Becoming a digital teacher

HUMMING IN MY UNIVERSE – Jim Paredes (The Philippine Star ) – July 19, 2020 – 12:00am

I have been teaching online for one and a half months now. I opened two classes on songwriting last end of May.

I have always loved teaching. I enjoy teaching especially in a classroom setting. I love the interaction between me and my students. I have been teaching on and off since 2001 and I have always showed up for every class prepared and ready to share everything I know about the subjects I teach.

Since the start of the pandemic, mostly everything has changed drastically. It seems like everything we used to do before has been altered somewhat by the dictates of safety and survival. And since social distancing is now the new normal, the traditional classroom setup, for the most part, has become a danger zone.

But because education must continue, it has now been reinvented to respond to the COVID-19 threat. Whereas before, a teacher had to be physically present teaching students face to face, all interactions now have been strictly online.

The Zoom app is now the new classroom. When I announced I was offering songwriting classes on social media, I was immediately amazed. Students of different ages signed up. My youngest student in class is 10 years old and the oldest is probably in her mid-50s. Geographically, there are no boundaries except for the time differences. Students signed up from places around the globe — the Philippines, US, Canada and Australia. I limited the total to 15 students per class to make sure I can pay attention to each student.

I hold one class on Mondays and Wednesdays, and another on Tuesdays and Thursdays. In Manila, classes start at 11 a.m. up to 12:30 p.m. Australia is two hours ahead and begins at 1 p.m. Meanwhile the time’s around 7 p.m. in California and almost midnight in Toronto. It is a prerequisite that all students must be able to play an instrument.

My biggest worry before deciding to hold classes online was whether I could adjust to a situation where I was not physically present for my students. I imagined that it would be quite “cold” compared to a traditional classroom setting that was warm and lively. I had also read articles about how Zoom meetings can be so draining. I have friends who run their businesses and meetings through Zoom and they complain that constantly looking at the monitor for hours can be vey tiring and energy draining.

Anticipating all this, I made sure that certain things were set up in a way that made conversation and exchanges less trying and more pleasant. For one, I make sure that I am properly lit so that people do not have to strain to see me onscreen. I also ask my students to face a good light source so that everyone can read each other’s facial expressions better.

I also make sure everyone is given their time to share their homework with everyone else and have the opportunity to ask questions as often as they wish. I also put up Messenger groups, and a page on Facebook for each class to make announcements, get feedback and comments on each other‘s creative work. They are encouraged to post their songs for everyone to listen and learn from one another. Lastly, I encourage everyone to consult with me privately about the class if they feel they need to.

I open the Zoom classroom about 15 minutes before class to make sure that everyone can fix whatever technical glitches they may experience before the session starts.

I have noticed that by constantly asking for feedback, my students are encouraged to share their thoughts about the lessons. I would hate to attend a class where a teacher talks for 20 minutes straight (or even longer) without interruption. I like rapport and I see it as essential for both teacher and students to develop. In truth, student and teacher are both changed after every session. Each one in the digital classroom takes something home.

In many ways, the methods I used to employ in a physical classroom also work in a digital online setting. A subject must still be presented in an interesting way. A teacher must be lively, and probing. He/she must be able to actively listen. And a teacher must ask students to “playback” the lessons to make sure they understood them.

A month and a half of online teaching has given me a purpose, a sense of being alive every day as I spend 90 minutes with my students from four countries. COVID has paralyzed us into fear for too long. I am happy to teach, and even happier my students are learning. I know that some of them will excel in songwriting someday soon. And I know all of my students will at the very least develop a keener perspective on how to listen to songs and write their own.

Throughout the ages, there have always been teachers and mentors. I imagine that centuries ago, teachers used the ground, slabs of stone or walls on caves to draw and communicate their thoughts to their students. It was a long jump from there to the use of papyrus paper, and another leap before man invented the blackboard. And now we have the digital classroom.

Throughout all the ages and eons of time, one mysterious truth remains true. It is this: when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. It also goes the other way around.

Only this time, it is virtual.

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