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Another View: AV #208 - Being Together in the Classroom - Part 1 (Laughing)

Distance learning: Not remotely or virtually the same as the classroom


I stopped teaching after five years – in 1981—thinking there might be something else I could do. I asked a veteran teacher at that time—who seemed happy in his job—why he kept at it. He answered: “In what other job can you have two good laughs a day?”

Wise words. And perhaps one reason I ended up teaching or coaching another 20 years. 

This is why those* who sound (too) pleased, in our Covid-19 isolation, that we have (finally) turned to remote teaching—as if only now have we discovered what they believe to be “the future of education”—don’t understand why teachers teach. Why we love being with our students, in the classroom. And why teaching can often be—lest we forget—so much fun. (*Addendum first quotes from such voices. After that, quotes from teachers and students less sure about this Brave New Online World.)

I fear we might take the wrong lessons from this crisis. I hope we see the irony in the argument that distance learning is how we can truly personalize education. Isn’t being personal, even silly, half the fun of being together in the classroom (remember the old days, back in early March)? Isn’t this how we connect?  

I walk into a Freshmen class on April Fool’s Day and see the students have turned all their desks backwards and sit, looking oh so polite and proper, facing the back of the room. (Almost) no one cracks a smile, from what I can see on the faces of those who are now in “the last row.” I try to stifle my laugh, take my papers to the back wall (which has no blackboard), and turn to the class and start to teach as if nothing is out of the ordinary. Not many seconds later, we all start laughing.

I cut myself shaving before school and put a band-aid on my chin and walk in to the first period class of seniors and tell them – I address the boys – “I think you should understand the facts of life.” There is a moment of panic; DON’T YOU DARE, they are pleading, LET ME OUT OF HERE! Then I tell them the relevant fact of life: if you cut yourself shaving, it often takes a long time to stop bleeding. Class is greatly relieved.

Two of the sophomores on my girls’ soccer team come in to my classroom, uninvited, on Valentine’s Day, approach either side of my desk at the front of the room, give me a card, plant a kiss on my cheeks, and scoot out of the room. “You’re blushing, Mr. H!” the class yells. 

In middle school, the boys in the back row keep tilting their chairs back, I keep scolding them—and warning them (you’re going to hurt yourselves!), and they keep doing it—until they tumble back. CRASH! All OK, but the laughter that follows is another moment we share. Remember the time when…? Or when Mr. H was reading from that famous speech, and just at the wrong moment, G. farted? Or when the history and science teacher (both exceptional hams), came in and acted out a chase scene from the short story (Jack London’s “The King of Mazy May”) we were reading? They were so funny!...

And of course sometimes the laughter comes – only in looking back.

The headmaster walks by my classroom, pauses briefly, looks in – a glass wall faces the corridor – and he sees what is on my face. Frustration. Exasperation. OK, yes, anger! I am there with my six 9th graders. All are at least two years behind in their reading skills. We are together two-periods-a-day. One period is plenty with these restless boys; two can send me over the edge. The headmaster knows these six boys well, which may account for the fact that he smiles at me (hang in there, Peter, it’s going to be alright!) and walks on. I am forever grateful he supported me. And forever grateful to those boys, too (we survived together!)—even that time when I was so mad I kicked the fourth leg out from under that table … which sailed across the room. That got their attention. When I see a couple of those boys 10 or 20 years later at their class reunion, we laugh about their mischief—and my temper. 

Comedy is part of what makes it a community. And on the flip side, tragedy too–at least sadness and loss. That will be my focus next week, a second look at how meaningful the classroom can be, for students and, even when we stumble, for teachers too. A place for smiles, but also for comfort and support—all of which we surely miss this spring. A sense of connection which is impossible to replicate with remote learning, I believe. It is called remote for a reason, is it not?



From a series of articles under the heading, “How Will the Pandemic Change our World?” Wall Street Journal, March 27, 2020

1.    “We should also accelerate the trend toward remote learning, which is being tested today as never before. Online, there is no requirement of proximity, which allows students to get instruction from the best teachers, no matter what school district they reside in…
“… If we are to build a future economy and education system based on tele-everything, we need a fully connected population and ultrafast infrastructure.”
“A Real Digital Infrastructure at Last,” Eric Schmidt, former CEO and executive chairman of Google.

