FEATURE — On a Zoom orientation earlier this week, my son’s new school principal tried to reassure all the incoming middle school fifth graders that while this school year was going to look different than any of them had expected, it was still going to be a great one.
At that, my fifth grader promptly walked out of the room. Great Zoom etiquette, I know.
I was left alone in our home office, listening to a handful of teachers – all equally enthusiastic and positive – give overviews of what their classes and subjects would look like in the remote learning mode in which we’ll be starting the school year.
And my youngest was having none of it.
He loves school. He loves learning. He loves working independently. He loves solving problems. He loves the interplay between students and teachers in the classroom. Heck, he even loves a good schedule!
In fact, he loves a schedule so much my husband caught this same boy working out in the basement alone four days ago with a strict schedule of his own making which included a nightly jog to his old elementary school, 25 push-ups, 30 sit-ups and a 30-second plank. All to be completed between 7 and 7:30 p.m., which he’s followed meticulously every night since. And he’s 10.
But what he doesn’t love? Remote learning.
“There is no way this year is going to be a great one,” he whispered to me after skulking back into the office towards the end of the Zoom orientation. I smiled at him and rubbed his back but didn’t say anything in response.
We were still Zooming and I was trying to model good etiquette. I was also buying myself some time for an appropriate response. How could I reassure him and also acknowledge his valid concerns?
Remote learning did not go very well in our home that last term of spring when the pandemic suddenly shut down schools and threw us into school at home. All three of my boys struggled with it for various reasons.
My high schooler felt overwhelmed by the asynchronous and measurably heavier workload, and was depressed by the evaporation of friend groups. My seventh grader had one too many hyperlinks for each assignment and would get distracted on step five of seven.
And my youngest? Well, he was bored and unchallenged – in spite of things like assigning himself several extra animal research reports in science.
I recently became aware of a traditional rabbinical approach to Talmudic study called Havruta. The practice involves a small group of two or three students analyzing the sacred text of the Torah by reading and questioning passages together.
As I understand it, it works like this: one student puts forth both a question and a potential answer about the passage being studied. Then, the other students are invited to offer other potential answers. Which leads to a beautiful discussion of the text.
In the end, as Harvard teaching fellow Vanessa Zoltan describes it, “that what is truest about the answer is all that we’ve said between the two of us. The answer is in the aggregate. Not in finding the one right thing.”
After the Zoom call, my boy and I revisited his expression about how there is no way this school year can be great.
He talked about it all feeling uncertain and crazy and weird. He worried about being isolated and trying to navigate this new middle school experience from home. He also talked of feeling cheated in science because they won’t be doing lab work while in remote learning.
I listened and then suggested that this remote experience might be different than it was before. He’d be at a new school, after all, and these are historic times. Who knows? It might even feel exciting and fun.
The more I talked, the more I felt myself trying to convince him of that right thing – of it all being great, not uncertain or weird.
Then, I thought of the practice of Havruta.
And I realized the truth was in all that we had said together. Yes, this school year will be uncertain and crazy and weird. And yes, this school year will be historic and exciting and new.
Not just one of those things, but all of those things. Together. And maybe, just maybe, it might even be great.
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