COVID-19: Online learning can work. Here’s how my class found the energy and inspiration.

opinion

When New York began to shelter in place in March, my high school English department gathered round one last time to discuss what to do in the coming weeks. I would be vacating the room where I teach, its walls crammed with news clippings spanning nearly 40 years, its desks facing each other in a horseshoe, its chalkboard within arm’s reach. Suddenly we had to consider how to translate all this into the distanced medium of screens.  

I was skeptical. The stories I’d heard about online learning always ended with the same conclusions — watered down, stilted, distant, non-engaging. English class is about the physical text, the ascendant hum of conversation in a room, and the deliberate remove from screens. At online colleges, classes are remote; at prestige schools, classes are held around live-edge oak tables. (Although now it’s the prestige schools that are remote.)  

During our inaugural Google Meet session, a sort of rehearsal with my department, the first thing I noticed was that everyone was the same size in the grid. Then I noticed how easy it was to use. It’s a link and a few buttons. If you can buy socks on Amazon, you can mastermind a meeting with screenshares, video clips, and deft mic mutings. My students took about a minute to gain fluency.  

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This is not to say they immediately embraced it. We can all attest to the freedoms of selective participation that video meetings afford. And with the pass/fail scheme so many schools had last spring, I saw some students with pillow-brushed hair popping in for a moment before turning off the camera. Others were ready to go. Without a strict policy requiring kids to be on camera or with mics, I was challenged to mine that existing energy and turn the blank screens animated.  

What does a classroom need?

A good class starts with a central idea, defines its terms, and then questions it with specifics from the text and the world beyond. A four-line passage becomes the fulcrum of good and evil; a slightly different vision rouses doubt and raises hands. This is when the class conspires; it breathes together.  

But in order to breathe together, it helps to be together. In so many intangible ways, I realized, my teaching has relied upon physical affirmations — laughter, thumbs ups between students across the room, the panorama of heads leaning in and poring over a writing prompt. Real life is still the best for finding that roundedness.  

Back in the boxes, we were straining to find it somewhere. In our grid of 12, my advisory group, a group of students who I check in with regarding scheduling and other announcements, tried to pass a pen up through one box and into another, fluidly, so it moved like a snake. (It’s harder than you might think.) That’s all. And then the students were laughing, and the energy that had only been in their heads was rising up from their guts. In a class after that, a student began by questioning a motive of the main character: Was that character lying? And then the boxes lit up with commentary. They bought in, and so did I.  

Teaching is imperfectible, that’s its lure. Each new group lands differently. Teaching “Their Eyes Were Watching God” under President Obama was different than teaching it under President Trump. Remote teaching opened up whole new inquiries about my own seminar-style practice, so reliant as it was upon vocal students to carry the day. After 25 years with high schoolers, I was re-thinking how to use time and access voices.  

I broke up class sections into smaller, varied groups and broke up the time within the class. I’d give a short writing prompt to begin, ask everyone to go off camera for five minutes, then submit on the chat feature. I’d introduce a film clip, link the video, then come back to discuss. I’d ask them to create questions and organize breakout groups. Debates were feisty; presentations were fluid.

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