An Ethnography of Online Learning

By Mrs. Caitlin Corsano
How does a faculty member move a classroom to Zoom? To help readers better understand the transition, English faculty member Mrs. Caitlin Corsano got creative.
Although most readers know me as an English teacher at Catholic Memo-rial, I also studied anthropology at the University of Notre Dame. My favorite definition of anthropology is “the study of humans across time and space,” and my favorite anthropological research method was undoubtedly ethnography. In ethnography, the student closely observes a culture and densely describes its associated customs, behaviors, or practices. Through this study, the student hopes to better understand and explain unfamiliar aspects of a culture.
So, when unforeseen circumstances forced CM to make the transition to online learning, moving my English classroom from Room 11 to Zoom, I wondered – what would “an ethnography of Mrs. Corsano’s desk” show?
From March 2nd to March 30th, I noticed plenty of changes made to my desk.
Monday, March 2nd, 8 am – Mrs. Corsano’s desk in Room 11
A bright red lazy Susan, full of pens, pencils, Sharpies, Expo markers, and the occasional paperclip. Three staplers. A computer and monitor. Scribbled- upon pink Post-its, stuck to everything in sight. A paperweight, reading “To the Moon & Back.” A bin full of printed-out lesson plans, meeting agendas, and daily quotes. A family photograph. A large Yeti of extra-hot black tea. Paperback copies of Frankenstein replete with dog-eared pages.
Monday, March 30th, 8 am – Mrs. Corsano’s desk at home
One scribbled-upon yellow legal pad. One Sharpie and two black pens, loose on the desk. A large Yeti of extra-hot black tea. A paperback copy of 1984, replete with dog-eared pages. A family photograph. A laptop.
Examining this transformation, I can see evidence of three major changes in my approach to teaching – changes which, while unexpected, are powerful and will certainly be returning with me to Room 11.
Change 1: Streamlining Assignments  
On March 2nd, I would describe my desk as organized chaos. There was a lot going on – but I knew exactly where every item belonged.
That described my teaching style, too. When English Department Chair Mr. Vin Catano sat in on one of my classes last fall, he watched as teams of students tried to build the tallest tower of books to honor Beowulf’s glorious death. His response? “That was a lot, but it seemed fun.” They learned some-thing about Anglo-Saxon funeral rites, too.
By March 30th, my desk was streamlined. There were no unnecessary items on the desk – no staplers, no Expo markers. They simply weren’t needed any longer. My teaching was similarly streamlined.
Within our first few weeks of online learning, my sophomores had begun reading George Orwell’s 1984. Every year, I have the class play “Taboo,” a game in which one player must convince teammates to guess a “secret” word without using any of the listed
“taboo” words. For example, imagine trying to describe the word “teacher” without “students,” “classroom,” “learning,” or “education.” The game shows students how difficult communication can be when your word choices are restricted. In class, there is often “organized chaos” as students yell out their guesses, competing to be the first to correctly identify the secret word.
This year, our game was slightly different. It happened in total silence. I sent out the Taboo clues, and they wrote in their guesses, on Zoom’s “private chat” feature. It allowed everyone to participate, but maintained order in an online environment.
Even in a different version of the game, students were excited to participate and, at the end of class, to explain the connection between the game and the novel.
Change 2: Prioritizing Critical Thinking Skills  
At the beginning of the month, I had innumerable Post-its of to-do lists and dozens of printed-out lesson plans.
By the end, I had a single yellow legal pad.
To get to that single pad, I needed to boil down my learning objectives and simplify them as much as possible. While I would love my students to know every detail of British literature’s win-ding path, I realized I needed to focus on helping my students identify and apply key skills that they can apply in future classes.    
I started by identifying two main goals for the remainder of this term: teach crucial skills and support students’ wellbeing.
Traditionally, sophomores have two major units in the fourth quarter: one unit on writing original speeches, and another on George Orwell’s novel, 1984. The first usually ends with a speech, while the second includes a test and an essay. The first asks students to practice the skills of public speaking and persuasive writing, while the second encourages students to develop close reading and critical thinking.
So how do we fit all of that into two class periods a week? Prioritization.
I care more about the students’ development of skills than their ability to describe intricate subplots of specific characters.
To achieve this, my students read the most important excerpts from 1984, where they considered key concepts of censorship, propaganda, surveillance, and individuality. But then, after examining the (dystopian) values of Orwell’s fictional universe, they responded through an original speech: “What are the values of your ideal world?”    
In a time full of anxiety and isolation, this assignment asks students to look to the future, imagining a more hopeful reality – one that their CM education will hopefully empower them to create.
At CM, we often talk about Knight-Based Learning, which among other things, asks students to complete tasks of “real world relevance” as alternative assessments. By writing and delivering this speech, students are practicing real-world skills that will serve them well when they move forward to a different book or a different level of education.
Change 3: Maintaining Consistency
Perhaps the most surprising change is, in fact, the lack of change.
I will never teach without a large cup of tea. I will never teach without a ragged, heavily-underlined copy of a book in my hand. I will never teach without a reminder of my family nearby.
Similarly, while I may be teaching online, much of my daily classroom routine remains the same. I post the daily agenda in a clearly visible location for students. I begin every class with a prayer. I post my homework on OnCampus. I gently, and gently again, and then not-so-gently, remind students, “Write this down.”
My distance learning classroom continues to be a place of care and community, with moments of laughter and mutual support. When I accidentally muted myself, my students immediately “chatted” me to let me know, albeit with some good-natured teasing. When one student was having trouble connecting to the class Zoom call, he texted a friend, who alerted me to the problem so that we could fix it. When another student shared good news about a family member’s medical condition, the entire class cheered.  
I still want my students to succeed, and I am supporting their learning in every way I know how – holding official office hours, “chatting” off-the-cuff in Teams, sending emails and follow-up emails, and calling parents on a routine basis. Successful distance learning requires clear communication and, while I “see” my students less often, I am getting to know them in new ways each week.  
Distance learning required many hours of hard work from every single teacher, staff member, and administrator.
But this hard work has brought tangible results. Students are learning, and even more importantly, they are feeling safe and supported within the CM community.
My desk may look slightly different today – but it is still recognizably mine. And even if we cannot meet at 235 Baker Street, I will welcome students to my desk all year long.