The Re-Education of Alex Bruzan – Episode 10: 10 Observations From Week One Of Virtual School

My kids go to one of the Milwaukee Public Schools that is on the early start calendar. That means they will have been in school three full weeks before the school district I work for starts virtual learning. I don’t typically like the idea of my kids being guinea pigs, but since they are starting brand new a couple of weeks before I am responsible for providing the same thing to our students, I would foolish to waste an opportunity to learn from the first iteration of someone else’s attempt to do the same thing. So, here are 10 observations from one week of virtual school.

Day one was cluster. But the first day of school kind of is in general. Everyone is confused. No one knows what to do. I thought the first thing I noticed was going to change on day 2, but I wanted to make sure, so I purposely watched as my son interacted with his teacher and his classmates. I didn’t count how many times he talked on the first day of school, but on day 2, he talked 3 times. From 8:05 until the time he picked up his virtual classroom at 2:45 he only spoke 3 times (1). That’s not good. I don’t know how many times a 2nd grader is supposed to talk during the day, but I would assume it is more than 3. I don’t blame his teacher at all. She is really organized and what I am about to write about might make it seem like I think she is doing a bad job, which is the opposite of what I really think. I think most teachers are just as scared as the kids are with starting virtually. I think most teachers wish this wasn’t happening and have no clue how they are going to make it work. Some will want to make it work more than others and some will figure out how to do it well, while others won’t. It’s the same with students. Some will want to make it work and figure out a new set of nuances around school, while some will do their own form of protest where they opt out of anything virtual.

My son is in the same class as last year. Their school groups kids for three years from 3k up until 6th grade. He is on his second teacher for his entire schooling career. My daughter started a new class this year for 4th grade. My wife and I realized a few days in that it is really hard to make friends in virtual school (2). She knows a few kids in her new class, but not many. Only one third of her classmates are in her grade, so that leaves about 20 kids that have been together for at least one school year. All of the new 4th graders are going to be missing out on a first week of school tradition of making new friends with the kids in your class. She doesn’t use any break our rooms or anything on Google Hangouts so she really doesn’t talk much more than my son does. She is certainly not talking to random 4th graders in the same way she would in non-virtual school. Because of that she is going to struggle to make any new friends until they are back in person. I think she will be fine, but I am a little worried about her ability to make new friends without the natural newness that comes from the first week of school.

My daughter is an introvert like me. Both her and I could go days without talking to anyone else and probably not even notice. It’s part of the reason I get up hours before anyone else does in my house. I like to be alone. I think to have space to think and process and being around other people make it harder for me to do that. While in normal school, she is the one out of the two that struggles socially. Like me, when she is overly stimulated with conversation or feels like she has to “perform” for an extended period of time the result is awkwardness and then a low tolerance for social interaction and then mental exhaustion. My son, on the other hand, loves being around his bros from school. He has a gang of other 2nd graders that walk around the playground with pockets full of Pokemon cards and Hot Wheels and get in trouble for telling fart jokes and acting like dogs at inappropriate times. My daughter loves the lack of social interaction offered in a virtual setting. I can tell because at the end of the day she can carry on normal conversations with me when, after a long day of school, she would struggle to have the energy to do so. That’s awesome. My extroverted son is going insane from a lack of fart jokes. He reminds me of how our dog is when she hasn’t been run in a long time. Monty, the dog, gets really needy and annoying when she has a lot of energy. That’s how Dex has been the last week. Even after we take him out for runs, he still will shout random unintelligible words for 25 minutes in a row while wandering around the yard in his underwear. The third observation I made during the first week of virtual school is that learning virtually is great for introverts and awful for extroverts (3).

