Daunting. Draining. Logistically intense. These are some of the words Calvin’s faculty use to describe this semester. “It’s like running a marathon with the speed of a sprint while there’s an ongoing 6.8 earthquake,” said music professor Pearl Shangkuan, who’s been in such earthquakes.

The Calvin education experience hasn’t looked like this before. Yet, as you might expect, our professors are still doing what they do best—adapting, innovating, and above all, teaching.

Redefining 'classroom’

Calvin University professor Jennifer Holberg
Jennifer Holberg

To keep a class of students at the recommended six feet apart, you need space. Lots of it. This semester, classes are meeting in dorm basements, building lobbies, the Center Art Gallery, the Gezon, the Covenant Fine Arts Center auditorium, and other spaces on campus.

To complicate matters, faculty have students learning online in their classes. These online learners might be quarantined temporarily, choosing to learn online, or be international students who cannot leave their home countries. Some students connect in at class time. Students on the other side of the world might watch the class later. And professors have to make sure all students are engaged and progressing academically.

“We’re effectively teaching three classes in one,” said English professor Jennifer Holberg, who has students as far away as Indonesia and South Korea. “And that takes a ton of work to do well. I’ve seen things in the media questioning the quality of education during the pandemic. At Calvin, I am confident that we are continuing to give students the very best we can, even as it is asking that all the faculty give 200%.”

What that 200% looks like

Calvin University professor Leonard De Rooy
Leonard De Rooy

When faced with these extraordinary constraints, faculty started brainstorming solutions and working together. Calvin Information Technology set up internal listservs where professors crowdsourced ideas and helped each other with problems.

Engineering professor Leonard De Rooy wanted his students learning online to see his diagrams and his body language. “I created a recording studio at my home that has a green screen and several cameras. I had one camera pointing to my tabletop that recorded what diagrams and calculations that I wrote,” he said. “At the same time, I had a camera pointing to my face and using a green screen feature, I was able to superimpose my face on top of my tabletop recordings.”

In Mark Bjelland’s urban geography class, students normally take a city bus or a 12-passenger van to explore different parts of Grand Rapids. “Once Calvin’s social distancing guidelines were released, I realized I needed to come up with an alternative approach.” His solution? Bicycles. He spent the summer finding helmets, bikes, and safety lights for his class. It’s worked out so well, he plans to incorporate some biking into his teaching post-COVID.

“On a bike, you can see neighborhoods up close, hear children’s voices, and go places cars can’t go,” he said.

Mark Bjelland's urban geography class, on bikes
Mark Bjelland's urban geography class

Pearl Shangkuan, Music

Professor Pearl Shangkuan
Pearl Shangkuan

Professor Pearl Shangkuan’s discipline, choral singing, presented unique challenges during the pandemic. For months, she studied research on droplets and aerosols. How could her students continue to sing together—and be safe? Using the guidelines provided by national music organizations, she and Calvin’s Safe Return Team made a plan. The singers wear special singing masks at rehearsals and sing at least six feet apart. They use larger facilities like the University Chapel to rehearse with smaller groups of students spread out.

“The day when each of my ensembles first sang, I asked them to pause and ‘click save’ to remember and treasure this moment we had all been waiting to hear for six months. At times, we didn’t know if it would even happen. Being able to sing together is essential to our spirit. It’s a gift and privilege we’ll never, ever take for granted again.”

David Dornbos, Biology

Calvin University professor David Doornbos
David Doornbos

David Dornbos has been teaching biology at Calvin since 2004, but never like this. He’s decided to “flip” his classroom. Before class, students do the reading and watch Dornbos’ recorded lectures. Then they use their class time to ask questions and dig deeper into the material, sometimes quite literally. For the first few months of the fall semester, the class has been meeting outdoors in the Calvin Community Garden.

“How we learn is different in key ways than in previous years, learning is definitely happening. And in fact, more learning may be happening by engaged students. Touching, seeing, and tasting practical examples in the Calvin Community Garden makes concepts previously constrained to a classroom more real, reduces cognitive load, and engages the visual learner in ways not possible before.”

Alisa Tigchelaar, Spanish

Calvin University professor Alisa Tigchelaar
Alisa Tigchelaar

Spanish professor Alisa Tigchelaar makes sure to welcome “los amigos remotos” each class period. In one of her classes, she can only have 75% of students physically there at once because of the room size. They are making due, and Tigchelaar is reminding her students (and herself) to focus on the blessings and overlook the small challenges they face.

“Today we recited the Lord’s Prayer all together, and the remote students had their mics on. It was beautiful noise to hear five remote voices crackle over the speaker and the rest in person, all of us slightly off. I pointed out that God hears us all: our asking for bread and forgiveness and to be guided in his ways, in spite of what might seem incomprehensible to us. He hears us during COVID, too.”

Tim Bergsma, Business

Calvin University professor Tim Bergsma
Tim Bergsma

This spring, a few weeks into the abrupt change to online learning, Tim Bergsma sent his students an informal survey. He wanted to know, directly from them, about the obstacles they were facing. He learned his well-intentioned, dense emails were overwhelming to students, but that they craved connection and accountability. Considering the limitations and the available tools, he changed his tactics and was impressed with the results. “The virtual space allowed me to connect with students that normally wouldn’t talk with me outside the classroom,” he said.

“At Calvin, we pride ourselves on equipping our students to address complex problems with creative and critical thinking. And we find ourselves square in the middle of a really complex situation that demands creative problem solving. In a sense, we’re living out in real time a case study.”