By Grace Balzer
It has been a year since Point Park went remote due to COVID-19. In that year, professors and students have overcome challenges during the transition. Professors learned how to create effective online classes, how to keep remote and in-person students at the same level, and have a successful outcome.
Teaching in the Conservatory of Performing Arts, Susan Stowe has worked with her students in the studio with ballet, pointe, and many more areas of dance for decades. Going remote last year brought questions about how she could still have her students dancing and make the dances work in their new environments.
“Probably the biggest thing was we had to adapt our classes to work within the confines of someone’s bedroom, or kitchen, or living room in their apartments,” Stowe said. “So, what I tried to do is come up with creative ways to make them feel like they were dancing big, without hardly moving around the room.”
Another challenge was the floors they were dancing on. “In the studio, we have a special floor. It’s a vinyl material that allows them to get a good grip on the floor so they can turn. And most of them did not have that in their apartments, so again, we had to adapt.”
When the shutdown began, Stowe and fellow professors only had a few days to figure things out as their students went home. “Another thing that was complex was the time zones. I had students in California who were enrolled in a ballet, so they were dancing at five in the morning,” she said.
However, she knew she had to keep going because she knew it was especially hard on them. “It was a lot for them emotionally, spiritually, physically. And then strip them out of the dance studio. A lot of them just needed to dance to feel,” Stowe said.
The new use of technology came in handy for not only Stowe and her students, but also for other dancers around the world who joined a virtual summer dance program that Point Park offers every year.
“We had more than 400 on Zoom. As the first week there were maybe 150. Then they all told their friends, and their friends told their friends and every week we gained another 90. By the third week, we were hitting 400 students and they were Zooming in from 12 other countries. We had them in the United Emirates, China, Argentina, Peru, Chile, Mexico. It was incredible. And that never would have happened if it weren’t for the pandemic,” she said.
The one thing that she makes sure to do is to make herself available for her students. “It’s just constant communication, as long as we keep in touch and talk it through. Look for the bright side,” she said.
While teaching dance remotely has been a challenge, teaching the next generation of teachers has not been easy either. Christal Edmunds is a professor for the School of Education teaching students to become elementary-level teachers.
With the level the students are learning to teach before student teaching and then pursuing careers, there still needs to be a lot of hands-on activities that could be executed in an elementary classroom.
“We will set up an activity in my classroom in the way that I would set it up for a group of third graders maybe and we walk through the activity and we deconstruct it, we talk about why I did certain things the way I did it, but that’s so hard to do online to do those hands-on kinds of things,” Edmunds said.
One day for her EDUC 308 class, teaching social sciences, they were working on a hands-on activity with landforms for geography. For this class, she had students in the classroom but also at home. She decided they would try something out to make everyone be and feel involved.
“I had my students that were doing the activity in class I said, you know, your cell phones, everybody has their cell phones. Why don’t we call the people at home because the people at home can’t see some of this stuff, right? So, my students in the class got phone numbers from the people at home, and they called somebody at home, and then they were Facetiming in class. And it started this whole new way for me to be thinking about this,” she said.
Another aspect of her class is normally sending her students to student teach a kindergarten class at Mt. Lebanon for the Extended Day Program. With the pandemic, however, they cannot physically be in the classroom, resulting in them teaching a class through Zoom.
“The whole world is doing this. And somehow, we’re all making it through,” Edmunds said. “The truth is, though, people are very resilient. And children are resilient.”
The students completed an activity based on “The Cat in the Hat.” They had paper plates, hats, and whiskers prepared for them and they could put them together, color them, and design them how they wanted. Another activity for the young students aimed to teach them diversity and they colored a picture of the planet and describe what diversity means to them. Throughout the activity and as they finished, they walked up to the camera for the student teachers to see and discuss the lesson, obviously interested in what they were learning and fully invested in the activities they were given.
Making the transition to fully remote last March was not easy. There were many steps the faculty had to take to restructure their courses to still teach effectively. Nelson Chipman is the Assistant Vice President for the Online Department at Point Park to help with online classes and structuring them. When COVID started to shut things down, the department worked to plan how to successfully make on-ground classes remote.
“Some of the things we did was as soon as it was announced that we were going to move to remote instruction, we set out and developed a course. We developed this even before we went to remote instruction. We kind of saw it coming and did a lot of preparation in the backgrounds,” Chipman said. A course named ECB 100, the emergency course builds 100, was created for faculty to go through and “get a real cursory high-level view of what it took to kind of put out and maintain their course materials and deliver their course online.”
Continuing into this semester, professors are still learning to be efficient and effective with the tools that are needed to execute remote learning or a mix of on-ground and remote classes. “What we started to do in the fall, and then in the spring, is once everybody got comfortable with the tools, then it was like how can we be even more efficient as educators in the classroom? So, we had sessions on how to improve your instructor presence, how to design and develop, how to build the most effective discussion boards. So, we really started elevating everybody’s abilities, and therefore just make a richer, stronger online environment,” he said.
“I think the biggest thing that I can say is, is to really compliment the faculty for all that they’ve done and how fortunate we’ve been able to sort of support them. They’re really delivering the mission of the university,” Chipman said.