Today in our ZOOM meeting, one of my students tried to get one over on me.
I sat at the bureau in my guest bedroom, surveying a gallery of 7th grade faces lined up in little boxes on my laptop like the opening scene of the Brady Bunch.
Lilly was lying on her bed face up, almost definitely scrolling on her cell phone.
Pha’rrel was eating a cookie as he tried to fit his overgrown curls under a gray hoodie.
And Jimmy was smiling at me with the cheesiest close up you ever saw in your life.
The smile was so wide. The eyes were so glassy. The face was so still.
“Jimmy, did you put up a picture of yourself on your camera!?” I asked.
Somewhere miles away he laughed, apologized and took it down.
If we were back in the classroom, I probably would have come down on him.
He used to sit in the back of the room, face buried in his iPad, ear buds plugged into his brain and his work done in the most careless but high-speed fashion possible.
About once a week I had to take away some device just so his Internet-rattled mind could pay attention.
What am I to do now? Those apps and devices are the only thing connecting him to even the most rudimentary schooling.
He still wants to appear to be paying attention, appear to be done with whatever useless crap I am having him do so he can play Fortnite, watch YouTube videos or text – all behind a digital mask of innocent concentration.
So I moved on.
We read a passage together and I noticed Melanie had her eyes closed.
Not just that. She was in her comfy sweats, cuddled under the covers with a kitten curled under her elbow purring away.
“Melanie?” I say.
“Melanie, did you hear what we just read?”
She’d do that in class sometimes, too. She’d be zonked out, her head plastered to the desk in a puddle of quickly congealing drool. Sometimes it was pretty hard to wake her.
I remember conferencing with her and her mom trying to find out if there was anything wrong – but, no, she was simply misusing the privilege of picking her own bedtime.
How was I to keep her awake online? I couldn’t shake the desk, rattle her papers or even let my voice naturally get louder as it gained proximity.
I had to let her sleep.
Oh and what’s this? Was that Teddy finally joining the ZOOM Meeting 20 minutes in?
I clicked to let him join and immediately it was clear that he was missing something important.
“Teddy? Is that you?” I said.
“Yeah, hey, Mr. Singer.”
“Ted, you forget something?”
“Ted, your shirt?”
He looks down at his naked torso.
“Oh, I haven’t gotten dressed yet.”
“Uh, we can see that, Buddy. Why don’t you turn your iPad around and put on a shirt and pants? Okay?”
These are just some of the hurdles you face as an online teacher.
Ever since the Coronavirus pandemic shuttered schools across the country, teachers like me have been asked to finish up the year with students via the Internet.
It’s not been exactly a smooth transition.
Getting kids attention is not an easy task under the best of circumstances. Online it’s nearly a Herculean labor.
Strangely the episodes related above aren’t even close to the worst of it.
More than students’ attempts to message each other through the lesson or the constant screaming in the background at some kids homes or the vacant stares of the child with ADHD whose IEP calls for teacher proximity and eye contact, but how do you do that from across town? – more than all of that is the silence.
The empty, deafening silence of the majority of kids who don’t even show up.
I’ve been doing this for three weeks now and I average about 40% participation.
Some days a class might be almost full. Another day there might be two kids.
I know it’s not necessarily the children or the parents’ fault.
We’re in the middle of a global catastrophe. Family members are sick, kids are scared, and many don’t have experience with Internet, the devices or certainly the learning platforms we’re using.
Districts can give out iPads and mobile hot spots, but not familiarity with technology, not a quiet place to work, not a safe and secure learning environment.
When a parent tells me her child is having trouble with something, I excuse him. I get it.
When a student tells me she doesn’t understand how to do something, I don’t penalize her. I try to fix the problem and ask her to give it another shot.
But when you’ve been tasked with creating almost entirely new curriculum on the fly for several different classes– and you do – it’s anticlimactic that so few kids show up to see it.
I almost don’t mind it when someone’s cat swaggers in front of the screen and flaunts its butthole for all to see.
That’s just life in the age of distance learning.
But when I design all these assignments and teach all these classes, I wish more students showed up.
My district doesn’t require me to do all this.
I could have just thrown a few worksheets up on Google Classroom and called it a day.
That’s kind of what administrators want, I think. Just review previously taught skills. Make it look like we’re doing something. And we’ll close the academic gaps next year.
But when the world shut down, my 8th graders were getting ready to read “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” You don’t really expect me to skip over that, do you?
