COVIDucation

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Photo by Calvin Tran

We all fled to our homes, with little warning, and certainly without a clue that we’d never be gathered as a class, this class, ever again.

We spent the first few days with our families, figuring out what this new normal looks like and scouring stores for toilet paper.

Then I reached out to my students, by email, by video conference, and planned out enrichment activities while my school district figured out what schooling while sheltering at home looks like.

No one knows.

But I knew where to start trying to figure it all out—A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. I’d read the book years ago and it’s been infecting my craft in all the time since. Infecting, because it burrowed itself deep into how I teach, how I motivate my students to learn.

I worked backwards in my re-reading, starting with the last two paragraphs:

“That moment of fusion between unlimited resources (referring to the internet) and a bounded environment creates a space that does not simply allow for imagination, it requires it. Only when we care about experimentation, play, and questions more than efficiency, outcomes, and answers do we have a space that is truly open to the imagination.

And where imaginations play, learning happens.”

Right now, world, state, and local political leaders, public health officials, and the medical community should be concerned with “efficiency, outcomes, and answers,” but teachers, thrust into remote education without a bit of training, have a responsibility to the students we serve to lead them to learning by creating a flexible space where “experimentation, play, and questions” reign. 

A space where students can continue learning while living in a world upside down, radically different than any of us have ever experienced.

What might this look like?

Different for every teacher, every subject, as they respond to the needs of their students. For me, a writing and journalism teacher, I stripped down my syllabus to four lines from Mary Oliver’s poem “Sometimes”:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

I would hope all teachers, no matter the subject, would be able to make that subject applicable to students’ lives as they’re lived, right now.

So what might be the results of my four-lined syllabus, one that prioritizes questions? Well, I just revised it, so it will take some time to see what students come up with, but I do have a few early examples.

Camelia let herself be astonished by the sound of falling rain.

Sandra tweeted how she has “really found some courage in myself,” hoping she “can confidently express [herself] without any worthy.”

Anna wants to break out her old analog, film-based, SLR Minolta camera to “document how the world has changed during COVID-19.” You see, she’s astonished by how people have changed, how their relationship to each other and their environments have changed, and she’s going to use that camera to pay attention. I can’t wait for her to tell about her findings.

Then there’s Justin, who, upon listening to an episode of John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed podcast, was left “grappl[ing] with the nature of luck, merit, and fairness.” And so the 10 minutes of writing I asked students to do after listening to the podcast turned into 14 pages and 10 graphs, “pseudosystematic visuals that helped give shape to [his] ideas.”

Had I been concerned with trying to re-create an exact (and efficient) virtual replica of my brick and mortar classroom, expecting exact outcomes and answers from students, dangling a reward (points, a grade) over their head, they would’ve checked the box and moved on to what was more pressing in their life.

infinite expansion

But because I gave them, hopefully, a purpose to their learning, to live a life, their life, they experimented, they played, they learned. Learning “not as some verifiable end-form, but [learning] as growing, changing, maybe even culturally transforming” (Geoffrey Sirc).

There’s no way every student will be moved to write for hours like Justin did, and I don’t expect them to. But I hope to lead them to discover for themselves “kernels of infinite expansion” that will “flourish later in interesting ways” (Sirc) and motivate their learning for years.

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