I Have a Confession

We’re letting our 5th grader play video games during e-learning. Kevin and I (both professors, math and English) feel a little guilty about this, but also think it’s fine for him.

Given how much misery I’m seeing around the parenting boards, I wanted to take a few minutes to talk about why we’re doing this, and why it’s helping e-learning work for us (and apologies for the bullet point form, but there’s a lot to cover, and I don’t want to write a book about it this morning, as I do have to get back to my day job…).

CONTEXT:

  • we have two kids in the public schools, Kavi, 8th grader at Brooks (has a 4.0, school is easy and fun for her), Anand, 5th grader at Holmes (has ADHD, school has always been really difficult for him, and every year we think about pulling him out, but it mostly seems to be slowly improving, so we haven’t yet)
  • Kev and I have MANY years of college teaching between us, at all different kinds of schools, and I’ve done a fair bit of e-teaching in a remote MFA program, but we have NO background in childhood education as teachers or administrators, so mostly, I’m speaking as a parent here…but I do know what kids should be able to do by the time they get to college

LAST SPRING:

  • crisis learning was a mess for most, and many parents were upset that many teachers seemed to be mostly absent; in particular, since public school has served as de facto childcare in America, parents often needed teachers to be heavily supervising the kids so parents could do their own jobs (either in-person or remotely; most remote jobs won’t allow you to simultaneously do much to support your kids’ learning)

THIS SUMMER:

  • teachers are normally not paid for summer; many have other jobs or other plans for that time. Nonetheless, most of us spent some time (sometimes a LOT of unpaid time) getting up to speed on how to teach better online.
  • most of us still have a lot to learn there, myself included; there’s a whole field of gamification pedagogy, for example, that I’ve just started to learn about

THIS FALL:

  • we’re seeing an over-correction on the part of a lot of teachers / administrators. Faced with loud parental demands for much more supervision for their kids, they’ve often come up with schedules (even for little kids, who really aren’t physically suited to this) where kids are at screens almost entirely from 8 – 3.
  • the better version of that is one where at the start of each hour (or learning block), the teacher checks in with the class on Zoom, then sends them off for the bulk of the class to write responses, work out problems, etc. with pencil and paper, then has them come back to Zoom to check in. Sometimes, they’re sent off to breakout rooms instead for that time, which is better for attention than all of them listening to the teacher drone, since they get to chat and get some important socialization in, but that does still entail a lot of screentime.
  • some teachers are being really strict about the kids being in the Zoom, having their video on, visibly paying attention. This is a big mistake, I think. HUGE. I think it often comes out of a feeling that this is their job — they may be getting mandates from on high to SUPERVISE THE KIDS. (See Spring.) But it’s just not good for the kids, and not feasible for a lot of families. We need to have a lot more flex.
  • in particular, ADHD (and ADD, which I have) are a little counter-intuitive in how we learn. For an example, if I’m knitting while attending a lecture, it will look like I’m not paying as much attention. But the ADD brain works differently than the neurotypical. (I’m not sure there really is such a thing as neurotypical, but that’s another conversation.)
  • when I’m knitting, or doodling, or fidgeting, I actually can pay MORE attention to the speaker. I take in more of the content, I’m less restless, with less need to get out of my chair (which can otherwise feel quite desperate — it’s almost impossible for me to sit through a poetry reading, for example, even though I’m a writer).
  • when I’m trying to write fiction, I focus MUCH better if I have background music or white noise (like a cafe). This is a standard ADD thing.
  • similarly, if I’m in a Zoom call at a convention, for example, and I’m listening to the panelists talk, I actually get more out of the panel if I’m simultaneously talking in a chat window with other attendees. More inputs = my brain gets more focused.
  • there’s an outer limit to this, of course — I can’t actually take in and process two verbal tracks simultaneously. But overlapping works surprisingly well — I might occasionally miss something a speaker says because I’m engaged in typing with someone else, but, this is the key part — I miss LESS than I would if I were just watching the panel, because my ADD brain would be inattentively drifting off to consider the pattern of cracks on the ceiling or some such.
  • and to take this to where we started, when Anand started school, we had set up a space with doodling stuff and play-doh and fidgets. That worked okay for day 1. By day 2, he was using another device to write a story during a bit of lecture on something he already knew how to do. We decided that was fine. Then he started using it to play video games and chat with his friend. We did pause for a moment there, and thought about taking the device away. But we talked to him, and observed for a bit, and it seems like he really was able to continue paying good attention to his teachers, answering questions when asked, etc. Some games, he’s decided, are TOO immersive, so he’s not going to play those during school. For now, this is working for us, and making it much easier for him to sit and pay attention. (Good headphones (comfortable enough to wear for a long time) are a big help too.)
  • Kavi probably has undiagnosed ADD too (it’s less diagnosed in girls), and she’s definitely Facetiming with her friends a bit during school, but 8th grade curriculum is demanding enough that it’s mostly holding her attention on its own. We figure as long as she seems like she’s keeping up okay, we’ll let her manage it on her own.

