Despite what your children may say about the thrill of the classroom, we’re living in an exciting age of innovation in teaching. Sure, lots of classrooms still look like snapshots from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off; students lose consciousness in rigid rows of desk-chairs while Ben Stein stands and delivers a fill-in-the-blank lecture on FDR’s New Deal. But there are thousands of teachers, both new and old, learning new tricks in the classroom. They are leading a paradigm grounded in facilitating academic discourse, project-based learning, career-based linked learning pathways like Skyline’s, and other curriculum projects and pedagogical frameworks that shift attention away from what the teacher does to what the students do.
This paradigm has brought teachers and students closer to one another, literally. Teachers experiment with countless classroom layouts and new furniture when they can. Whether we’re grouping desk-chairs into pairs or two-by-twos, ditching desk-chairs altogether for detached tables and chairs, or creating hip new classroom lounges with bean bag chairs and couches — these new layouts facilitate elbow-to-elbow, face-to-face learning.
We strive for these layouts and the lessons we teach to facilitate the conversations we want students to have. We know we’ve taught a good lesson when we feel the relief that one feels when starting a fire without a match. With enough technique and a little brute force, we get a spark. But a spark isn’t that hard to light. It’s far more difficult to build the perfect environment for that spark to become a flame that feeds itself and keeps you warm. Every teacher knows the thrill of seeing that spark catch, when students’ conversations take off without your effort, letting you sit back and watch how they learn.
Teachers ask kids to do a lot to build this environment. Teachers ask kids to pick up the new handout on the way in, get the old handout from yesterday, get an extra if you lost it or if you were absent, get out your pencil, get an extra pencil off my desk if you need one, find your seat, and sit down on your seat that several other students have already sat on. We ask them to find a partner, find a new partner, go to the corner of the room that corresponds with the character you most agree with, film a video outside, form a circle, two circles, now switch. We ask them to get a Chromebook from the class’s Chromecart that four classes have already touched that day. They’ll need to line up to put away the Chromebooks and make sure to plug them in. Sometimes they need to go to the back and get the markers, crayons, paintbrushes, tissues, paper towels, bandages (so many bandages), and textbooks, and they’ll do this a dozen times in a class period. As they weave in between the desks, they nudge and bump their peers and step on their backpacks, breathing one another’s air and smelling one another’s stink.
Students share posters, markers, notes, pens, journals, thoughts, phones, gum, Hydroflasks, Takis, and baby carrots coated in Tajín. They stand up, sit down, chat, text, scroll, FaceTime, talk shit, take calls, walk outside, peer out the window, and crumple papers into three-point shots into my garbage can that they inevitably miss while shouting “Kobe!” (yes, even in Warriors territory). My students ask me for more than 1,000 Kirkland Signature Soft & Chewy Chocolate Chips granola bars, which I provide unconditionally to keep their blood sugar high enough to complete a few dozen complex, cognitive tasks per class. They do all of this whether you’re okay with it or not, whenever they want, though some kids more than others. And this is what they do to keep themselves from hating you because they’d rather not. They want to like you; they want to learn. But they need to bring their full selves into the classroom, the selves they built on the playgrounds, blacktops, senior lawns, JV swim teams, homecoming games, proms, and every other place they’re no longer allowed to enjoy.
Back to August 10: Students file into my new classroom. This year, I’ll be teaching seniors who I’ve already taught as sophomores, some as freshmen, too. Except this year, they won’t sit in pairs or two-by-twos. They’ll find their individual desks in rows, each desk chair painfully isolated from their neighbors. However, my desks are not six feet apart. Like the teacher I mentioned at the top of this article, I can only fit 1.5 meters between them, about 4 feet, 11 inches. The small group table is gone. I can’t greet them at the door on the first day of their last year in high school. They’ll find me standing at the front, masked and gloved. Since I had taught these kids before, I was hoping to speed through my class norms and expectations, but now I teach new norms for a new normal.
