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03.25.20The Bright Mirror: On the Classrooms We Suddenly Left Behind

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“The classroom is a bright mirror that both reflects their interest and enhances it the same time. The culture in the room is changing them.”

This is a strange post to write at the present moment–but also hopefully relevant. It’s about the last video of the old world–classroom teaching with a teacher and 30 kids and a book–my team and I watched before classrooms went dark and we all went to online.

After writing all last week about things we can do to make the brave new world of remote learning successful, I’m writing about that video. Yes, it seems like another world, but it’s a world we’ll be back to soon enough and there’s a bit of truth to the cliched observation that being without it will perhaps help us to see and value better what we had.

I mention this because when the world went to online there was a lot of speculation from technology advocates and futurists that this interregnum would change everything. It would cause us to see that we should have been doing online teaching (and incidentally that working form home) all along. As Daisy Christodoulou points out the trumpets have been heralding this change since 2008.

But honestly my sense is that for the most part the opposite is true. That being away from classrooms will help us to see how clearly the intact and intentional culture of a classroom is critical and irreplaceable to learning– especially equitable learning.

Anyway here’s the video in all its beauty. It’s of Breonna Tindall, who teaches English at Denver School of Science and Technology. She and her kiddos are reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, and Ms. Tindall has begun the lesson by asking them whether the idea of ‘blind justice” has a positive or negative connotation.

The video starts with a Turn and Talk. It’s a shared routine students know well. As Ms. Tindall gives her crisp clear directions to begin, the room crackles to life. The buzz of classmates all around talking energetically about the book socializes every student in the room to perceive the value in the activity and engage a little more heartily. It’s a bright mirror that both reflects their interest and enhances it the same time. The culture in the room is changing them.

Afterwards, Adriel gets called on to share his response. Students track him to show his ideas matter to them. They snap occasionally as he speaks to encourage and appreciate his thinking. In the glow of their respect, he speaks earnestly and with depth. He would not do that if their eye contact and body language did not encourage him to, if they slouched and looked away out the window.

It’s a Cold Call by the way. Adriel hadn’t raised his hand. Left to his own he might have sat silently, but with a gracious smile Ms. Tindall draws him out into the sunlight of his peers. She is changing him; they are changing him. He is discovering that his ideas are worthy of appreciation from his peers.

Renee is called on next. Again it appears to be a Cold Call. Again her classmates listen attentively and appreciatively. Ms. Tindall praises her use of the word ‘exonerated’ and perhaps Renee feels a little special as a result.

Ms. Tindall asks the next student–who has raised his hand–to “build”: that is, to give an answer that makes reference to and extends what Renee and Adriel spoke about. Students are socialized to perceive and experience speaking as an act of shared endeavor; of listening carefully and collaborating to unlock an idea, not just shouting out one’s own opinion.

Again at every turn you can see the culture shaping and changing students, bringing out the best in them.

Perhaps this is doubly visible to us watching it now, when we interact with our students from afar, as if through a tunnel. We can just see them at the other end now. We can call warmly out to them–tell them we care and hope they will delve deeply in Douglass’ book–but we’re pushing with a rope now. We cannot build a culture around them. We are a face on a screen. A tiny input in a larger culture we don’t control. Suddenly it is much, much harder–I am trying to avoid using the word ‘impossible’–to build that all-encompassing bright mirror–reflecting and enhancing in every moment the work students do, the faces they show to the world and the things they know themselves to be capable of.

If they are there at all. A colleague reports that some school systems he works with are reaching 30 and 40 percent of their students consistently–getting them to do the work and join the lessons.

And even then, online we can only hope to build a pale shadow of what shines brightly in Ms. Tindall’s classroom. Even at our best we will not surround students with 30 others in a culture we have orchestrated carefully to nudge them towards their best in every moment, a culture that they feel because it is expressed in the actions of a network of peers all around them.

But rather than despair, we should rejoice in this. Back before we were cut off from the classroom we perhaps came to take the opportunities it offered us to build culture for granted. It’s messy work to do what Ms. Tindall has done to make such a beautiful thing–it involves struggle and boundary setting and hard conversations too. And there was a lot of talk about how intentional culture building was paternalistic and coercive. Tracking is a good example. I can think of a dozen times when people told me it was an act of violence against children to ask them to do such things in the classroom. But look at the children in Ms. Tindall’s classroom. Don’t tell me they don’t yearn, now, for the bright and tidy place of intellect and camaraderie it helped her to build.

I have always been skeptical of arguments that learning will get better if we can just let technology disrupt its core interaction of teacher and group of students. To me a school and a classroom are first and foremost a culture that communicates to participants who they are in the world. We can try to transmit as much as we can of that across the internet but when we return we should see even more clearly the value of it.

Carl Hendrick recently tweeted a more trenchant articulation of the point I am trying to make. “Far from heralding a new age of tech,” he wrote, “I think this interregnum will see both teachers and students returning to the sanctity of the classroom with renewed enthusiasm.” And hopefully, I would add, a renewed commitment to unlocking the power of the tools that setting provides us to change minds and build character.

As it happens I am halfway through the manuscript of a book with my colleagues Darryl Williams and Hilary Lewis about the gift that a school with an intact, intentionally designed and orderly culture gives to students– and how breezily many of us have spurned the opportunity it provides us. Watching this video and I see even more clearly the urgency of that and hope many of my colleagues do too.

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