Are You Teaching in Lonely School?

These comments rolled across my Twitter feed yesterday morning.


Every secondary classroom I’ve visited since the start of the pandemic is in the Lonely School. No faces on the Zoom or Google Meet screens. Few voices besides the teacher’s.

Here’s how a couple of ninth graders recently described their experiences:

“All my school is very different and separated right now.”

“For some reason, I can’t get myself to do stuff when I am all by myself.”

What is more problematic is the fierce and determined focus on content. In class after class, time together is peppered with reminders of upcoming formative or summative assessments. (How is this terminology learner-friendly?) Teachers express concern for their students through reminders about late assignments and grades.

In the district that mandates daily SEL and provides teachers with a slide, the SEL is squeezed into the first minutes of class before the “real” instruction begins. (If student social and emotional well-being were the priority, one of those slides could fill an entire class meeting.)

Across the country, parents call remote learning a failure. They say kids are behind; they’ll never catch up. I want to know, behind what? The arbitrary benchmarks that have been assigned to different age groups?

Catch up to whom?

Is remote learning the problem?

I want to suggest that what parents are seeing in this “Comprehensive Distance Learning” (CDL) model is essentially the same content their children receive in the brick and mortar classroom. The big difference is that the barrenness of the curriculum is softened by social padding: bodies in hallways, cafeterias, playgrounds; laughter and conversation; eye contact, a pat on the shoulder, a quick hug.

I would not want to settle for sending my kids back to the “normal” they left behind.

What can we do today to overhaul Lonely School?

Meanwhile, our kids from Kindergarten through 12th grade are locked into Lonely School.

The content-driven, teacher-centered version of remote teaching that’s in place now is not likely to change for the remainder of the year. That’s bad for teachers, who are working their hearts out under unrealistic administrative expectations, and it’s really bad for some kids, who are sad, lonely, bored, overwhelmed, and, some of them, lost. (Note– remote learning has been great for some kids, and we need to learn from that too.)

  • Prioritize authentic, meaningful connections between students, and between students and teachers.
    • Pay attention to how much you talk about assignments, grades, etc. If there weren’t grades, what would be in it for the student to be there with you and the others? (And wouldn’t *that* be an interesting thing to ask students?
    • Spend time building up the chat as a place to answer icebreaker questions. These may or may not relate to the content you’re teaching, they may or may not touch on any skills. But they might give everyone a smile and show another side of people.
    • Use breakout rooms, a lot. Consider asking kids who they’d like to get to know more. Put kids in groups where they’ll work with each other for several weeks; make the first activities there be getting-to-know-you activities so there is some common ground on which they can build. Maybe have them name their group and create a logo for it that they can upload as their face icon for their screen when the whole class is in session. Lower the stakes on whole-class participation– create lots of opportunities for the small groups to interact with the whole class.
    • Open breakout rooms where kids could come to hang out together while doing assignments, or simply read whatever they want. Does this mean creating work for yourself? But if you’re going to be at your desk anyway, what the heck? Maybe there would need to be some solid rules. Maybe you doing your work with them would make a nice norm. Maybe we all just need to figure out how to hang out more together.
  • Ask students what they need in order to feel OK, about living in these times, and about learning. Note: learning is not the same thing as _____________ (fill in the blank with any subject area). Listen to them. Put it into action in class.
  • Ask students what kind of stuff they want to do or know related to the subject area for the next couple of weeks (because, really, who thinks much beyond that lately)? Course material might be giving some kids something with which to fill their minds and hours. It might be torturing others.
  • Are there school or district mandates you are obligated to fulfill? Tell the students; ask them what they think are the best ways to fulfill those.

Note that these things may start with the teacher, but the focus os on the students. These ideas will not fit neatly into a block of time. They may seem risky. But they are also honest attempts to hear kids and bring them into a shared situation. I have never asked kids what they think would work for them and heard lies. I have often moved into surprising new spaces with them.

What a literacy teacher might consider:

  • Make a time where kids can do a drive-by at school to pick up some free-choice reading and say hi. Consider dropping off something at students’ houses. One Donors Choose project I helped fund was for a portable desk. The teacher made big plastic boxes with school supplies, a couple of paperbacks, a notebook. It gave a kid a place to keep school stuff, and a surface on which they could write. Another Donors Choose project was for inexpensive noise-canceling headphones for students who live in crowded spaces and can’t really concentrate.
  • Do a lot of writing. Together. Share it, respond to each other, anonymously via comments on a GDoc? (Please note, I think writing should be the center of every school experience.) Or,
  • Make writing groups where the kids figure out what they want to write and share with others– a Covid survival manual for their friends? A review of local places to destress from lockdown? Stories? Poems? A manifesto for a new school model?
  • Instead of delivering a set of content, embed some of the skills into a project that scratches a kid’s curiosity. What could a kid make that would go beyond Zoom, reach others, provoke an action or response?

Mostly, we need to make space to be together, in whatever ways makes sense for a class and teacher’s personalities to mesh.

Because no one graduates from Lonely School unscathed.



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