Slice of Life: I Can’t Read This Room

I took a breath before starting up my Monday series of video chats with my sixth graders. These are short sessions, with two offerings per week, for students to choose from. I’ve done some mini-lessons in the weeks at home with these video meets but mostly, I’ve used it as a check-in, pep talk, address questions kind-of-thing.

“If we were in the classroom, together, we would be talking about current events,” I tell my students, trying to read faces and body postures and feeling frustrated about how the video delays, spotty Internet connections, and small screens and faces-only visuals, not to mention the reluctance many still have of even engaging in conversation on the video, all stymied my approach.

I could have chosen to avoid this topic altogether. I could have but really, I could not. How can we?

“And there are events going on that you may have been following from Minneapolis and other cities,” I continue, noticing some nodding heads. One student quickly wrote “George Floyd” in the chat for everyone to see.  Another shared a sad emoji face. I pause, and acknowledge George Floyd’s name and then give an overview of what has been happening in cities across the country as a result, including nearby Boston (and later, I find, right in my small city, too, where the police station was the scene of a rally/protest and target of graffiti).

I connect what is happening now to our work earlier in the year in discussing race, civil rights, and systemic violence of the black community — particularly young black men — from our work with The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963, and try to balance the news headlines of looting stores with the tenets of peaceful protest marches, as civic action against injustice being the heart and soul of our country. I avoid the president, despite the voice in my head, altogether, trying to keep the politics neutral.

Repeatedly, I open the floor up in the video for questions, and pose questions of inquiry. I receive some response, but mostly, not much. Just silence. Either they are reluctant to discuss difficult questions or engage in difficult dialogue via video, or they have not really been paying much attention to the news, or something else. (I refuse to believe it’s because they didn’t care). I could have (maybe should have) done some writing with them, but I wasn’t sure if they had enough context for that.

I could not read the room, despite my many years as a teacher, and this happened four different times with four different classes. I could not … read the room.

Yesterday, I disliked (hated, really, to be honest) this Distance Learning situation more than ever for the barriers it puts in front of me helping my students see the world through a larger lens, with context and compassion.

Seeing them there in little images, stuck inside my computer screen, isolated and maybe only seeing news through their social media applications, or if lucky, in discussions with parents, and here I was, a teacher they would often rely on to talk about these issues, feeling as inadequate as I have ever felt, trying to engage them in critically important issues, and seemingly failing in my efforts to do so.

Maybe they were thinking as they were listening, at least. Maybe that.

Peace (in frustration),

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  1. Before these tragedies, I was already worried about what the isolation is doing to our collective empathy. If we never see anyone else in the flesh, is it easier to reduce our sense of community. My students are a little younger and in the midst of discussing the American Revolution, the actions of our original protestors form an interesting parallel. In brick and mortar, I would have saturated us with books and conversations. Why do I hesitate now?

    • We’ve lost the intimate connection of human interaction — it’s physical, not digital … we read the room by being in the room with others, not by staring at a screen of faces, with the technology as the barrier …

  2. I am feeling this so much right now. I haven’t brought up any current events since we moved to online learning. I’m not sure what my 3rd graders are and aren’t aware of. I don’t know what their parents want them to know about and what they hope to shelter them from. And, I can’t read the room. Even in academic lessons I’ve struggled to be able to read their understanding or lack of. I’ve felt a loss of skills I’ve built as a teacher for two decades. It’s been painful but nothing like how it feels right now. Thank you for writing this and sharing it.

  3. Oh, Kevin, thank you for sharing your experience. I’m so glad you had The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963 to refer back to, to remind them of. They remember. They have connections and were thinking and listening. Thank God you brought it up. And I’m very sorry for you and them that you couldn’t be there to read the room. Peace to you all.

  4. Thanks for sharing this. As you pointed out in an earlier comment, we’re currently denied the human connection that would help in so many ways. That makes it even harder. Keep doing what you’re doing.

  5. What a powerful post! Thanks for sharing. As I read your words, I reflected on how I’m processing things. A friend and I talked last night about difficulty breathing, about feeling heartsick, about overwhelming sadness. How do we go forward? For me, I’m reading one of the books I’ve been meaning to read for several years. Kudos for bringing up the current events, for broaching such a difficult conversation during this time with your students, even if you couldn’t read the room.

  6. Thanks for writing this. Yesterday in my capacity as an administrator, I had multiple conversations with teachers about how they are addressing national events this week. They talked with frustration about facing a bunch of avatars on a screen and discussing something as raw, substantial, and nuanced as this. We can’t read our students’ body language. We can’t tell if the kids are about to cry. They are paying attention to us and trying to process deep feelings about systemic racism and it is so hard to help them make sense of their world.

  7. Kevin, you have laid bare your frustration in the most articulate and honest way. Faced with the same situation, I would no doubt feel as you do. Your dilemma underscores the critical importance of human interaction (face to face) in ‘reading the room and responding to an issue. Technology is powerful, but it comes with demonstrable limitations as you have laid bare. The issue of racism continues to haunt our respective societies and addressing it is critical. You will find the key to unlocking a deeper understanding and awareness among your students, because you are looking for it. That’s what matters.

    • Thank you Alan, and I hope there is a better path forward, on all of it … there are many things that technology helps with and expands our view of the world with — distance learning and teaching through a video screen right now does not seem like one of those (maybe I’m doing it all wrong).

  8. Wow. I’m thinking about my online work– and how much I enjoyed the “discussion” and “feedback” part. Sometimes, it was deep into a topic; often it was surface. I think that Alan Wright’s comment is spot on: ” You will find the key to unlocking a deeper understanding and awareness among your students, because you are looking for it. That’s what matters.” As your class closes, you’ll reflect on how to engage and read your students online, should that still be the situation. You will find a way. ~ Sheri

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