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The Pencils Are Sharp Enough: Moving Past the Hows of Teaching in an Era of Coronavirus

As part of preparing for the new quarter that starts this week, I’ve received several memos from my university with a couple of specific asks:

  1. Have a plan in place for how the class will continue in the event that I get sick.
  2. Communicate such a plan to my students at the beginning of the class.

That’s some heavy stuff to throw on students on the first day.

Considering the state of things, it is also necessary.

What’s worse, we’ll need to have this conversation across a digital interface. My connection might lag as I have my students consider my mortality. A student very well may be attending to the needs of a child. They could be distracted by the same beeps and notifications that were present before this current setting. And, frankly, students likely have other, more important people and issues on their mind than this one instructor and this particular class they are somehow enrolled in.

To be clear, the fundamental demands that will transform teaching and learning moving forward are not about if our digital pencils are sharp enough. Zoom does what Zoom does, for better or worse. Your school’s LMS will manage in the ways it was intended. Etc. In short, tech companies have made a lot of money for us to click and give away our autonomy for the sake of online learning.

This past month’s rapid, nationwide shift to distance-based approaches to instruction have shown our schooling systems transfixed by the “how” of teaching students online. But we haven’t talked about the “whom” or the “how” in any meaningful way. While I still strongly believe we should be cancelling classes right now, since we’re not, I want to at least support students and teachers in the best ways possible.

We have an abundance of well-intentioned coaches, colleagues, and educational leaders helping teachers translate a classroom-based set of lessons for the web. I guess we’re really just going to pantomime this whole operation across digital screens for the foreseeable future, aren’t we?

The thing is, what we actually need to teach must be inextricably transformed. As I mentioned in a couple of tweets that led to this post, the “new normal” of teaching and learning in this COVID19 moment is focusing on the tools of learning but not on the actual substance of what’s at the core of a classroom: the relationships and the content itself.

Coronavirus Pedagogy

A savvy use of digital breakout rooms and the proper vigilance for muting students as they enter the “classroom” do not a community make. If we’re really serious about what kids will make of their time in this present moment, let us all turn inwardly and reflect and grieve and imagine in these days. Good use of digital tools and good relationship-building do not need to be mutually opposed, but our school systems have invested heavily in the former and—I would argue—willfully neglected the latter for far too long. Teachers are already painted over with the same stress and anxiety we all feel right now. I am disappointed that we’ve added a second coating of morose grey by making teachers “convert” to online tools a pedagogy that was never meant to address the basic needs of kids today.

Further, the actual content at the heart of classes must be transformed–we will learn this in hindsight, but the “what” of learning will be altered forever. What better time to learn about metaphors, for example, than to consider how a digital button allows you to “raise hand” in a zoom? Or that we get “sent” to different digital spaces while firmly staying rooted in a fixed location?

When we talk of science, of math, of history in core classes in the future, will we teach about this present moment and the ways that viruses work on a schedule unfathomable to human narratives? Will we “do the math” of capitalism vs. human life? Will we consider the legions dead in multiples of “9/11s” as current news reporters already do? Will we cover this moment’s losses in the sober light of how many deaths might have been prevented by different, federal and state-based governing decisions? Cynically, I guess these might be the learning opportunities of this “new normal” pondered abstractly today.

And so, when I meet with my doctoral students next week, I’ll need to assure them that our class will proceed as normal even in the event that I get sick or die. We’ll reflect together on the fact that even our procedural work in class can be fundamentally triggering for students. The privilege of teaching this class, with a syllabus I have ownership over, means I can do what a lot of my teacher friends cannot; my students and I will spend a large portion of our class reflecting and listening to one another, trying to understand—together—what we can of this world. Across age groups and content areas, anything else is largely a disservice to our students (and teachers) today.

Visualizing Tomorrow: Looking at Responses to the Speculative Education Colloquium

Two nights ago, 115 of you signed up to join us for the Speculative Education Colloquium. (And we welcome more – please see info here to register for the free event.)

As part of signing up, folks have the option of responding to the following prompt:

Screenshot 2020-04-02 02.05.45

Most of you jotted a sentence or two. Some of you left it blank. Some of you went to town.

I took the responses from these first two days of inviting folks to this gathering and threw them in an old-school word-cloud. It looks like this:

wordcloud (2)

While there are some pretty obvious—if still exciting — words that pop out here, it’s the language that creeps in the nooks and crannies around these bigger words that are revitalizing for me. (The Thomas’ English Muffins of ideas, if you will.)