This has resulted in a dynamic I am calling minimum work with maximum crying (4). Specifically, my son was assigned 8 math problems to work on during the school day. This isn’t one of the observations but could be considered an 11th one. I have given multiple professional development presentations on Google Classroom during my career. My son’s teacher is using Google Classroom and I have no idea what the hell is going on. If I don’t know, then the average parent isn’t going to know either. It took until the 3rd day for me to find where the math problems were on Google Classroom. They weren’t hidden or anything, I just couldn’t find them. It’s like when you are late and you can’t find your keys. Then you stop and realize they are in pocket. So on day 3 I found the math problems. I was a little bummed when I saw there were only 8. We did math problems at least half of the days over the summer and we did 30-ish of them a day. It was a struggle to get him to complete them, but we did it. These 8 math problems took him the better part of 5 hours and were less complex than what we were doing over the summer. I have no idea why, but the first week of virtual school turned him from a kid that never cries with a 4th grade math level to one that cried for five hours while “working” on 8 two digit by two digit addition problems.

He spent so long on those math problems because the schedule for the day was so open ended. An open ended schedule is a good thing, but we missed some of the structure of that open ended time that we were supposed to learn about at the morning meeting earlier in the day. In fact it is really easy to miss meetings (5). Granted, the missing of the meetings was probably my fault. I’m sure I was on my own Zoom call or something when I should have been helping him log in to his call. This might be the only time I mention equity in this post, but any negative effects of these observations could be amplified when put through an equity lens (students in poverty tend to have a higher mobility rate, meaning they transfer schools more often, and if you recently transferred into a new school and know no one, virtual school would be a terrible place to make friends). I know of multiple families on my block where parental oversight isn’t going to be as strong as even my weak attempts. The capacity to add one more thing to their plates just isn’t there. It’s not going to happen. For families that are better off financially, they may consider finding a tutor or one of those learning pod things, but that would realistically never happen in my neighborhood. We’re considering trying to do something like that informally with a couple of our neighbors, but we know it would mostly be one sided in terms of effort, which is why we would be considering doing it in the first place. When a kid misses a set of instructions during the day, it’s obvious to any good teacher because the kid isn’t doing the right thing. In a virtual setting, the teacher wouldn’t really ever know if a random student understood or was even logged onto the call to get the directions.

One reason it is so easy to miss meetings is that there are so many links (6). I don’t have much more to add beyond that. There’s a lot of links and it’s hard to know which one to click on. I think if multiple adults are on a Zoom call together but the person leading the call never shows up they would naturally start problem solving the situation. Maybe the text the person leading the call or email someone else that’s supposed to be on the call to see if they have the right link. 7 year olds don’t do that. They stay on the call. I have walked into my kids on calls two times now where there is no teacher. Both times it wasn’t like the rooms had 3 kids in them; they were each closer to 15 or 20. 15 small children unattended anywhere isn’t going to go well, but when 15 unattended kids are on a Zoom call, all hell breaks loose. It actually reminds me of when there is a substitute. In fact virtual learning has the same feel as when there is a substitute in the class (7). Whenever there is a sub, it’s an opportunity to deviate from the norm. Learning virtually is, in essence, deviating from the norm. When you have a sub, you can get away with a lot more. It’s easier to be sneaky bad. That is what I see happening throughout the day. While sitting next to my son, it is obvious that the portion of a teacher’s day which would normally be spent managing a classroom no longer is needed. Classroom management in a virtually setting is drastically different than in person (8).

The importance of classroom management is something very few people outside of education understand. Even new teachers going into the profession have little to no understanding about the importance of managing a classroom space. When I started working as a math teacher, I assumed (wrongfully) that being really good at math was going to be even remotely useful. I was wrong. I mean I guess it’s helpful. It would be better to know math than to not know math, but not knowing math can be faked a lot easier than not knowing how to manage a classroom. I would go as far to say that if you can manage a classroom, you are automatically considered to be a good teacher regardless of what you actually teach the students. If the students in my Algebra class are quiet and doing work it gives the outward appearance that I have things under control and if I have thins under control then I must be an effective teacher because the kids appear to be engaged in learning rather than screwing around. With virtual learning the management component is now completing gone and if it isn’t completely gone, it’s unrecognizably different. If a student is being loud, the teacher just mutes them. If a student is wearing something inappropriate, the teacher can just turn the kid’s screen off. You can’t do that in person. In person, when a student misbehaves, that leaves open the possibility for a power struggle. For some kids, school is just one giant power struggle. In virtual school, the power struggle is gone. In person, a student has to get up and storm out of the room if they feel offended or mistreated. In virtual school, all they have to do is close their laptop and the struggle is over.

