By Adam Johnston
This week, we have a guest post from a colleague at Weber State University. In addition to teaching at Weber State, Adam Johnston is also the author of the blog First Drafts in which he writes about education, science, and personal experiences. In the post below, Adam discusses the shift in our methods of teaching brought about by COVID-19, stresses the importance of managing our personal expectations, and suggests using this moment to think about what our overarching educational goals should be. Click here to access the original post.
In the face of pandemic and social upheaval, what teachers and families and students are doing right now is nothing short of heroic. They’ve been sent away from their buildings and communities yet are told to still conduct school, and a steady stream of accolades are being appropriately shouted from our socially distant social media streams. Teachers I work with in the K-12 settings and my colleagues in university programs are building new vehicles and plans and schedules and methods on the fly, while they’re flying, and it’s all quite extraordinary. And our students — the two in my house are navigating all of this newness in the face of trauma as they try to finish a senior year of high school and a second year of college, respectively — are wading through completely new arrangements, unfamiliar structures, and major tectonic shifts. Daughter 1 still has belongings and a made bed in a dorm room hundreds of miles away that she essentially evacuated at the start of spring break; Daughter 2 is facing the reality of graduating from our K-12 system without a formal graduation ceremony with the people she’s essentially shared her entire lifetime with. These are just the two student stories right here before me, in our privileged home. There are literally millions of others, each with their own story.1
These are difficult times; I admire all that everyone, everywhere is doing.
And yet, I am quite certain that we’re going at it all wrong, for understandable reasons.
To be clear, I don’t think this education roller coaster was avoidable and I don’t have an immediate solution. School is in a massive mode of triage, and we’re doing the best we can in the moment with what we have in front of us. Let’s finish the year with that in mind, no judgements. And please, let’s not beat ourselves up when our teaching and our learning isn’t the same in these formats. In fact, let’s not even pretend that they could be.2
Schools are sacred spaces, places we’ve designed specifically to bring people together to learn, for their current selves and for our future citizenship and society. Sitting among the very greatest human inventions like poetry, science, democracy, beer, libraries, and music, I think that education should top the list. The problem is that we don’t realize that it is, in fact, invented — it didn’t come from out of the blue, after all, not handed to us on stone tablets — and that this means that we also have the ability to change it. At the same time, I think that schools are incredibly beautiful and beneficial and egalitarian and, overall, good, even as there’s always room for improvement and reform.
The latest model of education, a century old at least, is a vision of all children in America all walking up concrete steps and into congregating classrooms and spending roughly 180 days in these spaces among friends and caring teachers and chalkboards and frog dissections and readers and math manipulatives and recesses and maybe a unit on square dancing that doubles for both PE and music.3 Teachers love their students, and I don’t say this as a throw-away, trite line. I see this firsthand in classrooms. And, I know firsthand that students love their teachers. For all of the pains that we might associate with school and schooling, kids are walking up those steps into rooms where they are loved for who they are, where they collaborate and work with peers, and where they have a system that, for the most part, is designed to focus on the needs of each human. This may sound as if there should be rainbows and butterflies and fairy dust sprinkled about this fantasy scene, but I’ve worked with enough teachers, students, and classrooms that I can verify this is as true as my love for my own children.
In that genuinely caring context, schools and teachers create and cultivate community. There are reading circles and discussions; teachers know how to pair students together, and they know how to separate them; students share with teachers, in one way or another, that they’re excited or scared or having a tough go of things. I’m confident that every teacher worth their salt has a story of when a student, Kindergartener, 4th grader, high school senior, or pre-med major came to them crying. And I’m confident that each of those teachers knows about the celebrations in their students’ lives. And even when they don’t know the details they know when the kids walking through the door carry excess burdens or are lifted by extra joys in their lives. And in the mix of all this, teachers adapt to their students. Like I said, these are acts of love, hosted in brick buildings paid for with taxpayer dollars all over the country.
A couple years ago I reviewed the finalists for our university’s major teaching award. In the process, the other committee members and I pored over nominations and piles of supporting material, but the real joy of the task was in visiting these teachers’ natural classroom habitats.4 They were all expert in their fields and engaging in the classroom, well organized and clear. They were centered on students’ ideas and guided them not just through the details, but the big picture and purpose of a given teaching episode. I saw this in chemistry as well as in social work, in economics and education as well as in journalism. Yet, the teaching expertise and classroom seemed secondary to something else. The subtle but clear commonality in each of these extraordinary instructors was how they related to their students on a personal level. They revealed details about themselves and they knew their students, the personal stories, affects, efficacies, and histories. The connections and interactions were vibrant and joyful, simultaneously gluing and stimulating the class. In all this, it wasn’t merely a dissemination of information, but the building of relationships.
