Trainer Conversation with Rasha Halat, Part 1

This is the fifth post in the Trainer Conversation series (to learn more about the idea, you can start reading with the Introductory post and then checking the links in the Comments to all the earlier posts).

Background: Rasha and I first met as co-trainers on the very first PCELT course in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2013. Every time we meet our roles are slightly different: we worked together again on a course for new trainers in Beirut and all over Lebanon in 2015. In the winter of 2020 in Kuwait we coached two new trainers and worked with a group of teachers from that country. I can confidently say that working with Rasha is a learning opportunity for me. Why? Please keep reading this post!

Kuwait, February 2020.

For this conversation, we met online on an early Monday morning before our working day began, and had our drinks with us. Rasha had her coffee, and I had my sparkling water with lemon and ice which I grew to like in Kuwait with Rasha’s help. We talked and talked and talked… and realized that this conversation could not fit into one blog post. So… there will be 2 Parts, as the title suggests. ‘Z’ below is for Zhenya, and ”R’ for Rasha. 

Z: I saw somewhere** how online teaching can be referred to as ’emergency teaching’ (some refer to it as ‘pandemic teaching’)? How efficient does this whole shift look to you? Or perhaps it is not yet the time to make those conclusions?

**For example: The Difference Between Emergency Remote Teaching and Online Learning

R: This whole thing happened too fast. The shift online was expected, but not this unexpectedly fast! And not many of us were prepared for it, Lebanon including, worldwide is the same. But… we are all learning!

Z: So much is on everyone’s mind at the moment! Not only learning. Students have been spending hours and hours online these days.

R: True. Students are taking all their courses online now, and you find them moving from one Zoom room to another which is a lot of digital input.

Z: For young people being ‘locked down’ may be especially hard, being away from their friends for such a long time. Screens don’t really help in that, right?

R: Exactly, my youngest daughter was saying the other day: ‘It’s so boring, I see the same people every day, I don’t see anyone other than you!’ How can we help? May be we need to borrow them new parents or siblings from time to time… 🙂

Z: … Or wear a carnival mask? People online get so creative in their lockdown activities (laughing) So you have been teaching English, and also ‘how to teach’, and both of these were online in the past weeks?

R: Mostly I’ve been teaching Education courses and linguistics ones at the university.

At the school we taught very briefly, I don’t consider that time to be enough to call it ‘experience’. The decisions at the Ministry of Education level were not binding to one particular mode of on-line instruction. They offered lots of options (watch TV channels, use Microsoft Teams, etc.) due to the different socio-economic needs of the different families. The real challenge though was the weak Internet connection many students had. It was the main issue both in how prepared the students were for the process of online learning, and how affordable that option was for the families. In Lebanon, the Internet is very expensive, and with the current economic crisis and inflation that both started even before COVID 19, it got even worse. So they decided to cancel public schools. Some private schools are doing a better job but definitely not the public ones.

Z: Sounds so true for many parts of the world. If parents have money to afford private school tuition for their kids, they would most likely afford the Internet for them. I liked how you wrote in the e-mail to me that you are trying to escape the whole situation through teaching, and into teaching.

R: I always tell my students that we are lucky to have this online learning because it is distracting us, makes us feel somehow productive, that we are learning something. It is great to be able to enjoy it! That can be motivating by itself.

Z: The human nature, the social aspect/part of it, and can (at least partially) compensate for the lack of actual communication. Actually it is a very important idea, since there are opinions and questions now about the effectiveness of being at the screen, ‘synchronously’ there (like we are talking now)

A chance not to be alone, lack of communication is a challenge for many.

R: We definitely feel we are supporting each other …

Z: Are you teaching through Zoom and Teams?

R: At the private university where I teach, we decided to use Zoom live classes, and the decision was made at our Education Department level. Some other departments at the same uni are using PPT with Google Classroom, and the others are using something else. In addition to the synchronous sessions via Zoom, we are using Google Classroom for managing the student work and assignments.

Z: How has Zoom time been for you?

R: Zoom is used as an alternative for the face-to-face sessions, and it is working very well. I have almost full attendance in my classes, which is great, as the tool is not affecting the attendance rate. Our sessions last for 1 hour 20 minutes, which is a full-length session, even more than we used to have in the actual classroom.

