Distance Learning: Common Sense at Home


Mr. O in the Furnace

August 17, 2020
I’m sitting on a bench outside my classroom. The temperature is ninety-one degrees today, and wearing a mask the whole time seems to make it feel like 910 degrees.

Today is “materials pick up day” at our middle school for eighth graders. The administration worked hard to make sure that the system was safe. There are minimal students on campus at any one time, with one entrance and exit and strict rules about distancing. My table of “supplies” is really just a few printouts and a literary anthology to take home, but it’s nice to have a chance to have some in-person interaction with my students, or so I thought.

A few statistics:
We have about 400 eighth graders, so over the course of six hours, various students have passed my corner. The ones who were merely passing (and not in my class) didn’t say a word, even if I was just sitting here quietly. I had to initiate a “Hello” or “Good Morning” as they were passing, and even then, only 50% responded.

Of the students who approached my table, only 20% said “Hello” or introduced themselves. The rest just walked up to the table and made feeble eye contact with me and waited for me to speak first. Since these students are thirteen years old, I expected some stronger communication skills (or is that courtesy?).

Of the 400 kids who came to pick up supplies from all their classes today, about 20% had no bag or backpack at all. I guess it didn’t occur to them that they would have books to carry? About 50% brought a little tote bag, or in some cases, just a plastic grocery bag that was overflowing or stretched to the brink of tearing. The rest brought a backpack (thank goodness).

During this unprecedented school start, in the age of COVID, teachers have real concerns about the consequences of students staying home without the social/emotional training they gain at school along with the lessons in common sense. Of course, concerns about the spread of the virus are worse, so a distance-learning mode is the right choice for this time of year when we don’t have a level of safety that is right for full-time, on-site classes. But how can we help students when it comes to personal communication, organization, and common sense?

Unfortunately, the majority of this burden falls upon the adults at home with students, but sometimes it begins with awareness. I have many parents who ask me generalized questions about their students, usually phrasing it like, “How is she/he doing?” Honestly, my response is almost always positive when it comes to academics, and I almost always have plenty of suggestions that fall into the “life skills” category. Over the years, I’ve seen a steady decline in that area: students struggling to clean up their supplies at the end of class, students feeling too shy to say “hello” as they pass a teacher they don’t know, students not bringing their new schedule to school on a day when they have to visit all their classes to pick up materials… I could write a long list here.Screen Shot 2020-08-17 at 1.55.19 PM

Ultimately, this is a plea for parents to set aside time and patience for social and emotional practice at home. At this age, students should be able to call in your take-out order at a restaurant. They should be able to wake themselves up in the morning with zero help from parents. They should be able to do all the dishes after dinner in the case that someone else cooked (it helps them to do their part and learn a valuable life skill). They should also be able to choose clean clothes every day, greet neighbors who may be passing the house, and go to sleep by 10:00pm to be ready for learning in the morning. Please look for opportunities to help them boost their courage in these areas, and at the same time, it will take some courage from you (parents). You’ll have to be willing to step back and let them try even when they are struggling. That struggle gives them a chance to succeed on their own, which brings a sense of pride that only experience can foster. That pride leads to intrinsic motivation, which is the greatest achievement for any teachers, parents included.

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