“We can’t always ask our students to take off the armor at home, or even on their way to school, because their emotional and physical safety may require self-protection. But what we can do, and what we are ethically called to do, is create a space in our schools and classrooms where all students can walk in and, for that day or hour, take off the crushing weight of their armor, hang it on a rack, and open their heart to truly being seen. “
The only online class I ever took was to fill in a gap in my transcript. In college I eschewed science and math as if they were fatal diseases while welcoming literature, history, and philosophy. One exception, a graduate class I crashed as a freshman at Rutgers taught by the British economist E.P. Thompson who wrote The Making of the English Working Class described by Amazon as: “A seminal text on the history of the working class by one of the most important intellectuals of the twentieth century.” I loved the class especially the social history part taught by Dorothy Thompson, E.P. ‘s brilliant wife. The social history was based around stories, stories about labor strikes, union battles, descriptions of families and communities, public health, and education. E.P. took over in the spring and began to unpack statistics, graphs of social mobility and the industrial revolution’s transformation of the British economy. In other words, math.
When I went through a certificate program to get certified to teach high school English, I was told I had to have a science credit, so I signed up for Earth Science and spent 3 months listening to a computer explain where earthquakes came from and being introduced by a video to tectonic plates, defined as pieces of a cracked shell that rest on the hot, molten rock of Earth’s mantle that fit snugly against one another. The heat from radioactive processes within the planet’s interior causes the plates to move, sometimes toward and sometimes away from each other. Basically, I interpreted this idea as earth as a huge cracked egg. I had no contact with the professor or the rest of the class and received an annoying B-. I immediately forgot everything I learned except for those shells heaving and moving on a bed of lava, people as tectonic plates, a metaphor for massive change. After all, I am a fiction writer.
So, distance learning has essentially moved across the education landscape on a bed of molten lava transforming the classroom into a grid of small, black boxes with, if present, faces of students, framed by their backgrounds with glimpses of pets, grown-ups seeking coffee and an occasional sibling demanding to be seen. I stopped classroom teaching in 2009 with an occasional return but mainly focusing on producing a writing manual and coaching private clients writing fiction or memoir or College Admission Essays but also anything connected academically to English or History.
As a classroom teacher, I never sat at my desk unless I was administering a standardized test. I walked around, I lightly touched shoulders, poked the dozing, hovered over the distracted, the disaffected and the confused. I frequently spoke from the back of the classroom or sat down in an empty desk to encourage the continuance of a discussion. I broke the fourth wall between teacher and student because it seemed counterintuitive to be protected by that huge piece of ugly furniture while they were risking being wrong, being ridiculed, or considered a teacher’s pet if they answered too many questions. We were a collective, not a dictatorship; I was frequently argued with, corrected, and laughed at. We were largely happy, and kindness was a core value.
Recently, I listened to my friend, a stunningly great teacher just awarded the highest award given to public school teachers, describe the loss of her children, empty black boxes of classes she knew intimately, knew their parents, had taught their parents, siblings, and friends, who created community while demanding and supporting excellence.
Absence was caused by the loss of a home, the loss of a grandparent, the need to use the one family computer for something else than education, alienation, and boredom. The grief she felt was clear, her job was safe, but her students were slowly losing their way, and she could not reach through the screen to assure that child that she saw them and loved them. Yes, teachers love their students even the awful ones.
“It feels like no one is really there,” a high school junior told me, “like it doesn’t matter anymore.” I asked her if she’d contacted her teacher to ask for extra help, but apparently this teacher lectured and assigned worksheets and as an ESL learner, incredibly smart, she needed more, she needed the presence and encouragement of an actual person. It isn’t her fault it; isn’t the teacher’s fault, although I questioned the wisdom of having an inexperienced teacher taking on such an important role on this lava bed. Why not team a newer teacher with a veteran and have them help one another, one brilliant with technology, the other experienced, realistic, and prepared? All I know is we are all moving across this alien landscape, trying to survive a social earthquake, doing our best but struggling.