Of Virtual Classes and 7th Grade Teddy Bears
When I logged in to Google Meet for our first Humanities 7 class on Monday, the very first remote learning class for our seventh graders, I saw one of my students already online peering questioningly at the screen.
Her face lit up as my video went live and I unmuted my mic, and we greeted each other. As every student’s face appeared, they were all smiling and waving . Tentatively and with some silent space in between people speaking at first, they gradually broke into the kind of hubbub you would expect on a first day back from break.
My goal in planning our first online class was to keep things as familiar as possible. Throughout the fall and winter, we had begun every class with “student announcements” and then moved on to do our read-aloud. So when most of us (a few had connection issues which by now have been mostly solved) were there, I started calling on them one by one.
Announcements ranged from “I had a good break…” to “I got my lower braces on.” to “I haven’t left the house in four days and I’m kind of bored” to “I’ve only leave the house when my mom makes me go on a walk with her” to “I’m so angry at kids who aren’t staying home and are getting together with their friends.”
Except for the braces part, and given that I have been able to go out on a socially distanced run most days, and that I’m extending my anger to everyone of any age willfully flouting expert advice, I could relate.
“So I think that’s all the announcements? (…) Cool. Okay, let’s do morning reading.” Random cheering and settling back to get comfortable as one of them said, “We should all mute our mics so there isn’t a lot of background noise.” and I add, “Great idea, and please know I’ll be pausing more frequently than I normally would to see if y’all have anything you want to say along the way, since I can’t see you while I’m sharing my screen.”
We’re currently reading The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, and Harper Collins had kindly given me permission to continue with it online. My students are pretty tuned in to social justice issues, and strong in their opinions. This morning was no exception. And yet…
… they just looked so young. There’s a strength and power in these kids that I sense so strongly and which, coupled with their personal sense of agency, can give the impression they are older than they are. But, strong and capable as they can be, they are in fact 12 and 13.
One of my students is a particularly fierce social justice advocate, and she did not hold back in this discussion. But as she was railing against racism and the injustice of power imbalances, she was clutching a teddy bear. And when we finished the reading for the morning and waved good-bye, my eyes misted over.
“Can we just hang out?”
This morning we had an optional check-in (the online version of “choice time” periods when we’re in a physical classroom together) but, since it was the first, nearly everyone showed up because they thought they were supposed to. We cleared that up, I explained next steps, I answered a few questions, and then I said, “Well, I think that’s all we have to do. I don’t want to take up any more of your time than we need, so we can go now.”
One of them immediately said, “Can we just stay and hang out and talk?” Of course they could, and they did, staying online together until the scheduled meeting shut itself off.
So much going on around us is frighteningly uncertain. How we go about schooling right now is far more important than the what, and will bring its own deep learning. Familiarity. Flexibility. Agency. Community. There are no givens in our future. But if I make these four principles the givens in our present, that’s something.
Bill Ivey is a teacher and Middle School Dean at independent Stoneleigh-Burnham School in Greenfield, Massachusetts and an active member of the New England League of Middle Schools. Stoneleigh-Burnham draws its all-girl student population from local communities, other states, and 10 foreign countries.