Coronavirus Diaries: The Intimacy of Teaching Online

Yesterday, I taught online for the first time. I taught a synchronous class. All my students attended the class online at the same time that we would normally meet. I made this decision because I know that many of my students work, and I know that they are available between 11 and 12:15 on Mondays and Wednesdays. Normally, I see my students in class, seated at desks. Some just listen. Some take hand-written notes, and others use laptops. Because I teach in the Puente program, a learning community, I do get to know students in other environments too, like evening events, and field trips, but I have never, of course, entered into their homes the way I did yesterday. 

“I never, of course, entered into their homes the way I did yesterday.

The first class that I taught started at 11AM.  I logged on about five minutes before the class started, to find about eight students already there waiting for me. They cheered a little when they saw my face on the screen. I wasn’t expecting that at all. I also wasn’t expecting to be so struck seeing each student in their own space. I could see into their houses, their rooms, each student on video a different square on my screen.

Many of the students in this class (picture Latinx and Pilipinx students because that’s who my Puente students are) were in their own bedrooms sitting on their beds. One student was on her bed reclined looking more relaxed than I’ve ever seen her, her computer propped just so that it captured her on laying back on a mound of pillows. Another student was also sitting on her bed next to her twin sister who is also in my class (two of the hardest working students I know)  each on her own laptop. And there were at least three other pairs of students who decided, even in spite of the social distancing guidelines, to team up. These students who teamed up, did so for a variety of reasons. One pair, two young women with long black hair, are best friends. They sat in a room with bright blue walls, petting a dog between them. Another pair logged on together using the same computer because not everyone has a great working computer for these purposes. Two young men, also best friends shared their best working computer and found the green screen option and made it look like they were wiring in from a tropical island.

Many of my students have new or newish cell phones with which they use to receive work schedules, check their grades, stay in touch with their parents, and siblings they must pick up from school, but can’t afford both a good working cell phone and a good working laptop computer. 

“Today, I did video office hours with a student who works as a nanny, and she rocked a six week old baby with a head full of black hair in one arm and navigated sharing her essay with me with the other.

While some students in the class chose to use the audio feature and not video which would show their faces on the screen, the experience of teaching students in their bedrooms or in their houses with family members speaking in the background, was oddly beautiful. Today, I did video office hours with a student who works as a nanny, and she rocked a six week old baby with a head full of black hair in one arm and navigated sharing her essay with me with the other.

During the second class that I taught Monday, a creative writing class, one of my older students (there are several in this class around my age or older) sat at a desk; a blonde student held her sister’s newborn baby because her sister had to work; my French student who wrote a great story about rats, smiled in way that I always find comforting in class into her screen, and a younger student in her bedroom explained the blanket over the window, “I just like it dark,” she said. They all smiled–a lot. At one point, my son wandered through the dining room where I was teaching the class. He was holding a bowl of apple crisp that I made that morning, and I introduced him to my students. They all waved and smiled, genuinely happy and interested to meet their teacher’s son.

At the end of the class, I left about 15 minutes for my students to just discuss whatever they needed, to answer questions about the technology, and to explain a bit more about the seriousness of the situation that we have found ourselves in. The conversation quickly turned from Lorrie Moore’s, “How to Become a Writer ” to food and what we might eat while we are sheltered in place. One student mentioned that most of us have food in our pantry that we can that we can use right now rather than going out to the store every day. Another student suggested a couple of websites like Supercook.com that provide recipes based on ingredients that you you have in your pantry. I promised to send them my apple crisp recipe.

Yesterday was special, but I know that to continue successfully teaching these synchronous classes, I know that I will need to find ways to get the students to work together online, to use the breakout room feature, and the discussion board, and all the other tools. But what seemed really important yesterday, was that we maintain some sense of normalcy, stay connected to learning, school, and to each other. 

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