Presence during the pandemic: A true story about what remote teaching is really like

[The New York Times Magazine interviewed seven people involved in different aspects of remote teaching during the pandemic. Many of them note the drawbacks of not being with students in person, but indirectly suggesting the power (and risks) of presence, the second person featured in the story describes how she was able to teach her young students about literature via Zoom by sharing with them the “rawness and vulnerability” of a very difficult personal experience in a way that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible.  –Matthew]

[Image: Illustration by Sam Kerr]

7 True Stories From Virtual School

Teachers, administrators and service providers talk about what remote teaching is really like.

September 9, 2021

Gallaudet Howard, 54
Teacher, Humanities, Waring School, a private school for grades 6 – 12
Beverly, Mass.
Interview by Bonnie Tsui

When my father began to die, in October 2020, I carried my computer and my 11th- and 12th-grade students on Zoom into his hospice room, and we read “Gilgamesh.” I told my students that my father had dementia, that he’d fractured his hip and that his prognosis was bad — that he’d probably ask the same questions over and over, that monitors would be beeping and that we might have to end class abruptly if things got worse. I told them what my father, a Shakespeare scholar and writer on religion, had told me, what he’d written books about. That all of it — the ancient text, the washed dish, the emptied bedpan — manifests love and death.

They were a little nervous at first, but they put up heart emojis in their Zoom squares and knocked the discussion out of the park. They could see my father, listening, continually amused and interested because every time he looked away and back, the text and round-table discussion were reassuringly familiar to him. These were our last conversations. I told my students: “Look what you gave him, and me. Thank you.”

I watched my students take in the resonance between my father’s death and an ancient epic verse about death that asks, “Why did this happen?” but then doesn’t provide an answer. It’s about breaking your heart and learning to live with the crack. Sharing it with these teenagers, who tend to experience everything intensely — I was very apprehensive for many reasons, but I realized that what I’m really teaching is stories of people’s experiences. They’re stories of humans in time. Not just because we read them, but because we live them.

If we hadn’t been in a pandemic, I wouldn’t have been able to bring my students into that hospice room with my dad. I would have kept them separate. But what my father taught me about teaching held up during this pandemic year, and I’m going to keep doing it. He said you have to be passionate about your subject and vulnerable about that passion in order to have any chance of engaging your students. I wouldn’t privilege that rawness and vulnerability if I didn’t feel that it made them better people. I’ve been thinking about it a lot, how to invite this rawness and vulnerability into this next year, when I’m teaching U.S. history and literature.

A lot of work we are doing as teachers is to create containers to hold the emotion of the new school year — and of course it’s more intense because we also need to hold people’s responses to being together again and the losses of last year. To create space for that loss and grief to arise and also for the joy of being able to set foot back on the normal trail.

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