And, So, SARS-CoV-2
When we began our lockdown, many of us felt hemmed in with no space. We were relegated to our homes, and when we did leave, it was with a healthy dose of fear, a bottle of hand-sanitizer (if you were fortunate enough), and a homemade mask.
But in this unwanted era, this paucity of our normal spheres of operation, is a liberation of the sort we used to have when we subsisted without corporations or offices. When we worked locally in terms of where we lived (home) or the communities we lived in (village, town, etc.). In closing down our collective spaces, we have opened up other possibilities of space in ways that predate modern society. This experience, hyper-localized in our homes and individualized in terms of schedule, pre-industrialized in a sense, has never been a choice for the majority of us.
As a high school English teacher, my job transitioned to a remote setting in mid-March. And like everyone else making a transition, I struggled. I needed to revisualize my lessons in terms of what was possible, appropriate, and worthy. Furthermore, without the familiar routines of school, I needed to ask myself what my days should look like as a teacher working at home.
Transitioning to working from home makes you realize how meaningful locations, symbols, and routines are to us. Our environment and how we relate ourselves to our environment has lasting effects. For instance, the simple act of walking through a doorway can transition our brains automatically, even if we are focused. This is called the “doorway effect.” It is often why we go to another room, say to pick up our car keys, and then find ourselves just beyond the doorway of the intended room with the car keys in plain sight and us without a clue as to why we are there. A doorway symbolizes a new environment or new possibilities, and our genetic history aligns with our metaphorical thinking abilities here.
When I figured out my lockdown routine, one that allowed me to work deeply and happily throughout the day, I think I learned something that I wouldn’t have learned had I kept at my normal schedule.
Problems of Space
The start of my lockdown teaching schedule included no alarms or bells. Yet I woke early, still before the sun rose or the birds really got going. Such is my habitual schedule on weekends too. Perhaps a good example of our work life’s sometimes ineffable effect on our biology.
Once I had unhurriedly made myself coffee and completed various household chores, I would sit down and attend to one of my hobbies: writing until I felt like stopping. When I felt antsy enough to get up from the chair and start moving, I would walk my dog around the neighborhood while talking to my father on the phone.
Back home, I’d head back to my office and begin my workday as a teacher. First, I’d tackle all the hard stuff: the grading and planning for the day. Then, when the completion of some task coincided with an urge to disrupt the static-ness of sitting, still by this time early in the morning, I’d exercise, whether running, strength training, or both. After, I’d tackle another writing session and then switch back to work. Once I felt at the end of my focus, I’d read a book. Work some more. Pleasure read. Putz around in a general fashion to get some midday jitters out. Lose myself in the dreaded internet and then come to, aghast, as everyone does. Talk to my wife at various points throughout the day. Pet my dog whenever he came to visit. Work. And then, at some point, I’d realize that my morning and afternoon had wonderfully merged into evening, the exhaustion of day making the waning of light a reward.
Despite the unwieldy model of total remote education—this weird lockdown schedule, this change of space—has been the only part of the SARS-CoV-2 era that I’ve found enlightening. (And also why I have stopped writing this piece multiple times to ponder the fact that many people do not have the same positive experience that I have had. I am fortunate, and I hope I always remember this.) I found vast amounts of happiness scheduling my own day, working out how to go about things so that I could juggle my hobbies, workload, family-life, health, and such and so forth. I never had to rush or worry about getting lost in a project, whether it be for work, home, or whatever. I felt refreshed even if I was probably working more than ever. (Which makes sense because at home, there is no way to really know when to stop working unless you tell yourself to.)
Normally, my work life consists of a very regimented schedule. Bell to bell to bell. Standardization reigns in a field that caters to thousands.
For teachers, a day of many classes, seven at the most, can create an exhausting schedule of repetition. It’s not quite assembly line-ish, but it’s very close to it on your worst days. Repeating the same 50 minute block of teaching for more than three times can make the content seem rigmarole. (And that’s saying a lot for a job and content area one absolutely loves.) On your fourth go through, the lucidity of the lesson starts to suffer and diminish. You get this completely illogical feeling that, “They know, they know. No need to explain and explain.” And that’s absolutely dangerous.
This is all compounded by the length of the day. You’ve been at it for hours. Necessarily, because you’re human, your mental guard is not as fresh, even if you weren’t repeating yourself.
While I focus on one or two lessons per day (many teachers tackle more), students have a different quandary: being pulled in seven different directions every day.
