Remotely Speaking

I am spending a lot more time speaking to myself these days. These conversations are often dropped mid sentence or I’m silent and don’t reply to my own questions. Thoughts remain unattended for days. Sometimes weeks. I realize that I haven’t been a very attentive host to my own conversations and am reminded of a line I heard many years ago: “frustration is the product of unmet expectations.” This often applies to me, my own expectations of myself, events, the world. And, there are the often implicit or never clearly articulated expectations in the way that we communicate with one another.

What got me thinking about this was a post by The Mentoree here: The Mentoree

Being connected matters and I had been reflecting on the opportunities for communication and connection with students in remote teaching and learning. Because my field of study is communication, this fascinates me. And, I value student voice, but I’m troubled, conflicted. I fear my students may feel they are speaking into the abyss and this makes them apathetic. No one’s listening. We poll and question and prompt them to take control of their own learning only to wrestle it back from them in our own attempts to make it fit our curriculum, our expectations. We offer freedom and they wait, silently, for rules.

During a Google Meeting in the first few weeks of remote teaching, I asked them about the changes and challenges that they are noticing; some told me about the struggle to manage email – they had never used this mode of communication before. Since then, I have noticed four general categories of student emails. First there are the “singletons”- a one word reply with no introduction, no signature, just sure, or no, or thx. Then there are the well-coached “letter” emails complete with introduction, body paragraphs, a conclusion, and a salutation which are rare. But most often, I see the “texts” in an email which look something like this:

hey miss i was wondering if you want the annotated bib stuff in the same folder and sorry i dint do it till now 

And finally, there are the “silence” emails. These responses had me pausing to think about the contrasting use of email codes and conventions in the adult world. But then, I asked myself, “is email really the most efficient mode of communication? Does it really connect us or are the conventions merely obligatory and empty? Is the time that I spend managing my emails really the best way of building connections?” I haven’t answered myself yet, because I’m thinking; I don’t know.

What surprised me most about the student email “silences” is that they came from students who then voluntarily showed up in our weekly Google Meetings, no video camera on, but they were there, listening and not speaking. I knew then that the email message was received. They just didn’t reply. Maybe, they were thinking. Maybe, there is a teachable moment here. Maybe, there is a learnable moment here.

And, I’ve tried other forms to communicate and build a community of learners. There is the chat function in Google Classroom. I’ve tried it. Maybe not enough, but, it feels messy and clunky, and the linear thread of thoughts makes it difficult to navigate and hold a meaningful “conversation”. Some students post in the chat, without replying to others. For me, it feels artificial, inauthentic, and mechanical.

And, I have tried Flipgrid, too. Some students played along, for a bit, but the novelty wore off and since we know that teens are peak-self-consciousness, I wasn’t at all surpised when many students emailed to ask for an exemption from Flipgrid. So, I put this mode aside. For now.

I am still spending time speaking in weekly whole class Google Meetings, but they only listen and we only stay in meeting for twenty minutes. They reply in the chat function with single word responses, and when I pose questions their mics are muted, eyes and heads facing downward. They are listening but they are not speaking remotely.

Some ask to have a Google Meet individually; they have questions and we talk through their wonderings. This seems to work and we both smile as we say goodbye. I think about my expectations and decide to put them aside, to be completely flexible, to build a way of communicating using guiding principles without predetermined modes or codes or conventions. Although, I know that time spent speaking to myself will continue for a while, but at least I now know that I’m listening for opportunties for speaking remotely.




The Healing Week

During my years after graduating university I worked as an injury claims adjudicator, and the medical professionals in my office would frequently claim that any injury takes six weeks to heal. Fractured ankle? Six weeks to heal. Crushed femur? Six weeks to heal. Broken heart? Well… maybe not all types of injuries take six weeks to heal.

This week, I started noticing some settling in to routines with staff and students, an easing of the panicked emails from parents, and then looked at my calendar realizing that we are in week six of “emergency remote teaching”. I had also been noticing this unusual and sometimes sudden propensity for tears prompted by everything from an act of generosity posted on social media, to the discovery of a hand-drawn birthday card from years past during a fury of house cleaning. These were atypical ruptures of the day’s skin.

Glancing at the calender of events for this week, I noted fewer scheduled meetings, fewer workshop registrations, and wondered if this might be what the medical field declares the healing week. Maybe this is the week when life settles into routines that flow and have been streched and massaged into a workable sense. The funny thing is, I thought that I had been largely unaffected, unimpaired by this disruption in the educational world, thought that, in fact, I was productively inspired to learn more about technology, about online teaching and learning. I have been both, but, now that week six has arrived, I’m not so sure that I was addressing the dislocation.

My piriformis was actually the first responder. This muscle, always on my left side, acts up whenever I push my running too far, too fast, without adequate stretching or rest. It kept me up last night reminding me that the body remembers and will always ask for healing. The ache was deep pulling me out of the drifting descent into the unconsious world back up to the surface where it screamed for acknowledgement.

