On a Thursday in early May, I logged on to Google Meets to remotely attend a local high school class. I had been working as a field researcher with this class during their in-person meetings, but the teacher and students had decided to invite me into their online space, as well, once classes were moved because of the COVID-19 virus.
Toward the middle of the online class on this particular day, something small but magical happened. A sophomore student interrupted the regular discussion of the students’ usual civics focus.
“Oh my God, Daniel, we have that same bowl!” the girl exclaimed, as her classmate Daniel, startled, looked up from eating cereal out of a chipped blue ceramic bowl that was barely visible in his video.
The teacher immediately responded: “Wait, watch this.” Still on-screen, she stood up, opened her cabinet, and pulled out the same blue bowl. “I don’t know if it’s the exact same, but it sure is similar.”
The entire Google Meets’ Brady Bunch-like video squares all lit up, some for the first time in months as many students have done their online learning with a dark avatar. The teacher of this class had asked them all several times since the virus outbreak to turn on their screens in the name of community, to make it feel just a little like it used to in person. Usually, they ignored her.
But not this time.
Most of the students on the class video disappeared briefly before returning with bowls of their own, mostly blue ones. The girl who screeched class to a halt showed Daniel what she was talking about. Her bowl sure did look a lot like his. Other students, in an effort not to be left out, showed off bowls of their own, even if they weren’t blue. A bright orange plastic bowl and a molcajete made an appearance before the students put me on the spot. I showed off a small bowl I bought at a student art sale in college.
This moment resonated deeply with me, not simply because it was a bright glimmer in a dark time for the students, teacher, and researcher alike but also because this moment happened in an online space. Through these online class observations, interviews with students and teachers, and my own experience working with five different teacher cohorts in online contexts this spring, it’s clear to me that the forced shift to online learning caused several problems. Spotty communication, poor attendance, eroding classroom community, and a general lack of rigorous and relevant content all jump out as some of the more prevalent tensions.
But beautiful moments – these blue bowl moments where relationships, community, and humanity drown out all of the noise of online learning – are possible. The experience in that online high school class made things click for me as a digital pedagogue in a different way.
Through my position as a senior instructor in ASPIRE to Teach – the state’s largest alternative teaching licensor – and through my participation in a research-practice-partnership between CU-Denver and Denver Public Schools, among others, most of my teaching and partnering happens online. In each of those classes or meetings, I do deliberately, as Nasir (2017) says, “make space for humanity.” Perhaps it’s a quick reflection and share at the beginning of class or a breakout room with peers in which a lighter or personal topic is discussed. I’ve leveraged the seemingly childish practice of creating passion posters (an approach learned from my master’s studies at CU-Denver) with adults to great effect as a way to break the ice initially but also to return to our interests and expertise regularly throughout the semester as a way to center our humanity.
Most importantly, I plan at least 5 minutes per person of open sharing time in small groups. For example, our ASPIRE to Teach monthly classes include an hour of content around a pre-selected topic for roughly 30-50 teachers. For the second hour, teachers break into smaller content groups led by specialists in that discipline. This spring, I led a small cohort of five business teachers (plus a family and consumer science teacher). At the beginning of our small group time together, I simply opened the floor for them to answer a few general questions:
- How are things in your classroom?
- How are things with your studies?
- How are things in your heart?
- How are things in your head?
- Anything funny happen that we should all hear about?
I usually go first, acting as sort of a model of vulnerability or reflection. I often approach this with a balance of humor, self-deprecation, and honest struggle. I then give those 6 teachers 5 minutes each (30 minutes total) to share. Sometimes they cover all the topics. Sometimes they go deep on one. Sometimes they cry before they can answer. Sometimes we’re all crying because we’re laughing so hard.
Within a couple meetings, that cohort of business teachers were incredibly tight, emailing each other resources and invites to conferences. Once they finished the program, we all became friends on social media and have celebrated one teacher’s recent marriage and another’s summer venture as a hotdog slinger. All this while never once meeting in person.
Once those types of connections are made, the act of teaching and learning of academic or pedagogical content becomes easier. I can leverage the personal knowledge I have with each teacher to give them targeted support in their context (and I very much see their mindset, values, and life experiences as part of that context). They, in turn, can see me as a human as opposed to simply an evaluator or licensor. With that kind of connection, difficult conversations – about something as small as a missed deadline or as big as a battle with anxiety – are much easier to have and mediate.
This has more or less always been my approach when teaching online, but it took seeing another digital classroom space to make me realize it, have a name for it, a representative symbol.
I’m a blue bowl online teacher, and I’m proud of that.