Summer Orientation given by Cinthya Sanchez, Beth Strausser teaching Level 2, Irene Schwartz and in-person Level 1

BY NADINE MOUSER, DIRECTOR, ST. AUSTIN LITERACY CENTER

In January of 2020, we excitedly moved into the renovated St. Austin Literacy Center. The students enjoyed and appreciated the new spaces with large fully equipped classrooms and a relaxing gathering space with a coffee bar. This was short lived! We had a mere eight weeks of in-person instruction when classes were suspended in March 2020, due to the COVID pandemic and the shutdown of Houston in general. Little did we know we would not resume classes until the Fall of 2020.

Facing the prospect of virtual instruction for the ESL (English as a Second Language) and the Citizenship students, we sought information from certified teachers who were experienced with this type of instruction. It soon became evident that three important elements were necessary to have a successful program: computers with internal cameras, software to host virtual classes, and training for the instructors. Within a week a decision was made to use Google Classroom to host the virtual classes.

The first week of virtual instruction was full of errors and problem s; logging in, setting up computer screens to best see the students and the materials being presented, microphone failures, and student devices not working properly. The second week went more smoothly; the instructors had mastered Google classroom and Google meet. They presented instruction using multiple cameras, embedded videos into slide presentations and wrote content on small white boards placed under document cameras.

One problem we did not immediately anticipate was the amount of time it would take to instruct the students how to access the virtual classes with the device they would use. These devices varied; there were iphones, laptops, ipads, computers, with various generational settings (e.g. iphone7 or 10). Students more familiar with the device they were using could be on board in ten or fifteen minutes; for those least familiar with technology, it sometimes took an hour or two.

With our first foray into the Virtual world of instruction in Fall 2020, we were happy to register 40 students for ESL and Citizenship classes. The Spring 2021 semester, we doubled our numbers and registered 80 students. Each semester, we offered our clientele, two Level 1, two Level 2, one Level 3 and two citizenship classes. Since January 2020 to June 2021 sixteen students have become citizens in spite of suspended classes from the end of March 2020 to September of 2021.

As we ended the second semester with virtual instruction, the staff of the Literacy Center spent some time reflecting on the pros and cons of virtual instruction for our clientele. The pros were that the virtual classes were available to many who would not be able to attend in-person classes because of home obligations; students who traveled out of state, were able to take the class with them; in some instances, instructors were teaching internationally; some students were able to participate while at their work place.

There were many more cons. Students and instructors missed the strong sense of community they formed among themselves and with the instructors; it was difficult to know if the students were fully engaged, and if they fully understood the concepts being presented; practicing pronunciation and conversation was very limited; individual help from the instructor was not possible.

Lastly, the students missed their prayer sessions with Sr. Mary McHale, CCVI and their small class sessions with Sr. Heloise Cruzat, OP, Sr. Ernestine Mulvey, CCVI, Sr. Mary O’Duffy, CVI and the informative speakers Sr. Margaret Bulmer, CCVI graciously found for the students each month.

As we look forward to the Fall sessions, we are hopeful in-person classes will be possible and the halls of St. Austin Literacy Center will be filled with adults eager to learn and happy to be part of a community that prays together, learns together, and celebrates together.

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