Unconventional classroom settings during COVID-19

A class meets in Clowes Memorial Hall. Photos by Josa Kerns.

KATIE DEAN | STAFF REPORTER | kldean@butler.edu

In years past, Clowes Memorial Hall has hosted big names from Queer eye star Karamo Brown, to singer Elton John, to poet Maya Angelou. Nowadays, students are learning about organic chemistry and human anatomy in Clowes. Pharmacy students gather in the theater and view their teacher on the stage from afar while the lectures are projected on the big screen.

A return to in-person classes at Butler meant faculty needed to re-imagine the traditional classroom setting in order to adequately social distance students. While Clowes Hall cannot host huge crowds for shows or speakers this semester, Butler found a way to continue filling the hall with students — this time for class, rather than a show.

Many Butler professors have taken to non-traditional classroom settings to ensure students can still receive in-person instruction while maintaining social distancing. 

Bryson Tretter, a fifth-year pharmacy student and president of the P1 class, is one of these students adapting to the new space for class. Despite the large space and distance between students, he has found the lectures in Clowes to be just as interesting and effective.

Tretter said that his professor Marcos Oliveira, the department chair and associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences, is one of the “most entertaining but also knowledgeable professors” he has ever had.

“He keeps us going in class whenever there’s 150 students in an auditorium where you might see the Nutcracker,” Tretter said. 

Classes in big spaces like Clowes now take on a theater-like feel with multiple screens for students to look at. 

“They talk to a microphone, even though some of our professors probably don’t need to because they get so energized by seeing students finally again,” Tretter said. “They all get rambunctious and just want us to know the information. The sound in there obviously is amazing.” 

In-class participation is another aspect that has been transformed to make sure all students have a way to communicate with professors. For students sitting closer to the front of the room, it may be easy for them to raise their hand and talk, but for students sitting farther away, it can make participating more challenging. 

In order to accommodate all students, some professors use online polls for students to answer questions. This way, students do not have to shout from the second-floor balcony in Clowes. Some teachers, like Tretter’s biochemistry professor Oliveira, have also provided their phone number so students can ask individual questions.

“… I feel totally comfortable raising my hand in the front or in the back of the room or maybe even on the second-floor balcony of the classroom, I feel totally comfortable doing that,” Tretter said. “Dr. Oliveira from our bio class does that too and he gets really excited when he sees a text. Sometimes we might even just send him a smiley face in the middle of a lecture and he gets all energized and happy.”

One potential downside of having lectures in large spaces is the inability to have small group discussions. With most chairs in Clowes are blocked off to make sure students are distanced, students have less interaction with their peers. Tretter’s ethics class is smaller and meets over Zoom; his professor frequently utilizes break-out room function, which allows him to collaborate with his peers and get different perspectives on the subject material. In his pharmacy courses, there are fewer group-based discussions. 

 “Instead of getting four perspectives that are really to the point and work well all within each other, we get 150 perspectives, which is fantastic, but maybe everyone’s not heard as much as they want,” Tretter said. “In a bigger lecture hall, it’s more quantity over quality.”

Butler students attend a class in Clowes Memorial Hall. Photo by Josa Kerns.

Students in Jordan College of Arts also have other barriers that a larger classroom setting may not be able to fix. 

Douglas Spaniol, a professor of music who also provides private lessons, has found teaching to be particularly challenging in these accommodated settings. A big part of his instruction involves teaching students posture and physical technique, which can be difficult to assist students with when instructing over Zoom and while being socially distanced.

“The audio quality isn’t good, you can’t see as much as you would face to face, all of the student’s fingers, I can’t see their face and face muscles up close,” Spaniol said. “There are some things that we do in a lesson that you simply can’t do via Zoom. I can’t try their instrument, I can’t look at the reed closely and adjust it.”

On top of working to maximize his student’s experience, Spaniol has had to figure out most of these class accommodations on his own. Spaniol said he was provided with little help from Butler on what safety protocols to take, so he turned to the University of Iowa’s policy for teaching private lessons. 

“Teaching music, especially teaching private lessons, presents special challenges and I’ve had to do a lot of things for myself,” Spaniol said. “I had to get my own HEPA filter [to trap aerosols], I had to book my own teaching spaces when it wasn’t in my studio and I had to create my own policies. [Butler’s guidelines] didn’t really give me clear direction on how to make private teaching safe, so I adopted policies from other schools.”

To ensure his safety and the safety of his students, Spaniol limits his lessons that take place inside to 30 minutes. The rest of his instruction occurs via Zoom. The University of Iowa also advises a distance of 12 feet between the instructor and student and that a facial covering be worn by both people. The only exception for not wearing a mask is when a student is singing or using an instrument.  

First-year music major, Lydia Sarver, has also experienced the difficulties of taking music classes in a COVID-19 world. While her classes are still scheduled to meet inside Lilly Hall, her class took advantage of the warm weather and met outside for a week. She said the different outside factors made for an interesting classroom background.

“It was super windy, so we had our music flying everywhere,” Sarver said. “We were trying to take rocks and keep it on the stand. It was definitely a little distracting, planes [flew overhead], there was a car that went by and then some guy who was walking his dog just decided to stop and listen.”

A class is held in Holcomb Gardens. Photo by Josa Kerns.

For her orchestra class taking place in Lilly Hall, playing instruments in a modified set-up has also required adjustments. Usually, students playing the cello and viola sit grouped together while the violin group sits on the opposite side of the orchestra. Now, all students are separated in groups to ensure social distancing.

“We are so far apart that the sound will be better, since our group is smaller and everyone’s six feet apart,” Sarver said. “It’s definitely hard hearing across the orchestra and we’re still getting used to all playing together in such a weird configuration.” 

Despite these adjustments, Sarver believes class is productive and has enjoyed her first year of classes so far.  

“It’s definitely a lot better than I was expecting,” Sarver said. “I think Butler’s been doing a great job at making sure the music students have opportunities, even though there’s some hardships and playing outside.”



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