2020 Innovation in Language Program Direction: Online teaching
Nicole Mills, Interim Director of Language Programs, Harvard University
At the end of January 2020, just six weeks before our transition to remote instruction due to Covid19, I started the position as interim Director of Language Programs in the Department of Romance Languages & Literatures (RLL) at Harvard University. In this new role, I oversee the language programs in Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Catalan. There are 10 Senior Preceptors and Preceptors who act as coordinators of various language courses and approximately 40 TAs and TFs who teach in the RLL Language Program. We have approximately 1500 students enrolled in the various courses throughout our program every year. Taking on this new role during this tumultuous time period, I quickly realized that collaboration was imperative and that numerous initiatives and projects—pedagogical, emotional, scholarly, and community-building—would be necessary to meet the needs of the various constituents that I served in our department. In addition to remote language pedagogy, it was important that our L2 education and professional development experiences addressed the current economic, political, and emotionally charged climate of the world and its impact on our language-culture classrooms (remote or otherwise). With a theory-meets practice orientation, the various initiatives described below incorporate various online platforms, technologies, and practices and aim to foster a collaborative spirit among faculty, TAs, TFs, and students. In a campus-wide survey in September 2020, students were asked if they were able to engage meaningful with the course material and with other students. We were happy to learn that the mean score for all RLL language program courses (Spanish, French, Italian, and Portuguese) was 4.8/5.0. I would be happy to share ideas and resources if others are interested in replicating these initiatives in their own language programs.
Community Building Initiatives for Language Faculty, TAs, and TFs
In the abrupt turn to remote language instruction in Spring 2020, the goals of the weekly language faculty meetings were to offer a safe space for the expression of concerns and issues regarding remote instruction, to share evolving updates in administrative policies, and to discuss budding remote language teaching strategies in breakout rooms. For Fall 2020, we established language faculty meetings every two weeks. We are holding informal language faculty social gatherings on the Congregate platform and more formal monthly language faculty meetings via Zoom. The informal social gatherings have included vibrant discussions with invited guests such as Nancy Costikyan, the Director of the Office of Work-Life, to discuss how to maintain a healthy work-life balance during Covid19. I also asked our two departmental pedagogy fellows to organize weekly meet-up groups in Spring 2020 so that TAs and TFs could discuss their experiences navigating this new mode of instruction. Best practices and short vignettes about how they creatively harnessed new technologies to engage students were documented over the course of the Spring semester on a shared Google Doc. In addition, I have asked the pedagogy fellows to run a reading group on the latest research on language pedagogy and remote learning. In collaboration with TFs from other departments, they meet to discuss emerging research from journals such as CALICO, Foreign Language Annals, Second Language Research and Practice, System, and the Language Educator. Informal weekly Zoom lunch meet-up groups have also been organized so that TAs and TFs can meet informally, socialize, and share best remote teaching practices.
Collaborations with the Harvard Language Center
In spring 2020, following conversations with Andrew Ross, the Director of the Harvard Language Center, I researched articles on hybrid and online language teaching from Fernando Rubio, Robert Blake, Richard Kern, and others and created a reference list of twelve to fifteen articles. Each student in my graduate course signed up for one article and reviewed our existing COVID-19 language teaching online resources. We asked the students to consider various questions: How can we enhance the existing remote language teaching resources for the Harvard community? Is there relevant information from your assigned article that could be integrated within our resources? The website’s text was placed in Google Docs so that we could crowd source comments and suggestions. We divided the class into four working groups and asked students to discuss strategies to enhance our existing resources. Each group had an online language teaching or technology expert present to guide the breakout room discussions. Students became the representatives of their assigned articles and worked collaboratively to come up with an action plan for the development of remote language teaching resources for next year’s teaching cohort. Using a Google Doc to document ideas, they actively discussed content, organization, structure, and strategies from research for a full hour. In the following class session, the four groups formally presented their action plans and submitted their finalized Google Docs to the Language Center.