Let’s take a brief, zoomed-in tour of the cloud, shall we?


I appreciate the words that sneak into the polysyllabic corners of “community” – ethics, arts, worlding, planet, rpgs. Those feel like words that can transform schooling practices.

“Political One-Shot”

Screenshot 2020-04-02 02.08.38

I appreciate the found poetry that is found in something like a word-cloud. If there is an aspect of “the algorithm”™ that I like (a real maybe) it is its capacity for happenstance and previously unseen possibility. In general, this bottom left area of the cloud maps kinds of actions and adjectives that feel enticing.


Partnership (and its permutations) sneaks throughout the cloud. We are wondering together and while this event is academic-facing, the sense of with whom lurks in many of these responses.

Might (Re-)Imagine

Screenshot 2020-04-02 02.10.27

By the time I got around to writing this post, a couple dozen more folks had signed up. This word cloud is out of date and we’ll share a newer version at the actual event. Like the world, our ideas are shifting, adapting, and moving quickly. I believe the original image of the cloud above is the high definition version; I encourage you to click around and explore the words and sentiments of these participants. Finally, if these are words that comport with the conversation you’d like to be a part of, join us!

Invitation: Announcing the Speculative Education Colloquium, April 21-22, 2020

“We found love in a hopeless place” – Rihanna

The world feels bleak too often today. Amidst global peril, many systems of education are re-entrenched in back-to-basics packets and regressive forms of online instruction. What’s worse, our sheltering within such ramshackle education solutions is being positioned as a temporary stopgap until students and teachers are returned to the weathered and stratifying systems of schooling from before. COVID-19 is redefining life for students and teachers globally and its dictates for physical distancing have reinforced standardized and isolating models of schooling across the U.S. 

But we know this doesn’t have to be the case. We know that, in the words of Rihanna, we can find the possibilities for designing for love in this often hopeless-seeming moment.

Teachers, students, researchers, parents, community members: we can imagine new systems of learning and new ways of interacting. Packets and online learning management systems are not the future of education we were promised nor the one that our students deserve. 

To this extent, we invite anyone interested to join us on April 21 from 11am-2pm (PST)/2-5pm (EST) and April 22nd from 9am-1pm (PST)/12-4pm (EST) to participate in an organic colloquium centered on reimagining schooling and educational research in an era of global pandemic, anxiety, and systemic rupture. We are building on the invitation extended by Drs. Na’ilah Nasir and Megan Bang of the Spencer Foundation to “reach for what might be possible that wasn’t visible before” in this present moment. With the cancellation of AERA, we are working on a very short timeline to find space for as many of us as possible to gather during days that would have been otherwise spent closing physical distance and learning from within each others’ presence. 

Though we are still developing the agenda (and we welcome your ideas!), several innovative scholars who have inspired our thinking will facilitate aspects of this colloquium, including Megan Bang, Jonathan Rosa, Stephanie Toliver, and Shirin Vossoughi (and others we’ll announce soon). 

To be clear, this is an interactive gathering. Design–and specifically design for new possibilities in the work that we do–is central to what we expect to come out of these two days. Our hope is that we can collectively share diverse, interdisciplinary perspectives to spark imagination around new modes of education and research. We also recognize that participation in this colloquium will unintentionally privilege scholars with stable, consistent internet access–as much of schooling in this era of Coronavirus does. 

Participation is free. However, in light of increased Zoom bombings, we are asking folks to indicate their interest using this form. Links to join the discussion will be emailed on April 20th. 

We hope you will join us.

Nicole Mirra & Antero Garcia

Dispatches for Luna & Max (#06)

  • If ever there was a band that should have been an utter disaster, Dead Man’s Bones would have been the one to bet on. A celebrity’s (Gosling) side project, a halloween themed album, and a children’s choir? That sounds terrible. And yet, a decade later, it’s still one of my most listened to albums. (I always appreciated the opening of the Pitchfork review of the album in this regard.)
  • “Name in Stone”–as far as I can tell–was the only non-album track that was released from this project.
  • “Name in Stone” doesn’t have the same highs as some of the other songs on the album proper (e.g. “My Body’s a Zombie for You” or “Pa Pa Power“)
    • Sub dispatch: “Pa Pa Power” might be one of the more affirming songs I would listen to when I needed a boost. It also might be anarchic, anthemic song we need in this current pandemic moment, “Burn the street, burn the cars, Pa pa power, pa pa power!”
  • It’s weird how Gosling’s career interwove his singing more and more after this album’s release. He does a song in Blue Valentine and then, of course, La La Land a while later. In whatever context you get the same guttural doo-wop-y vocals that are central to Dead Man’s Bones.
  • The video approximates the goofiness of the band’s live shows. The different times I saw them around L.A., the children would be dressed in retro halloween costumes and the opener would be something of a variety show/camp-y magician act. It was very in step with the atmosphere of Dead Man’s Bones: “fun” scary. (You get the vibe in this video, I think.)
  • I appreciate that the “Name in Stone” video feels like a cobbled together, student-film. Like their shows and the album as a whole, it feels like it was fun to make. It was probably a fairly expensive side project that couldn’t have been all that profitable compared to the demands of Hollywood. The band would play a couple unreleased songs at their shows, but I can’t imagine a second album ever making a lot of sense financially.
  • “I raised my flag up into your heart, and you let the winds come tear it apart.”
  • “Uh, Dead Man’s Bones Name in Stone take two. UH.”

