August 2020
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THE PIVOT AND THE PRACTICUM

Karen Densky, BC TEAL, British Columbia, Canada

In March, I was informed that my TESOL classes would have to “pivot” to online delivery—like most universities around the world. I was scheduled to teach the practicum seminar and supervise practicum placements for the spring semester. As I contemplated pivoting the practicum experience online, I considered the notion of the noun pivot, which refers to “a person, thing, or factor having a major or central role, function, or effect” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). The idea of focusing first on what is central to the practicum experience rather than jumping into new technologies has been critical for me to develop an online practice that continues to be grounded in theory. I’d like to share a few ideas related to the theory that drives my TESOL practice and how I’ve managed to maintain the pivot while moving to online delivery.

My TESOL practice is based on a transformational pedagogy where dialogue is central to the process of supporting students as they move from student to student-teacher to teacher over the course of their TESOL program. Some of my core beliefs about my role and the role of the practicum seminar include the following:

  • The teacher educator is witness and supporter of the student teacher as identity re/trans/forms.
  • Personal practical knowledge about teaching is cocreated through dialogue.
  • Student teachers have significant prior learning and experience to share with their community of practice.
  • The teacher educator adds one voice to the polyphony rather than provides the authoritative voice (Densky, 2017).


How could I provide time and space for the kind of dialogue, connection, sharing, and support that I was used to providing in a face-to-face environment? I was being encouraged to adopt an asynchronous (meaning anyone could access our online content at any time) or possibly a hybrid model for course delivery and was being discouraged from delivering more than brief synchronous sessions (meaning we would all meet online at the same designated time), because apparently students preferred the flexibility of asynchronous environments. I could not imagine how I could maintain my pivot in an asynchronous environment, so I didn’t!

In the now-online version of the TESOL practicum, my students participate in a 3-hour synchronous seminar once a week. I arrive in the virtual space an hour prior to the seminar. I create a welcoming environment with background music, where students can drop in, ask questions, or share a story. I also hang around after class for questions or to share resources.

During the seminar, I welcome every student by name as they join the virtual class. During our 3 hours, there is time for students to share what they are learning from observations and teaching sessions. Students receive feedback, suggestions, and encouragement from myself and others; engage in discussions and problem-solving; and are vulnerable and empathetic. I use a combination of whole-class discussions and virtual breakout rooms for small-group discussions and for working on lesson planning. The seminar is a dynamic environment of learning with and from each other. At the end of every session, I have a one-on-one moment with each student as they must put on their video and answer an exit question before they leave.

Another strategy I have used for online delivery of practicum is to have students work in pairs this term as they complete their teaching hours with English learners. They will be teaching in synchronous environments, and the idea of having a partner who can trouble-shoot the tech, monitor the chat, and plan together has increased the amount of student-to-student interaction in the class.

I have also created online “Study Rooms” within the learning management system where students can meet each other at any time to work on lesson planning or other assignments. Students are choosing to meet in real time using video conferencing rather than communicating solely through text.

I tried having students share their experiences through asynchronous discussion forums, but I was disappointed in the student-to-student interaction, so while I was providing a space for dialogue, the powerful nature of dialogism in the Bakhtinian sense was falling short. Bakhtin’s (1984) approach to dialogue is akin to life itself: “To be means to communicate. Absolute death (not being) is the state of being unheard, unrecognized, unremembered” (p. 287). I strive to ensure that my students are seen, heard, supported, and validated while they go through their practicum, because I hope that they will in turn provide the same commitment to dialogue with their future students.

While we pivot, let’s make sure that we don’t lose the pivot of our pedagogy, which for me is using the technology to create meaningful and robust dialogical spaces for supporting student teachers through the transformational experience of practicum.

References

Bakhtin, M. (1984). Problems of Dostoevsky’s poetics. (C. Emerson, Ed. & Trans.). University of Minnesota Press.

Densky, K. (2017). A multiple case study of points of tension during TESOL teaching practica [Doctoral dissertation, Simon Fraser University]. Simon Fraser University Summit Institutional Repository. https://summit.sfu.ca/item/17327

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Pivot. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved July 20, 2020, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/pivot


Dr. Karen Densky has been involved in TESOL teacher education for the past 20 years and currently coordinates the certificate program at Thompson Rivers University. She has been involved in teacher education collaborations in Mexico, Greenland, Chile, and Vietnam. She has just completed a 2-year term as president of BC TEAL.
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