I assessed the symptoms, shifted position, and committed myself to take a day of rest from running and to use this week for healing.


Thinking like a Scientist

I’ve been reading a great deal of advice and research on remote teaching, distance learning, pandemic pedagogy, and the like but there is one call from Twitter which deserves reiteration: cite your sources. I think this is important, not only to credit the source of your inspiration, but also to recognize the source of your own growth and learning. It’s important to know the origins of your thinking, the seed of your inspiration, and to recognize the credibility of that source. 

I’ve immersed myself in the arts for much of my life and since this is my field, I often use analogy and metaphor to help me understand. But, I began my academic career in the sciences and know that longitudinal studies matter for reliability. Since few among us have much experience with teaching online during a pandemic, I now feel the need to find a meaningful comparison; I’m searching for a new COVID-19 pedagogy of praxis.

With this in mind I went for my daily run in the neighbourhood, my thoughts wandering while listening to the renowned physicist, Carlo Rovelli in conversation with Krista Tippet. His imaginative and passionate love for his field of study reminded me of the moment in high school when I fell in love with science. It fascinated me with its ceaseless questioning, its constant clarifying, and its collaborative uncovering of answers which hoped to be truths. Science gave me a sense of hope and a place to play with others and a way to experiment knowing that finding out I was wrong is still meaningful, still approaching some sense of understanding. In this moment, with my legs moving freely beneath me, I felt the good fortune which running allows me: time for reflection and contemplation, for thought experiments where mistakes in my metaphorical thinking can happen.

On this day, there was a light rain and I stopped at a red streetlight waiting for it to change, but, instead, I did. His narrative of quantum physics suddenly became understandable. His words punctured the thin veneer of my physical world creating one of those mystical moments of magical thinking where ideas both expand and collapse at the same time, where they explode and implode upon themselves. I heard him say,

Things which seem separate collapse into one and make sense…

a world of happenings not of things…

you see, a thing remains equal to itself…

a happening is limited in space and time… 

we don’t understand the world by things but by happenings…”

The light went green and my mind connected his words to teaching and learning. I created the analogy that I don’t understand my students by products (things) but by interactions (happenings). The ideas knitted previous wonderings into concepts and I thought, relationships online don’t typically happen in time and space and those “happenings” move in different ways. Maybe online happenings which are asynchronous are stretched out and this “happening” demands greater memory because the focus of our attention is perforated. We have to return to some past thinking and recall it in order to make the current interaction or happening understood. I crossed the barren main street and continued listening: ““We must accept the idea that reality is interaction…we understand the world better in terms of the interaction of things not through things.”

That’s it, I thought. Students learn not through the technology or the products that students submit, but it is in the happening, the interaction – it is in the process of experimenting and finding where they are wrong, or partially wrong, or partially right, or really right that they learn. The product at the end matters less than the process; it is the interaction which creates real learning.

I continued running, my mind weaving comparisons of remote teaching and learning with scientific thinking, and quantum thinking was starting to making sense through application of this analogy – two disparate fields collapsed and seemed, in that moment, to understandable. Listening to Rovelli made me think about my pedagogical stance for teaching right now, during this pandemic and I’ve decided that I need to teach and learn like a scientist. I need to realize this is an experiment, that certainty is unknown, but there can be learning in promoting the interactions. 

I turned the corner on the final stretch home, a flicker of doubt caused me to wonder if I had actually completed my usual running route; my body had done this according to my data collector, but my mind had been elsewhere, wrapped in tangled threads of thought so fascinating that time and space vanished. Rovelli mentioned to his host that “Einstein makes a lot of mistakes but comes up with new discoveries.. and it’s not about perfection or certainty as science is about the capacity to change ideas…science has the capacity to be wrong and is a way of thinking that accepts change. Therefore certainty is not only something of no use, but is in fact damaging, if we value reliability.

There is freedom in looking through new eyes and returning to visit a former first love has me thinking like a scientist.



What we deny

Only in our isolation and disconnectedness do we discover that everything and everyone is localized and connected. And, in this distancing, I am beginning to question what we deny.

Rebecca Solnit kept appearing in my daily consumption of media and I’m beginning to wonder if this is the work of a latent existential force drawing my attention to something I should have known or done long ago. I listened to her voice in an episode of On Being last week. She wrote, “When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up to become their brothers’ keepers…and that purposefulness and connectedness bring joy even amidst death, chaos, fear, and loss.” The unusual lilt of her voice and calm intellect still spin in my mind’s ear. And, this morning, I stopped scrolling my Twitter feed struck by this linguistic wisdom. She wrote,

“Inside the word ’emergency’ is ’emerge’; from an emergency new things come forth. The old certainties are crumbling fast, but danger and possibility are sisters.” #RebeccaSolnit

And then on Twitter, Gianpiero Petriglieri wrote that an “old therapist friend” told him why everyone was “so exhausted after video calls. It’s the plausible deniability of each other’s absence. Our minds tricked into the idea of being together when our bodies feel we’re not. Dissonance is exhausting. Our bodies process so much context…” I stopped to think about that wording, “plausible deniability”, and the more common legalistic use for one escaping criminal repercussions as a member of a corrupt organization or political power.

