When the government of Nepal decided to close the schools due to the pandemics of COVID- 19, initially I thought that it was going to be a good session break. I expected to have a good rest after finishing the busy schedule throughout the academic session. Similarly, I would have enough time for preparing for the upcoming session. But things did not happen as I expected. I began to think about my students and gradually this became intense. I even saw them in my dreams. I started growing more restless day by day. It was strange because I never experienced this type of feeling during other vacations, some of which had lasted for almost a month.
The imposition of lockdown has brought more uncertainties and sharing the same whereabouts with my school students has added to my discomfort. Being a teacher of a community school, I have had an opportunity of making a close observation of the vicious circle of poverty that the young children have to fight against. Moreover, I am well aware of the socio-cultural background that my students are a part of. Surely, the students are being victimized by the abrupt changes imposed into their lives.
One day, one of my friends shared a video on Facebook in which he was playing a language game with his daughters in his room. I was happy with the way he was dealing with his daughters. Shortly, I raised the curtain of my room. Through the window, I could see the smoke coming from the chimney of the brick factory nearly about a half kilometre ahead of my house. I started to visualize some of my students working there with their parents. Some of them were carrying buckets full of water and others were dangling with bricks on their head. I could not decide if it was just my imagination or a part of reality. I closed the window but still, I could not detach myself from thinking about my students. I wanted to know what they might be doing at that moment. I knew for sure that their parents must have neither been playing language games with their children nor been reminding them to revise what they had learnt at school. What were they doing then? I believed that they might either be working with their parents or have become de facto baby sitters for their siblings. Now the question echoed and as a teacher it was my turn to answer it. I started trembling since I did not have any justifiable answer.
My past efforts to boost students’ self-directed learning
This is not the first time that the schools have been closed with lots of uncertainties. I started recalling the past and reached to 2015 AD when schools remained closed for almost a month due to an earthquake. And of course, that incident had compelled me to devise some strategies that would possibly help the learners learn on their own when schools remain closed. Some strategies that I developed were making vocabulary web, playing word games, reading and retelling stories, doing individualized homework which addresses individual differences, keeping journal entries on significant life events such as interesting tasks accomplished and so on. I had also attempted to make students practise doing self-assessment while they work on their own at home.
I find these strategies useful but not sufficient. Now, my concern is, if the strategies were efficiently practised the students would be able to use them independently. It is because there is a significant difference between knowing about something and making them a part of life. At this point, I am not sure if my students are prepared enough to use these strategies on their own. I am seeking for some ways to get connected with my students but I have not found any way out. I would opt for virtual classes but in my context, it’s just like making a castle in the air.
The status of virtual learning in my context
Virtual classes have been advocated to be one of the best options for bridging the learning gap created by this pandemic. Although buildings are shuttered and classroom teaching has not been possible, learning is somehow being continued with distant learning. Some institutions are able to address the sudden demand of the time without delay. However, this is not equally applicable to all groups of students and perhaps completely impossible for those who study in a community school like the one where I teach. It is because running virtual classes is a challenging job in our context since it demands an excellent technical infrastructure which is beyond the access of most of the school students in Nepal. On the other hand, it is almost wrong to expect from the students belonging to lower-middle-class families to have access to the internet and modern electronic gadgets. Moreover, teachers are less experienced regarding online teaching. There is no doubt that the proliferation of technology equipped instructional setting is the demand of the day but doing this abruptly is not feasible and effective. Also, availability of teachers either directly or virtually in the current situation is beyond imagination for most of the school children, as many of the teachers have returned home and most of which are remote having no good access to the internet. Hence, teaching seems to have halted during this time.
Thinking of a way out: A need to work on developing self-directed learners
As I reflect on my teaching, now I realise, had I made some efforts for preparing the learners for these types of uncertainties beforehand, learning would not have been discontinued. Empowering the learners with self-learning strategies can be the best solution in the long run. As a language teacher, it has been crucial that we plan and implement our instructional activities efficiently for preparing our learners to take the responsibility of learning on their own. It helps in the continuation of learning both during and post-crisis situation if in case we face a similar situation in the future.
Hence, for preparing ourselves to respond to such catastrophes creatively is one of the primary responsibilities of a teacher, I have framed below some additional activities/strategies to incorporate in my upcoming lessons:
- Make a birthday calendar and tell the learners to prepare a birthday card for their friends who have birthdays even on the days when schools remain closed. Similarly, the birthday boy or girl should write invitation letters to his/her friends and teachers.
- Make the learners prepare a newsletter, covering reviews of the films they watch and the books they read.
- Ask the learners to maintain their diaries every day.
- Ask the learners to write letters to their classmates about their own stories whenever they have some changes in their daily routines. They can exchange the letter when they meet.
- Ask the learners to collect some interesting news they listen to and comment on them orally.
- Let the students decide the project works themselves and provide flexibility while carrying them out. I will encourage the learners to write reflections.
- Design the lessons in such a way that I could bring a variety in my classes to address my learners’ multiple intelligence.
- Involve the learners in activities that make them active both mentally and physically. For example, while teaching a story I will let them act it out. The learners choose the preferred roles themselves.
- Engage the learners in translation activities. For this, I will separate a lesson each week when learners can translate self-chosen text (any story, a poem, an essay or so on).
- Make the learners maintain a word book or vocabulary journal and add at least five words in it every day.
Although these are classroom-based strategies, I believe that once the students internalise these strategies, only then will they be able to replicate and adapt them to some extent even in the absence of the teachers. Activities demanding less or even no support of the teachers would certainly be useful. Here, it is necessary to make the learners aware of multiple strategies and let them decide which works best for them. The learners should be introduced to these various strategies to facilitate effective and autonomous learning. Eventually, the learners should be actively involved in the entire learning process from goal setting to evaluation.
Catastrophes are abrupt but preparation can be gradual. These types of pandemics close the door to the regular learning spaces but at the same time opens the doors of multiple alternative opportunities. For opening these doors, pre-planning and some rehearsals are needed. Empowering the learners with various learning strategies sufficiently will help the learners grow independent. This will, in turn, assist in bridging the gaps in teaching and learning during some unanticipated situations like the one we are facing these days. For this, teachers planning and facilitation play the key role to avert the cognitive loss in the learners. It is because teacher autonomy is pre-requisite to learner autonomy and is very crucial for handling these types of unpredictable situations.
Karuna Nepal is a lecturer at SS College. She also teaches at Shree Krishna Secondary School. She has completed her M.Phil. degree from Pokhara University. Her areas of interest include translation, philosophy and literature.
Cite as: Nepal, K. (2020, July). Empowering learners with learning strategies: Preparation for uncertainties. http://eltchoutari.com/2020/07/empowering-learners-with-learning-strategies-preparation-for-uncertainties/