When our classes were held in-person, I’d hear stories or see pictures of the students’ children. Now that classes are on Zoom, I can actually meet the children and other family members. Sometimes students introduce their kids; other times, the kids pop in or blur past unexpectedly.     

While I ask students to join class from a quiet place, to turn on their videos and unmute themselves, it’s not always possible for them.

Understandable. A quiet place when you’re head of the household or living in close quarters can be hard to come by. The students join from their bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens, and occasionally cars as they get a ride home from work. Plus, it’s hard to be on camera for a two-hour class with families to care for between 6 and 8 pm.

One student, who hardly ever turns on her phone camera, had some cooing and babbling in the background recently. When I asked if that was her daughter, she surprised the class by turning on her camera so we could see her seven-month old daughter, who was propped up by pillows against the headboard of a bed. The class swooned over her adorableness. 

Something else I’ve enjoyed about Zoom classes are the sounds from the students’ lives. Parakeets in the background, a tub being drawn for a child’s bath, the sounds of a child practicing the piano, the scraping of utensils on a plate and clinking of glassware, the voices of students talking to their families in Spanish, Swahili, and Russian during break times. 

Students in the class have shown so much perseverance with regard to using technology. They are so helpful to each other by offering support with tech challenges this past year. I can try to show students with screenshots and images how to do something (for example, use chat), but sometimes an explanation from a classmate in the native language is just what the other student needs to figure it out.

I am also so grateful for the amazing tech support teams in the students’ homes made up of both young and adult children, wives and husbands. Students are also patient with me, as I try to find new ways to teach a Zoom class in a way that supports their development as beginning level English learners.

Through all these months of remote learning, I’ve moved from missing the actual physical presence of students to learning to appreciate human interactions in a whole new way. Connectivity can thrive beyond the “normal” classroom experience, and that’s a positive lesson, even as we all look forward to meeting again in person.

Laura Robinson is an ESOL instructor for ILI’s Free English Program as well as the Volunteer Tutor Coordinator.