Last semester, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, faculty taught remotely.
How did this experience shape your thinking about Formative Education?
Professor, Lynch School of Education
“To a person, students have responded with honest and deeply moving accounts of hardship, both large and small, as well as small triumphs and hopes. ”
When a class becomes a home
By Lisa Goodman
If anyone in my classrooms has received formative education in the last month, it has been the instructor. How so? Well, I have taken to spending the first 20 to 25 minutes of each class asking every single one of the students how they are doing and giving them a minute or so to catch us up on what’s been going on. Anyone has the right to pass, but so far, no one has. To a person, students have responded with honest and deeply moving accounts of hardship, both large and small, as well as small triumphs and hopes. And across undergraduate, masters, and doctoral levels, they have given each other tremendous mutual support even as they struggle. One student, worried about others who were left alone in their apartments after their classmates had gone home, organized a “Netflix party” so that anyone who wanted could come together virtually to watch a movie at the same time from their separate dwellings. Others cheered on a first-generation student’s efforts to get university support for those remaining on campus. And still others, even those hardest hit themselves, have followed-up individually with students who seemed to need extra support. Because I teach about difficult and personally challenging subjects, I have always worked to create a classroom climate that is as safe and supportive as possible. So what’s the lesson in formative education that I have received lately? These past weeks have taught me that the classroom can be transformative along many more dimensions than I had previously understood. It can become a home.
Associate Professor, School of Theology and Ministry
“Our commitment to formative education demands that we reflect on how our experience of the pandemic has affected our understanding of course topics. ”
By Andrew Davis
This semester’s shift to the virtual classroom has reminded me of an important lesson: education is most formative when professors and students are partners in learning. Formative education means integrating text and context, making connections between course content and the larger world in which we live and work. Both have been radically transformed this spring, as courses moved to online platforms and the world grapples with the coronavirus pandemic.
Though bumpy at times, the move online was, in hindsight, the easy part. The harder part was rethinking what course material means in light of the pandemic. How does our new context force us to read course texts in new ways? It might be tempting to ignore this context and push through lectures and readings like any other semester. But this spring was not like any other semester, and our commitment to formative education demands that we reflect on how our experience of the pandemic has affected our understanding of course topics.
I was fortunate that both of my courses this semester—one on the Book of Job, and the other on the biblical prophets—have something to say about unexpected disruption, hardship, and suffering. I have been intrigued and moved at the connections students have made to the turmoil taking place outside our virtual classroom. Several students in the Prophets course redesigned their class presentations to take this new normal into account, and some students in the Job course asked for permission to adapt their final course paper to allow more reflection on the meaning of Job in the midst of a pandemic. One student wrote a paper comparing the Book of Job to Albert Camus’s The Plague.
I wish I could say these adaptations were a function of my teaching, but most of the credit goes to the students themselves. They have been committed to bringing their pandemic lives to bear on their coursework and vice versa. This experience has reminded me that if we want students’ education to be formative in their lives after they graduate, it must be formative in their lives while they’re in our classrooms. As often as we professors invite students to be partners in their own learning, we prepare them to continue that work after they graduate, and in the process we ourselves may be transformed—as I have been by my students this semester.
Associate Professor of the Practice, Biology Department
“Remote teaching has not altered my charge as a Biology professor at Boston College, it has only elevated the intensity with which I reach out to my students and help them acknowledge, embrace and learn from the disruption. ”
By Danielle Taghian
The day before we were jolted into a new state of being, where the “being” bit was open to interpretation, I began my lecture with this trendy—some would say naïve—advice to my students: “Keep calm and carry on”. Nearly two months later, I have developed a new set of teaching skills, including recording lectures in an empty classroom, conducting office hours, advising hours, and even S.O.S. hours over Zoom, and administering and grading exams and problem sets online. But, I still maintain the advice of that day, albeit with the added footnote, “We will get through this.”
Remote teaching has not altered my charge as a Biology professor at Boston College, it has only elevated the intensity with which I reach out to my students and help them acknowledge, embrace and learn from the disruption. To do this, I first had to dedicate myself to setting an example that we could all move forward in our new lives, whilst also acknowledging that there would be glitches, emotional turmoil and physical barriers to overcome in our new learning environments.
With these ideas in mind, I held classes with my students that conveyed the familiar biological mechanisms and innovative progress being made in understanding and treating cancer, and I found new ways to interact with them personally, allowing them to know that even in less than ideal circumstances, learning will always nourish our curiosity, excite our interest, and expand our minds. From my countless zoom meetings, I have come to respect the validity of virtual interactions. Using our online tools, I have been able to both explain data and slides and listen to students’ needs, concerns and life stories...all while working out a few bugs along the way. And all the while— when a dog runs across the screen, siblings laugh in the background, or someone freezes on screen for a moment—we find that we have jumped into each other’s lives in new and interesting ways. Distance learning has certainly changed the way we interact, and has made us better, and more attentive, communicators.
It has also opened new ways for us to connect with and learn from others. For instance, during the last two lectures of Cancer Biology, I hosted two guests who delivered live Zoom lectures: Dr. Shannon MacDonald, a BC alumnus and talented pediatric oncologist at Massachusetts General Hospital, and the BC senior and future physician Bridgette Merriman, a survivor of pediatric cancer. It was quite a way to finish this extraordinary semester—two extraordinary people sharing their knowledge and experience. My group of 61 students were riveted as they listened and engaged with the speakers and with each other.
Indeed, through the closeness provided by our small screens, students not only adjusted to but thrived in the new “being.” I noticed many more questions being asked than during on-campus guests lectures, and the simple side chats offering sincere thanks and encouragement to the speakers demonstrated the true spirit of Boston College students. Yes, our semester was disrupted, and our lives have quite possibly changed forever more, but what I have witnessed most is the formation of students with a renewed resiliency, students who can and do “Keep calm and carry on!”