Despite the unexpected move to online teaching, UH Hilo alumna and now Spanish language instructor Monica Minnitt is a driving force within the language department, continuing to meet the needs of her students to help them perform to expectations.
Monica Minnitt admits to having taken only one online class in her life and never having taught a single online course before the pandemic. But now she’s receiving accolades from her students about her successful web-based classes.
As a foster child in a Mexican-American family, Minnitt has had a lifetime of language education. She decided to further her studies upon enrolling at the University of Hawai‘i at Hilo under the mentorship of the language department’s chairperson, Faith Mishina. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in linguistics and certificate in teaching English to speakers of other languages in 2007, she then went on to pursue a graduate degree from the prestigious Middlebury College.
Minnitt is now employed at her alma mater, and works closely with her now colleague, Mishina.
“She took me under her wing,” says Minnitt. “Anything success that I have as an instructor here at the university, I owe to her.”
Prior to working independently as an educator, Minnitt also spent a year observing the teaching style of Mishina. She says, “I learned how to teach, how to present step-by-step information, so that when it was my turn, I just started to fly.”
“I didn’t have that two-year lag that a lot of teachers have as they’re trying to figure out how to teach,” continues Minitt. “It’s one thing to know the information, but it’s a completely different thing to be able to present it to somebody else. Faith helped me bypass that whole process. It was amazing.”
Since the conversion to online classes due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Minnitt has found herself operating even more sedulously and collaboratively than before. With the continued help of Mishina and information technology specialists on campus, Minnitt is a driving force within the language department, continuing to meet the needs of her students to help them perform to expectations.
Switching to online teaching
Knowing that the pandemic would last a lot longer than what many hoped, both Minnitt and Mishina decided in May that they would be moving their classes online for fall, prior to the university-wide mandate.
“I didn’t take a summer break,” says Minnitt. “I worked anywhere from 12 to 18 hour days throughout the entire summer just to be able to convert our courses over.”
During those intense workdays, Minnitt also realized how heavily she’d need to rely on Laulima, the UH System’s long-established online learning and collaboration platform. She says, “I had to learn how to use Laulima as more than just a resource bank. I didn’t know any of the workings of how to use lessons, forums, and all of those tools.”
To learn her way around, Minnitt sought help from Cindy Yamauchi (online teaching and learning specialist), Chris Nishioka (technology and web specialist), and James Czarski (a lecturer in economics), all members of an on-campus IT team that Minnitt admits to never knowing existed prior to needing them. Together, they spent hours with Minnitt, providing her with the necessary knowledge and patience to use Laulima effectively.
Before the pandemic, Monica Minnitt had taken only one online class in her life and had never taught a single online course. Click on the video above to see how, after seeking help from IT specialists at UH Hilo, Minnitt became proficient at Laulima, the UH System online teaching platform, and in turn, taught her own students how to use the venue. Her advice for successful online teaching: “Invest in people, then people can be all that they can be.”
As for the class content, this was another product of the collaboration between the duo of Minnitt and Mishina. Minnitt says, “We created the course materials together so that the students don’t have to pay for textbooks. This is not just my success, this is hers too.” It was with these materials that Minnitt developed her online courses.
Armed with the proper training and guidance to take on distance learning, Minnitt was in a quite similar position as when she first became an educator. She was ready to take off. Except this time, instead of flying, she soared.
The biggest change for Minnitt when switching to online classes came in the form of using a “flipped classroom” approach. “In a flipped classroom, I present students with the grammar or the lecture in a video that they watch before class. And then the synchronous meetings that we do after, or the talleres (workshops), are used as an application for the video they watched.”
Face-to-face classes would normally revolve around three-week cycles with the first week focusing on heavy grammar, the second on practicing and drills, and the third on applying the learned skills to speak freely. Minnitt has found the flipped classroom method effective online because it optimizes meeting times to incorporate more application of the learned knowledge while simultaneously prompting students to work through any uncertainties and to ask more questions. She says, “This is important for language especially because so many times I remember as a student, I would ask a Native speaker or professor, ‘why this way and not this (other) way? Why?’”
“But once you work through a problem, then it’s yours, then you can own it and you can take the skills that you had to figure out, and then apply them to the next linguistic challenge,” continues Minnitt. She adds, “It’s thrilling to me to watch students go from doubting themselves to taking hard stuff and creating language!”
Investing in people
Student response to Minnitt’s online approach is just as positive as the teacher’s enthusiasm to witness her students’ growth. In an anonymous survey that asked students to comment on how well educators have made the transition to distance learning, a student commented that Minnitt “did an excellent job with remote learning even though she was one of my teachers who said she would have troubles adjusting.”
The student adds, “Even though she was used to face-to-face learning, she made a great effort to keep her teaching the same through Zoom.”
The effort the student describes stems from Minnitt’s personal need to persevere, but also from her dedication to helping students achieve that same feeling for themselves. “I thought I was going to be the one left behind but my students surprised me because they struggled,” she says. “I figured that students with their phones (and) computers, that they would be fine. And I was surprised that they were not.”
To cope with this, Minnitt has found herself being more merciful but not lenient, more understanding but also more involved. “Here, under these circumstances, we have to choose to invest in people. People invested in me. If we can invest in other people, then people can be all that they can be.”
Story by Kiaria Zoi Nakamura, who is earning a bachelor of arts in English with a minor in performing arts and a certificate in educational studies at UH Hilo.