At this point, I’ve taught half a semester of emergency remote instruction and a full pandemic semester online. Who knows what the winter-into-spring 2021 term will hold for teaching challenges and [insert here long list of] everything else going on in our world right now. In an attempt to cheer myself up, and cheer other fellow profs on, here is a light-hearted teaching post about the lessons I’ve learned from doing Jane Fonda’s Complete Workout—yes, one of those glorious fitness wonders from the 1980s, which I, completely un-ironically, adore—that apply to teaching online during a pandemic.
1. Practice before you go full out. Jane recommends watching “the tape” once through to familiarize yourself with proper weightlifting form and the aerobics choreography. Similarly, we can use a first class to demonstrate and practice how the online learning platform works, especially for new and transfer students, before we dive into content.
2. Use those before-class minutes. Jane’s workout videos are a bit unique in that they show class participants entering the studio (like above), stretching, and getting ready for class. We can use such moments too, even if they feel a little awkward, for low-stakes personal check-ins with students, like asking: What was something fun you did this weekend? How’s your week going so far? What’s something good that’s happened lately that you feel comfortable sharing? How do you feel about rainy days? (If it’s raining. We had fun debates on this topic, actually.)
3. Grab attention with eye-catching aesthetics. Maybe big hair, bright leotards matched to bulky socks, and bold stretchy belts aren’t for you, but they sure do capture your attention and create a fun vibe. Similarly, lecture and discussion slide designs that are colorful and perhaps include images, memes, and GIFs can help to capture, and keep, student attention.
4. Go at your own pace. Jane’s class community includes a group of folks who do high intensity moves and another group that modifies them at a lower intensity. But everyone is part of the same class and does the workout together. This arrangement can apply to online classes too, especially how to make content available for all students. We do this with synchronous and asynchronous components and offering multiple ways for students to participate through speaking out loud, in the chat, through polls, etc.
5. Remember to breathe. Throughout the workout, Jane reminds you to inhale and exhale, matched to the movement. During these stressful times, those purposeful breaths can be magical. Sometimes it’s a meaningful pedagogical intervention to spend a moment taking a deep breath together to start class and center ourselves as a learning community or to refresh during class, if energy is lagging.
6. Use reminders and repetition. Jane constantly cues for form, reminding you to keep your stomach in, hips under, knees bent. We can do the same, especially when we’re trying to adopt new ways of teaching and learning. For example, in the fall, we used emojis in the chat to demonstrate active listening, but it took reminders at the beginning of multiple class sessions to cement that as a new practice.
7. Bring in different class leaders to shake things up. Jane teaches most of the class, but she also steps back, and a couple of other instructors lead some sections. Similarly, I guide most of the lecture content, but in the second half of the course, I often have students sign up for small groups to help lead a day of class. Together, they create a Google Slide deck, due 12-to-24 hours before our class meeting, so I can review it and add to it as needed. (They often do an amazing job picking out all the key points and devising good discussion questions!) Then, we teach the session together, which gives students greater agency and helps to keep our sessions lively. Guest speakers are also wonderful and the online format makes hosting a bit easier.
8. Take time to care and bond. In the Complete Workout, Jane includes three different stretching sessions, when most workouts only include one. This keeps the workout nice and balanced and your body feeling loose. In our teaching, we often take maybe part of one class for students to get to know one another, but we can take more time than that, especially during a pandemic, for forming a class community, checking in, supporting one another, and bonding as a group.
9. Front load the class. After a warm-up, weight section, and 30-minutes of aerobics, Jane’s last part of the workout is a bit less intense, made up of leg lifts and ab work, which you do lying down. Some professors believe in intense final exams, but during a pandemic, it can work well, for all involved, to plan a more applied or project-based final assignment that is still challenging and fulfilling, but feels readily achievable when energy is waning.
10. Chunk the class, so it speeds by. Sometimes the thought of doing a 65-minute workout feels impossible, but since Jane’s is split into multiple small sections, each about 5 minutes long and with their own upbeat music, it goes by quickly and is very enjoyable. This can apply to class as well. We can break up sections of lecture with discussion questions, group or self-reflection activities, and polls, even ones as simple as yes/no, to jolt student attention that might be fading.
11. Show passion to fuel student engagement. There’s a part in the workout where one of the leaders shouts with real joy, “Oh, I loooove this!” Everyone laughs and hops even higher. The same principle applies when we show our genuine love for our subject matter, for teaching, and for our students too. This positive energy is infectious, in a good way.
12. Show real sweat. Too many workout videos edit out the sweat or don’t talk about how the exercises are hard, especially near the end of the rep scheme, but not Jane’s. Everyone shows visible sweat. Jane even jokes, calling abdominals “the abominables.” We too can acknowledge when concepts are challenging to master or to openly discuss how difficult it is to teach and learn in a pandemic, emphasizing that we’re in this together.
13. Count it down. Knowing how many reps are left, whether bicep curls or inner thigh lifts, mentally helps you finish strong. The same can go for announcing remaining assignments, participation points, or due dates in a motivational way. Knowing “we’re almost done, I promise,” as Jane says during ab work, can help a class community make it to the end of a difficult semester.
14. Give all the praise you can. Jane speaks through the screen to you working out at home to say you’re doing a good job and to offer assurance that you can do it. Such encouragement goes a long way with students too. It can be nice to end our meetings like Jane, smiling wide and saying, “It was a good class, a very good class! See you next time!”
Here are a few other things I’ve been trying to build student engagement while teaching online during a pandemic—and I’d love to hear what’s working for you too, whether in the comments or on social media.
No matter what, I’m wishing you and your students well during yet another pandemic semester.