Of course, in our SARS-CoV-2 era, class-load has not changed, but the space and time for them is drastically different. Here it is important to examine the cognitive load sequence from kindergarten to college, from initiate to veteran.
As we make our way through the public education system, classes become nerdier in their depth. College not only continues the upward trend of this cognitive load, but it also affords much more of what we shall refer to as “space.” Classes no longer conform to all day affairs. You choose your schedule based on your major, your time preferences, your work schedule, your hobby schedule. Such autonomy affords a lot of benefits that I am reminded of in this SARS-CoV-2 era. At least to those who can wield it properly.
Space in Our Normal Schedules
One of my favorite things about my field, English Language Arts, is that it is subjective. There is so much to explore in such a place in which things can be solid but also porous or polygonal, shape shifting with each perspective. For instance, I used to think grammar was set in stone until I read Steven Pinker’s Language Instinct and learned that there is a serious war going on between prescriptivists (those who believe we should abide by set language rules) and descriptivists (those who believe we naturally make language rules as we go). I felt freed into having a say in the debate and happily realigned my view of language as something both full of rules and without. But it is harrowing for a student getting into the complexities of language to incorporate such a dictum into their writing.
Here is a statement I have used before to help students think about their words with internal logic rather than letting grammar rules shape their writing: “If your writing communicates what you want to say, then you need not worry about standardized grammar rules.” Even with such simplicity, writing can be fraught with subjectivity that may place the writer—whether novice, amateur, or professional—and their many different audience members at odds.
The subjective nature of even the basic fundamentals of English Language Arts present quite the grading quandary. How does one grade writing? Reading? I could give objective or classical literary theory reading quizzes for each text—novel, chapter, short story, article, poem, etc. I could worry about holding students accountable to a pre-structured writing process: a certain amount of ideating, an outline, a complete rough draft, and at least two revised drafts. I could provide a test after each unit and an essay. I could try and grade every discussion and Socratic Seminar. I could even grade notebooks containing notes, reflections, and practice writes.
But all of this gets in the way of what we really want our students to do: read and write. And students need to read and write a ton. Because volume necessitates complexity as the mind becomes adept and familiar with new skills.
Like in other subject areas, an English teacher’s main foe is time. There is only so much compression that both reading and writing—acts that require thinking deeply, carefully, openly, widely, specifically—can withstand before the essences that make it so appealing—storytelling, whimsy, humor, surprise, mystery—are stripped away.
Trying to summatively assess characteristics of reading and writing is overwhelming, let alone in a situation where time is compressed. It is easy to devalue the work in this way, both for the students and for me, the teacher. Authenticity must be the spark and the flame—not time, not the grade—so that learned skills and knowledge live on long after the class ends.
I want my students to think about Ray Bradbury’s character, Beatty, from Fahrenheit 451, who (spoiler alert!) is a symbol of doubling down on a world that he knows makes him unhappy. Unlike Montag, the protagonist of the story, Beatty sees no way out. No hope. And that sphere of all-encompassing helplessness drives him to take that energy he could have expended in the name of hope and use it to violently maintain the status quo. How profound is it for someone to act so much against their own wishes, feelings, and logic because they believe these could never be fulfilled? Such a being, fictional or real, should make students think back into the breadth of their life, which is often perceived in error by students to be too short for any authority, and ask themselves, “Am I guilty too of this?” And then to keep a future eye out for it. To incorporate a bit of observation and reflection into the array of empathetic tools we need for a democracy like ours. Because this is just one in an infinite palette of human complications and contradictions to be learned.
Studying such complications of specificity in reading instruction means that, in turn, writing instruction benefits. I want my students to transfer their reading eye to their own lives: the way they have approached friendship, the way that other drivers wield their cars on their commute, the way that our culture plays with their daily schedules, and decide this: “I have something to say about this. The world is deeper than we give it credit for. And more complex. If I write about this complexity from my own perspective, someone will get something out of it.”
You want students to learn and to keep learning. Share and keep sharing. To keep pushing the process on, over and over, generation by generation.
When paired with compressed time and the worship of grades, you can see how these states of learning, reflecting, and creating all become too cumbersome to love or even to like. Such reading and writing become checklists at worse and rites of passage at best.
