I am thinking every single day of all the teachers of writing across the country who are now teaching their classes online, and wondering how it is going, how difficult it is to prepare for these classes, how the students are responding, and most of all what everyone is learning from what is for many a different mode of interacting with students and of creating knowledge together.
Sometimes I feel grateful that I am retired, watching from a distance and checking in with my Stanford Program in Writing and Rhetoric colleagues, who are doing brilliant work. (That group of instructors—always exploring, always innovating—are clearly up to the challenge and they are helped enormously by the inimitable Christine Alfano, our Associate Director and leader in all things technological.) But other times I am a little sad to be on the sidelines: like so many others, I want to be helping out and doing something productive—especially something helpful for students.
I wrote two weeks ago about the writers’ club I have going with a second-grade and fourth-grade friend: these back-and-forth poems, stories, and drawings have kept me engaged and looking forward to what may appear in my email inbox next. In the last week, however, I’ve been spending a lot of time on FaceTime with my beloved 10th-grade grandniece, who is working away daily on “homework” (isn’t it all homework now?). She has assignments from all of her classes and she doesn’t seem to always know the teachers who are assigning this work, but she is trying hard to keep up. I think she likes the control she can exert in working from home, and I’ve felt privileged to join her some days (“It’s more fun with company, Aunt A”).
One day last week she wrote an entire essay on why the electoral college should be abolished—talking through ideas, writing some, then reading aloud, then stopping to look up some information, then reading to me, then writing more. She didn’t seem to want or need any help, and it was a joy to watch her mind at work as she puzzled through the reasons backing up her position and came up with a convincing argument. All together it took two and a half hours. Another day she created a 15-slide presentation called “A Snapshot of My Life” for her psychology class that involved working through Piaget, Kohlberg, and Erikson’s stages of development and illustrating them with examples from her own life. Working systematically, she crafted her examples, illustrating them with photographs of her at various points in her life and then using open source photos to illustrate later stages of development—her in five years, her in twenty-five years. Asked to summarize part of a novel from one character’s point of view for another assignment, she drew a 22-panel comic that went far beyond what she was asked to do.
These assignments—and others; yesterday she was working on a civics assignment asking her to assume she was president of the United States and describe a day’s activities that would include all of the functions of the president—seem well suited for work at home, and my grandniece is clearly stepping up. Indeed, she seems to me very much engaged in this work (though she complains sometimes and “just wants to get it done.”) And she has lots of online resources to turn to, both from her school and from her own online experience. She introduced me to a “super cool” site, iCivics, that she said was amazingly helpful and clear. She was consulting it as she did her civics homework and praising it so much that I decided to take a look. And what a site it is! It was founded by Sandra Day O’Connor, who calls it her best legacy: “The practice of democracy is not passed down through the gene pool. It must be taught and learned anew by each generation of citizens,” she explains. Started in 2009, iCivics now reaches over 5 million students in elementary, middle, and high school and engages them in role-playing and other games through which they embody governmental practices, such as assuming they can be president of the U.S. and carry out the president’s functions for a day.
For students who are fairly self-directed, who have computers and access to rich resources like iCivics, and who have teachers who are providing engaging and meaningful assignments, this pandemic-induced, at-home schooling may be working very well, as it seems to be (so far) for my grandniece. But I worry about students who are not so self-directed, who do not have computers or access to online resources, or who thrive best in the presence of their teachers and others. Just today, my governor, Gavin Newsom, announced a new round of funding intended to get a computer or tablet into the hands of every child in California who lacks one. That seems a good first step, and I’m grateful for it. In the meantime, I need to find more ways to connect with students out there—from kindergarten through graduate school—who think that learning is “more fun with company.”
Please let me hear ideas for how I can do more, even while I’m sheltering in place.
Image Credit: Pixabay Image 3038994 by khamkhor, used under the Pixabay License