Opting in or opting out of receiving an education has never been easier than it is during virtual school. If I wanted to be taught, all I have to do is log into my Google Hangouts or Zoom call and listen to someone I know teach me the basics around whatever is developmentally appropriate for me to learn. There is no transportation needed. Pants are optional. If I don’t want to learn, I can easily dismiss directions and watch youtube videos all day. There was one day where my son had animated audio books read to him for four hours. These “books” where basically cartoons. He watched cartoons based on books for four hours. He was engaged with what was going on in front of him and I was working next to him. It seemed like he was working so I assumed he was doing something productive.

All of this makes me think that we have to make it easier for students to opt in to receiving an education. We have to make the appeal of opting in more attractive than the alternative. There has been a ton of talk in my spheres about synchronous vs asynchronous learning. Synchronous learning takes place at a prescribed time with activities done when a class would normally meet. If first hour starts at 8 and goes until 9:25, then that is where that learning takes place. If the course was taught asynchronously, the learning would take place at a time of the students choosing. That is something we are going to try and offer with our school through our new independent PBL model. Students will still receive traditional coursework while completing a project at a time they pick. The thing with my son, is that he is a really good student inside of school and not a great student outside of school. He waits until the last minute to complete his work, which he does pretty easily. Sure, he should probably learn to get it done right away, but I’m still learning how to do that. After watching him for a few days, I came to the conclusion that we should try and offer a class like Algebra that a student can opt into multiple times a day (9). Or, if it is logistically too challenging to do so, at least allow any practice to take place outside the scope of a traditional class time. One step better would be to systematically make available Algebra help at random times of the day so a student that is doing the work outside of the prescribed time can get help if they need it.

Finally, infusing Deeper Learning is going to be a challenge but will be so much more engaging (10). Yesterday my son went missing. Technically this was week two, not week one. He wasn’t on the first floor. I thought maybe he was up in the office my wife was using. He needs a change of scenery every once in awhile, but he wasn’t there. I checked my daughter’s room and she just gave me an annoyed look when I asked if he was in there. I checked the bathroom on the second floor and looked out the window in the laundry room which overlooks our backyard. He wasn’t there either. It was 95 degrees outside and we don’t have central air conditioning. That means that attic, which we converted into a hangout space, was probably 100+ degrees. I didn’t think he was actually up there, but checked anyways. I found him counting Legos. He was tasked with doing a “big work” which is 2nd grader speak for a project. He was supposed to build something really big and wanted to count how many Legos it would take to accomplish building the big thing. He presents his work on Friday.

It is amazing to me that 20 minutes before this we just finished up a torturous attempt at completing 8 math problems, and now he is engaged in counting Legos and building something really big in our attic on the hottest day of the year without any prompting from me. As a parent I am thankful he has something to do that he enjoys. It sucks watching him struggle and be disengaged – I think his highlight from the first week might have been him wearing two hats on his Zoom call. I am glad he is in a school that values project based learning and is encouraging him to some project work beyond the writing and math repetition.

I hope that you found some value in spending the time engaging with these 10 articles/chapters/episodes/whatever they should be called. I wanted to complete 10 before our teaching staff returned, but virtual school for our kids took up more time than I thought it would. However, being there for them has been more rewarding than powering through and finishing this project on an arbitrary deadline would have been. The plan for now is to continue to write these and work them into some type of running audio book that ends up being a podcast. I feel strongly that education reform is needed in order to start creating equitable outcomes for students of color, students living in poverty, and students with mental health difficulties. If this helps move all of us in that direction, even a little, it’s worth it to me to get up early and put all of this down on the screen.