Teachers are the original gatherers. They’re in charge of bringing a group together and of thinking about how to create an experience for the whole, every single day. And teachers are in the transformation business. At the end of every school year, young people are supposed to leave changed.
That’s a tall order — particularly now, when we’re forced to limit what we can do together and we’re teaching on Zoom.
We talked to teachers about their challenges in remote schooling. We heard that their students were often sad or worried. Here is what teachers themselves were worried about:
How do I create this space of connection with students?
How do I reach students who have turned off and that I’m not getting through to?
How do you support a 10-year-old whose parent has died or is sick?
How do you teach during a pandemic that’s exacerbating inequality issues? When students can only truly participate if they have quiet space, computers, reliable wireless and free time away from taking care of siblings.
In this episode, we hear from Tanesha, who teaches writing to sixth graders in New Haven, Conn. Her goal is to teach kids that we’re all writers, that writing can express feelings and ideas, and that writing changes the world.
Her primary gathering is an hourlong daily class for students to write. That’s been challenging enough, because teachers can’t physically pop by each student easily and check on their work.
But also, her class works toward a major gathering to end the year: Juneteenth, a holiday that celebrates the freedom of enslaved black people in America. Each year, the class has a community celebration with food and music, and students write essays on reparations and the history of resistance to slavery. Students read their essays aloud to the class. How can they still have this meaningful gathering? What should she do this year?
Raising the stakes should help engagement and attendance
This reading is a big moment. It’s an essential gathering for this teacher and for her students, needed now more than ever. It’s the pinnacle of the year, and a motivating element to actually become a better writer (and show that to your community). Making this event larger — having students invite their friends and family members to join from afar — might actually help students participate more fully. It’ll get them hyped up too, from day one. She’ll also have to think of what she should give up to do something bigger. Students will need more time to practice reading aloud, and will need more individualized writing help. Maybe smaller assignments along the way will have to be canceled.
Let’s create new situations, not make mediocre versions of the old ways
Now we all have access to gatherings we might not be seeing. So why not take this important class reading and make it an event for hundreds or even thousands? Invite the community. Invite other classes, or even other schools. Have them join and bear witness. Have each student invite five or 10 people each to join in and witness over Zoom. A cousin or a grandparent who lives in another town or state wouldn’t ordinarily get in the car to attend such a gathering. But reimagining who can join just through the phone or computer expands our ideas of who can witness these meaningful events.
Go big, go small — and dial up the intimacy
It’s scary to read something you wrote to strangers. But it’s a lot scarier to read it to your cousins. That intimacy makes a connection that’s important.
The megachurches learned this. A 10,000-person service might be moving and impressive just for the sheer size and volume. But the small group gatherings that also happen in these churches is what cement people’s sense of belonging. So maybe a good way to mark the end of the academic year is to start with smaller gatherings for each student on FaceTime or a phone call, with a big public livestream reading that follows.