This summer we are featuring several articles from the June 2020 Hawk Talk, our student newspaper. This week, we share English Subject Expert Teacher and The Hawk Talk advisor Dr. Pittman’s reflections on distance learning, which all BASIS Independent McLean students participated in during the final trimester of the 2019-20 school year.
Any teacher prefers to have an answer for her students’ questions, whether they are posed directly or unasked but apparent. One of the most difficult tasks of teaching through the coronavirus pandemic and required shutdown is moving forward without answers to the biggest of those looming questions. Straightforward answers are comforting, reasonable, and they can offer solace. During this time, however, my own questions multiply daily while definitive answers are harder to locate. I teach literature, and one trick I have up my sleeves is to open a difficult question to the class to work through together, to study, to hash out by analyzing evidence. In 2020, the shape and outline of what we are living through is not quite clear, the evidence is still emerging, and any consensus to be shared is far off in the future. What does it mean to teach when the terrain of education is shifting and the future feels uncertain?
I found some answers by focusing on literature (surprise!). Just as we were learning that we would not return to campus after Spring Break, Honors Literature Seminar students were immersed in our American Odyssey unit. We were reading about two great literary journeys: Odysseus’s and Huckleberry Finn’s. As I navigated the new learning tools—Microsoft Teams and Zoom—I often thought of the murky waters of asynchronous learning strategies combined with synchronous learning as obstacles that I must navigate around or sail through with cunning and strategy. Were Teams and Zoom my Scylla and Charybdis? My Duke and King? (Don’t spend too long parsing those analogies, please.) Like Odysseus, were my wanderings causing the suffering of others? Scrapping lesson plans long in the works, cutting whole texts from my curriculum, I focused more on discussion fora, reading, and writing, and, in doing so, learned so much from the collaborative spirit of BASIS Independent McLean students.
What has buoyed me is a shared sense of refusal. We refused to be limited by the cards we’ve been dealt. Instead, we invented strategies to push back against the limitations of distance learning. Mr. Baker beautifully conveys this spirit when he writes, “Even on screen, the ability to reach out to a student and teach them a new idea or challenge them with a question is the magic of teaching. Despite the altered circumstances, the teaching process went on." I’ve witnessed students meet challenges and do work that might have otherwise been perceived to be unimaginable in December or January.
Thinking of the quarantine as a global act of kindness helped me gather steam. This experience is not like the online summer course I taught in the past. It does not have a finite period of enrollment and assessment. Neither students nor teachers have chosen this. However, I have been so moved by the many ways that we are all collaborating to protect education and young people’s learning in a crisis that none of us have faced before. Dr. Isquith explains her realization, "Distance learning has taught me that we don't need a physical building to teach, that the connection with the students happens inside and outside of the school. That every time we had a virtual live class we were happy to see each other, to learn, to laugh, to express ourselves, to share our concerns and to know that we were there for each other."
We, all of us, teachers, students, parents, administrators, the support staff who make a school a community, were tasked in various ways to work together to imagine new modes for students to keep learning, even as some of us are facing incomparable challenges, such as the loss of a job, the loss of a social support system, the loss of a daily meal, the loss of a safe space. Although I couldn’t replicate room 321 at BASIS Independent McLean — which is full of student art, projects, proof of textual analysis, and so many of my books—for myself or my students, the heart of that space just traveled with us through our collective efforts. Madame Sèye’s words express that heart, "I can't imagine having these past three months without my students. The continuity, the extension of learning in new and different ways have all led to bonding beyond what I could have ever imagined. It has been good medicine during this quarantine, very grounding!"
Thank you, Dr. Pittman! Check back later this summer for more articles from our student newspaper.