A semester like no other

Annemarie Mountz
November 18, 2020

“Well look, we have the Nittany Lion with us today. Wearing a mask, good for you! And I just keep teaching, with the Lion standing next to me? OK, this is a perfectly normal semester, right?”

For Peggy Van Meter, associate professor of education (educational psychology), the unexpected has become the norm this semester. Van Meter is teaching her EDPSY 11 course in the Bryce Jordan Center (BJC), which was the only venue with enough seating to accommodate her large section of students in the socially distanced manner necessary for safety due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Because of the novelty of having a class in the BJC, Van Meter has found herself the subject of news stories including on Penn State News and in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She has presented on her experiences to the Penn State Board of Trustees. She’s become used to having photographers and videographers in her class.

“When (the photographer) emailed me about taking pictures, I thought it would be just another day that we would have a photographer running around in the background while I ignored the distraction and kept teaching,” said Van Meter. “But, when you realize that the Nittany Lion is doing a pantomime of your lecture …”

While Van Meter’s class and experiences may have been more unusual than others, the semester definitely has been different for everyone, due to the pandemic. The College of Education has operated with the understanding that students need – and crave – the in-person experience, so the college made a concerted effort to offer more than half of its classes with at least some in-person component.

“We as a college have always been committed to meeting students where they are, and this semester our faculty are taking that commitment to an entirely new level,” said Dean Kimberly A. Lawless.

“Using the flexibility of instructional modes available and the knowledge of the most effective educational practices to teach the whole student are keys to making this semester work for everyone, and I am in awe of the creative ways our faculty have done that in this most difficult time.”

This creativity has come into play as instructors have had to adapt their plans mid-stream to changing conditions in the environment. Ashley Patterson is teaching CI 185, Principles of Social Justice in Education. The course, which meets once a week for three hours, was set up as mixed mode instruction (CM), with some weeks in person and others online.

The first meeting – which was the first time that students and faculty members were back in a classroom since before spring break last March – was an emotional one.

“The first day of teaching in person was rewarding, but extremely tough,” Patterson said. She said she had not been outside of her home or the homes of family members for months, “and the thought of sharing a room with 22 strangers was anxiety-producing.”

Patterson said she didn’t realize how fast her heart was beating and how heavily she was breathing until she started talking and her mask sucked in sharply.

“I tried to push through, but as I was introducing myself and the class, I had to take a moment to pause and let the tears I couldn’t hold back anymore release. The students were gracious about it and we moved on and got the rest of the day done,” she said.

Patterson’s class spent the second week online as planned, but before they could meet in person for week three, there were two confirmed COVID-19 positive tests and one student who was exhibiting symptoms, so the class stayed remote.

“We discussed the possibility of moving back into the classroom space before the Thanksgiving break if possible, but so far have not yet had two consecutive weeks without any new positive cases so we have not been back to the in-person space,” she said.

Students sitting socially distanced at picnic tables for an outdoor class.

Dana Mitra, professor of education (education theory and policy) is teaching her class at a picnic pavilion this semester. She is one of many faculty members finding creative spaces to teach in person during the pandemic.

IMAGE: Stephanie Koons

Dana Mitra, professor of education (educational theory and policy), opted to hold her class in a highly unusual location.

“I teach outside in a picnic pavilion,” Mitra said. “I purchased a microphone and have an amp speaker to make sure they can hear me. I appreciate that there’s actually no Wi-Fi out there, so students show up with no technology. It has led to a greater focusing in on topics and a tighter community.”

Mitra uses handouts when written content is needed, but the class focus has shifted to dialogue.

“I also usually have lots of guest speakers in this class but people haven’t wanted to come to talk to students in person, so we are again focusing differently on our own conversations,” she said.

Regardless of whether faculty are teaching in person or online, there is a common theme: students are having a more difficult time than usual this semester.

“Students are struggling and I have switched my tone. I have always been a very tough instructor, using this course to strengthen their habits around discipline, turning in assignments on time, juggling multiple deadlines and preparing them for the workforce,” Mitra said.

“But this year, my role is more of a supportive and safe space. Lots of students have come up after class with tears, with mental struggles, with physically struggling with quarantine and with the loss of spaces and opportunities. So, my tone needs to be much more of a safe space to learn about how to find resources they need and to take care of themselves.”

Melissa Luse, assistant professor of education in the Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling and Special Education, agrees. “Some of my students have been sick, or have had family members or friends who are sick, so it’s just a really hard time for them,” she said.

“More than half of my students have had to be quarantined or in isolation already. I’ve just been trying to give as much support as I can, and trying to be really lenient in terms of grades and homework. That’s not what’s at the top of a lot of students’ minds right now, and I have to be aware of that.”

Luse said most of her students are feeling anxious and depressed from having to deal with everything going on with the pandemic.

“One of my classes started as a CM course, but none of my students felt comfortable enough to come to class in person, so we ended up shifting things to accommodate them. Two of my other CM classes only meet once a week on Wednesdays now, for anyone who wants to come and have some in-person interaction,” Luse said.

“I sit down with at least two to three students a week just talking them through their own mental health struggles during this time, and while they all crave interaction, my students at least don’t want the extra risk involved with attending class in person,” Luse said.

Whether they are attending classes in person or online, students all seem to be taking their studies very seriously this semester.

“They value and appreciate the opportunity to have classes in ways they may not have before,” said Mitra.

“Students have expressed fairly balanced views about in-person teaching,” said Patterson.”They see pros and cons to each of the modes, but overall I think they are most committed to continuing their areas of study as unimpeded as possible, whatever delivery mode that means. Just like it’s impacted every aspect of our lives — even those that we may not readily realize — the pandemic is very much affecting us here.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated November 18, 2020