English Now! learning circles like the ones offered at the Thomas Jefferson Adult and Career Education (TJACE) program are multi-level, learner-led groups for English language and digital literacy practice. Last spring when the TJACE learning circles migrated quickly to a distance learning format, we found, through trial and error, that the flexible learning circles model lends itself to a video conferencing format like Zoom. In fact, learners can play an important leadership role in their own virtual learning experience.
The tips below share how the spirit of learning circles can be achieved virtually, but these strategies could be adapted to any multi-level classroom.
1. Establish virtual classroom norms. Just as you would in a face-to-face environment, collaborate with the learners to set expectations for attendance, participation, and respectful discussion. Our virtual circles welcome learners whenever they are able to join, accommodating late arrivals and early departures, young children on laps and family members in the background. Remember that students will have different experiences of the same class depending on what kind of device they are using and their internet access. If some students join by calling in, pause frequently to make sure they are processing the conversation and call on them specifically to speak.
2. Orient learners to the platform you will be using. Which features of this technology are most important for your purposes? Zoom has an impressive array of options, but in a multi-level class, mastering a few simple features might be best. Practice sending messages through the chat, turning off the video and audio, and using reactions in response to prompts. If you have students who are returning to learning circles or are familiar with the technology, you might invite them to lead the orientation.
3. Incorporate learners’ home environments. Acknowledge and be sensitive to the fact that you are seeing learners in private spaces, which might be unwillingly on display. Learners might not feel comfortable connecting via video chat; encourage these learners to turn off their camera or to join by calling in. Learners who have limited internet access can also call in. But for all learners, joining class from home presents rich opportunities for language learning and cultural connection. Invite learners to share something from their homes in a show-and-tell (and have those who call in describe the object). Use the wealth of realia available to reinforce vocabulary, provide real-word context for concepts, and encourage participation.
4. Address COVID-19 in a civics context. Find out what your learners know and want to know about the pandemic. Share a weekly COVID update, focusing on data from your health department as well as announcements from area hospitals, testing sites, public schools, and agencies offering support. Keep a local focus. Review the name of your governor, discuss the difference between city and county, and make a list of students’ zip codes. Show them how to access local information and invite learners to present information to the group. You could invite guest speakers from local agencies to present virtually, sharing information that will have the most direct benefit and promote civic engagement.
5. Provide leadership opportunities. In a virtual classroom, learners can be a Zoom co-host and set the meeting agenda, manage the chat, take notes, or serve as time keeper. This gives them a chance to practice both their technology and English skills while offering practical support to the facilitator. Hosting a virtual meeting is now a critical workforce skill. We can all benefit from increased practice.
6. Encourage peer support. TJACE is piloting a program for learning circle participants to serve as volunteer “buddies” for beginning English language learners in our school. Buddies can support beginners with accessing technology and interpret for staff if needed. This is a volunteer role; the benefit to the buddy is that they can put this volunteer experience on their resume.
While Zoom is neither a panacea nor a substitute for face-to-face connection, the virtual classroom can still be a place for meaningful engagement. As one of the learners at TJACE said, “I like the virtual learning circles very much, because I feel like I am learning English from the real live conversations. [O]ur teacher works as a facilitator of our communication. She keeps everyone in the Zoom class active for some interesting and practical topics or whatever we want to talk about and ask for.” By keeping virtual meetings flexible and remaining responsive to learners’ needs, facilitators and learners alike can increase their digital fluency and learn new skills together while remaining physically apart.
By Maryann Peterson
Maryann is an ESOL instructor and EN! learning circle facilitator at the Thomas Jefferson Adult & Career Education program at Piedmont Virginia Community College in Charlottesville, Virginia.
The English Now! learning circles project works with adult education programs across the United States to serve English Language Learners in weekly learning circles using a blended mix of digital content and small group meetings facilitated by a teacher or trained volunteer. If you are interested in starting up your own English Now! learning circles, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.