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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.

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