SOLUTIONS:

So, I can’t guarantee that we can make e-learning work for your kids this fall, especially if they’re younger. But this is what I’d like to see:

  • parents understanding that e-learning this fall is a vast improvement on the spring, but it’s still a brand-new system, and it’s going to need more iterations before it works well for the majority of kids. We’re getting better, but there’s a ways to go.
  • parents also understanding the first week of any semester is mostly logistical, getting everyone used to the set-up, and e-learning requires a lot more of that than normal, PLUS tech problems, so if the first week was awful, please consider giving it another week or two, because week three really shouldn’t look anything like week one.
  • parents encouraging their kids to get up and move when possible — at least in our house, that’s one thing we do have to keep on our kids about: eating regular meals, taking walks in the morning and at lunch and after school, because so much of the day is spent sitting in front of a screen.
  • parents should understand that it’s okay if we all ratchet down our academic expectations for the fall. If your child doesn’t learn any Spanish this fall, it’s not the end of the world, and it’s not going to keep them from getting into college. (Sorry to pick on Spanish there — that’s Anand’s particular difficulty. I love Spanish!)
  • parents should make it clear (send those e-mails!) to administrators and teachers that they don’t want constant supervision to be required — some families do need that supervision, of course, in order to work, but many don’t; parents should feel free to have their kids turn off video, or just leave class if they need a break, or leave after the morning sessions, or skip a class their kid hates.
  • teachers and administrators should support them in that last one!
  • teachers should understand (and most do!) that it’s just too hard for most kids to sit in front of a screen straight through 5 days / week, 7 hrs in a row
  • teachers should accept that even if it makes the teacher feel a little bit out of control to have half the class with their videos off for much of the day (and some of them gone altogether), and that maybe is provoking some anxiety about whether they’re serving their students well, that the solution isn’t to require videos on and students attending, but to check in with all the students regularly, keep an eye on who’s coasting, who’s struggling — exactly what you’d do in your classroom, but now you have to take a few extra steps to do it electronically. Yes, that’s often a bit of a pain. But it’s the best way to keep track of everyone — requiring they’re performing “I’m in school and paying attention and you know that because I’m on the Zoom looking at you” is neither effective nor even possible for most kids, especially younger ones.
  • administrators should give their teachers clear guidelines, but also encourage flexibility when dealing with the kids; if you find an approach that’s working for you and your class, great! Do that! And hey, tell your colleagues too, because it might help them out. And we’ll support you as we all figure this out together! (SHOUT-OUT to all the teachers who ALSO have struggling kids in the schools right now.)
  • everyone should understand that being on video calls is draining. There are a bunch of theories as to why, but the fact of the matter is that when I walk into my classroom, I almost always leave energized, buoyed by the buzz of people and conversation. When I’m on the SAME KIND of Zoom call, I’m nonetheless exhausted after an hour. The kids are tired, the teachers are tired. We have to factor that in.
  • finally, I’d like to see no homework for elementary school, period. The research is very clear that it’s of little-to-no use in even normal times, and right now, when the kids are working SO HARD at e-learning, they need a real break when the day is done.
  • finally finally, we are still in the midst of a global disaster; a quiet, slow-moving disaster, but still. All that anxiety and uncertainty and sheltering-in-place-for-too-long-with-people-you-love-but-could-use-a-break-from is having an effect too. Structure and scaffolding can be helpful, but also, we all need some more slack.

*****

That’s it; that’s what I’ve got so far, about two weeks into fall e-learning (and three weeks into fall semester e-teaching at UIC). Third week is when I’m trying to assess which of my students are coasting along, doing fine, and which ones will need extra support and scaffolding. I wish we could just hand everyone a turn-key solution that will just work, but this is all new. So I guess my final ask is that we all lower expectations, extend each other grace and patience, pay attention to the kids when they’re unhappy, and most of all, be flexible.

If it’s not working, try another approach, even if it’s unconventional or a little shocking. (Video games during class!)

If it works, go with it.

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