“Mr. F, whatcha doin out there in space?” Manuel had been pretty quiet during the video call, but just as it was ending he called out a question to his teacher, whose smiling head was hovering at the rim of a mesmerizing purple planet that was his zoom backdrop.
At our high school in Oakland, CA, students are tentative about Zoom; they tend to pay close attention to their teachers’ screens, pets, and kids while keeping the camera off themselves. While Mr. F spun a funny story for Manuel about his space backdrop, I thought about how apt the outer space backdrop is for this present reality, where enforced distancing is colored by our sudden appearances in each other’s bedrooms and getting popped in and out of new configurations of people in breakout rooms. I wonder if this feeling of getting yanked about gives us teachers a little taste of the uneasy condition of the young people in our schools. We expect students to be infinitely adaptable to the structures the adult world puts on them, and to be responsive to the associated assessments we have cooked up.
During this destabilizing pandemic time I feel a significant shift underway, as pain and uncertainty thrust teachers into new spaces of cognitive dissonance. I hear teachers collectively challenging the assumptions and outcomes that we’ve accepted around grading and testing. Overwhelmed by what they see so many of their students are going through as they navigate confused and unhealthy terrain, teachers are putting the habits of schooling on pause and leaning into relationship.
Manuel is part of an interdisciplinary project based learning experience that is a core practice in OUSD schools. While some projects were stopped short by the school closure, this one has continued. Project based learning, connecting academic learning with real-world applications, lends itself well to this online learning space, if the collaboration it requires of classroom and community partners is in place. Happily, the adults are deeply invested in nurturing the possibilities of this project together. Today, as pathway coach, I am on the call with Manuel and other students participating in a Zoom meeting with English, Film, and History teachers and community educators. They are planning for an annual youth-centered festival called “Hear My Voice,” featuring Oakland students’ short films and spoken word on issues they care about, from depression to toxic masculinity to vaping. This year, teachers and students decided not to cancel the event, but to hold it online.*
Between the teachers and the community educators, there are more adults in this virtual classroom than students. We watch and discuss the awesome NOVID music video their OUSD peers just released, listen to students’ ideas for their festival submissions, ask questions, and cheer the students on. No one says, “you should do such and so,” or, “why didn’t you put more effort into your work?” On the contrary, one of the community educators says, “there are no wrong answers here, we just want to see you be able to take your ideas as far as you can!”
What does it mean for students to carry out an extensive school project in a time when there are no grades, no attendance requirements, no desks and, in many cases, very limited technology access?
At our school, I am watching students make presentations, participate in class discussions, engage in political advocacy, and write and revise substantive research papers, knowing that they could do none of it and still pass. I am seeing them check in with their teachers, ask about their lives, joke and cry. What matters is the relationships, and the course material may or may not be relevant to this priority.
There are also many students who are doing none of this, who are watching younger siblings while mom goes to work, who are having a hard time getting up without the structure of school, who are working to make up for the lost income of a dad who has just lost his job. Some of these students reach out to teachers, some of them do not.
Either way, assessments don’t seem to be much on the radar for our students.
They are for our teachers. But the philosophical terrain of assessments has already changed.
Teachers are by and large conditioned to use grades and elaborate point systems as leverage for student engagement. What happens to this scaffold when the purpose and practice of assessments have been upended by a loose system of Credit/NoCredit, in this time of school closure?
When the usual parameters of school have fallen away, what is left of the learning relationship? What are the conversations adults are having with young people? About young people? Before the pandemic, teacher talk often revolved around student motivation and improvement, but the pandemic has laid bare vital layers of resilience in our young people, that were often missed in teachers’ judgments about student engagement. Even though their students’ zoom screens may be turned off, teachers are really trying to tune into their lives and paying close attention to how their students are seeing the world at this moment.
The deal underlying assessments is that students are graded on how well they have learned what they were assigned to learn. But when were students taught how to learn in 6 classes hastily transferred from in-person to online settings, plus deal with the emotional, social, and physical toll of surviving — and helping their families to survive — a pandemic?
The lens I see teachers developing together during quarantine school is one of focusing presence. How can I better understand this student’s experience? What do I need to hear that isn’t being said? What response can I offer to this student in this moment to deepen our connection? These kinds of questions have long been a vehicle for cohorts of teachers using trauma-informed practices. And now they are suddenly the norm.
When Senior Capstone teachers talk about assessments, they ask, “what feedback can we give to students that will be a source of encouragement and support?” “How can we help students acknowledge the strangeness of this presentation format within the presentation itself?” “How do we ritualize this end of year project so that it grounds students in the life stage they’re passing through?” The teachers are countering the confusion that distance causes, with deep affirmation of their students’ lives.
We have an opportunity in this hard moment to plant our learning relationships in soft soil. What are the questions we need to be asking ourselves now, to make this time of uncertainty one of real promise? Where can we best build up supports for presence and relationship? How will we make sure our schools don’t run right back onto the tracks of failure and success that have divided up our world and poisoned some of our most vulnerable students’ educations? What will we commit to, to ensure that we keep getting more present with our students, in all times?