#rogueAERA: An Invitation 

Many across the education research community are experiencing the cancellation of the 2020 Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) through the lens of loss. This loss encompasses the hard work that President Siddle-Walker, Executive Director Levine, and so many staff members and volunteers committed to curating the program and organizing logistics, the efforts that thousands of educators made to prepare proposals and papers, and the ache that comes with losing an opportunity for in-person fellowship with dear friends and colleagues in a time of anxiety and uncertainty.

We feel the loss, too.

But what if we could simultaneously interpret this cancellation as an invitation?

Perhaps we could embrace this moment as an opportunity to expand the bounds of our community, re-imagine how we talk about education research, policy, and practice, and dream about the future of education together.

go rogue: to begin to behave in an independent or uncontrolled way that is not authorized, normal, or expected

  Merriam-Webster dictionary

What if we created a #rogueAERA?

Freed from the conventions of papers or posters or symposia, let’s consider how we could express the nature, goals, and findings of our work (and play) in education. Photos. Poetry. Songs. Tweets. Games. Illustrations. Videos. Stories. Dialogues. TikToks. And more. Go rogue.*

To be clear, we use the term ‘rogue’ in the spirit of embracing the experimental, not the negative or confrontational. We love our AERA community and while this effort is in no way affiliated with the organization, we humbly propose it as a friendly innovation.

Allowing ourselves to express what we do beyond the bounds of traditional academic forms can potentially create space for new innovations in our thinking and welcome more voices into conversation. Our families can participate in #rogueAERA. Our young people can participate in #rogueAERA. Let’s demystify it and throw open the doors.

And so, if you have the bandwidth right now (in every sense of the word), we invite you to experiment with us. During what would have been the dates of AERA 2020 (April 17-21), use the hashtag #rogueAERA on all social media platforms from wherever and whenever you are to share what you would have liked to talk about in person. Let’s start a new conversation.

–Nicole Mirra & Antero Garcia 


*Disclaimer: We of course have to give the reminder that whatever you share on social media must respect the privacy of any research participants and cannot violate the protections upheld by institutional review boards and bonds of trust and respect. You know the drill. 

Free excerpt of With Great Power Comes Great Pedagogy

Today, University Press of Mississippi has released a substantial excerpt of my recent, co-edited volume on comics pedagogy (I blogged about the book here). This free PDF is nearly half of the entire volume and my co-editors and I encourage you to read, share, and discuss the included chapters in this time of sheltering and social distancing.

As I noted on Twitter the other night, I have been reaching out to publishers to open up access to various books I’ve worked on that might be of interest for teachers and researchers as we shelter in place across the globe. This is the first project that responded back. I’m encouraging other authors and publishers to do the same.

Happy reading!

Dispatches for Luna & Max (#05)

If you
If you could
If you could only
If you could only stop
It you could only stop your
If you could only stop your heart
If you could only stop your heartbeat
If you could only stop your heartbeat for
If you could only stop your heartbeat for one heart
If you could only stop your heartbeat for one heartbeat


  • Sometime you might need solace through song. This one has served that role for me, for a long time now.

Join Our (Online) NCTE Gathering

This Tuesday (and I *think* for Tuesdays for the foreseeable future), NCTE is hosting an online gathering for its members. It’s an evolving thing; its structure will match the needs of our members. I’m facilitating this first one and–if you are interested–you’ll need to RSVP at this link.


The format will be a Zoom call, the goal being to function as a  disciplinary hub for English teachers to check-in with one another and share some social presence in this moment of physical distancing. I am honored that Dr. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz has agreed to open this first gathering with some poetry from her recent collection.

