“Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” ~ James Baldwin.
My mother was a talker. Later in life we surmised that her childhood may have been difficult, parents who sometimes didn’t speak to each other for months, so perhaps the children developed the habit of speaking to fill up the silences. In her adult life my mother would talk and my father would listen (perhaps). In my mind I see him sitting, newspaper held in front of him, peeping around every once in a while with an ‘mmmm’, or an ‘ahhhh’, or perhaps a ‘yes, dear’. Of course her monologue would at times require something more meaningful from him, and when it did not come you would hear a sharp accusation: “Pearce, you’re not listening!”
Teaching and learning in the time of Covid have become particularly challenging. I cannot imagine trying to get a class of six-year olds to stay focused on a computer screen all day, and complete their assignments. Of course, the parents are having to hover around, reinforcing learning, becoming the on-call IT guy, or worse, the substitute teacher. I well remember my days of trying to help a child with homework, or even a grandchild (my grandchildren don’t respond to me the way my kids did, I seem to have lost my touch!). The patience required not to yell, not to demand, not to scream in frustration is immense.
In Florida, the Board of Nursing issued a temporary order permitting the teaching of lecture online (but specified that it should be live) which meant that we have been delivering our classes through an on-line platform, at our regularly scheduled class time. Which is totally different from an on-line college course. If you have never taken one, in an on-line class you are expected to complete certain assignments, post discussion board threads on a topic and respond meaningfully to the threads of others, perhaps listen to a recorded lecture, and take an on-line exam each week. When and where you choose to complete these activities is up to you, which is perfect for a working student.
On the other hand, we are teaching students live, and hoping that they are actively engaged and listening, not knowing whether they are sitting attentively or taking care of their kids who are also chained to a computer. We record our sessions, so students can go back and listen if they missed anything. We assign activities to work on, to reinforce learning. We try to get them to turn their cameras on, but technology often fails. And there are times when I turn into my mother, plaintively asking “are you listening?” when a question goes unanswered. For the most part you rely on the ‘chat box’, watching to see which students are providing answers, or asking questions, but you can’t look in their eyes and see who is lost. You can’t throw a question (or other hard object – I’m kidding!) at a sleepy student. We miss the connection. ‘Hello? Is this mic on?’
Meanwhile there are inventors and designers working feverishly to fill a demand for ‘simulation learning’, for activities designed to provide learning activities. Product specialists are fine-tuning programs, speeding production on new ways to meet these needs. While so many businesses have gone under, others are making money hand-over-fist as they have more demand than ever. Don’t you wish you had bought shares in Zoom nine months ago? What were necessities six months ago are now luxuries. We have a whole new list of ‘must-haves’.
But even as we struggle with our new normal, even as we complain about the impossibility of achieving our objectives in a virtual environment, we sometimes miss seeing how fortunate we are. There is an alternative in fighting a pandemic, one that we missed the boat on. Some parts of Europe, New Zealand, other countries patiently went on lock down, and were able to halt the rampant spread of the virus, dampening the curve. Alas, especially in Florida, we initially thought we had it under control and lifted our guard too early, and now thousands have paid the ultimate price. In trying to keep businesses and ways of socializing alive, we lost lives.
We wouldn’t listen. We didn’t listen to the scientists, to the data, to the facts. And, as my father-in-law would often say, those who won’t listen will feel. But there is a deeper problem, one that has made the punishment unfairly distributed in communities of color. One that exacerbated health issues and disproportionately affected the outcomes due to the gross disparities in our society. On top of that, the usual and customary way of visiting brutality on people of color blew up with the death of George Floyd. Long after Covid-19 has disappeared (as we hope it will), if the stubborn cancer of systemic racism is not addressed, treated, and rooted out, the society will continue to be sick.
This week we have been given the opportunity to listen to a variety of voices, a diversity of people from across the spectrum of American life. Next week there will be another set of voices, probably far less diverse, however they will be representative of a portion of our society. The challenge is to listen to each other, to just listen, and see if we can do our part to bring about a more perfect union, the ‘beloved community’ of people who allow space for all ideas to flourish. A society where we can follow the principle of Voltaire who is quoted as saying: ‘I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it’. Hopefully although Covid may cause disturbances in taste and smell, it will not block our ability to hear.
This Friday morning I wish everyone who is facing the challenges of learning in a remote way, whether you are teaching or learning, supervising or participating, a smooth day. We are all developing new skills, becoming more tech savvy, adding to our resume as we go! May you have the patience that you need to get through. And may we all listen and hear each other, through the noise and distractions.
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!