In contrast, I recently remembered and re-read Isaac Asmiov’s classic kid’s story, The Fun They Had. This was a futuristic vision when it was written in the 1950s, and still was when I read it as part of my reading packet around 1980. Set in the year 2157, the premise is that two kids are contrasting their version of a “teacher,” essentially a computer as envisioned before computers (or even microprocessors) were commonplace, with our human version. The children had to have their teachers tuned and occasionally repaired to deliver lessons in their own homes; and students turned in handwritten work that these machines evaluated. The plot twist here is that Tommy has found “a real book” in an attic and they talk about how ridiculous these pages are and how it comes from a time when schools were places children would gather and teachers were real people. As Margie considers the arithmetic lesson for the day at the close of the story:
She was thinking about the old schools they had when her grandfather’s grandfather was a little boy. All the kids from the whole neighborhood came, laughing and shouting in the schoolyard, sitting together in the schoolroom, going home together at the end of the day. They learned the same things so they could help one another on the homework and talk about it.
And the teachers were people . . .
The mechanical teacher was flashing on the screen: “When we add the fractions 1/2 and 1/4 —”
Margie was thinking about how the kids must have loved it in the old days. She was thinking about the fun they had.
I suspect there are students, now, thinking about the fun they had only weeks ago. And they have real people as teachers, on the other end of an internet connection that even Asimov hadn’t imagined two centuries of technology could create. These are the same loving teachers, dedicated instructors, who host students in the learning environments in our neighborhoods schools when the doors are open. And surely, I know, they do all they can to sustain these relationships in more meaningful ways than Margie and Tommy’s “teachers.” But I also know teachers who, daily, break down in tears because they cannot possibly connect with their students in the ways they can when they’re all sharing the same physical space.
Besides interpersonal connections, there are clear advantages to working with students face-to-face. These are interwoven with the way that we’ve deliberately crafted our school system. We have lab benches and sinks, performance spaces and whiteboards, recess spaces and reading circles. The simple act of walking down a hallway as a class is an act of collaboration; singing together in the music room is a community celebration. Walk by an old elementary school on a warm spring day and listen for the joy that seeps out of open windows.5 If all that there was to learn could be had by reading, then we’d simply teach the kids to read and then send them home with a collection of books. When you’ve finished those, come back and get more; and when you’ve finished all the books then we’ll give you a piece of paper that you can put on your wall and gain yourself admission to a new school with new books.
This is, at its face, absurd. We know that there’s more to learning than just reading books, or at least that the reading of the books or the listening to the lectures or the watching of the presentation doesn’t itself turn into learning. There’s a working with and among one another that creates new meaning. Application and practice create new levels of understanding. Gaining a sense of self and making connection to something greater are important, if not critical, pieces of what we aim for in our schooling. Students talk about this in their graduation speeches, that there’s greater meaning and application and synthesis, and that schools aren’t really about the delivery of information into students’ cognitive processors. We’ve all had the privilege of experiencing this in our schools, and our students talk about these learningful outcomes and how they result from being on a debate team, a basketball team, a historical debate, a physics lab. They talk about what they’ve learned through all of the connections they’ve built and interactions they’ve had, with teachers and students and others.
The community, relationships, direct interconnections with one another—these are all the things we can’t expect from online education, now or ever, simply because this isn’t what online education has to offer. Rather than wring our hands and lament this, we should celebrate it. Let’s look at all that our in-school education does for us and herald this as one of society’s great accomplishments; and then let’s not expect online to do the same.
But maybe we can do something fundamentally different with online education in the future. It can’t be the same as the schools we now have, but it could be something else, something additional, not a replacement but an altogether different system with an altogether different goal.
As an analogy, let’s take trains.
I love to ride the train, big or small, near or far, and in so many ways it’s the ideal form of transportation for me to get from my town to another that could be 30 minutes, an hour, or two hours away. I have to plan ahead and be conscious of the schedule and a few various regulations. The infrastructure for the train, right-of-way and tracks, employment of the operators, and all that background operation have to be engineered and arranged, but once it’s there I have an ideal way to get myself from point A to point B. The arrangement is so ingrained into a community that I could easily take it for granted.6
So I imagine the painful scenario that follows if, one day, trains are suddenly closed. After a brief pivot, everyone scrambles and looks for the alternative transportation mode, and while I am really upset about the lack of my smooth and fast transport, I have faith that I’ll be given an alternative, a “plan B.”7 I imagine being handed a backpack and some walking sticks, and perhaps someone checks to see if I have the right shoes on my feet and they offer an alternative pair of sneakers in case mine aren’t quite up to the task. Am I then setup to succeed?
