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Teacher in a Strange Land: If Technology Can’t Save Us, What Will?

All the ed bloggers during this pandemic are consumed with whatever we’re calling our frantic attempts to reach out to our students–to ‘keep them on track’—or (more realistically) provide whatever educational succor can be squeezed out of phone calls, emails and glitchy electronic platforms. Or, God forbid, packets.

The academic show, it seems, must go on–and the in-the-trenches edu-commentariat has done some great workasking the right questions, sharing their tools and materials and philosophies, and warning us off predatory data capture and greedy education commerce. There’s also been a fair amount of righteous bitching. All of this is justified—and welcome.

It turns out that technology cannot, will not replace the human touch, when it comes to learning that is worthwhile and sticks in our students’ brains and hearts. We already knew that, of course. But it’s gratifying to know that school—bricks and mortar, white paste and whiteboards, textbooks and senior proms—is deeply missed.

Public education is part of who we are, as a representative democracy. We’ve never gotten it right—we’ve let down millions of kids over the past century or two and done lots of flailing. There are curriculum wars that never end and bitter battles over equity, the teacher pipeline and funding streams.

 But still. We need school.

It is at school where a kid who might otherwise be looking at a series of low-paying jobs gets interested in science when looking through a microscope for the first time. It is at school where a shy girl shares her first poems with a teacher who says ‘these show great promise’—so she keeps writing them.

It was at school, in my music class, back in the 1970s, where a boy first learned the words a child is black, a child is white, together they grow to see the light,’ singing in my 6th grade general music class. Thirty years later, he got in touch when he saw my name online and told me he was working in Lansing as a civil rights lawyer. I loved that song, he said. Do you remember? You gave us a little sermonette on human rights.

I remember precisely none of this. Here’s what I remembered about him: he had freckles.

If this disaster has taught us one thing, it’s that technology-based communication is and always will be limited. It’s been a lifeline, for sure—medically, socially, commercially—but it does not replace our human institutions. It does not replace the caring and affection that are part of every effective classroom.

Even the low-paying unskilled jobs that have become critical in keeping the world running are not dependent on the things that technology reinforces. Service to others, friendliness, courage and reliability are qualities that can’t be learned in a Zoom meeting or tested on a bubble sheet.

I have not been surprised by the things my fellow music teachers are posting during this lockdown. For them, the end-of-course assessments that will not happen this year are not dreaded standardized tests, final exams and grades. They are the Spring Concert, the Memorial Day parade, the Youth Arts Festival, and graduation, events that demonstrate community pride and pleasure, accomplishment, and even patriotism.

This is why you’re seeing that gallery of faces singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ and the orchestra offering us an Appalachian Spring. That’s why #PlayOnThePorch is so much fun–and families starring in their own home-bound musicals are all over social media.

Of all the heart-tearing stories of sickness and loss that I’ve read, the one that hit me hardest was about an adult choir in Mount Vernon, Washington that decided to go ahead and rehearse on March 10. About 60 choir members attended. Now, 45 are sick, three in the hospital, and two are dead.

The little church choir that I direct had our last rehearsal on the 12th of March—there were 15 singers present. None of them are spring chickens; one lovely-voiced soprano is 92. The day after our rehearsal, the church council decided not to worship face to face for the foreseeable future. The anthem we worked so hard on, forgotten. But their voices rang in my ears for 14 days until I knew for certain all were well, sheltering in place.

This virus can scare us and ravage our communities, but it cannot damage our innate craving for the beauty and solace of the arts.

No matter what the circumstances are, no matter how bleak and despairing, human beings find ways to create and imagine, to sing and to play.

It’s what we were born to do.

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Nancy Flanagan

Nancy Flanagan is a retired teacher, with 31 years as a K-12 Music specialist in the Hartland, Michigan schools. She was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 1993, and is a National Board Certified Teacher. She served for two years as Teacher in Residence with the National Board for...