Challenges and successes in teaching T sections online
ELL (English Language Learner) Director Kamal Belmihoub met with two Writing Across the Curriculum Fellows to discuss his own process of moving online, getting the most out of synchronous sessions, and adapting to the needs of the online experience.
Watch the video or read the transcript below—
Seth Graves (he/him): Hi, we’re here for Pedagogy in Practice, and we’re meeting today with Kemal Belmihoub, who is director of our ELL courses and our T sections in the English department. Also joining us are Christopher Campbell and Agnes Eshak, Writing Across the Curriculum Fellows at Baruch.
Christopher Campbell (he/him): So we’ve been talking, you and I, Agnes, Seth, Lisa (Blankenship, Writing Director), and Allison (Deutermann, Great Works Director) this term about the transition to online teaching and effective methods for not only teaching but also evaluating the teaching and learning process online. And Agnes and I have a few questions for you, specifically concerning ELL and T section courses at Baruch. I think the first one on our minds is, how has teaching online impacted the instruction of T sections, from your point of view?
Kamal Belmihoub (he/him): Thank you, Chris. I would say, the main message that we have tried to communicate throughout the Writing Program, including T sections, throughout the transition and in the midst of the pandemic is to focus on empathy—and, you know, trying to understand our students and their needs, and trying to be compassionate with circumstances they may be going through. And so we have done everything we can to stay true to how we teach, while using technology and resources available to us to adapt to the online environment. And so with T sections, in particular, some of the things I’ve tried to keep through the transition is, for example, small group conferences and individual conferences, which I’m used to always doing even when teaching in person, because I’ve felt like they are particularly important for students to contrast their individual needs. And I felt like it was really important to keep them in these circumstances, so I use Zoom and Google Drive to communicate with students and talk about their writing in the online environment, instead of meeting in class.
Also, I feel like with students in a T section, it may be difficult and they may feel overwhelmed with asynchronous teaching, so I felt like it was important to try to maintain a strong synchronous component to be able to address questions and do activities together. Because I’ve gotten feedback in the past, when I taught a hybrid, that the asynchronous component felt overwhelming to students. So I thought it would be important to try and stay true to the way I teach the class during normal circumstances, as much as possible, and use the technology to support that way of teaching, as opposed to kind of transforming the way I teach or embracing new technologies for the sake of it. Or trying to overwhelm myself and students with new ways of teaching.
Agnes Eshak (she/her): Building off of that, I think one thing we’re all wondering, is the letter students themselves, you know thinking about all of this, what have you heard from students about what they’re experienced and how they’ve adapted to these new learning methods.
Belmihoub: Yeah, definitely. I would say most students seem…well, I do the background survey about their backgrounds—which by the way, I adapted from Seth—to learn about what needs they may have, you know, and what resources they may or may not have, or what are the circumstances like in their home in the middle of the pandemic. Most students in my class have seemed to have the resources they need, and they seem to have adapted to the online environment, Sometimes I’d have a student who is in a different time zone who, for example, may be taking the class from China—a 12 hour difference—or I may have students who are in a home environment where if you ask them a question, for example, they mute and unmute really quickly because they are concerned you would hear the noise in the background and things like that. So I try, of course, to be understanding, and offer students options like to answer in the chat and not have to you know can mute and offer to do activities asynchronously whenever a student needs that, for example, asked us to interact, a reflection, based on the activities of that lesson for that day, as opposed to attendance.
Campbell: Could you maybe reference some specific activities that you’ve implemented in the online classroom? How do you gauge the success of those activities? Are you gauging success?
Belmihoub: What one activity, for example, that I do more of in the online environment that I feel like is important, and could, I think, transform to the in-person environment as well, is we create a shared Google Doc and have students respond and engage with it. I think it’s really important, because then it gives the opportunity for every student to engage in a kind of a safer environment. So for example, we have an activity about applying stasis theory to your argument, and so every student looks at a series of questions and all those categories of stasis and takes time to write responses and share them in a shared Google document. And then they go and give feedback to other students and get the chance to interact with others in written form. Usually you do that in-class in a normal environment—and some students participate, maybe some don’t, for example in a discussion—but I feel like in asking everyone to work on it in a Google Doc, you can see everyone’s contributions in that document. And then you build on that and talk about it in a discussion format, as well, so I feel like that’s one thing that I have used that worked really well and that gives students a chance to participate. Especially for the students: they may feel shy about, you know, their accent or something like that, so this gives them a chance to participate extensively in written form and engage with other students.
Eshak: Do you think you consider using Google Docs when we return to in-person classes, and things that you’d use from you know teaching online that you carry into in person classes.
Belmihoub: I used to use Google docs, anyway, but not not this extensively, so that’s definitely one thing I would take back is to have this kind of participation, using the Google Doc. Especially if you have a computer lab, I think it can be a great component to an in-person class, as well as a kind of brainstorming activity of discussion so students have something to draw upon to contribute to a discussion with their classmates.
Graves: Thank you Kamal for joining us, and be well, everybody.
Belmihoub: Thank you.
Campbell: See you.
Dr. Kamal Belmihoub is a lecturer and ELL Director in the English Department at Baruch, teaching writing and linguistics courses. His research interests are in applied linguistics and writing studies.