My 7th graders were getting ready to read a gripping mystery story, “Silent to the Bone” by E.L. Konigsburg. You don’t really think I’m going to substitute that with grammar and vocabulary worksheets? Huh?
So I narrowed it all down to essentials.
I could have assigned my students to read the texts on their own and then made them write reader response journals. But I don’t think any but my most self-motivated students would have done it and even they would have lost a lot without being able to discuss it.
So I put a few assignments on Google Classroom, but most are through live ZOOM Meetings where the students and I talk through the texts together.
The 8th graders read the play version of “Anne Frank” together with me, and it’s actually going pretty well.
I’m able to display the text on the screen and move the cursor under what they’re reading.
I’ve even seen some reluctant readers improve right before my eyes.
I’ve always suggested that students put their index fingers under the words as they read, but few do it. Using ZOOM like this forces them to follow my advice.
Of course, the class is a tiny fraction of what it would be in person.
If we were still in the school building, I’m positive they’d be learning more. We’d be able to discuss more. I’d have a better read of the room. They would be less capable of hiding behind the technology.
But there is real life-long learning taking place.
It’s my most successful group.
My 7th graders are a different story.
They are the kind of class you have to explode a stick of dynamite under to get them to notice what’s right before their eyes.
And more of them actually show up. Yet much of what we’re reading seems lost on them.
They are much more dedicated to being present in body if not in spirit – and barring an exorcism, I’m unsure how to reach many of them through fiber optic cables.
Then we have my Creative Writing class – basically a journaling course taught to a different group of students every few weeks.
It’s particularly challenging because I’ve met very few of them in person before the school closed.
However the course also lends itself best to this distance learning format.
Back in the school building, I used to give students a prompt every day, explain it and then have them write. I’d go from desk-to-desk as they worked and give feedback. Once they were all done, we’d share the writings aloud.
Now online, I just give the prompts via Google Classroom, provide instruction or attach video links and leave them to it. Then I comment on what they produce.
The problem is it’s my least attended class. I have a handful of students who do all the work, but most have done nothing. And this is a traditional work-at-your-own-pace cyber class.
I’ve had much more difficulty planning the other courses. Everything had to be reinvented. You want to read along with students, you need (1) a platform where you can all talk (2) an online text, (3) a way students can catch up, (4) a way to hand in written work, (5) a way to give tests without allowing students to cheat or do the work together.
It’s been challenging especially because sometimes one online solution will simply disappear.
For example, the e-text I was using for 7th grade was taken down overnight. One day it was available. The next it was gone. So I had to scramble to find a way to make it work.
That kind of thing happens all the time.
And speaking of time, when I’m not in a ZOOM Meeting with students or programming next week’s lessons, I have to wait for assignments to come in. Back in the classroom, they used to be handed in mostly all at the same time. I could grade them and move on.
In cyber-land, they trickle in piecemeal. I’m NEVER done teaching. It could be 1 am and my phone dings that an assignment, comment or question was turned in. I could wait until later, but usually I trudge over to the computer and see what needs my attention.
Which brings me to the final challenge – managing my home and teacher-life.
I’m not just an educator. I’m a parent.
I don’t teach my daughter. I don’t assign her lessons or work. But I have to oversee what her teacher wants her to do and make sure it gets done – and done correctly.
I’ll tell her to go in the dinning room and do three BrainPop assignments, or sign on to Edmentum and finish this diagnostic test, etc.
She’s generally pretty good about things, but if I don’t watch her, she’ll play Mario Party on her Nintendo all day long.
With the wife working from home, too, I usually give her the living room, my daughter is someplace else or her room, and I’m in the office.
On the one hand, it’s nice to be busy, and the good moments where I connect with students are just as magical as in person.
But most of the time, I feel lost at sea, depressed about the news and unable to concentrate or sleep the night through.
I’ve resigned myself to this life for the next six weeks when school will end for the academic year.
Perhaps the summer will be better. Maybe we’ll be able to go out and life will get somewhat back to normal.
However, I am not blind to the possibility that I’ll have to pick up again online in August and September.
School could start up with distance learning in 2020-21. Or we could have to quickly rush back to the Internet after a second wave of COVID-19 crashes upon us.
I keep thinking of the opening of Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities”:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
The fact that life and schooling will be different after this crisis ends is both encouraging and terrifying.
There’s so much we could fix and finally get right.
But from what I see us doing as the crisis unfolds, my hope dwindles with each passing day.
Stay safe and stay optimistic.
But let’s not stay cyber.
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