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:
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.