(Note: I wrote this just after the March 2020 school shutdown)
The students are present, but where’s the school? Housing. Food. Clothing. Medicine. Computer. Internet. Education. It’s roughly in that order. Education can only really happen when everything else is in place.
School closures reveal the fragility of so many children in need every day. With the likelihood that most, if not all, children will be home for the unforeseeable future, some corporations and public resources are already helping to provide access to the basics. I hope that we reach every child in need.
So, let’s presuppose we can get students online in a warm, comfortable room with three square meals. We still have a major problem. Teachers’ carefully planned lessons were upended on short notice to switch to remote online learning.
We have a lingering assumption that the Internet is best used as a place to go and find resources for teaching and learning. But then what? Will students read an article or watch a video and then answer some questions? Will their answers be submitted, assessed, and turned into a grade in the gradebook? I anticipate we will see a lot of that as educators do their best to piece together their classroom lessons as packets to complete and implement curriculum guides.
What could we do instead? What should we do instead?
If we will encourage, allow, and support our students and teachers to find their rhythm and harmony amidst this most dissonant of times, we may rediscover what we already know about the importance of student interest (Dewey, 1913) and student behavioral, emotional, and cognitive engagement (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, and Paris, 2004). The well-respected and prolific educators who write erudite curriculum guides have never met my son, so they cannot possibly know when his mind is most receptive to the ideas presented in the order prescribed. And too many worksheets will deaden the learning experience.
The whole system just crashed. The four walls of the classroom disappeared and teachers have been forced to drop their current practices. Without any prior experience or background in this approach, the revolution, it seems, will be televised. A remote learning environment offers educators the perfect opportunity to individualize and differentiate instruction. To follow student interest. Engage them in the process of their own education.
Truth is, we teachers have been struggling to combat and counteract the distractions from the Internet in our classrooms for a number of years now. This is a generation raised on social media, video games, and Youtube. And now we have to meet them on their turf. We’re busy trying to keep them occupied, and they’re busy trying to keep themselves entertained. In the midst of this national crisis we have an opportunity to pivot.
What is left when schools cannot meet? Interests and passions. Class never ends.
This generation has a lot to teach us about what it means to be online and have the Internet at our disposal. Many of them are already active and alive there. When we network and connect in person in the same physical space, we feel a presence, a dynamic, a vibe, and we use our collective knowledge and brainstorming power to think, do, and create.
During COVID-19 quarantine, the Internet is our network and our connection to each other; it is how we can feel a presence with each other when we cannot be in the same physical space; it is a direct conduit to share our collective knowledge, modify it, develop it, and create new products and projects. The Internet is far more than a place to go like your local educational curriculum store stocked with workbooks and pre-prints and laminates. Its power resides in its immediacy and its continuity. We can connect our students with ideas right away and collaborate in real time. We can find brainstorms that others have published, extend them, make them our own, and develop new concepts, projects, and products. Discover, join, amend, publish. Schools can change.
The Internet allows entrance into perpetually growing libraries and storehouses of projects and information. Teachers and students can use the connectivity of the Internet to make, do, and create, rather than fill in blanks, answer scripted questions, respond to obvious prompts, or repeat exercises with slightly different information.
Schools have fantastic mission statements. Go back to those for guidance on the learning objectives we have for our students. If we want critical thinkers and problem solvers who are compassionate to others, we should question how much we “worksheet” them instead of engaging with them. This goes for teachers as well. Let’s engage the teacher as a learner, particularly with how to master the computer.
Computers in the classroom have offered potential for students and teachers to break out of their traditional practices. The earliest teaching machine created by Dr. Sidney Pressey in the 1920s had a handful of buttons and was a mechanical device designed to emphasize correctly answering questions. Over the years, the primitive teaching machine became the powerful computer of today, and we are still struggling to know what to do with them.
When we view the computer mostly as a way to more quickly deliver reading material, take a quiz, grade a quiz, and input grades for families and administrators, we overlook its versatility. When we view the computer mostly as a way to type and send out documents, we overlook its complexity. Computers are powerful brains that we can control with programming language. The thinking we can do with computers by programming them is limitless.
The teachers who do not know how to code can learn right alongside the students. Tynker, CodeAcademy, Code.org, MakeCode, the list goes on. There are many programming platforms already online for every age and stage. Programming can also happen inside of Minecraft: Education Edition for an immersive experience. Taking control of one’s computer is an important power that teachers and students all need. Programming intersects with every content area and is an essential literacy for all of our teachers and students. Teachers never have time to learn these skills. This emergency presents us with an opportunity to do just that.
We are already deciding about postponements of state testing, prom, and graduation. The CDC has already published considerations and recommendations for school closure as long as twenty weeks. There are millions of students wondering what we are going to do as we try to make school feel meaningful and safe. This is our opportunity to show them that we are just as adaptable as they are.
We have tremendous work ahead to provide daily services for children. Also reconfiguring how we “do school” will not be simple, but it is possible by rethinking how we work, what work we do, and why we do it. A collaborative and flexible approach will not only lead the way in revisioning schools to finally prepare our children for the 21st century, but can breathe new equity and access into our programs. We can reassess and change each day. Teachers have always been on the front lines. Now, more than ever, we need their intelligence, bravery, and creativity.
(If you made it this far, thanks for reading — let’s keep pivoting!)