Can we not talk about COVID-19?

Photo by Manki Kim on Unsplash

Please don’t get me wrong. COVID-19 is one of the most important things (if not the most important one) happening to all of us at the moment.

It’s changed our routines, our work, our relationships and our expectations about the future. A few months ago I wrote a post about how it’s changed our language. COVID-19 is here to stay, and its effects are daunting – from public health to local and global economies; from unbalanced and unfair access to the digital world to all the other inequalities it is creating or exarcebating.  But precisely because of the overwhelming (ominous?) presence of this virus in our lives, and because the facts and events associated with it are often so worrying, I’m proposing today that we need to not talk about COVID-19 more frequently.

Let me explain my argument. Have you heard of the glass of water analogy? We hold a glass of water for a minute, no problem. We keep holding it for, say, a few minutes, then we start reminding ourselves that we have an arm, and that that arm is holding a glass of water. An hour later, our arm will start giving us some serious signs that it’s time to put the glass down. Hold the glass of water for a few hours more, your arm will get numb. A day later? Your arm will probably be paralysed by then. The moral of the story is: the longer you hold the glass of water, the heavier and more unbearable it becomes.

So let’s not hold the glass of water here in this post. Let’s not hold it in our classes as often as we possibly can. I mean, let’s not talk about COVID-19 at least for some time. Below I present some ideas of what we could try to do with our students instead. These ideas are based on the assumption that most of our teaching will be online, or have some blended format, in the months to come.

1 Breathe, breathe, breathe

Yes. This is the most important thing: don’t forget to breathe. The other day I say a tweet by the novelist Matt Heig that resonated so much with me and my current feelings.

Granted, focusing on my breathing has been doing wonders with me lately. How about trying to teach some breathing techniques to our students? With beginner students, we can practice numbers by counting inhales and exhales. And holding breaths. If appropriate, try the 4 (inhale), 7 (hold), 8 (exhale) technique. I find it quite relaxing before falling asleep. With a little bit more language we can try visualisation techniques, for example imagining an inflating and deflating balloon inside of us accompanying our breathing. The balloon may change its colours, and we can discuss the feelings that these visualisations bring. An orange balllon usually helps increase my energy levels; a turquoise one usually helps me wind down. You can also try detaching techniques, such as trying to see yourself from a perspective and helping your viewed self by sending him/her encouraging messages.

2 What are other people talking about?

Next time you go out for a walk or run, try to listen out for what people are saying when you move past them. You’ll only grasp a couple of words or a few more, and these vignettes can be used in your class in different ways. In my walk today for example I overheard the following:

“Well I think there are actually different ways of finding this person.”

“We were knackered on Christmas Day because our neighbours had kept us up.”

The obvious way to explore these utterances is to invite students to create scenarios about the people involved (the speakers themselves and the people they talk about).  For the “finding this person” situation students can imagine why this person needs to be found and what are some possible ways of finding him or her. For the Christmas utterance students can imagine what happened on Christmas eve involving the neighbours that made those people feel knackered the next day.

Both scenarios can be developed in a who-what-when-where narrative by asking students to write newspaper articles about them. Later students can vote on the best article.

Another option is to ask students to replace parts of the utterances with other options, creating different scenarios. For the Christmas utterance, for example, they could replace “knackered” and “kept us up” with other possibilities such as “thrilled”/”put us up” or “angry”/”turned us down”. These possibilities would then be written down on sticky notes and placed on the wall (if you teach online you can use the sticky notes tool on Google Jamboard to do this). Then each group could choose the items on one sticky note and, using these items, they would create an oral narrative whose last sentence is ““We were [GUESS WHAT?] on Christmas Day because our neighbours had [GUESS WHAT]”. The rest of the class has to identify what sticky note has inspired the story.

3 Homeschooling can be a relevant topic

It’s in the news. It’s happening in our circle of friends and family. This is a reality around the world: a large number of families are having to juggle working from home while supervising (at best) or fully educating (at worst) their children. And they have English classes with you for their own personal development. If that’s the case with you, try to tackle two things at the same time with these students: teach them English while simultaneously looking for and discussing activities that can help them with their children’s education. The BBC Bitesize site has a wealth of ideas, from Primary to Post-16, including explanations, practice activities, reviews, videos and quizzes. The Smithsonian page Fun Stuff for Kids and Teens offers high-quality content for children and teenagers. From an Australian perspective, there’s a lot of good stuff to explore on the ABC Education and Australian Curriculum Lessons websites.

4 You can’t go wrong with arts and culture

If you’re teaching adults with more time in their hands than usual, explore the world of arts and culture. And here I mean: go beyond Netflix. It’s of course a good thing to talk about films and series (and everything that fluctuates around them from reviews and interviews to factual information about the stories portrayed in some of these films and series). But there’s so much more available on our big and small screens at the moment. Fancy a tour of the Great Wall of China or elsewhere? You can do it. Also, many museums around the world offer virtual tours and a large number of theatres are streaming shows that you can enjoy as part of your class. You can watch concerts with your students too (or watch separately, and talk about them). I know, I know. The experience is never the same when we do these things online. But under the circumstances it’s better to explore these places with our clicks than to, say, spend hours on trivial matters on social media. There are some entertaining (and educational!) activities to explore on Google Play with Arts & Culture. And if you fancy books, how about starting a book club with your students? You can do that on Bookclubz.

5 If all fails, look for positive news

COVID-19 being COVID-19, chances are it will creep in before you notice. Imagine you were following my suggestion in item 1 above: your students were trying to develop a scenario around another utterance I overheard today:

“No I think it varies, people are getting upset in many different ways”.

In this case, admittedly, your students’ suggestions would probably revolve around some type of COVID-19-related issue or issues. If that really happened my suggestion for you would then be: tell your students that their stories cannot include any negative aspect related to the pandemic. Their suggestions would have to, instead, highlight some type pf positive (re)action emerging from the pandemic.

Photo from Unsplash

From volunteering to scientific endeavour, from fundraising to human connection at home, there are be some wonderful stories out there to be told. I particulary enjoy reading the section “What you’re doing” at the end of the daily Coronavirus Briefing I receive from the New York Times every day. It always brings a smile to my face.

6 thoughts on “Can we not talk about COVID-19?”

  1. Great post, Denise! Breathing techniques have helped me tremendously with insomnia, so I am a firm believer in its benefits. One thing that truly matters is to keep doing it without worrying about “is it working?”
    I guess meditation is the same thing, I just never got the gist of it, my mind refuses to accept it 😉


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