Quarantine Thoughts: Distant Learning

As students matriculate, a middle school teacher considers what has been lost.

There is a video of me on YouTube. In it, my eyes dart around as I look distractedly at the icons and hyperlinks on my screen. The teenagers behind me in uniforms of black sweaters and khaki pants look curiously at the delayed image of my face. A student who is usually squirrelly squints intently and instructs me on what to click next, before commanding another student to double check the stream link on Google Classroom. He is totally engaged, hellbent on helping a “boomer” — I am 32 — configure a YouTube livestream so school can continue, at least in a dim imitation of itself, during the inevitable school closure and quarantine. This was in the last few minutes on the last day of school before the teacher’s unions were able to prod Oakland Unified School District into announcing school closures through spring break.

In the video, I seem to be slightly giddy at the prospect of becoming a cringe-inducing vlogger. I am laughing and looking at my students offscreen. “This is better than nothing, right?” I ask a tech-savvy student who I can usually count on for validation. “Sure,” he says.

This will surely be a punishing experience for some students to have to watch me on YouTube. A platform home to so many things their generation loves will be tainted by my online lectures on the straw-man fallacy. They will be in the stream’s chatroom, asking and answering questions, or they will spam “f” and pretend to listen while shooting arrows at a blocky skeleton in Minecraft, which is apparently what you do when you want to snarkily mourn a fellow soldier in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. 

That first week, I pumped all of my anxiety about the virus into work. I posted links to the YouTube streams on Google Classroom along with the assignment for the day. I tested out the online quiz platform Quizizz, the sterile-yet-useful Actively Learn, the grammar program NoRedInk, and even a hip-hop based vocabulary program called Flocabulary. Most programs are sillier than they are useful, and I quickly learned I was using too many online learning tools too fast. As an educator, I tend to get stuck in the brainstorming phase. The sky is always the limit, and that is the problem. I took the demand for online learning as a challenge. I would adapt, innovate, and create at breakneck speed with no heed for what I would need to subsequently grade, follow-up on, and refine. I would shoot for the moon and fail. I would land in the sea.

Eventually, our school rolled out a much more realistic plan for online instruction. We organized for students to borrow Chromebooks if they needed one. We moved to a block schedule, arranged small group tutoring sessions, and created disengagement trackers. Judging by other teachers in my teaching credential cohort, our school moved relatively quickly and efficiently. That being said, I am only in my third year as a teacher, so I can’t speak with authority on much of anything education-related except for the promise of failure. I find small successes in students’ glint-eyed curiosity and vehemont debates, but at the end of the day, I am wracked with guilt for those who remain disengaged — those who I can’t quite fully reach.

YouTube Live posed a good deal of issues: how do we make sure students are actually attending class? Do we count their names? Do we make them post their notes from lecture? Does it matter if they are disengaged? Can we just teach those who want to show up? Won’t that inevitably make those students who need more support fall further and further behind? If we send them off in groups of five to have a “Google Doc Debate” what is to keep them from turning the font-size to 112 and repeatedly pasting “pew-pew-pew” until the document is so slow it takes a minute to register a single click? I could only ask nicely that they not mute me and fire up a game of Call of Duty, or tend to their farm in Animal Crossing. “Please don’t troll” I would say, and move to the next slide on the rhetorical techniques used by Sanders and Biden in the latest debate.

We’ve since moved from YouTube Live to Zoom, which brings its own complications. Students figured out how to turn their faces into green-screened images of anime characters. I hear 3-year-olds crying in the background. Some students care for younger siblings and are falling behind in their work as a result. Few have a quiet place to be alone and study.  “Please mute yourself if there is background noise,” I say. They unmute themselves or use the “raise hand” function if they have a question. I plead that they please just be respectful — that they reach out to friends who might be lonely. I keep lecturing and asking questions. I ask them to “Please, just be decent.”

I think now more than ever we educators have to accept a sense of failure at a higher degree of magnitude than might be comfortable. We have the opportunity to help families by giving children a sense of structure and something to focus on other than the pandemic. We can provide a space for students to talk and “hang out,” if only digitally. During a social-emotional learning session, I ask them: “How are we staying sane? Which friends can we reach out to who might be lonely at this time? What can we do to stay active?”

One of my students heard their auntie might have the virus, but they were too scared to ask their parents anymore questions. I tell them I am so sorry and that I can’t imagine what they’re going through. I tell them to help their parents cook and clean. Some say they are bored. Others are enjoying the new chunk of screen time that quarantine inevitably affords. 

I worry about my students. I tell them to take care of their families first, help out in the kitchen, walk outside, jump around. I throw together an online D&D campaign on Roll20.net, and a group is now committed to meet up and quest weekly. We play fun Marvel, Disney, and pop music trivia on Kahoot, or pictionary on Skribbl.io. Still, no matter what I do, the moments of shared joy are blotted out by that sense of uncanny absence, of failure and loss. We can talk optimistically about all the tech tools we are adding to our toolbox, or about how a struggling student is now actually getting more attention than ever, but we cannot deny what is gone and cannot be gotten back. The live debates, literature circle discussions, Socratic Seminars, and rituals that close out their 8th grade year are simply irreplaceable.

In spite of quarantine and empty highways, the air still smells of spring. The jasmine tangled up with the chain-link fences around my school still make the wind smell sweet. I’m feeling wistful for my own experience as a teenager, smoothing out a graduation gown and squinting into the audience of yawning parents. Our school usually celebrates the graduating class with a trip to Great America, water balloon fights, and a park BBQ. After a year emphasizing academic rigor, we are usually able to manufacture some sort of catharsis before saying goodbye. 

We had plans to arrange something awkward over our glitchy and crowded streaming platforms, but instead we opted to have students drive by and grab their diplomas. Our English Language Arts tutor had even convinced some students to perform Vitamin C’s “Graduation” on acoustic guitar. Instead, our dean has planned for us to come together on a TBD Saturday in the fall.

In the meantime, we had a dissonant yet crushingly precious online karaoke session followed by a drive-through farewell. Students drove by, grabbed their diplomas, their grades, a letter from their sixth grade selves, and a set of sound-canceling headphones, which was where our Great America money went. We hope it will help with their inevitable distance-learning in the fall. It was a little bleak, but mostly sweet. Inevitably, our recreation of an end of the year graduation in the fall will not feel the same. Still, we will try to find some joy there as we have tried to find joy in our online lessons, even in increasingly desperate circumstances — it’s what we do as teachers. We will come together, grill up some burgers, and throw our caps into the sun.

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