I have all the tools of transit, albeit substitutions. But it should be obvious that I’m not going to walk the entire length of the tracks. And no one could expect me to go at the same pace as the train. With this new mode, I have limitations. I need to change my destination and expectations. And, I’d change my perspective and gaze.
This would be a completely new experience. I like walking. I love putting stuff into backpacks. I might even appreciate the new shoes to try. I won’t cover the same distance, and it won’t be as fast, but with each step I’m going to see different things than I would on the train. Everything goes by slower but the concentration on specific features would be more intense. I won’t get as far, but I’ll get somewhere. Details will be crisper, the pace will be my own, and there will be choices about how I make my way.
These walks won’t replace the train; they’ll make me appreciate it all the more. But they’ll also help me see what the alternatives will bring if, if, I’m so willing to use the new mode in a way that matches what it’s good for. At-home learning could be self-paced and introspective, the chance to break away from the regular commute. There are opportunities to take notice of what might be in my backyard or where the sun sets at night8; my writing could take on a different form, focus, and structure9; I’m going to make a lunch from scratch instead of brown-bagging it or waiting in the cafeteria line. These things are all small, but they still provide opportunities to know my world and build experiences in a different way.
All the while, I’ll miss school and appreciate that community, the collaboration, the love inherent in that space. I’m confident we’ll get the train running again — a faith I have simply because I can’t imagine our society or my own personal world without it. So, this introspective, self-contained time away from the formality and congregation of our school buildings might be a good chance for us to appreciate what traditional schools do for us as people, individually and collectively. We might have a better perspective on what we value and prioritize for schooling in the future — the things we can’t otherwise replicate.
For now, and for any other moment in the future when we don’t have our schools operating normally, let’s not try to replace the system. We can value alternatives for what they are, use them for what they are, even draw from them for additional resources and learning opportunities. But let’s not expect ourselves, even with fancy shoes, to walk at the pace or with the inherent community of a train. Let’s not expect new tools, unlearned and mostly untested and most certainly un-utilized until now, to attempt to be all that we really value about education. Let’s forgive ourselves. Let’s expect less of ourselves, our families, our teachers, and our students right now. Let’s appreciate the walk, and, next time, in the future, let’s think about how any “plan B” is not just a different tool, but something that has an altogether different purpose.
Much later, when there’s room to breathe, let’s think again about what we want from education in the first place, “the fun they had,” and if we’re using all our tools and modes in meaningful ways to reach those goals. But right now, in this moment, in these times and with these conditions, let’s breathe, give ourselves a break, share some compassion and empathy, and just get through the school year as best we can.
1 The other human member of our home, my wife, Karyn, teaches knitting classes. As I’m writing, she just walked by exclaiming how much more work she is putting into new formats for her students who are dialing in online. They’re appreciative, but replicating what she can do face-to-face is arduous, and actually impossible.
2 Watching the various classroom practices whirling around me as though I’m in an educational tornado, I asked a colleague if they’d let me into their now-online class, just to observe and understand various strategies. They were initially open, but then thought twice and said they weren’t happy enough about what they were doing to want anyone else to peek inside. I can’t blame them.
3 The meaning of “all” and our dedication to it continues to have some inconsistencies. In spite of court rulings and legislation, schools are still segregated and unequal, and we can’t ignore this. I’m envisioning a shared ideal here, that we want all children to get a K-12 education and graduate. That traces back to the early 20th century, though the legacy of our schools goes back much further, still.
4 My favorite professional task is teaching, but my second favorite is observing others teach.
5 I know that “modern” schools are often sealed up and air conditioned, but I’ve been happy to get to live next to some older buildings with no such amenities.
6 Here in Ogden, Utah, while we don’t have the same rail infrastructure as people back East or in other countries, we do have a smooth commuter rail that extends up and down the Wasatch Front and connects to light rail systems in the Salt Lake metro area. More interesting, maybe, is the fact that Ogden is a traditional hub of railroad history, being the junction near the joining of the transcontinental line 150 years ago. This brought prosperity and interesting characters (and oh so many stories and legends) to Ogden, and we’re still built on that foundation even as the rail system has been supplanted by the interstate system.
7 A dear friend and backpacking companion tells me, “Plan B is the same as Plan A, but with rain gear.” This seems simultaneously so wise and dumb. And it feels universally familiar, in backpacking or otherwise.
8 It changes position every day, and as the seasons change the amount and direction it moves changes as well. Standing on an east-west running street as the sun goes down can give you some orientation, and watching this from the same place (though different times!) on different days will provide a good comparison.
9 Let’s admit that writing in the midst of a pandemic isn’t easy, though. There have been a lot of blank screens staring back at me these days. Giving myself the diversion to write in footnotes has been a good lubricant.