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Note: These journal entries are adapted from my teaching journal. The original entries are handwritten on the blank pages of my lesson plan book.
Day 1: January 26, 2023 writing on the train after class. Today was my first day of teaching in person since March 10, 2020, and I am thinking of IT glitches and how they were solved. At the time, those glitches seemed significant because our face-to-face class was paperless. Until the glitches were fixed, I wondered how to find alternative access to the twenty-first century tech I used throughout the long months of remote learning, and had intended to use in person, too.
Yes, I thought, it would be possible to teach without a monitor and a smartboard. We could all just use our personal electronic devices to log into the course management system and walk through the syllabus that way, just like we did on Zoom.
As I said, the glitch was soon fixed, and we returned to our post-remote world. “This is not how I intended to begin,” I told the students. The room was small and the desks were crowded closely together. I covered the key points of the syllabus, and showed the welcome video and the video to introduce our reading from James Baldwin.
On the way home, on the train, I am taking notes that skim the surface. Although we made nameplates with crayons, name tags, and paper, and although we introduced ourselves to each other, the class felt too much like teaching on Zoom. This feeling is hard to admit, but I need to consider not so much why it felt that way, but what I can do to take advantage of in-person affordances.
In-person affordances included the arrangement of the physical objects in the room (desks crowded together, monitor, smartboard) and the room temperature (too warm). Those were the most obvious features. The emotions gathered together in that room were less obvious. How did the students feel about being in this room and what did they think about taking this writing class? We were using the tools of remote learning in an in-person classroom. We were face-to-face and literally elbow-to-elbow in a room filled with people who were strangers to each other, and who had, perhaps, become accustomed to engaging more with devices than with people.
At least this is my perception after the first day. I feel exhilarated as well, nevermind the glitches. Or, perhaps the glitches are exactly the point. What would I have done if I could not access the monitor and the smartboard? What did I do before monitors, smartboards, and functional wifi?
Day 2: January 31, 2023 writing in class while students work on their journals. On the way to school on the train, I had an idea for how to explain an early-term assignment. I found two sticky notes and a pen and scratched down my thoughts. The train was nearing a transfer point and I would have to move quickly. When I arrived on campus, I wrote the explanation on the board while simultaneously revising. I revised for a third time when I composed an announcement for the students on the course management system.
I remembered that I used to revise lesson plans like this all the time–kinesthetically, on the go, from brain to handwriting, to catching trains and buses to campus, to writing on the board, to transferring ideas to make them visible online. I remembered that I learned best kinesthetically, and that staying still could be very difficult. I remembered the tactile impressions of fingers against pen, and pen against paper.
So I decided to reverse the lesson plan. Rather than beginning with the newly revised assignment, we would begin and end with handwriting. I would use Ask Me Anything (a beginning-of-semester activity I learned about and implemented long before the pandemic) to unpack the syllabus and the course, and exit tickets to help plan the lesson for the next class.
I blogged about these activities years ago. Ask Me Anything invited students to ask anonymous questions for me to answer in front of the class. Often students asked different versions of the same question, and I could respond in more depth as needed. Exit tickets, adapted from Stephen Brookfield, offered students an opportunity to write about what was most helpful in class, and what was most confusing. The exit tickets also were anonymous, and I promised that I would not read them until I was on the train.
The questions for Ask Me Anything, I explained, help me understand more about where students need to grow as writers. If more than one student asks the same question, then I know I need to clarify my intentions and our coursework. In an environment where students are rightly concerned about speaking in front of class, both activities create opportunities for conversation and feedback about the course, and also to participate in shaping subsequent lessons.
My responses can be long, and, in that case, a best practice is to check in with students to see if my answer fits what they are asking. On day two, I received an Ask-Me-Anything question that appeared to require a longer response, and also seemed more personal.
The question on the slip of paper asked: What are your pet peeves?
This room, I thought. That it's so small and that we’re all crammed together. That we don’t have HVAC ventilation, and that the room is overheated with a window that barely opens. That adults were unprepared for remote learning during quarantine, and that students, then and now, have to deal with the consequences. As adults, we need to do better.
Then, after a quick realization, I paused for a moment.
“Oh wait,” I said. “Do you mean my pet peeves as an English teacher? It’s five-paragraph essays. It’s hard to fully grow your ideas in five paragraphs, and important ideas might get lost in the process. We'll practice writing to expand on ideas and to create a longer essay. But that’s my English teacher pet peeve, five paragraph essays.”
Growing as a writer, for students and teachers alike, can be immensely challenging, and transitions are never easy. As a neurodivergent teacher away from in-person teaching for nearly three years, I considered the costs and benefits of returning. Anxiety became a language without words, and the feelings were difficult to communicate.
At the same time, experiencing the difficulties of communicating also draws me back to the classroom. In unexpected moments, the classroom can become a place to bear witness to people attempting to communicate in circumstances that would seem to mitigate against communication.
Writing remains one means of bearing witness to journeys toward teaching and learning, with many detours encountered on those journeys. Back in the classroom, the journey continues, and the journey is just beginning.
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