Guest Blogger Rachel Hegreberg
I’ll say what everyone is thinking: 2020 has been a dumpster fire and distance learning sucks. It may not be the most eloquent way of wording it, but it’s honestly a lot more polite than the terms and phrases that my students have been using to describe their thoughts on school.
I’ve been working with a group of High School and Middle School students from a charter school for at-risk students for the last month and a half. With a background (and almost degree) in Elementary Education, this was definitely a struggle. These students weren’t amused by my cutesy ice breakers, my silly jokes, or the fact that I referred to the group as a whole as “friends”. They saw through it. I had to be authentic, which meant pulling out the sarcasm, snark and sass. I had to be genuine. I noticed that students connected to me more when I wore more casual clothes, and didn’t wear makeup. Still, it was hard to build relationships with students I couldn’t see. It was rare that more than 2 of them would turn their cameras on at any given time, and getting verbal responses was a chore at times. My host teacher always provided opportunities for the students to speak about their feelings, how life is going, etc., as a way to connect with each other, and we used that to start building relationships. However, the most beneficial way to connect and bond with the students, I learned, was doing things outside of class time. For example, every Saturday, we hosted a game of Among Us (a whodunnit type game), and talked over Discord (a voice chat service) while we played.
Teaching virtually also proved to be quite a challenge, and I applaud those who have been doing it for so long. I was tasked with teaching and leading a math help session, and I struggled the first couple times, trying to work everything out. My makeshift document camera caused everything to be incredibly blurry, or upside down. I couldn’t use a memo pad on my phone without extreme echo issues. Once I finally got a whiteboard setup that worked, the unit was pretty much over.
However, my biggest takeaway from virtual learning this year is the inequity of it. When we switched to distance learning, the assumption was made that all students had internet access, a reliable computer, caregivers at home to help, etc. The reality is that a large percentage of students don’t have the necessary materials to do online learning. They can’t “just go to the library”, especially amidst a pandemic. Some schools, like the one I was at, are able to provide Chromebooks for each student because their school has less than 50 students, and they were also able to setup hot spots. Not many public schools/districts are able to do that. Some students may not be able to sit and focus for a 2 and a half hour lecture. Some older students may have to go to work due to their guardians being laid off, or some may have to provide childcare for younger siblings. There are a lot of inequitable factors when it comes to distance learning, and education in general. Distance Learning made things a lot more prominent and visible to families and lawmakers.
I see running jokes from parents, saying things like “You lied, my kid is not a joy to have in class”, which is because parents are not teachers. Your home is not a classroom. Kids behave differently in different environments, and they need the mental stimulation from other kids to thrive off of. Famous Psychologist Albert Bandura even stated that humans are social creatures, and that we develop and learn behaviors from others. Lev Vygotsky, another psychologist of note in the education field discusses the importance of social interaction in education, and the importance of a teacher. Teachers help scaffold student learning, and keep them in their Zone of Proximal Development, or what they can do with a little bit of assistance. Most parents are not trained to do this on their own, and even with the teacher supplying everything they possibly can, it doesn’t beat in-person learning.
Virtual Learning does not support the social, emotional, or physical development of children. The students I have been observing this last month and a half are so mentally and emotionally worn down. None of them are getting physical activity, and they don’t know how to interact with each other anymore. It’s as if we’re seeing the Tower of Babel all over again, and everyone is speaking a different language.
I’m learning a lot through this experience, don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to work with my amazing host teacher had it not been for virtual learning. However, the circumstances are not ideal, and I’m always a little stressed.
I’ll step off my soapbox and let you get back to your social media doom-scrolling, but just remember to be patient with your students and their teachers during these times of uncertainty.