Distance Learning: Re-Placing Play
by Bob Zakrzewski
Early on, though, I realized that the same music placed in a different context can not only change the way a listener perceives that music, but it can also cause the music itself to take on an entirely new meaning. Depending on where you hear it—in a concert hall or on the street—or what the intention is, the same piece of music could either be an annoying intrusion, abrasive and assaulting or you could find yourself dancing to it. How music works, or doesn’t work, is determined not just by what it is in isolation (if such a condition can ever be said to exist) but in large part by what surrounds it, where you hear it, and when you hear it. (9)David Byrne, How Music Works (2012)
In How Music Works, David Byrne frequently returns to how place influences music’s creation and reception. Massive cathedrals inspire tones fitting that resonant setting, while open air performances permit more percussion. Likewise, the tune you jam to on your Friday ride home poorly accompanies your Sunday morning coffee. And as much as technology allows us to create and access music in ways unthinkable decades ago, it has not altered this relationship between sound and setting; the value of one still varies with the influence of the other.
This spring’s many comic and heartfelt internet posts documented teachers’ awkward scramble moving classrooms to their socially distant, online settings. Although e-learning isn’t new, educators at all levels immediately encountered its challenges. With some (but not much) hindsight, we note a wild range of experiences, impacted by everything from student age and ability to economic gaps to administrative support. And now, with a moment to catch our breath, we remain cautious before doing so, keeping six feet from potential infection or political judgement based on whether or not we wear a mask.
What does that mean for the 20-21 school year? Like most, I have to wait and see.
Unknowns spike my anxiety, and this one sparks worries I never thought I’d consider. But my concern here isn’t me. After all, I am 43 with many aspects of my life more or less settled, such as my family, my career, and a sense of what I need to function best. For high school students, these anxieties resonate differently. It reminds me of Paul Bäumer’s comment in Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front about how older soldiers could handle the chaos of war better than the young, having lived long enough to amass experience and create some stability, some faith in how life works and where they fit. Paul’s teenage peers faced their scary new reality knowing nothing else, scarring them deeply, making them faithless and lost.
I don’t like Covid-19 war metaphors, and I am not claiming our students face the equivalency of trench warfare. But hopefully you see my point. Like how music hit my sixteen-year-old ears differently than today, young people are confronting (or denying) their realities in ways I cannot assume to understand because I was once their age. Now there’s a real possibility I will again need to find the common ground between their perspectives and our course content outside of the place I’ve learned to do this best, our classroom.
Most teachers understand this. Each class becomes a collaborative space unique to its participants, taking on its own personality, its own life. Even before Covid-closures, technology pushed this space beyond its walls, often with benefits. Teaching since 1999, I’ve witnessed implementation of teacher email, online gradebooks, and tools like Blackboard, Moodle, and Google Classroom all changing communication. And as in many professions, this spring pushed education into video conferencing, Zooming off into new possibilities and frustrations.
Returning to How Music Works, Byrne traces a timeline of sound recording technology from ensembles in rooms with one microphone to individuals isolated in soundproof booths. Throughout this span, innovations spurred creativity, as early multitracked and meticulously mixed wonders by artists like The Beach Boys and The Beatles proved. But it also obstructed something communal and organic. (The Beatles’ goal for what became their final album Let It Be was to record as a group again, hoping to recapture the fading joy of playing together like when they started.) Today, digital technology makes recording and editing isolated tracks even easier, yet many bands still find their most exciting ideas arriving unexpectedly when playing together.
Playing together. I love how that’s what musicians call it. Playing instruments. Playing songs. Not working—playing. Maybe that’s what sparks teenage rock star dreams: the idea of playing for a living.
