Texas Tech University

A Cut Above

Elyssa Sanders

March 22, 2022

Diamond Award

Four instructors in the Department of Classical & Modern Languages & Literatures received the Diamond Award for innovative, compassionate teaching during lockdown.

Last spring, Texas Tech University's Teaching Academy, housed within the Teaching, Learning & Professional Development Center, created the Diamond Award to recognize faculty who went above and beyond to provide transformational learning experiences during the onset of COVID-19 and the transition to online instruction. Fifteen instructors and professors from across the university were honored, including four faculty members within the College of Arts & Sciences' Department of Classical & Modern Languages & Literatures (CMLL).

Kate Brooke

Kate Brooke
Kate Brooke

Kate Brooke, a Spanish instructor and former online coordinator for CMLL's Foundations of Spanish Program, which she now directs, spent January and February of 2020 engrossed in an all-consuming task: designing an eight-week course to prepare graduate students to teach Spanish classes online.

“I knew a course like that would serve the department because previously, we only had a day or two to prepare graduate students for online teaching,” Brooke said.

In mid-March, two weeks after the launch of Brooke's course, public safety measures dictated that the entire university transition to fully online classes.

“At that point, the question became, ‘How can this training serve our department and help all these faculty who have never taught online?'” Brooke recalled. “We opened the course up to the whole department and the feedback I received was, ‘Coming through that training transformed how I was thinking about online teaching.' It helped faculty rethink their approach to the online environment, instead of just taking their face-to-face class and putting it online.”

One faculty member to take the course was Linley Melhem, director of the CMLL International Teaching Assistant (ITA) Program, which evaluates English proficiency in international graduate students before they assume teaching assistant positions throughout the university.

“Kate's course was unbelievably timely and met such a need,” Melhem said. “There was just nothing like it out there, which was evidenced by the fact that faculty from other departments were saying, ‘Hey, we want in on that, too.'”

After completing the second iteration of the training as a student, Melhem began instructing the course herself during fall 2020. Faculty members from other departments who had heard about the training asked if they could participate and, by the winter break, Melhem and Brooke were co-teaching the course to faculty across the university.

“Two things came out of the course: creating empathy, which professors and faculty members sometimes lack, and creating learner autonomy in the online environment,” Brooke said. “The idea was to empower faculty to figure things out on their own, without emailing the instructor for help, because you want your students to have that same degree of self-sufficiency. The course gives faculty the online experience that our students have. They have a course syllabus and a course calendar. They feel the weight of deadlines, they feel the weight of working through content and they have to be motivated to get through it.”

Brooke designed the course as a live cohort, or real-time virtual learning experience, with a mixture of synchronous and asynchronous sessions to encourage group interaction while accommodating conflicting schedules and allowing students to learn at their own pace. Housed on Blackboard, the course modules cover topics like instructor presence in the online classroom, communicating with students in the online environment, step-by-step video tutorials and course planning. The training concludes with a one-on-one design consultation to help instructors develop their online courses.

Faculty who completed the training lamented not having had access to it sooner, crediting Brooke for transforming their approach to online teaching and allowing them to support their students more effectively during a time of tremendous upheaval.  

“As soon as everything moved online, Kate was emailing all the CMLL faculty and saying, ‘Colleagues, I know this is new for lots of you. How can I help? Let's build a repository of resources,'” Melhem recalled. “When people were feeling so incredibly isolated and overwhelmed, there was this friendly voice saying, ‘Hey, this is what I do all the time. I'm happy to help. What kind of support do you need? How can we get you what you need?'

“Kate's course was such a practical, important piece, but also the tone and helpfulness and that feeling of a neighbor, in your colleague, was so amazing in what felt like such a tough season. With four children at home who suddenly needed to be homeschooled, Kate was swamped herself, but she was ready to devote time and energy to people who were struggling.”

Linley Melhem

Linley Melhem
Linley Melhem

While Brooke was balancing work and homeschooling her children, Melhem had her own quandary to consider: with Texas Tech's international students confined to their home countries and unable to return to the U.S. for the foreseeable future, how would the ITA Program adequately evaluate the English proficiency of prospective teaching assistants (TAs) and graduate part-time teaching instructors (GPTIs)?

