These are challenging times. Those of us who like to be in control of our situations (ummm…maybe all teachers?!) are struggling. Some days it seems like everything is spiraling out of control. I think daily of my dear friend Bill Gentry and his wise advice that has gotten me through countless ultramarathons and life itself, “Think small. Control what you can control.”
As we start back to school in whatever setting your district has decided – virtual, hybrid, full in-person classes – I’m wondering if, in our need to be in control, we are controlling our students more than trusting them. My district is starting back 100% virtual, so I’ve been thinking a lot about how to honor and trust children in a virtual space. It’s not my job to control them. It’s my job to support, teach, nurture, honor, respect and trust them. As Loris Malaguzzi says, “There are hundreds of different images of the child. Each one of you has inside yourself an image of the child that directs you as you begin to relate to a child.” Perhaps we can think of our image of the child as it relates to distance learning. Here are a few of the questions I’ve been pondering.
Do we have to mute students in video calls or require them to stay muted until we allow them to unmute? Or can we teach them that the background noise is distracting and then teach them how to mute/unmute themselves? What message does that send when we start by telling children they have to stay muted? Is it our need for control? It’s loud and messy at first (just like adults in virtual meetings) but children can be taught why we have a mute button and when to use it. Hearing our children’s voices is more important now than it’s ever been. Are we teaching them how to use the mute button? Are we making sure there is a lot of time in small groups and one-on-one to allow for authentic talk and conversation? My friend Christy Thompson recently wrote this blog post on students’ virtual voices. Her book, with co-author Kassia Omohundro Wedekind, Hands Down, Speak Out , is a wonderful resource on building talk communities. Can we trust our students to control their own mute buttons? Are we honoring their voices in virtual spaces?
Do we have to start the year with a preset list of rules for video calls or can we co-create them, just as we would co-create agreements in the classroom? Can we negotiate our online space together as we build a community and decide what works and what doesn’t? Can we start the year coming from a place of trust, relationship and partnership? We can communicate what we need as teachers and listen to what our children need. We can do this work together and come to an agreement on what will make this kind of learning successful. We can trust our children and listen to their voices and needs.
Do we have to require children to sit at a table or desk for our video calls or can we trust them to find a space that works for them? We honor and embrace flexible seating in our classrooms, why not at home? I do think children need to be taught what elements are important for a video call – just as I had to discover this on my own last spring. Things like lighting, being able to see the screen and your face when the camera is on are important things we can teach children. I had to figure out where I can best take my calls – standing at the kitchen counter, sitting on the couch, at my desk – they all work for different purposes. But what every child needs – and has available in their home – is different. A friend’s child found that behind the couch was his best spot to focus. With three others in his house doing distance learning and teaching, that was his quiet space. One of my kindergarteners last spring would join us from his yard where we got to see baby birds and his garden. Another child took us on her swing with us. And many children joined us from the top bunk of the bunk beds or in the pillow forts they had built. They were all fully engaged in joyful learning. We need to trust children that they can find a spot that meets their needs and help families understand this and work with their child to find a learning space in their homes that works for them – not us.
Perhaps we can come from a place of trust and relationship, and think of what’s possible with this new, temporary, way of teaching – rather than controlling and restricting children. This is hard. But perhaps letting go of the control, trusting the children, honoring them and letting the virtual classroom be a place of joy will provide opportunities we never saw possible.
And as my friend Bill says, “if things happen to start to go a little sideways, then I know a really great strategy to bring things back to even … think. small.”