that the post-pandemic classroom will be redefined as some combination of in-person and remote learning.

For me, the freedom to teach anywhere and anytime in a classroom without walls has been magical. It has enabled me to be a remote teacher and an in-person grandma. In any language, those words are music to my ears.

Merrill Silver of Montclair is a freelance writer and she teaches ESL
at JVS of Metrowest.

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