A Dad’s View: Lucy and Ethel in Middle School
This year, I’ve been fortunate enough to stay at home while my child experiences virtual learning at Edison Middle School. As a former teacher, I am fascinated by the process, and deeply grateful for his wonderful teachers and the work they are doing. But I am also concerned about the pressure the virtual approach puts on the children. I see my son working through weekends and breaks and still not keeping up – and I know he is not the only one. Being a teacher has never been harder. They have to do everything they ever did, but in many cases they now do it online, while learning a dizzying array of new systems. So I’ve tried to use my two viewpoints – teacher and parent – to express my assessment of the picture. If I was still teaching, this is what I would use to shape my approach.
Lucy and Ethel at the Chocolate Factory.
In a famous episode of I Love Lucy, Lucy and Ethel get a job wrapping chocolates on an assembly line – but the line moves too fast, with hilarious results. It’s less amusing in a school setting. Children in middle school can receive dozens of assignments each week. Many of them are small assignments and exit tickets. Some of them are very big and take hours. The pace of the work is unrelenting. So if a student falls behind on one, it becomes very difficult to make it up because a new wave is always coming in.
The Anna Karenina Principle.
Successful students are all alike; each unsuccessful student is unsuccessful in their own way. Some of these ways could include: lacking adequate technology or wi-fi access; living in a noisy house; the absence of strong parental support; a disorganized approach to learning; a tendency towards perfectionism, which keeps them from completing assignments; an unwillingness to ask for help when confused, and so on. In an ordinary classroom, a teacher has the chance to observe students and help them overcome these obstacles. This is much harder in a virtual setting.
The homework arms race.
As a former teacher in a competitive school, I know that teachers often competed for the attention of their students. I wanted my classes to be rigorous – but so did my colleagues. If we all assigned heavy work simultaneously, the kids would be overwhelmed. But if I relented unilaterally, the space I created might just be taken up by another teacher’s workload. It’s hard as a teacher to see the workload from the student’s viewpoint, because we have only our own perspective. It helps when teachers meet by grade levels to compare notes, but we don’t always give teachers the time and the flexibility to do that. We should.
Everything takes longer than you think online.
The virtual setting presents an array of new challenges. Art projects have to be photographed and emailed before they can be uploaded. Math assignments might involve more than one platform. Edmentum, Canvas and other systems all have their own quirks, and learning these systems takes time. Think about plotting points on a graph in math class. Now try doing it with text boxes and a cursor. Students end up spending much of their time learning systems, so the same number of math exercises takes much longer online.
Less is more.
The real goal of education is to open minds up to new ways of thinking and expressing. But modern data-based education systems tend to value task compliance. Since we can measure how many tasks a student checks off, we see that as a measure of progress. But I would challenge educators to slow down and allow students more time to think. It’s often the empty spaces between assignments that produce the best learning. They don’t have much empty space right now.
Readers, don’t be too hard on teachers right now. They really need a break. And parents, don’t be too hard on yourselves. I know it can feel like your family is the only one struggling with this. But until we deal with COVID-19 as a society, we’re going to have to learn how to adjust to it. If that means figuring out how to do virtual education well, then so be it. I have faith in the excellent teachers in our public schools. They’ll find a way to make it work, as they have always done. In the meantime, let’s all be patient.