I know that when students go home and think about what they have to do for the night or for the week, the iterative process of thinking, writing, and reading gets relegated to some opaque future. It is here that one can make a short-term-favored logical decision to delay the writing of a rough draft or delay the reading of a book for later. Besides, you can always write the draft the night before. You can always skim the book if it comes down to it. These are possible avenues of success. And when you have seven classes, it seems a logical choice to prioritize this kind of success. To make the grade.
It is the peril of the teenager to live only in the short term and to frustratingly diminish their view of the long term. To, in a sense, have a such a fuzzy outlook of the future, because, really, they haven’t practiced with the concept too much. And let’s be honest, adults, while not biologically hindered by teenagedom, practice this logic because it is logic to tackle things that affect the here and the now. Therefore long term practicing gets pushed to the side for the completion of short term tangible activities simply because these are rewarded both by the feeling of accomplishing a task and a grade. Really, we humans are just terrible with time. (For an interesting perspective on how we relate to time, read Daniel Pink’s When.)
And this begs the question as to whether we use a teenager’s time effectively. Homework and home life have changed so much in nature in the past 50 years. We have more extracurriculars than ever. How much should we monopolize the time of our young people, those who yet know how to use it well?
A more limited amount of time to do something means cutting corners. And one of those corners is usually the act of practicing, a necessity for anything because practicing helps hone skills that do not have tangible and immediate rewards.
If students are successful in playing the system due to time constraints, as they often are, the concept of practice may very well be viewed as erroneously over-rated. And that is an educational disservice and a regression.
Intersections of Time
When I wake up in the morning, it’s not just get up, shower, get ready, pack lunch, eat breakfast, get in the car.
Like everybody else, I have my hobbies. They keep us fresh and nimble. Hobbies are avenues for curiosity and rewards. And hobbies pair with our working lives in important ways. They are labors of love that provide us multiple avenues for industry, keeping things fresh. Widening our experience of life.
And to have hobbies, one must make time for them.
For my hobby, writing, I must wake up early. Instead of 6:00 a.m., which would allow me enough time to get ready and get to work, I wake up at 4:30 a.m.
Why not write when I get home from work?
Well, writing is a hobby that requires oodles of discipline. Writing in the morning, before I tackle my day job, is key for me. I’ve tried to write after school, but something as hard as writing, with long term rewards—if at all!—is insanely impossible for human willpower at the end of a day of work.
To write in the morning requires a strong use of alarms: one for waking up, one for stopping, and one for the last call to get in the car and go. Otherwise, I tend to get lost in the maze of my own brain. Regularly, I will be in mid-thought, and then beep beep beep.
I’ve seen my students do a similar sort of stand-to-attention when the end bell dings while they have been writing or reading away.
And every teacher has certainly lost time while teaching, being super present in a conversation with a student or a discussion that has jazzed the whole class into the bubbling tension of focused cognitive movement as we follow threads of thought, wonder, and discovery.
Writing before school is so wonderful that I wish I could pair it with something almost as equally as hard to do after a hard day’s work: exercise. To do that though, I’d have to wake up at 3:30 a.m. in order to write and exercise. And that just won’t do considering I’d have to conk out the night before by 8:30 p.m. to get a minimum of 7 hours of sleep.
(The compromise is this: though exercise can be very hard to do, it does have some immediate benefits, and therefore has a better completion rate than writing does at the end of the day.)
These event considerations in our personal lives should sound very familiar. We make time for cleaning, for cooking, for talking to our loved ones, for playing intramural soccer, for crafting, for catching a TV episode we missed the night before.
As adults, we know that without the balance of time, without the command of chunks of our lives, we get nothing done. No time for hobbies; no time for family; not time for friends; no time for the litany of things us humans do to enjoy life or reboot ourselves.
It may sound overkill, but I break up my class, between the school-wide bells, into timing blocks to make room for scheduled deep thinking. This includes such seemingly unimportant activities as intentional spacing out and thinking with some heavy whimsy. I want my students to have time to feel really comfortable in the act of pondering, whether it’s a diving board into memory sort of pondering or a maze of ideas sort of pondering or an IKEA furniture assembly of concepts sort of pondering.
But both my students and I work under the constraints of time. Such is the reason for the many bells and alarm clocks throughout our work days.
In response, we teachers have all jury-rigged our activities to our available time. If I had my choice, as I’m sure, students, administrators, parents and other teachers would have their own choices, I would probably have school start later, so I could get in my writing and my exercising before work. Furthermore, I’d always have my planning at the beginning of the day, when I’m most alert and ready to dive into the immensely brain-exertion-heavy teacherly activities of grading and planning. Doing so later in the day is precarious.