Although I’m happy with my alternate career, I’ve never called it playing, but perhaps I’m a product of my time. In my twenty years teaching, the technology I referenced has made the job easier but also more stressful: emails allow students or parents to vent frustration without looking you in the eye and online gradebooks grant concerned eyes access to a teacher’s ability to assess timely and accurately. In the early 2000s, No Child Left Behind took hold as I struggled to find my teacher-self in a school that annually fell short of state determined “Adequate Yearly Progress”. This ushered in data-driven instruction with all its charts and rubrics, turning reading into a sum of skills and writing into a formula. More recently, I’ve had in-services about rigor, grit, and resilience, words that mean well but connotate no place for play.
Now is the time for play to return to English classrooms—online and off. Contrary to how this may sound, this is not a call to work less. In fact, any teacher knows coming up with creative, inspiring lessons is more challenging than providing rote busywork. It also takes courage, as the success of these can vary wildly from class to class, year to year. You need to be able to own it when it’s not working and change course if needed. You need to be able to handle the flood of questions from students more attuned to rote learning, assuaging anxiety as they meet the discomfort of creative risk-taking, the messiness of play. And then there’s assessment. How do you objectively grade student assignments that don’t follow a formula? Projects that involve different students making different things, all for a common standard? How will this prepare them for next year, for college, for careers, for life?
These questions and more hinder play in our classes, yet I will repeat, we need it now more than ever. As our country stubbornly seeks normalcy, glaring reminders remain of the seriousness and strangeness of life in a pandemic. Even if we recapture some aspects of our old lives (The Onion said it perfectly in a recent headline: “City Enters Phase 4 of Pretending Coronavirus Over”), the return to school in whatever form that takes will harshly re-remind us how much our familiar routines have changed. Add a contentious (to put it lightly) Presidential election fueling deeply personal conflicts and tensions, and anxiety abounds.
In response, English teachers must remember our subject, like music, is one of the arts. There’s no need to mimic STEM subjects or feel slighted by their growing enrollments and boasts of preparing for lucrative careers. Our students need the humanness of the humanities more than ever, so offer them the opportunity to create, express, and explore (all aspects of play) their humanity as much as you can.
Can this happen while “Distance Learning”? Not like in our classrooms, but I think so. And this is my point: we cannot recreate online what we do in person, so we should not waste energy trying. As in music, setting has enormous influence. Our energy needs to go toward creative projects that may stray from or even neglect our traditional curriculum while better engaging our students within the online format.
Our recent quick-switch to online learning was rightfully met by most districts, states, and even the College Board with an easing of requirements, hoping to accommodate the largest number of students for success. I assume another closure will involve less leniency, citing more time for preparation and stressing higher standards. I am not arguing against this. But I don’t want teachers interpreting this pressure as a need to recreate digitally what we do in our classrooms. Technology is helpful and, as it did for music, opens many doors, but it doesn’t recreate all that happens in a room full of people. Focusing on doing so is misguided. Rather, our focus must be on allowing students to gain the equally essential insights that come from play.
I’ve purposely offered few specifics here. Like how displaying one student example tends to get many following that lead, I don’t want to imply there is a best way to play. Nonetheless, here is an idea from my online classes last spring. Using Google Sites, my students built personal websites that included video, audio, photos, and writing, all organized and customized to their liking. Their sites displayed reflections on books, movies, shows, and music. They shared their personal writing, essays, poetry, art, photography, memes, video blogs, podcasts, songs, and relevant links. Every site was different. Some went far beyond my expectations while others fell short of a fairly low bar. For a first run, I’d call them successful, but (as is always true in teaching) I have ideas for improving them next time around.
Play looks different from teacher to teacher and student to student, but we can’t let that stop us. Much bigger worries fill our and our students’ lives. The English classroom can counter them as a place for students to find, develop, and express voices in manners and modes that suit them best. Assessment can exist without rigidity, and learning can reap rewards beyond a grade. While the world supplies the rigor, now is the time to provide a place to play.
Bob Zakrzewski is a 2009 PAWLP Fellow. Teacher since 1999, he currently teaches English at Strath Haven High School and Cabrini University.
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