Defining School During a Pandemic

I left for Spring Break, as many of us did, expecting to be back in a week. Obviously a week became two, and then two weeks became a month and a half, and that is likely to become the remainder of the year for us here in Florida as it has for much of the rest of the country. I’ve been a little slow to to start blogging about this experience. I’ve been too focused on living through it. That doesn’t mean I haven’t been thinking about it a lot. 

During this pandemic, and during my teaching from home, I have been doing a lot of thinking about teaching. I recently taught my unit on the power of definition in my ninth grade English classes, back when we were in a physical class, and I asked my students to create different types of definitions of school. One of the exercises asked them to define school as its essence: what is essential to having a school? Do you have to have a building? Do you have to have a textbook? Do you have to have to have a principal? Do you have to have tests? Do you have to have grades? Do you have to have something to learn? Do you have to have consistent instructional materials? Do you have to have a  teacher? Do you need at least one student? 

These questions are no longer hypothetical. What is essential to having a school? Apparently during this pandemic, a building is no longer essential. Apparently, after years of tests being the be-all and end-all, tests no longer matter much, at least not this year. Apparently a standard curriculum is no longer essential. In my district, some students have chosen to take home a textbook and a packet of assignments; others are doing assignments in an online platform called Edgenuity; others are getting teacher-made assignment posted in platforms like Canvas or Teams. I wound up putting my regular students on Edgenuity before I knew giving them my own material was an option. My Pre-IB and Creative Writing students are doing my work through Teams. So much for consistency. 

So, without buildings, tests, and consistent curriculum, what is left? Teachers. Students. Material to learn. A space, virtual now rather than physical, to learn it in. 

But in the spirit of my definition unit, how do we define what “material” is worth learning? And how do we define teaching and learning?

Are we downloading facts? Teaching thinking skills? Targeting standards? We think that having standards makes our job clearcut and easy to define. I would argue that they do not. 

I have seen many discussions online about whether we are doing virtual school or remote learning or crisis learning or some other variation on non-traditional school now. Those are all issues of definition as well. I’ve seen many online teachers saying that what they do is just as powerful and just as personal as any classroom teaching. I cannot say they are wrong – because they have been teaching online longer than I have. I am a novice, so I cannot really comment on what they do, except to say that if they are truly able to duplicate the power of a classroom experience in a virtual setting, they have my admiration, because creating a powerful classroom experience isn’t easy, even in the classroom. 

So each day I get up and get myself to my laptop. I monitor my Edgenuity students, who are either creeping or flying through assignments, mostly without my help. I give feedback to my Pre-IB students who are writing autobiographical fiction, and to my creative writers, who are finishing up children’s books. I try to hold online discussions at least once a week. I’m the teacher. They are my students. There is material floating in a virtual space between us. Does that make it school? I don’t know yet. It’s too new. 

I do know this: we have stripped teaching down to its essence. So why do I feel that something vital is missing?