This is the second post in our Silver Linings series on how we discovered grace in our remote learning journey.
At the end of the year, it seemed that our school was both a completely different landscape and exactly the same, in many ways: kids who liked silly, esoteric, quirky topics still like those same topics, and are attracted by new ones that have those same features; students who loved math before still love math; and gifted kids love terrible, terrible puns, whether they share them in a chat or on video. (And the teachers who love those terrible puns and eagerly share their own are still exactly those same people online, too.) In many important ways, then, remote learning did not make us change who we are, just how we connect with one another.
Demonstrations of grace abound
Acts of kindness, courtesy, and even clemency are arguably a benefit of remote learning that perhaps we did not anticipate.
No one is shocked that your sign-in was acting up; no one blames you when your video freezes; and you don’t get in trouble when your mic drops out so you can’t talk. These glitches are all inconvenient and frustrating, not just for us, but for those with whom we interact. However, in each of these instances, adults and children alike are allowing each other room for mistakes; we say we’re sorry; or ugh, I hate when that happens; or did you try this trick I learned, myself, just yesterday? The inconsistencies of technology evidently offer an unanticipated opportunity for us to be our kindest, most generous selves.
This phenomenon was observable all over — particularly on television, a business focused above all else on professional, smooth, and seamless presentation, which had to very visibly let go of that standard. An anchor working from her home office doesn’t have a team of hair and makeup professionals at hand, so she does the news without them. An interviewer in the middle of a discussion with a highly sought-after subject has their video freeze up, but the show must go on, so it does. In the middle of a complex panel discussion in which emotions are running high, a Great Dane will casually walk into the room and lick a panelist across the cheek.
In any of these cases, the circumstances are far from ideal — but perhaps that is the most concentrated form of grace we see: the room we are giving each other to make mistakes and to be imperfect. In a pre-pandemic world, the Great Dane would not have been a tolerable presence — but because of the moment we are in, everyone on the panel takes a moment to laugh (and some are clearly delighted by the dog) and the tension is utterly dispelled, because pets, and our relationships with them, are part of what makes us human (even the cat people agree), and we recognize that in one another in this moment.
From Physical to Virtual
This shift meant a number of changes to the classroom dynamics we saw among our students. For example, there was a stark difference in the way students spoke with one another in class. Gifted children often have a lot to say — which is a huge surprise to those who know them, of course — and they are often so eager to share their ideas that they talk over one another. The volume in discussions can go up and up, as you can imagine, so even our very small classes can be… exuberant…, reflecting students’ enthusiasm for participating and connecting with one another’s ideas. Let the record reflect that this perception of volume is being reported from the person serving as the school’s librarian.
(To be fair, then, it is highly likely that her understanding of what constitutes “loud” is not necessarily shared by regular non-librarian teachers, who are far less likely to shush their students in the normal course of business.)
However, in a virtual classroom, the Zoom app simply does not allow that to happen. The limits of the technology do not include full-duplex sound for multiple participants, meaning that the computer will not both send your voice to the group and allow you to hear all of them speaking. While that might be possible with only two participants on a call, a class of even four or five students and a teacher are not able to talk over one another: the app simply won’t let them, because it must choose which signal to send back to your speaker. You cannot have a Zoom classroom in which everyone is talking at once — or, rather, you can, but you can only hear one of them at a time. It’s a very different environment than the one we are used to in person.
So, humans being the highly adaptable creatures that we are, we change. Students gradually came to understand that though they might want to interject something, the technology did not always allow that to happen.
And so, a great miracle happened: they waited… and listened to each other.
That waiting, it turns out, allowed some of our students to speak up in those brief moments of quiet when no one else was speaking. Technological limits actually created behavior change in our students that resulted in participation from a wider range of voices, which is always a good thing in education, and one upon which good teachers usually must expend a great deal of effort. It seems that in pushing the children physically apart from each other, the pandemic created room for quieter children to step forward and express themselves more clearly.
(The feedback loop on this is pretty quick: if you try to talk over someone else, no one can hear and appreciate your witty comment; it might as well not have happened. That’s an immediate and complete obliteration of the positive-but-distracting social feedback of chuckling peers that an in-person environment might offer.)
At the same time, we also saw students whose efforts to connect with their classes were truly humbling: a Lower School student needed to use both a cell phone and a laptop to have a strong enough connection to class, and somehow managed to juggle both, every day. An Upper School student lost power and network connectivity at home on our last day of school, but was undaunted, joining in from the family minivan (read: charging station), parked next to a store with wi-fi. It wasn’t just teachers who appreciated that kind of commitment, but fellow students, as well, who were impressed with such dedication — and, importantly, told their classmates so. These are moments of social connection actually made possible because of social distancing.
So in this time of tremendous uncertainty, we realize that remote learning offered a surprising benefit: room to appreciate how awkward and bumbling and glitchy our lives as human beings can be. The universality of the experience gave us a gift we did not see coming — and we would be remiss if we failed to see it now: grace. For ourselves and for one another, in a time when we perhaps need it more than ever.
- Click to read the first in our Silver Linings series on demonstrating failure.
- The National Organization for Gifted Children has published NAGC at Home with best practices in online teaching.
- And as mentioned above, teaching empathy and respect is always a good thing in education.
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