July 14, 2020

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Keeping human connection in lessons learned online

Opinion

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There is nothing quite like teaching 30 students for eight straight hours online.

I’ve been instructing a course this week on Indigenous rights at the Canadian School of Peacebuilding, a summer program at Winnipeg-based Canadian Mennonite University. I’ve tried to make it as "normal" (a.k.a. pre-pandemic) as possible, with class discussions, guest presentations and storytelling — but it’s weird speaking to 30 face-boxes on a screen.

It’s fine when I lecture, but interaction is hard. I pose questions and there’s a consistent series of 20-second lulls as students don’t know who should respond.

I end up cold-calling students to answer questions like some sort of educational interrogation. Classes end up as mini-talk shows with individuals, while everyone else wonders who I’m going to invite on stage next.

There are some cool parts — like being able to share weblinks and videos quickly and efficiently — but when the internet slows down, look out.

Teaching is an exercise in frustration when you can’t hear, understand a student or ask them to repeat something five times. Don’t get me started on scheduling basic conversations via email, losing passwords and revamping what used to be simple topics into Powerpoint.

Since Canadian School of Peacebuilding appeals to both local and international students (and out-of-towners were unable to come to Winnipeg) classes are truly remarkable. From my home on Treaty 1 land, I instruct a student sitting in his kitchen in Glasgow; another observes from her office in Ottawa; one shows me her view of the mountains in British Columbia; the rest join from random living rooms as their children, partners and pets roam in and out of my view.

Meanwhile, every morning, I roll out of bed and walk the five metres to where my class awaits.

Teaching is an exercise in frustration when you can’t hear, understand a student or ask them to repeat something five times. Then there is the problem of scheduling basic conversations via email or losing passwords. (Stepan Popov / Dreamstime files)

TRIBUNE MEDIA TNS

Teaching is an exercise in frustration when you can’t hear, understand a student or ask them to repeat something five times. Then there is the problem of scheduling basic conversations via email or losing passwords. (Stepan Popov / Dreamstime files)

This is the new normal of teaching — literally the most abnormal way to instruct. Online educators may be used to it, but I’m not there yet.

It’s not like I wasn’t prepared. I’ve been teaching all-online since March, when the COVID-19 pandemic started.

By then though, I had spent two months with students. I knew them. We had relationships.

In this class, I teach people I will never meet. It’s all so distant, cold and sterile.

I’ve developed a whole new respect for my daughter’s junior high school teachers, who are some of the heroes of the pandemic. Nearly every day, I witness underpaid, over-demanded-upon educators reach out to students in small and big groups, spending hours upon hours online. They have been innovative, inspiring and remarkable.

Take, for instance, my daughter's assignments. She’s done an obstacle course on a couch, interviewed me and her mother on our sexual histories, and she’s taught me how to calculate the circumference of a round table. One day, she dressed up like famed Mexican painter Frida Kahlo.

We’re lucky I can be with her and do most of my writing and work from home. Not all families can do that. Her education will be OK, while others don’t have such privilege.

Not all students have had a similar experience this pandemic. Success in education now depends solely on resources, opportunity and infrastructure. Children with these can emerge from this pandemic fine; those without don’t have a chance.

Sensitivity and awareness of this by those in power in education is key.

With schools closed, teachers and students have had to adapt to a new way of doing things. (Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press files)

CP

With schools closed, teachers and students have had to adapt to a new way of doing things. (Jonathan Hayward / The Canadian Press files)

On May 28, administrators at Southeast Collegiate in Winnipeg — a high school that services northern First Nations students who don’t have adequate schooling in their communities — announced a new policy via social media: students who did not submit school work during the pandemic would be banned from enrolling next year.

"We are looking at students who have chosen not to submit any homework," a posting on SEC’s Facebook account stated. "These students will NOT be welcomed back to SEC in September."

The fact students who attend SEC have less access to internet, a library or school building, and have parents struggling with on-reserve poverty (all reasons they are attending SEC) seemed lost on school administrators.

After public outcry, the statement was erased and an apology issued.

That’s what happens when humanity is forgotten in education.

I was reminded of this in April, when our family was feeling the anxiety and stress related to the pandemic.

I recall one afternoon hearing my daughter laughing hysterically. Realizing I hadn’t heard her laugh like that in quite some time, I went upstairs to find out what was so funny.

It was her teacher, playing a game with her and her friends, during what would normally be homeroom time.

"Sorry, Daddy," she said. "Were we being loud?"

"No," I said. "Enjoy school."

niigaan.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair
Columnist

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

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Updated on Wednesday, June 3, 2020 at 8:00 PM CDT: Fixes typo.

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