Faculty members moved quickly in March to take their in-person lessons online when Grand Valley moved to remote learning.
The five faculty profiled on these pages show how they continued to build a community while teaching from their home offices.
Adeline Borti, assistant professor of English, offered a personal account:
I hear, and I forget.
I see, and I remember.
I do, and I understand.
Many theories and models have impacted and guided my teaching philosophy, but the statement by Confucius above seems to run through all I do with my students.
As an English education professor, I seek to give my students that four-tiered learning experience: Individual, partner, small-group and large-group learning experiences. I have seen how engaged my students are in small groups. Thus, the separation that COVID-19 brought to our in-person meeting and group activities was heartbreaking.
Thanks to online web conferencing tools, we didn’t lose that sense of community. We continued via online discussions and held small-group discussions in breakout rooms. The web conferencing tool I used enabled us to still learn with and from one another, offering students the opportunity to create and share knowledge with their peers.
Pandemic alters artistic perspective
Stafford Smith advised his photography students that this time period is one of those generational touchstones that alter perspectives. Some of the work he saw from his students during the pandemic reflected how the shift affected their lives.
This time also spurred Smith, associate professor of photography, to ponder other shifts in perspective, including what the future holds for the world of art with the online emphasis that was suddenly brought to the fore.
“There are going to be more social media and more online opportunities than there used to be; this in a way is the new norm,” Smith said. “I think we need to reorient our artistic output for online consumption.”
The online environment meshes in many ways with the social inclinations of students who focus on devices even in a classroom, Smith said. He also noticed what he called a “silver lining” among some students in the online learning environment: Students who may not have engaged in classroom discussion were more likely to do so in chat discussions.
Truth mirrors fiction for English class
Kathleen Blumreich, professor of English, organized her semester content for ENG 105, Literatures in English, around a genre she had used before: dystopian fiction. She included in her syllabus a novel by Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven, which tells the story of a traveling troupe that performs Shakespeare throughout the Great Lakes region during contemporary times about 20 years after a worldwide pandemic.
And then she and her students were confronted with truth that mirrored the fiction. “When the COVID-19 pandemic really hit I thought, ‘What am I going to do? I’m getting ready to teach a novel about a pandemic,” Blumreich said.
Ultimately she decided to examine more closely the sense of community that is a key element in the book.
“I shifted focus away from the horror of the pandemic to those other things, the importance of friendship, bonding, communication, theater, all of those things that last, as opposed to the aspects of civilization that are lovely to have but not absolutely essential,” Blumreich said.
Theater faculty: ‘Like playing basketball online’
Scott Harman, adjunct instructor of theater, was working with his acting class on two-person scenes when the switch to remote learning began.
Harman switched the coursework to the more challenging monologues, taking time to dissect those performances. Video can allow for some critiquing or one-on-one coaching for the feedback that is essential for improving their craft, he said.
“It’s kind of like trying to play basketball online,” Harman said. “We can practice these skills and get better but we’re working around the main activity right now. Theater is fundamentally about people being in the same room and forming that kind of community, but this is the sacrifice we are making as a society.”
Despite the challenges of providing instruction on a craft that is so dependent on human interaction, Harman maintained a guiding principle of being available to students.
“Their job isn’t to please me. My job is to give them everything I can that works for them,” Harman said.
Taking dance lessons online
One of the key assignments for Hannah Seidel’s dance pedagogy class is having her students teach at a dance studio in the community.
Developing a lesson plan and teaching people they haven’t worked with before hones communication skills along with other capabilities, said Seidel, assistant professor of dance.
When the COVID-19 pandemic scuttled plans to teach in the community, Seidel tapped her contacts to find a way for her students to teach a lesson over video. Seidel was able to find dancers who were excited for the opportunity to have Grand Valley students teach them.
They worked over Zoom when they could, Seidel said. When live streaming wasn’t an option, Seidel’s students recorded themselves teaching and exchanged the video with their own students.
“I think it was still an effective experience,” Seidel said. “These students are often trying to bring a lot of information together in real time, and communicating the combination of movement and underlying concepts and philosophies.”
Pivoting multimedia journalism students to the big story
When a story for the ages beckoned, Grand Valley multimedia journalism students responded.
Jeff Kelly Lowenstein and James Ford, both assistant multimedia journalism professors, guided their students’ shift to covering the pandemic. The experience was valuable, they said, and the students also found profound stories to tell.
Kelly Lowenstein provided an opportunity for a deep dive for students covering the pandemic by tapping his global journalism contacts to launch a collaborative COVID-19 project. About two dozen colleagues responded and several threads were developed, including surveys by Grand Valley students about pandemic-related issues.
Meanwhile, the students who create content and produce the award-winning weekly news magazine “West Side Stories,” which airs on WGVU Life, found their work quickly halted by restrictions brought on by COVID-19, said Ford, who oversees the program. They shifted to telling multimedia stories about health care workers, worshipping remotely and more at livingsheltered.com.
“The motto from the beginning was, ‘Find a way.’ Sometimes you have to be flexible and nimble and look for alternate ways to tell your story than what you have relied on time and time again,” Ford said. “They have my admiration and respect.”