However, I couldn’t wrap my head around this experience of dissonance and the connotations of “plausible deniability” as something happening to us rather than something we choose to avoid like the truth or an injustice. According to Wikipedia“the expression was first used by the CIA” but the idea apparently has a longer history. I needed to understand the term, like Solnit explored “emergency”; it was an itch that pressed me, so I read further. “Plausible denial involves the creation of power structures and chains of command loose and informal enough to be denied if necessary”.

Then a thought struck me. What power structures are currently in place which I deny? What small almost imperceptible movements have made me complicit in this dance of distraction? Solnit reappeared during my longer moment of breakfast reading in The Guardian article entitled: “The impossible has already happened: what coronavirus can teach us about hope”. How marvelous and uplifting it is to read her vibrant words calling us to action and existence, to make the most of the worst.

While I cannot deny there is absence in my new-found isolation, I can also see that my thoughts attend a new experience. I am paying attention to moving about my house, to walking the dog, to gazing out the window with no real productivity pressure of this instant. And, yes, I am teaching remotely, but connecting, supporting personalized learning is my focus rather than a product on the line of academic factory life. This is where I cannot sense Petriglieri’s Tweet about “plausible deniability”. I am now working on processing the context of my daily life which I previously ignored in mind-numbing haste consumed by the blind goals of my own productivity or some socialized version of productivity.

My body is processing the context of my life in isolation and thinking about the actions needed for when we might connect again. I am trying not to deny my own physical interaction with and existence in the world.



10 Things I’ve Learned: a response to Doug Peterson’s Blog

This morning I continued my usual routine of reading blogs and preparing for virtual meetings, trying to catch a digestible drink from the firehose of online teaching resources. I made an attempt to consolidate my learning here:

Then I read Doug Peterson’s blog because he has the ability to deliver big ideas in meaningful bites, and still retain the essence of what is necessary; his blog is always a sip of usefulness. He wrote, “Over the course of this time at home and watching the news, I was reflecting on the different things that I’ve learned” and he challenged others to share in this.

My list is different in many ways, but this is what I learned in March 2020.

  1. Writing matters – when I practice written expression, I sort out ideas and feelings in conversation with myself. Writing forces me into my own head and heart and the action of documentation helps me make sense of what matters.
  2. Daily writing matters – without the force of commitment behind me, there are always legitimate reasons to avoid doing something – especially when they are hard. Daily writing forced me to confront a struggle and this understanding is a reminder for me; struggle is part of the process of growth.
  3. Writing teachers should write – teaching it is really difficult. And I would predict the practice of writing ends after Teachers College or University. My good friend, Amanda Potts shared her believe that writing teachers should write; and she is right.
  4. Writing builds curiosity – I started to notice small details about life and the people in my neighbourhood because I needed these observations for description. By observing and witnessing the world from social distancing, I became more curious about the small and seemingly insignificant things.
  5. Curiosity creates empathy – in being more curious, I started to considered movement from someone else’s perspective and it occurred to me that this curiosity is a form of empathy. Through describing people and their physical abilities or circumstances, I had to put myself in their shoes and wondered at the remarkable in the everyday.
  6. Loss builds appreciation – I remember my student teacher complaining about the public bent to criticize teachers; it really bothered him. But, I have witnessed a shift in this popular thinking online, and what I do, as a teacher, with this time will be important to the future appreciation of teachers. I need to make the most of pic of staff
  7. Social Distancing unites – we can’t be together, but we are together – in this. I realized this when the staff at my school started arranging virtual hangouts and videos and collaborating in ways that are unprecedented. We are all full of fear about the way this will work, but we are united in making this distance learning work for students and one another.
  8. Discomfort promotes growth – discomfort is often a choice for the privileged; it has been for me as a White teacher. But, it’s the only place from which I can grow. This is going to be messy, and I’m going to make mistakes, so I’m going to embrace the discomfort because I’m hopeful.
  9. Students need connection – Before we left for March break, many of my students expressed anxiety and panic. When I invited them to Google Hangouts over the past few weeks, they showed up, slowly at first, cautiously, but eventually we had nearly a full class meeting. Just to connect and for me to reassure them and they expressed thanks in ways that was unexpected.
  10. Students need models of courage – I know my students need me to be resilient and optimistic and demonstrate that I am opening to learning and failing in public. Now is the time when I can practice being courageous by trying something new, exploring teaching and learning as fearlessly as possible. Brene Brown said it best, “There is no courage without vulnerability.”