Today, school has opened up again after spring break. Of course, nothing at all has changed in terms of the place from which teachers are meeting with students and creating virtual lessons.
It’s possible that, over this past week, some educators were feeling productive enough to better organize that environment. After all, when the stay-at-home orders were given, they had quickly scrambled to gather up what they thought they might need from their classrooms and then find places in their homes to contain it all. Those with more room and expendable cash might have quickly ordered new desks, especially when two members of a couple both needed to work at home – not to mention their own children, whose Zoom meetings with their teachers were overtaking their parents’ own.
What I heard from my educator friends, though, was that, for the most part, their breaks were spent binge-watching TV, cooking and baking far too much, and maybe getting in a few walks, despite the rather chilly and gloomy week we had here in New Jersey. Some may opened up a book or two. And, of course, many worked, planning and creating and reworking, trying to get things ready for the exhaustion that the next four weeks – at minimum – would be bringing them.
Everyone is back in their work spaces now, wherever those may be. And no one, of course, is back in school as we knew it.
Which is why looking at these pictures from last April really made me particularly sad.
Like many schools across the country, our Media Center – the place with all the books – was transformed over the last five to seven years into a STEAM Center. Yes, there were still some books, and students could still take them out. Yes, there were still, occasionally, visits for book checkouts en masse. But as the world moved online, the answer for schools seemed to be that physical books were needed less. And though this was not at all true – children still seemed much more inclined to read physical books rather than anything on the computer, on which they spent far too much time for academics – language arts teachers often had a classroom library of their own with books the district had purchased for them and those that were donated from their students and their own families.
In my school, the Media Center was so far away from my classroom – at the complete opposite end of a very long building – that even doing quick walking as if we were in gym class, it still was at least 15 minutes round-trip, which was another reason to rely more and more on my classroom library.
So slowly, the older books began to disappear, and the space was reorganized, with Legos and blocks and cardboard and bins to hold them, with large screens that four or five students could share, working collaboratively, with 3-D printers, and – finally – with wonderful, colorful couches and chairs and worktables that could be pulled apart and reorganized into whatever configurations best served the learning.
Many teachers enjoyed the change of scenery this new STEAM Center accorded us. In my school, it was dubbed the “GAM” Center – pronounced JAM – the initials of an individual who had been a positive force there. We were “jamming,” often, when we visited, putting together projects that allowed students to spread out and collaborate, with lots of supplies intended to encourage creativity. My favorite area was where the comfy chairs and ottomans had been set up, where we would essentially huddle together as I went through instructions or showed clips on the big screen, giving a pep talk before I tossed out the ball.
The room was always in use, and the spreadsheet was filled weeks, and even months, ahead. Woe was the teacher who had signed up for five days, two of which were cancelled and another delayed due to snow, because you weren’t getting them back again – and, by the same token, too bad if you got to the point where you were ready for the GAM a day or two, or more, ahead of time, as it would invariably be taken. There were calls made as well: “Do you still need the GAM Center on Wednesday?” “Can I please, please switch days with you?”
As a teacher, I loved the space. but I also hated it, because the students did spread out, and my travel from group to group grew more and more exhausting. Despite the rather cavernous size of the room, the sound level seemed to bounce off the walls, and though there was a microphone available, it never worked right. And it was exhausting to drag myself and all of my stuff – gradebooks and supplies and whatever the particular project needed – back and forth from my classroom “home.” There were times where the extra travel just didn’t seem worth it, so I would, at the last minute, choose to give up my time. (Though I did appreciate having the librarians there to watch my classes for a quick bathroom break – that was always a plus.)
But now, in the middle of this pandemic, or maybe, just maybe, as we begin a possible decline, I’m seeing it all differently. What was so wonderful about the GAM Center, really, was that it was a place to change perspective, not dissimilar to a drive from city to country, from home to store, from north to south, or east to west. We were the same people, in the same roles, but somehow these changes in our environment helped pull us out of the daily grind.
Today, of course, my colleagues are back in those spaces in their homes that they’ve carved out for themselves and their children, if they’re lucky enough to have been able to do so. Today, students once again are showing up to class – or, in too many cases, not showing up – and it’s business as usual, or not.
But one day – and maybe not until September – students will be back in schools. They’ll be loud, for sure, and they will probably be excited, at least for a while. Once again – I hope – teachers will be signing up for alternative learning spaces like the GAM Center, and students will be cramming together, head to head, as they listen to instructions (or not) and come up with new ideas.
As you begin on this next phase of remote learning from your home, don’t forget to “travel” back at the end of the day, look around at your own spaces, and try for a different perspective, as best as you can.