Be Careful What You Wish For.
January 15, 2020- It’s a cold day. It’s windy and raw. The classroom is dreary and drafty. The kids are in the doldrums. “How many of you wish we could just do school at home in bed with pj’s and hot chocolate?” I ask. Twenty five hands shoot up into the air. The most engagement I have seen.
Fast Forward. April 15, 2020. “How many of you wish we could just do school in school instead of being in pj’s and sitting on a bed, staring at a Zoom?” I ask. Twenty five hands shoot up into the air.
The old adage “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it” has come home to roost. And so the experiment in online learning commences. Teachers and students from preschool to college are at home, out of the classroom, and learning–or at least we hope they are. But who knows? I certainly do not. I am going to try to chronicle my life as a teacher fresh from the dining room table that has become my desk and my classroom.
First, I think it is important to say that as a teacher I have been pushing for digital learning for over a decade. I am such a strong believer in digital composition that it became the focus of my doctoral work. What often bothers me about digital literacy implementation in schools is the inconsistent way its importance is viewed. It is has often been classified as an add-on, or extra activity that kids can do when they finish their regular work. A reward or prize of sorts. Kids may have been sent to a random computer relegated to a back table away from the mainstream of the class, or sent to an outdated computer lab. Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that was or is the case in every school, but it did happen. When digital education began to takes its place as a credible and valid educational tool, its implementation was often piecemeal. A teacher here knew a fun program. A teacher there had a good idea about how to foster group collaboration online. Someone else knew a little about mixed media and student engagement. All good, but there never seemed to be a consistent curriculum or focus. If teachers wanted to learn something new, fine, but the training and practice that teachers need to master the craft did not exist. In the end, some classrooms were using digital composition frequently, while others did not know what digital composition was. Yes, students received Chrome books, but without a vision, having a one-on-one Chrome book school does not mean that schools actually maximize digital literacy’s potential. There is also another issue that is more prevalent than I like. When money gets tight, digital platforms are not renewed or purchased, technology staff is eliminated, professional development opportunities in digital literacy stops, and school reverts back to the norm– engaging in traditional 20th century definitions of literacy. Until a Pandemic hits. And schools, ready or not, are forced to revise education and put digital learning at the forefront instead of gathering dust on the back shelf. Not only do computers now take a front row, they are taking a front row everywhere except on classroom desks. Bedrooms, kitchen tables, and dining room tables that are being repurposed as desks and food storage. But difficult times call for reinventing the ordinary.
I jumped on this opportunity. Here, finally, was the chance to build digital literacy skills. Creating on line projects and collaboration. Fine-tuning student ability to learn how to read and write digitally. We experimented with digital annotation and used different tools to share ideas. The students used Padlet to comment on student writing, and Google chat to talk. We had active engagement during live classes by using Pear Deck. They found ways to work in small groups and had book talks. We talked about writing and writer’s purpose. We discussed how in this very uncertain and novel time, we all play an important role in documenting history. We. Are. Historians. We. Are. The. Primary. Sources. And so our foray into documenting history began. The students are thinking about how their lives are being affected by this unique, life-changing event and how they truly can play an important and critical role in documenting history. It is engaging and the students have a lot to say. They have the freedom to express how they feel, what they like and don’t like about distance learning, what they are learning, what they are worried about, and what they miss. And they are being creative in how they are writing. Slide shows, digital journals, blogs and vlogs. Interviews and pod casts. But as encouraging as this is for an advocate of digital production, it is also discouraging as a teacher. And what I am noticing is that the smiles that many of them wore when this was new have faded. Their facial expressions appear more distant, sad, and far away. When the governor of Connecticut formally announced the closure of the schools for the remainder of the year, I announced it during our live class. No one cheered, no one smiled, no one said, “Yay.” This says a great deal about what 11 and 12 year old adolescents must be feeling.
My students are worried. They are worried about their grandparents who are older or sick and whom they cannot see. They are worried about their parents, the ones on the front lines in a variety of professions. They are worried about when their lives are going to get back to normal. Or if they are going to revert back to normal. Today, one student of mine said, ” I don’t feel safe. I do not have the security I had. I miss that.” So do I, and I couldn’t help her. Despite the fact that we were face-to-face on Google Meet, how could I diminish her fears? Our students want and need to hear that every thing is going to be ok from the adults they love and trust. It is one of the things adolescents need as the grow and separate, but when the adults in their world cannot guarantee their safety or security, their worlds and ours are tilted.
So, I applaud all of us in the educational field who are trying and working harder than ever to both learn new platforms and ways of teaching engaging and meaningful lessons. I applaud all of us in the educational field who are trying to do more than simply deliver curriculum. I applaud all of us in the educational field who are often struggling themselves with balancing home and work as we try to parent and be an educator all at the same time. I applaud all of us who are jumping into the digital world for maybe the first time. I believe the future of education is now being changed forever. I do not see how it is possible or even desirable to revert back to the way things used to be. The way we were. There are just too many positives that are occurring as we take this new journey. Remote learning has been brought to the forefront and the pioneers who first discussed the importance of digital literacies have been validated. That being said, it hasn’t been easy because teaching this way pinpoints many gaps. It points to the fact that many of the assumptions we make about what our ‘digitally modern’ children know are not true. You need only to review Dr. Troy Hicks, and Dr. Kristen Turner’s work on the difference between declarative and procedural knowledge to understand what I am saying. My own work has shown that assuming our students know everything there is to know about the digital world because they have phones is false. They don’t know everything. They need to be taught. And now, hopefully, that education is being introduced with serious mindset, as rocky as it may be. The circumstances may be far, very far, from optimal, but it is changing the face of learning. The 21st century is finally here.
But there are many things that can’t be replaced by digital learning and many things I miss. The eye contact across the conference table. The high-five in the hall before school. The nervous child who is suddenly relieved when something is clarified. The cupcakes, as messy as they are, for whatever birthday or holiday is being celebrated. The giggle, the whispers, the, well the many things that middle schoolers do that make teaching middle school so rewarding. I miss them.