This post was written by educator A’ndrea Fisher.
We’re all seeing the world through a new lens. We’re all, in many ways, learning. And I’ve learned something new about myself: I had no idea I could completely fail at so many things. Hear me out. A few weeks ago, we began an “extended spring break” and, ever since then, I’ve been challenging myself to learn a new skill each day and document it for my students and their families on social media. It started simply enough. I thought: I’ll learn how to twirl a pen. At the time I couldn’t do it. Well actually, I still can’t. But I’m still trying.
I was undeterred. I thought: tomorrow, I’ll try to moonwalk. Audacious and silly, I know. But I was all in. And moonwalk I did! Or, at least, I tried. The students could see how bad it was; I couldn’t hide it. But maybe they got a laugh out of this. And that–the laughs, smiles, and taking a moment to see something positive in the world–made the challenge worthwhile.
Now? I’ve done 15 of these videos and counting, and on the rare occasions when I’ve successfully learned the skill, you can see just how excited I am. “Oh my gosh I just blew on this piece of grass and it made noise! How did that happen?!”
This cadence—learning new skills and sometimes failing at mastery—has similarly become an uncomfortable and critical component of my job as an educator. Teaching remotely during a pandemic is new and unknown for me and for most teachers I know. And just like learning a new, goofy skill each day, we are charged with finding creative opportunities to reach out to and engage the next generation, even if it’s just for a laugh. Like you, I miss my students and interacting with them, and I worry that some are going to fall between the cracks, either because of technology access issues, or because they aren’t being pushed to socialize, or they’re hiding behind their screens. But I’m keeping the focus on their wellness, making that connection, and being the person who wants to see them, and check in on them every single day. My optional office hours are a time to slow down, for kids to see someone other than their family (they love them, but sometimes y’all need some space!), and have someone new to banter with.
To complement these daily check-ins, I’ve been tuning in to the live Explorer Classroom sessions each day, both with my kids at home and remotely with dozens of my students. Instead of waiting for office hours, I can ask them, “Whatcha doing at two o’clock?” And boom, we can collectively log in, and I open a Google Doc where we can compile questions for the Explorer in real time, and interact with one another. Together, we can dive deeper, ask questions, and get ideas.
Not only is this fun and gets the kids excited, but there are endless ways to tie the Explorer’s work into topics we are covering in our learning. We did one session with Madison Wrobley who studies water access in Nepal. Earlier in the year, our class had spent weeks diving into an interdisciplinary project on water access in Rwanda. Sure, the countries were different, but the students were able to immediately make connections and ask great questions because they were already primed on this topic. Another amazing session was with Emi Koch, a professional surfer and ecologist studying community empowerment and storytelling. Again, it wasn’t an exact match to what we were learning, but it did align to our social justice theme this year. By engaging with Emi, students were able to stretch their thoughts and understand how she was inspiring people to tell their stories from their own points of view. And that continues to inspire us now as we consider ways to tell the stories of people around us during the pandemic.
So much of what I see in middle schoolers is having “blinders” on: only seeing life from one lens, or one mentality, that “it’s all about me,” which is OK at that age. But for them to see that 1) there’s more out there, and 2) you can tackle problems from different perspectives—it really opens them up. They realize, “I never thought to look at it that way,” and see that there’s not always a linear path for how everything is going to go. Maybe you start as a pro surfer, then get into ecology, and eventually storytelling like Emi! It gets their brains moving. And that is key. We’re stuck inside right now. And it’s one thing to read a book or watch a video, but to say you interacted and had a chat with an expert, and asked questions live on YouTube? It’s making it personal and draws them in. It’s giving students the opportunity to step up, interact, and develop that engagement, even for a short time.
It’s worth noting that I still can’t twirl a pen, moonwalk, or do the “Renegade” dance. But I have learned how to break an apple with one hand and I’m proud to say, it’s my new party trick! Throughout this experience, I’ve discovered new ways to give students a chance to laugh, make connections, and dig deeper every single day. I’m giving them a chance to see opportunities and a wider world, and I hope you will join me on this journey to engage with experts, learn new skills, wrestle with failure, and celebrate successes, even the small ones along the way.
A’ndrea Fisher is a National Geographic Certified Educator, and Gifted and Talented Facilitator at Pieper Ranch Middle School in Texas. Follow A’ndrea on Twitter: @FisherFunCISD
Feature image by Rebecca Hale, National Geographic