2.       The former governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, wrote on ways that “we can use today’s crisis as a learning opportunity,” and noted that many of the problems we face are due to “outdated 20th-century rules stymied by 21st-century innovation.” One example includes education. “….as millions of American families re discovering, online instruction is a viable means for students to learn.”
“Local Leaders Showing the Way Forward,” Jeb Bush.

3.   “The shutdowns have created a range of dire short-term problems… In the long term, they may bring about profound changes in how we school our children.  … historically, it has been a struggle to personalize learning for each student… online tools have started to be leveraged in classrooms to address this need… The school closure situation … may be the catalyst for making personalized learning more common …”
“Online Education That Fits Each Child,” Sal Kahn, founder and CEO of Khan Academy.


“School districts and the legislature should work now to plow fewer dollars into old school-focused buildings and invest more in students by working with the private sector to rapidly develop a reliable, high-speed infrastructure.”
“Opportunity for a stronger education system in Colorado,” George Brauchler, The Denver Post, March 22, 2020.

On the other hand, the perspective of teachers and students

Tang Sisi, a teenage school girl preparing for an examination for entrance to senior secondary schools, finds online classes hard to follow. ‘Sometimes I come across things I don’t know in homework and there’s nobody to ask,’ she worries in a quiet voice.  Some teachers move through lessons too fast, she adds…
“A veteran middle school teacher fears that virus-imposed distance learning will hit certain students hard. She worries about those without parents at home to police them, and those—mostly boys, she says sadly – going ‘through a rebellious stage’ who don’t see the point of study.”
“The virus also kills dreams,” Chaguan, The Economist, March 21, 2020


Andre Albrecht, teacher of the deaf: “I’m missing the camaraderie we have in our classroom,’ she said. “It’s been interesting. It’s been fun. But it’s also been heartbreaking, because I can’t just go through the screen and help them and show them.”
“Homework – Maintaining Education Amid Coronavirus,” Elizabeth Hernandez, The Denver Post, March 29, 2020.


Titilayo Aluko, a junior at Landmark High School in New York City. “I actually need my teachers who know me and understand me, to help me, and I don’t have that.’ She said, “I just keep thinking, ‘Oh, my God, I might not pass.’ I’m just really scared for the future.”
“As school moves online many educators stay logged out,” Dana Goldstein, Adam Popescu and Nikole Hannah-Jones, The New York Times, April 6, 2020.


Stephanie Rossi, who teaches AP U.S. History and AP Psychology at Wheat Ridge High School in Jefferson County, is retiring this spring after 40 years. This piece—perhaps not incidentally by a former student of Rossi’s now reporting for CBS4 (eager perhaps to offer her own word of thanks)—looked at how she was ending her career teaching through Zoom.

  “After four decades in the classroom, teaching from her kitchen counter is a big change. She said remote teaching is something she never expected would mark the end of her career. ‘There’s a bit of mourning for me that I’m not ending it in my classroom.’ 
“'The hardest thing is that I can’t say goodbye to my kids,’ she said, tearing up. ‘And I’m a hugger. And I can’t say goodbye.’”
“‘Hardest Thing Is I Can’t Say Goodbye’: Retiring Wheat Ridge Teacher Sad About Remote Learning After 40 Years In Classroom,” Makenzie O’Keefe, CBS4, April 8, 2020.

And from a psychologist – “You have to see … the whites of the eyes”

Robin Dunbar, anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist at Oxford University: “‘You have to see the eyeballs—the whites of the eyes—and be able to physically hold on to them,’ he says, in order to maintain a friendship and feel a social bond.”
“Only connect - Covid 19 and mental health,” The Economist, April 4, 2020

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Peter Huidekoper Jr.

Peter Huidekoper Jr. is the coordinator of the Colorado Education Policy Fellowship Program. ...