“Since the 1980s, the ITA workshop has been held face-to-face,” Melhem said. “The classes meet from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. for three solid weeks, so it's intensive, but it prepares the grad students for their English assessment and helps connect them with peers and resources before they start their own classes.

“Undergraduate students generally receive some handholding when they enroll in college, but graduate students usually don't; the expectation is that they already know the ropes. I mean, international students know the ropes in their own country, but not necessarily in this new environment. They need some orientation, so the workshop serves as a soft landing for them where they can get acclimated to the academic environment and become familiar with things.”

In addition to directing the ITA workshop, Melhem was teaching a face-to-face English as a second language (L2) course for graduate students that spring.

“I had a little kid at home and I was six months pregnant, so there was no way I could continue to meet synchronously on a regular basis,” Melhem said. “I had to move online for that class. All the activities are oral-communication-based, so I wondered, ‘How can we get as close as possible to replicating the classroom experience and giving these students English-speaking practice?' Many of these graduate students had kids at home too, so I knew meeting synchronously on Zoom was going to be tough to coordinate.”

While converting her face-to-face L2 course to an asynchronous model on Blackboard, Melhem realized that, somehow, the ITA workshop also would have to be completely reconfigured and moved online.

“When you have an international audience and they're in their home countries, that presents a whole host of challenges,” Melhem explained. “Certain aspects of the workshop, like the testing, still had to be done synchronously for security, so we had instructors getting up at 6 a.m. to proctor tests so it would be during a reasonable time for the students.”

In addition to navigating different time zones, Melhem had to contend with content restrictions in other countries. While Texas Tech provided students with a virtual private network (VPN) to circumvent geo-restrictions, the data encryption process significantly slowed internet connectivity and extended assignment upload times.

“I worked long hours to get the workshop ready before the launch date, and by then I was nine months pregnant,” Melhem said. “The workshop started on July 1 and I had my baby on July 4, so I barely got it done. Like everything in the pandemic, there was no pilot. There was no opportunity to try this on a smaller scale before we went full tilt. All you can do is plan as well as you can, and Kate was an amazing sounding board throughout this process. I'm also incredibly grateful to Carla Burrus, the ITA workshop coordinator, who really stepped up to the plate to keep things running smoothly when I was on maternity leave.”

Despite the hurdles Melhem and her students encountered in transitioning to an online format, the ITA workshop celebrated its highest pass rate that summer.

“Necessity is the mother of invention; that's what strikes me about the pandemic,” Melhem said. “When necessity was roaring around us, people with solutions would pop up from unexpected places. In a huge university system, there is necessarily bureaucracy, but there was something exciting about people saying, ‘You know what? Let's accept the good ideas where we see them and do these big, innovative things.' There was an openness and an invitation for people to take initiative, which was so refreshing, and I think that environment is sticking around.”

Sylvia Flores

Sylvia Flores
Sylvia Flores

Sylvia Flores is a Spanish instructor and coordinator of CMLL's Spanish Heritage Language Program (SHL), which helps bilingual and semi-bilingual students reconnect to their cultural heritage and the Spanish language.

“SHL is for students who grew up with the language, many of whom come into our courses with the idea that their Spanish is not good enough, that they need to speak the ‘correct' Spanish,” Flores said. “We always tell them there is no ‘correct' Spanish. The language in your community is good enough, and you should have pride in that.”

Perhaps one of the most impactful components of the program is Spanish Heritage Service Learning, in which Texas Tech students volunteer to help teach Spanish to children at local elementary schools.

“Service learning is not only for the college students' benefit, for them to see they know the language well enough to teach it, but it's also for the younger kids, who see themselves reflected in these Texas Tech students and realize it's possible for them to go to college,” Flores said. “But when COVID-19 happened, that program was terminated.”

Spanish Heritage Service Learning was eventually reintroduced as an elective experience in 2021, but because of social distancing concerns, it's no longer a course requirement for SHL.