Remote Language Teaching Database
Through informal chats and email conversations with instructors, I solicited sample remote teaching materials for a Remote Language Teaching database so that we could crowdsource our collective experiences and learn collectively about this new medium. Instructors posted these lessons on a Canvas site as inspiration to their fellow and future colleagues. I transferred other types of materials to a Canvas site created by the Harvard Language Center. From my graduate seminar, I uploaded the research articles on hybrid and online language teaching and the Google Docs with recommendations for remote language teaching resources. I transferred student survey templates and other sample administrative documents. With permission, I uploaded the personal stories from the TA/TF meet-up groups about how they creatively used new technologies to engage students in remote language learning. Approximately 60 handouts, documents, lesson plans, PowerPoints, and VoiceThread Boards were ultimately shared by French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese instructors in Spring 2020. We are continuing to encourage contributions to the Canvas Site and curate, “tag,” and organize the materials in a pedagogically and research-based fashion.
Language, Media, & Design Workshops (Fall 2020)
In collaboration with a media and design fellow and the Learning Lab, I have organized a “Language, Media, and Design” workshop series that encourages instructors to imagine, brainstorm, and “dream” how new technologies could be applied to remote language teaching in Fall 2020. The workshop format includes a pedagogical or theoretical framing in an interview format with a scholar, pedagogue, artist, or curator. We then feature an application of theory meets practice with a sample remote language teaching application from an RLL language course. The third phase includes a virtual “playground” in which participants will have time to explore related digital platforms and to imagine how these pedagogical notions and applications may be applied to their own teaching contexts.
The titles of the Fall 2020 workshops include:
“Tiktok: Creating discourse communities” (with speaker Maria Luisa Parra, Coordinator of the Spanish in the Community Courses for Latino Students)
“Visual storytelling: Engaging with Cultural Narratives” (with speaker Lex Brown, Artist and college fellow in media practice in the Department of Art, Film, and Visual Studies)
“Virtual Spaces: Experiential learning in the Digital Classroom.” (with speaker Rus Gant, Director of Harvard’s Visualization Research and Teaching Laboratory)
“Dialogue for Change” Discussion Series (Spring 2021)
In the current economic, political, and emotionally charged climate that we are currently experiencing across the world, the novice instructors in my language pedagogy course had questions and concerns about how to navigate what Eleanor Craig (Program Director of Ethnicity, Migration, and Rights at Harvard) describes as “hot” topics. They expressed concerns about how to ensure open communication while respecting boundaries and how to navigate these challenges in our language classrooms where students are learning how to express their ideas in a language that may feel “foreign” to them. This discussion series was initiated when I invited Eleanor Craig to lead a discussion with our TAs/TFs in Fall 2020. With over 30 TAs and TFs present from our department at this first session, it was clear that we needed to continue the conversations. As a follow-up, I organized a working group with graduate students to design a discussion series in Spring 2021 entitled “Dialogue for Change.” One discussion topic will include an interview with one of our TFs and two founding members of Second Tree. They will discuss their educational model for refugee language education in Greece that emphasizes strategies that do not avoid “hot topics” but instead engages students directly with those topics with respect and care to transform challenges into opportunities for learning. Another session will emphasize discussions of grammatically binary language and gender identity to create further opportunities for open discussion and inclusion within the language classroom. The last topic will address how to broach environmental issues in the language-culture classroom. It will begin with a cross-disciplinary panel discussion followed by a presentation of lessons tackling environmental issues in our RLL courses. For both the Fall and Spring discussion series, the end goal is to create a “theory meets practice” video podcast series that features case studies of creative remote language teaching applications. Our goal is to share this podcast series with other language-culture programs within Harvard and beyond.
Excerpts of this description from:
Mills, N. A. (2020). Language Program Direction During COVID-19: Collective Memories of the Extraordinary. Invited contribution to the Second Language Research and Practice Journal.
A special thank you to the 2020 Bok pedagogy fellows, Matthew Rodriguez, Xiomara Feliberty-Casiano, Emily Epperson, and Luca Politi, who have helped foster a collaborative spirit in our department in our transition to remote language instruction. I would also like acknowledge Rodrigo del Rio, our Media Design Fellow, and the Harvard Language Center, for their technology support and innovation. Finally, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to our course heads, TAs, and TFs who dedicated tremendous time and energy to remote language teaching and helped create a warm teaching community in our department.