Remote Learning: It Begins and Ends at Love

Yesterday, I had company for sunrise. As a result, the brain that had already crafted my morning writing while its eyes were still closed had to be redirected toward apple juice, frosted mini wheats (ORGANIC, I swear), and warm cuddly hugs for the next, oh, seventeen hours. Do the math; you are not wrong: My kids were up til midnight. I love quarantine because it means we can break all the rules and do whatever the heck we want—and no one ever has to know, except you, everyone else who reads my blog, and all of their friends, and possibly all of their friends too.

What future are we learning for?

As a teacher, as a parent, and as a human with a long view (i.e., over the hill in dog years), I'm not too worried. We are living like outlaws on the Western frontier, and if we could only accept that we have to wear these red bandanas til the cows come home, we'd all be pretty happy. The cows will come home. My little five year old guy may not learn that "th" spells "thhhhh" until he he's old enough to stop pronouncing it like ffffff anyway, and besides: Who can hear him behind the mask? Twelve, firteen, fourteen.... he'll outgrow it. I'm gambling here: I'm betting he's going to learn to read eventually. Maybe not this year but in good time. He described the sunrise yesterday as "magnificent." I think we'll be ok. 

Now, I could end there, but I want to say a little something about online learning, as a person who coached faculty in just that for many years. I only have a few muscles, but that's one of them. Flex time.

My apparently cavalier attitude about online instruction will make many teachers wring their hands. But it's not cavalier. I've worked in education for pretty much my whole career, though not public schools... and I value learning above almost all else. Our teachers are doing hero's work. They are creating sequenced instruction, at-home lessons, video instructions, and even fun weekly photo slide shows aimed at making our kids smile. Listen: Last week, I duck walked on the shores of Plymouth Harbor and sent the video to my school for a Make Way for Ducklings celebration. People, there is no street cred in duck walking; I'm sacrificing my rock and roll future for these kids. The love is real. And I have been floored by the love flowing from all of our teachers. They care so deeply about their students, they truly do want to hear about their pet lizards, and they miss the kids badly. But they want to see them in person.  Elementary teachers are people people, and teaching in person is what they do best. In person. This digital madness isn't what they signed up for. Put them back in the classroom and they know their stuff.

Some people do sign up for online learning, however, and those folks are a slightly different breed. I worked in online learning for more than ten years before I became a school teacher. The people I worked with were experts at media production, at art, at visuals, at learning theory, at writing and editing, at assessment strategies and analysis. They had PhD's in this stuff. They knew a TON about how visual engagement supports learning. They scaffolded content. Analyzed learning strategies to ensure that learning outcomes were met. They knew how to design digital content and how to choose the right technique from a wide variety of research-proven digital teaching strategies. They also knew the html code to make text flow around an image and how to make a link open in a new window. They were uproarious, edgy, insanely creative. They were not rules people and they were not really people people. But they knew their stuff, too.

Put those two stuffs together—actual teachers and the actual digital media experts—and that's where you get incredible online learning. But in the public schools, we don't have the time or the luxury or the staffing for that. So we are all doing the best we can, and overall it's not too bad. 

The problem is, there are still two other variables in this equation. (Sorry this is getting long, but it's a complex observation.) These variables: STUDENTS. And also CONTENT. Not all students want to do this stuff. Five year olds, for example, prefer Pokemon, and unless Pikachu is teaching them how to spell "the" in a Minecraft world, they may refuse to pay attention. Especially if they were raised by parents who'd rather be out on horseback in leather cowboy hats wrangling steer on the dusty plains. If the kids refuse to pay attention, there's no better way to make a trained educator and parent feel entirely helpless. Remote teaching is hard for parents who would rather be teaching their kids to ride horses, lasso cattle, then take off their dusty boots, strap on a gee-tar, and sit around the campfire making songs about the wide open plains. But don't get me wrong: learning to read and do math matters. How will we know how many cattle are missing if we can't do subtraction?

One more thing, and this is important: Not all content is best delivered in an online format. This is real. You can teach online, but you can't teach everything online. If you must go online, you actually may have to pick different things to teach. Our education standards were intended with a structured classroom in mind, preparing kids for success in a different present and a different future. Are these same content standards relevant to the life we're living and the future we're facing right now? I don't know. 

My statements are not speculative. They are research based. In my past life as director for instructional design at Berklee, I spent hours collecting and reading peer-reviewed research on effective online learning. My conclusion was that online learning works when you have the right student, the right teachers, and the right content, and you have clear learning outcomes, appropriate assessment strategies, and engaging digital media. In other words, when you have the time and resources to do it right. And you need kids who are looking for something and you have to meet their wants and their needs. 

What I'm seeing in my Google Meets is that what kids crave now is not so much content as connection. This part IS speculative, but it's how I'm interpreting what I see. As an instrumental music teacher, I have the most extra of extra subject areas, and I still have plenty of kids showing up for Google Meets every week. "Plenty" is probably overly positive. I have about 150 students. I see about 30-40 in Google Meets each week, and about 60 kids submit work online. Our Google Meets officially end after 30 minutes. I tell them that they can log off if they want to, but I'll stay on for whoever has questions. Most of them stay on longer. Some stay til the bitter end. These are the kids that are craving connection. 

These are also the kids that might turn out to be musicians some day, or maybe teachers, or writers, or doctors or dentists. Whatever they choose, I hope that they will know how to turn to music as a comfort in times of confusion and sadness, or as a way to lift hearts even higher in celebration. These are the kids that I hope someday will remember what it feels like to have an adult who cares and who will be that adult for someone else. 

Yes, we could be doing this online learning thing better, for sure, but not right now.  Not with this content, not with these students, and not in this time. This is a pandemic. Someone's grandma just died, in every class. 

While online learning is imperfect right now, I think what teachers are really doing is showing that they care about our kids and about our future—and my god, what could be more valuable? 


carolr said…
Joe and I couldn’t agree more!
Soul Mama said…
I was thinking about you guys after I posted it ... almost sent you the blog to share with him!!! ID-ers unite. Haha!