Spanish Heritage Service Learning

“That's the thing we're missing,” Flores said. “It's beneficial for students to serve their community – it helps them build confidence in their language and connect with their culture.

“A lot of our students come from low socioeconomic backgrounds, so our program took a hit when we moved online,” Flores continued. “We usually have about 110-120 students in our program, but COVID-19 reduced that to 70 or 80.”

With so few students able to participate in SHL, the program's course offerings decreased from six sections to four. To populate the remaining sections, Flores and her colleagues recruited students from the face-to-face classes that were still being offered, ending up with 12-15 students in each SHL class.

Spanish Heritage Service Learning

“Before the pandemic, I was very strict about punctuality and attendance,” Flores said. “Even if a student was one minute late to class, I would deduct points because I believed if you're supposed to be somewhere, you need to be there on time. But during the pandemic, I changed that mentality and I still haven't gone back.

“Now, if students are a few minutes late, I just let it go. I no longer see punctuality as something that's extremely important, because so much has changed. Just the little things, like allowing students to come in late and not having an attendance policy, helped them get though the semester without worrying about points being deducted because they couldn't make it, or didn't have internet access at the time.”

To boost morale and improve class attendance, Flores began hosting weekly games and encouraged her colleagues to do the same. She gave creative writing assignments on culturally relevant urban legends her students had grown up hearing, like the Cucuy and La Llorona.

The students loved it, she said, and there were always more students on the days when those types of activities were planned.

“The experience shows how resilient we all were, how we adapted and how we had empathy for those who struggled more than others,” Flores said. “Personally, I struggled last year. I felt trapped. I needed to be in the classroom. I needed to see faces. Honestly, that's what helped me survive the pandemic – getting to see my students' faces.”

Raychel Vasseur

Raychel Vasseur
Raychel Vasseur

Raychel Vasseur, who was an assistant professor of Spanish and director of the Spanish Foundations Program at the time, scheduled her shoulder surgery for March of 2020, assuming she would have spring break to recover.

“I ended up having to put six courses online instead of taking a break,” Vasseur said. “I mean, you do what you have to do.

“I was really concerned about equity. A lot of students in the L2 program are low-income, which is something I took very seriously. Most of the courses are taught by GPTIs and TAs, so they're serving a dual role; they're students and they're also instructors. Some of the TAs didn't have internet at their houses, so they relied on the library. At first, the library was going to remain open and the TAs were going to be able to use the office, but then we got word that the library was closing.”

Without access to the library, many TAs had to scramble to obtain internet connections for their homes. Some resorted to using Wi-Fi hotspots on their phones; others were able to secure broadband access but couldn't go online when their school-age children were attending virtual classes due to bandwidth limitations.

With this in mind, Vasseur opted to use online learning platforms like Flipgrid, which has a mobile app and can be accessed without a computer, and Zoom, which allowed students to save bandwidth by calling into class and using phone audio-only. Because many TAs were underinsured, Vasseur decided not to make attendance mandatory for the duration of the lockdown.

“We kept in mind that, yes, students still needed to fulfill their course requirements and achieve the goals we established at the start of the semester, but also, they could have lost their job and they're trying to figure out how to pay their rent, or they could be taking care of a loved one and this is not the most important thing they're trying to do,” Vasseur said. “If this was the last course they needed to graduate, we didn't want to keep them from graduating.

“Looking at them as whole people in the context the pandemic and realizing that our courses weren't the only ones they were taking was really important. At the end of that first semester, the students felt like their instructors actually cared. They appreciated the kindness and flexibility we afforded them. We understood that there were other things going on in their lives.”

As a tenure-track professor, Vasseur dedicated much of her time to researching second-language acquisition and intercultural competence. However, advocating for her students' well-being and success was always much more important, she said.

“That's not necessarily going to help my tenure case, but at the end of the day, I work with the graduate students and they're the ones working with more than 1,100 of our undergraduates, so the impact on the university is huge,” Vasseur said.

“Yes, the research is important, but the impact these graduate students are having is much greater than any research I'm doing. At that point, it was more important to put the needs of the graduate students first, and I still wouldn't change the way I did it. It's somebody's health; it's somebody's life.”