They must wait outside before I allow them to enter because I must wipe every desk, chair, and counter between every class. I would rather delegate this to my 17- and 18-year-old students, but only I am legally allowed to handle disinfecting wipes and sprays according to an amendment to California’s Health School Act of 2000 — that is, after taking a one-hour training on proper disinfectant use. This takes at least 10 minutes, eating at least five minutes of the next 51 minute period. If I want to use disinfectant wipes to clean these surfaces well, I’ll need to use a few dozen wipes between each class because their efficacy significantly drops after wiping more than two square feet. If I had to make any other adjustment between classes — change or fix slides, sort handouts, print a résumé for a student, or God forbid, go to the bathroom — it will take longer, or it won’t happen. If I’m rushing back to my class after enforcing physical distancing during passing period, it will take longer. While my students wait outside, they stand staring at their phones, beaten down by the hot August sun or bitter December rains.
I continue. They shall not stand up during class. If they need something, anything, they must ask me for it. Almost anything I give them is theirs to keep; I no longer ask them to return borrowed pens or pencils. I’ll still need to monitor any borrowing of rulers, scissors, markers, or glue, while my colleagues in math and science monitor any borrowing of calculators, protractors, beakers, test tubes, goggles, Bunsen burners, and the like. They may not touch each other, for any reason. If they do so, they must wash their hands and sanitize anything they shared. They may not eat in class; one lick of cheese dust off their fingers wiped across a shared surface becomes a reservoir of disease. It doesn’t matter if they barely had time to pick up their free school breakfast before heading to first period.
As I teach, they must not turn and talk about something I want them to discuss because they would likely compromise the minimal distance between them. They will not take a position on a controversial question by moving to one side of the room or the other. We will not have Socratic seminars because I cannot maintain distance between students sitting in a large circle. Most work will be individual: no group posters, mock trials, skits, funny videos, or partner reading. If they need my help with anything, I will no longer kneel beside their desk to give their question privacy. They will need the bravery to raise their hand in front of everyone and ask their question. Otherwise, they will need to email or text me their question in class.
In science, my students will not have lab partners. In theater, no contact between actors or shared costumes between classes. In English, no class sets of books because the disinfectant would soak the pages. In PE, no sports that bring students within six feet of one another: basketball, football, soccer, swimming, handball, field hockey, lacrosse, and weightlifting (and that doesn’t even consider the nightmare of disinfecting all the equipment). No sports, so no coaches to call when the star power forward on varsity basketball needs that extra kick of motivation. Any day we use Chromebooks in class, I’ll probably need to end those classes 10 minutes early to disinfect every single computer and put them away. After weeks upon weeks of sanitation, who knows what effect these disinfectant chemicals will have on the Chromebooks, let alone my hands. School districts that can afford assigning every student their own school laptop may be able to skip this step, but poorer districts that rely on shared computers cannot.
“I think we all know that kindergarteners and first graders will have a really hard time staying six feet away from each other,” Deputy Superintendent of the California Department of Education Stephanie Gregson told CNBC with a chuckle, “So we really have to think through what that would look like in order for them to be safe at school, and for their teachers as well.” Except they won’t have to really think that through, because five- and six-year-olds will not storm the Sacramento offices of the CDE in a few months, spraying their snot and saliva in all directions. Like every other impossible task, it will fall to thousands of elementary school teachers and staff to make it work. There’s no way I could do justice to the experience of elementary school teachers, whose skill sets and challenges often mystify us high school teachers. But I will take the liberty to give you a taste.
No more group seating. No story time on the carpet. No small group stations. Coloring must be strictly monitored to eliminate sharing, probably requiring children to keep their own personal sets of crayons and markers, revealing stark class differences within classrooms and between schools. No fingers in the mouth or nose, and several minutes spent washing their hands after they inevitably forget. They, too, cannot get out of their seats during class, and no longer can they enjoy the couches and bean bag chairs that their teachers have acquired.
Again is the time to ask: Have you ever met children?
Recess becomes a huge source of contention, as some schools claim to have the resources, staff, materials, and wherewithal to sanitize playgrounds and toys after every recess while others do not. Other schools simply lock up balls and jump ropes, coil their swings around the crossbar, and wrap their playgrounds in caution tape like a crime scene that hasn’t happened yet. Some schools follow the lead of France and ban playground games altogether. More teachers are forced to supervise more recesses, cutting down on their time to prep and rest. The din of playful children is replaced with a din of whistles and exhausted adults shouting at young children to stay at least six feet apart. Children are bewildered by adults’ strange, menacing behavior in a crisis they don’t understand. They return to class frustrated, bored, antsy, and unwilling to learn in an environment that won’t let them be themselves.