When I started teaching online, it was clear to me almost immediately that I wanted to encourage my learners to write and that I wanted to see their writing on a regular basis. I had a CLB 7 Academic class, and I began rather naively and ambitiously. The assignment was straightforward:
You will have three journal topics a week. You will be given 15 minutes a day, three times a week, to write in your journal. You will be given a journal topic or you can write about whatever you want.
As a person and as a language instructor, I hear the words ‘small talk’ and I shudder. However, I have learned – after teaching online for nearly three years now – not to underestimate the opportunities and utility of focusing specifically on Small Talk in class. Focusing on Small Talk has always been successful. When surveyed, learners consistently report that they want more Small Talk rather than less.
I started teaching virtually with a fairly small class (CLB 7) who really responded to Small Talk. For one thing, I found the class needed to deal with mental health issues – near the beginning of COVID – and needed to feel as social as possible in a virtual environment. That’s when I started to develop Small Talk as an integral activity. Most recently, I had a much larger class that also responded very well to the Small Talk activities. This activity is not a one-off lesson but rather focuses on best practices, routine, feedback, and refinement.
We were three months into an online class and just past a spike of on-boarding new learners. At this point, and counting the newer learners, about half of the class relented to turning their cameras on. It was Monday and I had a new grey tie. I really wanted to show off my new necktie, so I wore – uncharacteristically – a black shirt.
Learners arrived and turned on their cameras, saying “Good morning. How was your weekend? Are you feeling any better?” and all that. One of the first was a lovely woman, a retired teacher and a dedicated student – one of those learners who is, besides punctual and respectful, eager to please and who quietly but assuredly defends the soundness of the instructor’s pedagogical choices. Let me call her Harmony.