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Saint Leo Instructors Pivot in Midst of Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Learn about some of the unique strategies Saint Leo University faculty members have implemented to transition their University Campus-based courses online and how they are engaging with students virtually in the midst of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

A screen shot of a virtual Educational Management and Organization course on Zoom at Saint Leo University taught by Rachel Hernandez, an adjunct instructor; it looks as if the students and Hernandez are in outer space

For over two decades, Saint Leo University has demonstrated how its instructors can reach students through a variety of modalities, regardless of where they reside. This is why it’s no surprise that the university has been able to quickly pivot and offer virtual versions of the courses normally held in traditional classroom settings at University Campus.

A Unique Approach to Education for these Education Students

Rachel Hernandez, an adjunct instructor, has taken her education students on virtual journeys every day since her Educational Management and Organization class moved online.

“With the chaos and uncertainty that is occurring in the world, it is nice to find something that we actually have control over,” Hernandez says. “I find that most of my students are missing that connection – not only the connection to one another, but the connection to normalcy.”

She admits that when she had spoken with other K-12 teachers and college instructors, she was hearing about how some students were apathetic about attending their virtual classes. That’s when she turned to her own students and posed the question to them about doing class theme days. Since then, she and her students have virtually visited Hogwarts from Harry Potter fame, the beach and the Magic Kingdom at Disney World. They also set sail aboard a pirate ship and spent the day on campus at Saint Leo – all virtually.

“When we are in our virtual class, students are encouraged to dress accordingly,” Hernandez says. “We were pirates when we were on the pirate ship, and we dressed as princesses or wore Mickey [Mouse] ears when we were at Disney. The day we were at the beach, we had sunglasses, hats and beach towels around our necks. On the day we were at ‘Saint Leo,’ we wore our Saint Leo gear.”

Hernandez, an alumna of Saint Leo University herself, earned her master’s in educational leadership from the university in 2017.

Shifting Courses for Theatre Majors

The idea of teaching theatre courses online may be hard to fathom. However, Dr. Alicia Corts of Saint Leo University’s Bachelor of Arts in Theatre degree program has done just that.

“The shift to online classes has been easy for me because I used to be an instructional designer with the Office of Online Learning at the University of Georgia, so I've already put theatre courses online and had a wealth of resources and firsthand knowledge to get me started on my way,” Corts says.

The assistant professor of theatre views this switch as an opportunity to use the online environment as a resource rather than a hindrance. For example, in a costuming class, students are working on weekly challenges to create costumes based on anything they have at home.

“I have gotten sewing machines to the students who didn’t have one at home,” she says. “I am zoom conferencing with each student as they work on their individual final projects. I’m also connecting them with video resources from theatre costume shops on specific techniques.”

In this particular class, students are working on a variety of projects, including full ballgowns, cosplay costumes and pants. All of the students are working with either altered or hand-drafted patterns.

For a class focused on advanced lighting in stage production, the students are using software like Virtual Theatre, Colorbox and an ETC emulator to create a full light plot for a stage show.

“The ETC emulator creates a file that we can plug into our board on campus,” Corts explains. “So, assuming that the students’ computers can keep up with the program, we will be able to plug in their work after we return and see what they’ve come up with. Virtual Theatre allows them to hang light, focus and plot them for a full show and see the results. Colorbox allows the students to play with gels for effect. They must defend their choices to enhance their critical thinking about each lighting choice.”

Thanks to the virtual nature of the coursework, Corts has also had access to a number of prominent guest speakers. Some have included award-winning playwright Arlene Hutton, Shakespeare expert Dr. Fran Teague, world theatre expert Dr. Arnab Banerji and James Yaegashi, an actor currently in Hulu’s Runaways.

“In devised theatre, when resources change, it is neither good nor bad, but neutral,” says Corts. “Each new resource presents opportunity. I am pleased to report that my students see it the same way, and we are continuing to create.”

Teaching Music Virtually

Saint Leo offers several music courses through its music minor, along with a number of performance opportunities for students. Dr. Cynthia Selph, an assistant professor of music, has taught voice lessons to several students this spring using Zoom.

“We discovered that there is a one-second lag in the audio and video when you’re on Zoom,” Selph explains. “I was playing my digital keyboard and trying to accompany the students as they sang, but the timing was just too different. So, I decided to give them the pitch to sing, sit back and just listen to them. This has worked quite well since the students and myself can recognize any mistakes they make much more easily because I’m not playing the piano while they sing. There’s no crutch when it is just the student singing.”

She believes the students can progress faster when it comes to improving their singing abilities and may use this strategy of letting the students sing without accompaniment when the time comes to return to University Campus.

In addition to teaching, Selph directs the Saint Leo Singers and Chamber Singers, two student vocal groups on campus. The music faculty have been putting together a virtual concert with these two groups and some instrumentalists. Originally planned to be held at University Campus, the performance will now be available for anyone to view online. Students have had to record their individual parts for the show on video and then send these videos to the instructors via Dropbox.

“The ultimate goal is to have thumbnail images of the performers on the screen all at the same time and the audio in sync so it sounds like a group actually performing together,” Selph says. “The students have been pretty patient because they’ve gone through several rounds of recording.”

Adjunct instructor Mauricio Rodriguez has been using Logic Pro X to edit the videos. Selph has used a program called Acapella for video editing as well.

For the concert, the students did a song called “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” a 1929 stride jazz and swing song. They have mainly been using their smartphones to record themselves. This has been a bit of a learning curve but has led to more experience for the students that they may be able to use in the future.

“When they’re recording a video, they have to think about what they are wearing,” Selph explains. “I encourage them to wear something that they’d normally wear on stage to get into that mindset of being in front of others. I also want them to be standing in front of a blank wall without bright lights, ceiling fans or other distractions going on in the video. There are so many little things like this that people tend to forget about when recording themselves.”

She adds that it’s common to be looking down toward a phone’s screen, but it’s important to make sure you are looking straight ahead when recording yourself.

“It’s been a very good learning experience because the music industry is using technology like this more and more these days.”

A Saint Leo English Class Covering Plagues & Pandemics

In addition to Saint Leo’s faculty using unique strategies to make their courses virtual, a campus-based class that was shifted online covered some incredibly relevant material.

A University Explorations course in English incorporated some reading from the start of the term on plagues and pandemics. Taught by Dr. Kathryn Duncan, Monsters and the Monstrous in Literature focused on modern Gothic literature.

Some of the students read World War Z, a novel by Max Brooks, son of legendary comic and actor Mel Brooks. Ironically, the book is actually about a “zombie virus” that starts in China and leads to a pandemic.

“Through reading about the monster and monstrous characters in literature, students have had to question what it means to be human and understand how cultures create fictional monsters as ways to define what it means to be civilized,” Duncan says.

The class also studied Nosferatu, a 1922 silent horror film similar to Dracula. Count Orlok is the infamous vampire in this story.

“Orlok brings the plague with him, so we were talking about how the film is responding to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. We were connecting this story to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.”

She also had the students check out a unique page on the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) website.

“We changed the syllabus a bit and switched one of the readings to the CDC zombie preparedness webpage. One of the groups watched some videos about zombies and sociology. They compared it to the current media coverage of the pandemic.”

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