Fresh Perspectives Interview with Dr. Maria Khotimsky

Building Community in the Classroom

Maria Khotimsky, Senior Lecturer

Class: Russian Language and Literature (multiple)
Semesters: Spring 2020, Fall 2021, Spring 2021
MIT Department: Global Studies and Languages

Key Takeaways

  • Instructors can use digital tools like Canvas and SpatialChat to create virtual spaces that balance familiar, comfortable routines with novel, exciting content.
  • One-on-one interactions between instructors and students, although time consuming, can be the most rewarding part of a course and allow instructors to learn about and meet student needs.
  • Asynchronous audio/video discussions can be an engaging alternative to written assignments as long as students understand the importance of asking thoughtful and genuine follow-up questions of their peers. 

Interview Transcript

0:00 What classes do you teach and how did you adapt them for the remote setting?

In terms of adapting my teaching to the remote setting, I think the biggest motivating factor for me was to maintain the reality of personal contact. And to put things in context, I teach language and literature. My classes range from eight to 10 students for language groups, to up to 20 students for literature classes.

For all of them, I think the value of being in the classroom is this community of learners and the sense of mutual intellectual work enjoyment of creating new knowledge together. And how to live in the digital setting was at first, of course, a big challenge. So certain things that I try to do is to maintain personal connection with the students.

As soon as we went online and we restarted teaching in late March, I booked individual appointments just to check in with everyone, just to plain see how everyone is making it through the pandemic, how their families are. And while previously I did that mainly in the language classes for language assessment purposes, I think going forward these personal check-ins are extremely important.

So for example, this semester when starting the literature class, I made it part of the syllabus and actually a small percentage point of the requirement to come to the start of the term meeting. To allow those opportunities to sit down and meet and say, all right, welcome to the class and what do you look forward to. What do you want to learn? What difficulties you anticipate, perhaps with technical connections in fulfilling some assignments?

So whatever we can do to create that personal connection, either as an instructor of a large course or an instructor of a section, I think that’s extremely important. That is time consuming, right? That is time consuming. But I think this is the greatest value from the class and from getting to know the students. Like personally, it’s the most gratifying moment of the class.

1:57 What role did asynchronous videos play in your remote classes?

So before the start of the class, I created a video greeting introducing the students to the class, telling them a little bit about myself. And I also encouraged every student to create their first video discussion post, even before the class began. And I was a little bit hesitant at first. Is that too much to ask? Will people maybe even drop the class after a week?

To be honest, one of the first discussions we received for our language class was from a first-year student who was at home starting her MIT journey. And she mentioned that I so much look forward to meeting you. I look forward to getting to know you.

So I think there is that immediate value of personal connection that we can create even in the online format. Following on that, I think in the past in the literature class, students wrote response papers. And this semester, to kind of simplify the workload a little bit, I’ve lowered the number of response papers, but I substituted them for group discussions. And everyone has to post and to respond to other students’ posts.

The level of engagement, the sophistication of those posts, the quotes the students use, the ideas they bring, are just amazing. I think I’m not going back to a lot of response papers. I think I’m keeping this as an open, intellectual forum going forward.

For language classes you have to participate, because speaking and articulation is why you’re there, right? You want to learn to talk. But students have an option to record just audio for those who are camera shy or for those who have bandwidth issues. So there’s always an option to choose a background image and record your voice. But each voice should be heard. And talking to my current students and reading their evaluations, many of them enjoy these posts and enjoy these conversations with each other.

What helped with video discussions was, very often, like using objects or using an additional image to describe. So that relaxes the student. That gives them a chance to discuss something they’re holding right there in their hands.

And I think encouraging them to ask a question within their discussion post is important. So that’s one of the requirements of the prompt. Reflect on something, but ask a question that matters to you, that you are really curious to know the answer to, and you’re really curious to hear what other people think about this question.

Whenever we do video discussions, I always put myself there first. I put myself out there. I create a video post on the topic offering my experience, showing my favorite hobby items, whatever we talking about.

And then once students post their video discussions, I respond to each one individually with video, greeting them, thanking them for the video, answering their questions, remarking, making new remarks on the topic. So that actually generates more learning content for them. And then in addition to that, I always provide individual written feedback on pronunciation, on what they did well, on some additional words they can use. And I think, especially during the pandemic but post-pandemic as well, I think I will continue to invest a lot of time in these individual comments.

5:08 What have you learned about using Canvas effectively?

I think my biggest takeaway and that I will take from this year is to treat Canvas digital space as a real space that should be livable, that should be exciting, intellectually appealing, and as multi-modal as possible, including audios, videos, readings. And following on that, I think attending summer training drove back the point of how important structure is. So for each of my classes, I also create a video tour of the Canvas website, explaining where to find what. On top of that, I recreate the tour in a PDF format for students who prefer to read everything.

At the start of a semester, of course, we’re supposed to tell students what are main deadlines, what are the key projects for the class. But I always try to put it in perspective and try to explain why it matters. Why we’re doing these projects and what are the learning goals and what are the exciting parts of this project.

So as much as I can do to share my excitement for teaching this content and my excitement for what they’re going to learn, I try to find ways to envision that on Canvas, whether by using interesting images or add in links to find articles on the topics that are perhaps not required, but some students will find it and get more motivated to learn.

6:27 How did you keep students engaged in remote learning?

So I think another task for us as instructors is to create both that comfortable, predictable environment where students like to come, they like to communicate with each other, but also to maintain a note of surprise and innovation. So I think the past two semesters have been spent looking for new tools, looking for new activities, and looking for new approaches to discussion models.

Some things that have worked well, for example, starting in small breakout rooms, groups of two, then merging them together and allowing them to have a micro debate and then come back and share what they’ve discussed. And then another thing that I’ve explored, mainly in the language classes, are the online interactive websites that allow you to mingle and talk and move around as if it were in the classroom.

And as an instructor, when we use it for Friday conversation practices in my Russian 3 and 4 class, I also try to play with the background. So every time we go into spatial chat, students see a new background and they’re kind of in a little new world. And we can walk around it, explore a map if we’re talking about location or explore a space ground with stars and planets if we’re talking about space exploration.

For the literature discussion class, I think trying to go away from just instruction and connecting it to the student experiences was very important. We read Russian literature, many novels and stories are very serious. Many are sad. Many are tragic.

So we have writers reflecting on the experience of revolution. We have writers reflecting on the experience of labor camps. Those very difficult but important historical moments that we study. When going through that material last Spring, we found many points of connection. How do we survive in isolation? How do we overcome adversity?

So coming to teach literature this year, I’ve been looking for more ideas on how to allow students to reflect on the world of the characters we study and on the politics of the text, while also connecting it to their own thoughts and ideas.

8:35 What is your biggest takeaway from your pandemic teaching experience?

I feel like I’m in this constant scavenger hunt mode, like OK, great, this works for Russian. And OK, this discussion prompt might really bode well in the Russian literature context for this topic. So constantly looking for new things and kind of reflecting on your subject.

I think this is the biggest takeaway from this semester is there’s so much we can do and there is so much we can bring to our subjects. So we should be mindful of our learning goals and what we need to teach in our subjects, but we should also be open-minded and excited to try new things.