Z: Do you feel the session/lesson pace goes a little slower online?

R: Exactly. We were joking with colleagues the other day that the favorite words no-one forgets to say now is ‘Can you hear me? Can you hear me?’ all the time. Every few minutes you need to check if they are still following, that no-one got disconnected, and so on.

Z: True.

R: I always say there is a lot of digital input now. Some students decide to turn on their cameras. Some say that it is easier to process with the camera off. Out of all the tools I am using, I prefer Zoom as it is user friendly and students seemed to be very comfortable with it.

Z: It is ’emergency teaching’ at the moment, but conclusions can be made for the future (what is and is not working, etc.)

R: Right. We are using Zoom in a very interactive way, with the whiteboard feature, with lots of group work in the breakout rooms, they make presentations. Classes can be very interactive. Perhaps less interactive than face-to-face but still. I personally like it, even thought I don’t like technology that much.

Z: Do you see a chance, or do you imagine yourself running a PCELT course 100% online this summer?

R: Partially. I think parts of it can be done this way. It was discussed some time ago/before COVID-19. Looking at CELTA, it is possible. The dynamics of the course can’t be replicated online, if we talk about the experience, but it can be substituted/modified, if needed. Given a choice, I’d opt for face-to-face. If we keep improving and learning, it is possible.

Z: Or NOT impossible.

R: Yes. I teach a Practicum course at the university to senior students who are graduating this year. The face-to-face course consisted of students going to the school, observing teachers’ classes, and then teaching five full lessons towards the end of the academic year. There are other components to the course, but the main ones are observing and teaching. I was worried at first: what can I do with them online? I started to look for videos about best practices (many come from CELTA courses actually, from real classes, with 40 students, etc.) [Note: the examples of the sessions they watched can be found here and here.]

We started to have discussions about the lessons, and reflected in the same manner as at PCELT (Note: we talk about using the Experiential Learning Cycle as its structure, as described in this older post for iTDI Blog). Then my students had to teach mini-lessons similar to what they have seen on YouTube (but they were more like tutorial videos) – some were also thinking of uploading those too.

We added another component to the course where they would observe an online English class at our university and reflect on its effectiveness. I also had them attend multiple free webinars on a variety of topics (but many were on online teaching). That whole experience made them feel that they are part of the international English language teaching community.

So at the end they said ‘It was very rewarding’. They loved the online classes, they said they had not expected those to be interactive, they could observe students playing games, e.g. jeopardy game online, students working on a Google sheet collaboratively, etc.

They felt this learning process can be interactive, even though at the beginning they were resistant. I think every experience is an eye-opener for us. We can see the new opportunity if we want to. Some teachers say ‘we can’t do it’ but you can always find a window of opportunity out there.

A year ago, I wouldn’t have imagined myself teaching a Practicum course online, but now I think when we go back to ‘normal’ I would incorporate parts of what I did this semester. It’s not going to be the same kind of teaching as before. It’s going to be different.

Z: True: the teachers who did not say ‘no’ to this experience will definitely broaden their repertoire of techniques and practices by the time they get back to ‘normal’ (or when the normal gets back?) I think there will be much fewer cases of ‘Oh, I am afraid of technology’. I think that’s gone now.

So do your Practicum students do any ‘micro-teaching’? Do they create lessons for each other?

R: Yes. Some also practiced on their kids or relatives (or whoever they could find) and delivered classes to them. It was really interesting how everyone was trying to be creative in a different way. And the results turned out to be amazing.

Teaching online can be engaging!

R: This was the course that worried me the most, as it is very much based on practice teaching, and it turned out to be really good. This takes me back to your original question about having PCELT online. This course is very similar to the PCELT experience and if we could do it online, we can do parts of PCELT online.

Z: That means that your Practicum Course students could benefit from both face-to-face and online learning and teaching, having acquired these extra skills in online teaching. A kind of FPD, or ‘forced professional development’, if I could create such a term. They will be equipped with skills, knowledge and awareness much more than let’s say students who graduated in 2019.

