It’s unnerving to think about how quickly the world in general, and the world of education, in particular, is changing. Not long ago, eating in restaurants, lingering in the aisles of grocery stores, and visiting with people not in our immediate family was the norm. Not long ago, sliding into a chair right next to a peer and passing pens, paper, snacks and sticky notes around the classroom table was the norm. Now, we have to really think and plan before heading out into the world. Beyond putting on masks and gloves, we have to set a new intention — an intention to be alert, efficient and friendly, but not overly expansive or at all proximate. We have to pay attention in new ways and mute ourselves more often.
Although different, this is not all bad. Heading into the third weekend since March of remote graduate school, I feel like I am starting to figure some things out. Just as I do now when I prepare to leave my house, I’m getting ready for school differently than before. Beyond adjusting schedules, expectations, norms and due-dates, I’m trying to adopt a different mindset and enact different preparatory moves.
To prepare for school now, even though I am not going anywhere, I am ironically starting several days earlier to ready myself to engage with learning from home. In the past, I would put off everything I could until the night before I was due in Philadelphia and the things I was working on were also due. In transit with my hastily packed bags, I would for the first time review my class schedule; map out my plan for sleeping, eating, and connecting with friends while finishing all of the required papers; and think about how to keep myself healthy enough to be present in both body and mind for my family when I got home on Sunday night.
Now, what I’m doing is completely different. Knowing that I will be sitting at my laptop for even more hours than I already do, I am making every effort to not only stand but to stretch, jump jacks, and lie in child’s pose when I can get the dog to leave me alone. I am actively trying to attend as much to my body as I am to my thoughts. Sad but true, this is one of the first times in my life that I have prioritized such a balance.
Perhaps more importantly, knowing that the last thing I will want to do in my free time this weekend is to sit and write at my laptop when I am not in online class, I am doing everything I can to get on top of my assignments. I’m still behind. But I’m consciously trying not to be. I’m mapping out more than my weekend plan, and I’m drafting more, and in shorter increments of time, than I usually do. In a nutshell, I’m doing what I always tell my students and my children to do. I’m doing it because it’s the best way to prepare for a weekend of online classes — or a week of in-real-life commitments — and I’m especially appreciative of my professors who are helping me to do it.
For example, my statistics professor has demonstrated pedagogical agility in moving deadlines, redesigning lessons, chunking material, and harnessing technology in particularly smart ways while we are stuck at home. She understands that without the relational and social context that is so helpful to learning, her students need increased control over their learning experience, so she has made several short videos where she explains a single statistical concept. She speaks slowly and fills her slides with only the most important things we need to know.
I love that I can stop and start her videos to take notes the way I want to, and that I can deepen my understanding using the resources she has shared. I love knowing that I can reach out to her with questions and that even in this different context, she will respond the same way she always does, which is to ask me questions that will help me to figure out what I need to know. She has never, and probably will never, tell me the answer to any of my questions, but she doesn’t need to – the answers are all around me. I knew this, I know this, but for some reason have only really embraced this in recent weeks.
Another professor showed remarkable responsiveness to the general mood of our cohort. She looked at our faces spread out across the screen like tiles in an exhausted mosaic, and summarily cancelled the project we had all been working on for months and could not continue with due to school closures. In its place, she offered us a relevant new project – to collaborate together to write a book on this exact moment in the history of education and educational leadership. Her pedagogical pivot breathed life into our flagging spirits and energized us to not only continue our learning but to feel good about hopefully contributing to the learning of others as well.
In the Hechinger Report this week, Wesleyan President Michael Roth wrote about what he thinks might happen as a result of what is happening right now. Although many are afraid of dwindling enrollments, Roth says that “we are unlikely to see a massive migration away from campuses as a result of more students and teachers having “discovered” distance learning.” However, “professors are likely to use a wider array of digital tools so as to make their in-person teaching on campus as compelling as possible.” In sum, “tools in liberal education may be changing, but its essential mission — its core task of empowering the whole person — is not.”
I love what President Roth articulates about the educational changes that are and are not taking taking place right now. Moving through and experiencing our collective education with greater intentionality and appreciation is something to celebrate amid the many things we mourn.