The rapid spread of the coronavirus has caused great inconvenience for students and teachers this school year.
Despite all the additional burdens and struggles that educators have faced in recent months, some English teachers in Charleston have found an unexpected way in which their curriculum has really benefited from the pandemic.
When schools and businesses closed in mid-March to prevent the virus from spreading, many switched to video streaming platforms like Zoom and Skype to hold meetings and classes.
The increasing popularity of these new technologies has made it easier for English teachers to invite nationally recognized poets and authors to their classes for student-led question and answer sessions.
English teacher at the School of the Arts, Patrick Martin, said he usually tries to arrange a visit by the author to his students at least once a year. Thanks to the power of Zoom, Martin has organized five such sessions in just the past four months.
“Zoom is a huge benefit and it really is like a dream come true,” said Martin.
It can be difficult to schedule visits to the author during a normal year. After all, world-renowned authors tend to be busy, and visiting a high school classroom can be very time consuming.
“It can be a little arduous, and that in itself can be a deterrent,” said Martin.
But this year, as citizens are confined to their homes to prevent the virus from spreading, scheduling events has never been easier.
In some cases, Martin managed to hire famous authors that he never would have imagined would be able to speak to his class under normal circumstances.
One of the most impactful virtual author events he has managed to schedule so far has been with Nikki Finney, an internationally recognized South Carolina poet.
“It was one of the coolest educational experiences I’ve ever had. You can feel it in the room. It was electric, ”said Martin.
Students prepare for these virtual events by conducting in-depth research on the author and reading some of his works.
Martin asks students to brainstorm questions they would like to ask the author. The questions are combined into a large spreadsheet, and the class votes on which to ask.
Finney’s question and answer session covered everything from her childhood inspirations to how she handles criticism.
Fresh student Zanyiah Sanders-Smith asked Finney if it was difficult to be a black poet in the south.
There aren’t many black students at the School of the Arts, said Sanders-Smith, and hearing Finney talk about his experiences was inspiring.
“Her advice helped me become more confident,” said Sanders-Smith.
She remembers authors who came to visit her classes while she was growing up, but this was the first time she had participated in a virtual one.
Sanders-Smith was surprised to learn that she actually preferred online interaction to other personal visits by the author she attended.
“You get to know a little more about them and how they live,” she said.
Martin was inspired to start hosting virtual visits from authors after talking to his department head and also an English professor, John Cusatis.
Cusatis has received visits from authors for years. In the last decade, his students interviewed more than 50 authors, poets and writers.
“What I always liked about it was that it made it very real for students,” said Cusatis. “It takes that anonymous person off the page.”
The pandemic has made those numbers much more accessible this school year, said Cusatis. So far, he has received Irish-American novelist Colum McCann and former American poet Billy Collins for virtual visits to his students and plans to organize several others.
A year ago, Cusatis had never used Zoom before. Today, he uses the platform at least four times a day.
During their virtual sessions, students have the rare opportunity to see the lives of the authors up close.
McCann gave students a tour of his writing space, while Collins’ cat made a surprise appearance during his discussion.
“It really gives an intimate view of the author’s life and humanizes them too,” said Cusatis.
Despite its benefits, using Zoom and other video streaming platforms in the classroom poses some risks.
Several online classes at Charleston County schools were interrupted in September, when uninvited cyberhackers gained access to the virtual meeting and started speaking offensive language.
Reports of this phenomenon, sometimes called “Zoombombing”, have increased in recent months.
None of these interruptions occurred in Cusatis or Martin’s classes or in the author’s virtual visits.
The two teachers say they plan to include virtual visits by authors in their curriculum in the future, even after the pandemic, and encourage other educators to think about creating their own virtual meeting of authors for their students.