I’m a sucker for that high you get when you build new neural pathways in your brain, when you put yourself in a new situation and there’s a little buzz as the neurons reach out to each other, fuse together, make connections, and grow.
It’s probably not a surprise, in this summer of transition between remote emergency learning and who-knows-what coming at the start of school, that things are changing on a near-daily basis. I literally don’t even bother reading the latest re-opening plan, the latest emails from work, the latest stats on infections in my state. It will all change, usually before we even hit the end of the day, so why bother?
What won’t change is the teaching. This is the first week of summer school, remote summer school, grades 6-8. It’s an experience quite different from any other (and I’ve done A LOT of summer school over the years). And I also just got an email from a new evening job I’ll be starting in November, remotely teaching math to adults in an LPN (Licensed Practical Nurse) program at one of the local technical high schools. What’s the connection between rising 6th graders and future nurses? A LOT.
Building Connections Remotely
When we first started thinking about the coming school year, many of my colleagues talked about their fear that we would not be able to, in essence, work with the kids next year because we don’t know them, we don’t have relationships already established with them; when we had gone to remote emergency learning in March 2020, we were teaching the students we had been working with for over half the school year. How could we get to know the kids without that foundation of in-person learning?
In the spirit of full disclosure, I have not shared this particular worry. From the beginning of my teaching career, I’ve always been able to walk into a class and get started with the students. Still, prior to COVID, my entire teaching career has taken place in-person. In fact, in the fall, when I first started working with GCVS, one of the two virtual public schools here in Massachusetts, I said, repeatedly and loudly, that I couldn’t really imagine teaching without having my kiddos within arm’s reach, or at least within eye shot.
And then COVID hit.
What I learned about myself under COVID was that, actually, I can teach my kids remotely. I can cycle through my kids during a class and engage them. I can interact with a “room” of students. Of course, it’s tempting to brush this off as “yes, well, you already know these kids, so…” Well, yes, but that’s no longer true across all of my teaching situations. This summer, of the three classes I am currently teaching, I only taught two of the rising 8th graders. The rising 6th graders and the rising 7th grader were total unknowns to me four days ago. And yet, as the first week of summer school ends, we are laughing, joking, sharing work, taking on challenges, and working through “hard stuff” like sharing student-created numberless word problems together.
And that brings me to the “part two” of my week, which was an email from a program called “Assabet After Dark,” an adult education program I recently joined as an instructor for a four-week session in November and January. In my (remote) interview, I had stated up-front that I would only be able to teach remotely, with no exceptions. One reason is the health/COVID side of things, but the other reason is that Assabet is too far away to be a good choice for me. Now that we have learned to work and teach remotely, there are opportunities for me to work in places where the commute is prohibitive, and so I am beginning to plan for this new position, learning both the material and thinking about how to teach adults online. (This is where the high of building neural pathways comes in.)
So, in a few months, I will have to figure out how to remotely build relationships with adult students, as well. After these weeks in the summer, I suspect I will be able to figure this out, but I also thinking about some of the recommendations I have seen in the articles and blog posts that have come through my email in the past few months. One that really stuck with me was from A. J. Juliani’s post on The 9 Dimensions of Online Learning: How to Plan and Adapt for an Unpredictable Learning Environment. At the end of the post, he writes “Feedback drives learning. In what ways can we provide specific daily and weekly feedback to learners and families as to prevent the perception (and reality) of lack of support?” Thinking about my students this summer and thinking about the work scheduled for November brought this quote to mind–it will be critical for me to reach out early to my Assabet students to start asking questions and building connections. The ideas are just in seed form in my head, but I’m thinking about a Google Form that asks about the student’s history with math (love it? hate it?), experiences this spring with emergency remote learning (maybe they have kids in school?) and/or virtual education (post coming soon about the difference between the two!), what kind of set-up they have in the home for working and taking class remotely, and how to structure the four class sessions we have and how to balance homework expectations (or not). I am not the first person who has taught this class, but I will be the first one teaching it remotely, so I have both much freedom and no structure to draw from, so I will be using my best learning from this summer and the remote learning experiences under COVID to frame my approach to teaching in the LPN program.
From Where I Stand….
So far this week, I’ve “walked into” one of my classes to be greeted with a student telling me she is “puking from a tick bite” (and had puked in the class before mine), another student with her video aimed at the ceiling for the entire class period, and two of my three rising 6th graders either singing or dancing in their seats for the entire hour of an online math game. Clearly, life in the world of middle school has returned to a heavy dose of normal, at least in terms of the things that really matter–being with my kids, in whatever form that takes, and building connections and community in a class, no matter if the room has walls or not. I am beginning to believe that, as a society, we have rarely asked ourselves if the norm is the best or only way to educate, or if it was just the known. Is brick-and-mortar the only possible way to teach and make connections? I am coming to believe otherwise. Instead, I am coming to believe the following:
- We as teachers are capable of much more than we ever thought possible. Like so many before us, and from decades of a rather limited, repeated experience, we had come to define “education” and “school” as existing only within brick walls. We are capable of more.
- Our students are capable of more. They are flexible, resilient, gritty. Many of our students were already parenting, were already raising their siblings and themselves. They and others have stepped up to the challenge, learning how to email their teachers, how to get onto programs, learning how to advocate and find work-arounds when the internet is down or Zoom crashes. They are also capable of more.