It’s been hard to work in light of a world changing hour by hour around us. I am hoping these kinds of digital nodes can help ground us in each others’ presence as well as become touchstones for designing for the new. See you all soon.

Cancel all Classes Right Now: Kids are Scared, Teachers are Stressed, Our Country is Sick


Tonight I did a 10 p.m. run to the grocery store and the empty shelves here—and that so many friends are posting online—make it very clear: we are a nation in the midst of coping with a major crisis. This is a scary time and (finally) our government, major businesses, and public services are taking it seriously. Schools, too, are moving to online settings and to ensuring that students do not meet in physical spaces for the foreseeable future.

I get that teachers are scrambling to figure out the best ways to transition our work. I get that preservice teachers need a certain number of hours in order to receive state-based teaching licenses. I get that there has been a Herculean effort to get many students access to instructional materials in order to participate in virtual learning. But I also get that—both literally and metaphorically—our country is sick.

You don’t do school when you are sick. You heal.

When a school community is rocked by a natural disaster—an earthquake, a wildfire, a tornado–we don’t send students to Google classroom and we don’t ask teachers to prepare for distance education models. We heal.

By most estimates, a lot of people will get sick in the U.S. in the next few weeks. Many people will die due to complications from COVID-19 or perhaps from the lack of hospital-based care avaoilable for everyone. Businesses will close. Effects of this disease will be most heavily felt by vulnerable members our society; members of the gig economy that cannot take time off will suffer financially and in terms of their health. Depending on spread and our response, it is entirely possible that many of us will know people in our schools who lost family members as a result of this pandemic.

We can pretend to “do” school online for the coming weeks and months. We can force teachers to do this work in ways we have not adequately prepared them for. We can make students go through the rote exercises of pretending to engage in tasks that are not central to their current well-being. Or, we can call the charade off for a little while. Like we would in any other catastrophic scenario.

To be clear, I am not saying that students need to be sitting aimlessly as we weather this difficult time. I think informal learning that addresses students affectively is necessary. I think teachers need strategies to cope and to heal for themselves—including opportunities for reflection, for venting, and for reaching out to students as phone and zoom calls. I am also particularly grateful that districts made the difficult decisions to close schools while also ensuring plans for providing meals and other essential supports for kids right now.

While I am planning to do everything I can to help teachers who feel the double-bind of stress in new work settings and in a moment of peril, I am silently furious. A sense of mandated accountability undergirds the need for keeping students at pace in a world that is fully ruptured from any sense of normality right now. Look at the literal changes happening around us–this is not a normal situation and that, in and of itself, is important for students to see, process, and reflect upon as civic agents. As our country works to flatten curves and create social distance from one another, we continue to expect student academic performance to inch forward as if it is business as usual.

Dispatches for Luna & Max (#04)

  • The entire video is such a weird time-capsule of a time that doesn’t feel that far off. The design of YouTube as a platform, less than a decade ago, is pretty different from what it is today and suggests an evolving relationship between us as viewers and consumers of new media spaces. And while the mash-up thing isn’t new/hasn’t gone away, this feels, for me, like a moment that converged with a lot of my own writing around participatory culture and fandom.
  • This LCD Soundsystem album, too, was one that I listened to constantly (so much so that a different song on the album was played at our wedding, by our friend Peter).
  • The anticipation at around 0:36-38 when the cursor hovers over the play button.
  • Often, when I’m writing in my office at home, I have a film playing on silent while I listen to something loud. The key is to get a movie just slow enough to grab your attention for a sec before you dip back into the words in front of you. Tarkovsky’s films, Wong Kar-Wai’s, Fassbinder’s -OR- mid-’90s movies like Empire Records, Hackers, Josie and the Pussycats, etc. Elevator to the Gallows is definitely a film that’s been on rotation in the past. AND, aside from an unhealthy collection of albums from the Acid Mothers Temple groups, I probably possess more Miles Davis albums, live recordings, bootlegs, etc. than any other artist. Of course I dig his soundtrack work for Malle’s film. And yet, because of how I tend to work, I’ve probably only actually heard this soundtrack in the context of the film once or twice. Seeing this YouTube clip as a reminder of Davis watching a screen as he blows magic is something else.
  • I’ve listened to “New York, I Love You” dozens of times, seen the band play it live a couple of times, watch the faux final concert doc once in a while, and play the whole damn thing on our record player when I have the time (i.e. not often). This version–with Miles, with the french discussion, with the simple tweaks a la adjusting volume nobs, with the slightly obnoxious zooming in–is my preferred version of this song.