By Jeannie Petrus
¡Buenos dias clase! (Good morning, class!)
It’s the greeting that takes place every day at the start of St. Mary’s School’s Spanish I and II classes. The only difference is that their teacher is 276 miles away.
Brooke Axsom is the Spanish teacher at St. Mary’s Catholic School. She teaches Spanish I and II via Zoom from her home in Frisco, Texas. It’s called synchronous learning and it could be the future of education as well as the future of global business communication.
“Synchronous learning allows me to teach from my home in Texas, while communicating in real-time with the students at St. Mary’s in Natchitoches,” said Axsom. “They can see me and each other through the cameras on their computers and hear me through headsets or earbuds. I can see and hear them through my computer at home.” (A proctor is always present in the classroom.)
It all started at the end of the 2018-19 school year, when Axsom’s husband was offered a job in Texas and she had to leave her eight-year tenure as the Spanish teacher at St. Mary’s. After a long search to find a qualified Spanish teacher in the Natchitoches area ended to no avail, the principal, Andrea Harrell, had an idea.
“I was aware that Axsom had been teaching English remotely to students in China through the VIPKids program at the same time she was teaching at St. Mary’s,” said Harrell. “I asked her what it would take for her to teach remotely at St. Mary’s like she taught students in China.” Axsom, Harrell and technology director Donnan Brian worked on the logistics of synchronous learning. Brian set up the computers to integrate with Zoom, the leader in video communications, with an easy, reliable cloud platform for video and audio conferencing, chat and webinars.
“I felt it was important to choose an online platform that would be beneficial for students to be familiar with as they attend college and prepare for future careers,” said Axsom. “Not only are the students learning Spanish, but they are experiencing online classes that are being used by more and more universities (NSU, LSU, La Tech, etc). They are also learning the technology used in future career experiences such as conducting a webinar as executives, collaborating with colleagues as medical professionals and video conferencing as business leaders.” Harrell said that while the technology is impressive, the student engagement is even more impressive.
“I wish everyone could see this type of teaching/learning in progress,” she said. “Axsom is a great teacher already, but when she incorporates what she can use through Zoom, it’s amazing.” At the beginning of each class, students individually log into Zoom on their computers, and begin their Bell Ringer (initial task to get the class started) in Google Classroom. After completing the Bell Ringer, the students answer roll call through video conferencing using their Spanish chosen name. The class recites the Our Father prayer in Spanish and class begins. At home, Axsom uses Chatbox, a messaging platform where students create and automate personalized, results-oriented conversations across texting, chat and social channels; and chroma key, or a “green screen” to project images from places anywhere in the world.
• “Where am I today?” she asks the class as she appears before the Angel Falls in Venezuela. The students respond individually through Chatbox.
• On the Day of the Dead, she dressed up as Catrinia, a Mexican representation of death. Students gasped as they turned on their cameras to find her in complete face and neck paint.
• On the day after the LSU Championship game, Axsom appeared on the screen with a virtual background of the trophy ceremony. Then students savored the glory of last night as they watched highlights and interviews broadcast in the Spanish language.
As she initiates a conversation in Spanish with the students, she can see up close the faces of every student. She can see the confidence or the confusion in the faces as they engage in her conversations. The students can ask question or make comments in the Chatbox at any point during the lecture. “I usually address the question as they pop up on my screen,” she said. “Chatbox has been an incredible tool for student engagement and to check for student comprehension mid lesson. And if that’s not enough, students can also participate in class at home if they are sick. “I had a student attend class while home sick with the flu,” she said. “There is an option for students to sign in from anywhere and in his case, he didn’t want to be seen . . . so he didn’t have to be. He could hear me and I could hear his responses.”
The students said they love learning Spanish in this technological environment. “I feel like I’m using Facetime in class,” said Jessie Lucky. “It’s fun.” “I like the technology of a class like this,” said Dagan Watson. “It keeps me interested and engaged the whole time.” “I like that we are learning the technology of taking classes in college and the technology that we will be using in the business world,” said Karson Eversull.