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Local View Column: Be mindful in frontier of forced online learning

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Andy Wolfe

You could see it coming. News of the coronavirus was looming. Unlike swine flu or Taliban terrorism, you knew this one was going to hit closer to home, like the swell of a tsunami wave; it was just a matter of time. And now, to ride this wave of social, economic, and health disruption, we all have to adapt.

As a high school teacher who must now go online with my students, I am preparing myself to help my students. It’s a good time to practice mindfulness and to strive to embrace technological advances, some more than decades old and more suited to the technology of my students. Together, we can explore the already-tested as well as undiscovered country of learning, where social distancing is necessary.

To be mindful is to experience a situation with your senses and your mind but without worry and judgment. That’s hard to do when your entire life — from travel plans to caring for your elders — is completely upended. And I am not implying that people whose health or economic viability are threatened just need to don some rose-colored shades.

On the other hand, with school closures, mine included, it is a chance to better ourselves in alternative styles of learning. Maybe it is we teachers who will learn the most in these circumstances. It’s time to be mindful of perhaps better methods of teaching and learning.

For years I have just accepted that I am not good at making a slide presentation or a PowerPoint. And that was fine, I told myself. After all, I am a face-to-face educator. Give me a room with some seniors who want to learn literary analysis, and I can engage them, sans technology, for hours. We just need the book or the poem in front of us. Who needs Microsoft or Google. The words, the sentence, the page, the stanza or refrain of a poem: none of those can be better aided by technology, I’d tell myself. Just put my young charges before me and let me loose.

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But education has never really been like that. My pupils are quite often not in front of me. They are at home sick, on a field trip, or too anxious to make it to class. Rare is the day with every seat filled as I tick off the names for roll.

But there has been another motivation for me to try to keep up with technology, as our district pushed us onto electronic grade books, online inquiries and WebQuests, and Google Classroom: These students are about to pass from high school halls to an even more technological world. Phones and social media already occupy them, but not every student has access to WiFi at home. It’s a sobering reminder that the technology provided by schools is the great equalizer of us all. Urban or rural, rich or poor, we all need to come together now without physical proximity. Figuring out how to do it for all students and all teachers might make us better educators and learners when the threat abates.

So I look forward to learning more about how to continue to engage my students via online discussions or chats or by assigning posts and how to reach those without computer access at home. Due dates may not be as scary for them, and going online naturally gives my students more time to think, to process questions or each other’s comments. Gone will be the anxiety of a silence, like a deadly gas, filling the room as 17- and 18-year-olds avoid eye contact, scared of sounding ridiculous. Now, rumination, freed from the anxiety of unnatural time constraints, can grow into deeper analysis, maybe better answers.

I still have many unanswered questions about how to teach journalism online to students who are no longer in the arena on which they are reporting. But just by wondering about that, I am excited for them to have time to cover things outside. Rarely do they have time to journalistically explore outside the school walls because of so many obligations with classes, sports, jobs, and family.

We teachers preach life-long learning to our students. Now life is calling us all to be better learners, for the short or the long haul.

Andy Wolfe of Duluth is a language arts teacher at Superior High School. That includes teaching communications, public speaking, creative writing, literature, and composition, as well as advising the school newspaper.

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