R: Just like your phrase “Forced Professional Development”! Of course, I always tell them that you are lucky that it happened now, because you/we don’t know what the future is going to be like. Now they learned a great variety of skills, tools and platforms. I think they feel more empowered now. I think their generation is prepared for that kind of shift/change. They were more ready than last year’s graduates, for example. Some of my students like the online format even more than face-to-face (which feels a bit frustrating!)

Z: That brings up a skill/habit of being comfortable in a face-to-face communication situations. It is one thing when there is a screen between you and me, and it is a completely different story if there is a ‘live’ human at the table with me 🙂 I feel that my own perception of others is shifting now, and I feel less comfortable in a crowd, which had never happened before. Even the definition of a ‘crowd’ is different now. A crowd of five people?

R: Honestly, I am not sure how I would feel myself once I am surrounded by people again! Re-defining… I think there will be a lot of re-defining happening soon.

Z: Let’s talk about the future of teacher training? I wonder what you think about this idea: when you train face-to-face, you don’t prepare teachers to work online (we often don’t have the time to discuss the tools/platforms). Now, when you train online, will they be ready to teach face-to-face later?

R: it depends on what the future is going to be like. What will there be more: online or face-to-face? We had been training courses face-to-face because this is what teaching was about. At this point (Note: we talked about it in May 2020), we don’t know, as some universities are making a shift for the whole 2020/2021 academic year (Cambridge and Harvard, for example)

Maybe, it is becoming a ‘new normal’? I am not sure. I think from now on we need to have both (online and face-to-face) components in training courses. Even if we go back to normal.

Z: We don’t know about the new wave of COVID, or the new pandemic. No-one said it is the last lockdown, for example. I hope this does not sound too pessimistic…

R: For our students, a new insight: no revolution will stop us from learning! In the past, sometimes they had to stay at home for a month, for example. From now on, ‘snow days’ won’t stop them from learning, or my travel/trips. Nothing will!

Z: It makes me wonder: what is real learning? Who said that in the 21st century knowledge needs to be acquired in a group of same age peers, in a specific building/room at a set time? Could it be an old concept now and a time for a new level of flexibility?

R: Webinars, for example… This happened to me actually with the too many webinars I am enjoying. I even attended a 2-hour session run by Dr. Krashen (one of my favorites). It was about acquisition, reading and research writing. It was at 3:00 am my local time and nothing could stop me 😊

It was the best webinar I have ever attended. I enjoyed it so much! I felt as if there were no time or space limitations preventing me from this learning experience.

(Note: Rasha is referring to this masterclass recording ‘Developing Literacy, Developing Language’)

Z: ‘Limitless learning’… I like how that sounds!

R: But still I miss my annual IATEFL trip and all the other live conferences I used to attend.

Z: In 2020, I wanted to go to a long-distance conference. I was choosing between IATEFL International and TESOL International.

R: It was decided for us…

Z: At the same time, there are all these online learning opportunities for teachers I am so excited about. You mentioned numerous webinars. The two of us also ‘bumped’ into each other at exciteELT Conference on 14 June, remember?

[Note: if you are interested, read my brief reflection on the conference in this post

In Part 2 of this conversation Rasha and I talk about teaching and training beliefs, developing professionally and the reason to stay in teaching. Stay tuned!

Rasha Halat holds a PhD in Applied Linguistics (Critical Discourse Analysis), MA and TD in Teaching English as a Second/Foreign Language and BA in English Language. Former Chairperson of the Education Department at Lebanese International University (Bekaa Campus) and currently a lecturer there. She is an SIT and World Learning/AMIDEAST licensed Regional PCELT Trainer of Trainers. Rasha has more than 20 years of experience in the field of teaching English, including 16 years of academic experience at the university level teaching future TEFL Teachers. She has worked in teacher training programs regionally, nationally and internationally and presented at international conferences in Egypt, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, England and USA.

About Zhenya

ELT: teacher educator, trainer coach, reflective practice addict
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1 Response to Trainer Conversation with Rasha Halat, Part 1

  1. Pingback: Trainer Conversation with Rasha Halat, Part 2 | Wednesday Seminars

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