And then I would dip into the realm of fantasy: I would somehow allow for time to work with students who really need my help and advice, whether that’s one-on-one or in groups. I could schedule tutoring sessions or writer’s workshop blocks. I could go over a skill and invite students who are behind to attend that session. I would set aside a time to not only grade or plan, but respond to students who have written to me via email.
Of course, one cannot cater such a schedule to one teacher in a school with so many populations of stakeholders. What is ideal for one is not for another. So, we try to meet in the middle of all the middles.
Space to Think
Being human is to be enamored with efficiency. We cannot deny our tool-building fascination. We cannot deny that when we do things, we are always wondering if we can do them better or faster.
The school day reflects this motif of the human. It’s a compromise between all the stakeholders. A product of efficiency and pragmatism. Time is managed in the most explicit and specific ways. We conform our lives to this in both large and small ways. And this makes absolute sense; we reap many benefits from it.
But in this firm and stakeholding stance on time lies a potential cost, and that is the way we treat breaks, which become a sort of enemy.
Let us evaluate these costs.
In order to get a healthy school lunch, the CDC recommends at least 20 minutes of eating time, which means many schools opt for a 30 minute lunch schedule to provide time for students to commute to and from class to designated lunch areas and to either buy or prepare to eat their lunch.
Why so little time?
Lunch is not the reason one is in school. Schools is funded by tax payer dollars. The main goal, obviously, is to use these community-sourced donations for learning. School is not for spending time at a lunch table.
Many fortunate companies, sometimes too much so, have created a different approach for their employees. Here, work not the only investment. More space is used for breaks. Not only is there more time during lunch, but employees can take breaks from their location.
Though food can be delivered more conveniently than ever, people still frequent restaurants. We are drawn by novelty. To get out of your workplace for a break is a wonderful option and a different use of space.
In such companies, the breadth of space affords the ability to forget time itself, a true sign of stimulated contentment.
Breaks, or a large chunk of space from our main tasks, in the form of lunches aren’t the only breaks we necessarily take in the course of a day.
When we observe, imbibe, formulate, or create, we daydream. In a setting where we are learning, we necessarily change the way we orient ourselves; our minds are primed for interior journeys.
To keep these delicate conditions for learning in a time-crunched schedule with a pragmatic load of seven classes per day is heroic and cost-effective, but yet wasteful in its efficiency.
We often dupe ourselves into thinking that perceived surface-level mathematical logic serves us well. Seven bells a day at an equal rate seems logical, but it does not take into account how human beings work.
In Tom Vanderbilt’s wonderful book, Traffic, Vanderbilt uncovers a lot of these misperceived pieces of logic. For instance, sometimes it is faster to drive slower on certain roads. City planners sometimes decrease speed limits to 20 mph not for safety but because of how a car will function with other cars in a city grid full of pedestrian crossings and traffic lights. To not stop at every traffic light, one must go the speed limit. Therefore, one will go faster going slower.1
If we are fortunate enough in our homes, the SARS-CoV-2 era affords us the time to slow. To attend at our ease. To take account of things with the care of the unhurried. And in that is great thinking power.
It’s odd that an institution of education, one that must be a bastion of promoting mindfulness—to be slow and methodical—need be so efficiently timed. We have chosen practicality, pragmatism, and convenience over the goals we so prize in the modern world: creativity, mindfulness, patience, resilience, thoughtfulness, reflectiveness. All of these things take time. To rush them is to break apart the foundations of their purpose.
I remember in college, I could spend time between classes in the library or ambling around the campus on a nice day. I could prop myself up on a table in the student center and people watch, work, or read a book. Or all three. Classes were how long they needed to be for the subject, or at least there were choices: 50 minutes to 90 minutes or variants in between. When I took a class that needed lab time, like astronomy, I knew that I’d be taking up some hours in the evening to see the stars. If I liked to rise early and get my day done, I could choose earlier classes. I had a palette of time chunks to choose from.
We don’t continue a very structured and traditional school schedule because public schools are run by unreasonable people; we have stuck to these schedules to keep our students the most safe. We want to limit the amount of poor decisions that children and teenagers are apt to make, and we want to honor a communal time slot that everybody—students, parents, coaches, school employees—can manage together.
This may sound like a ridiculous comparison, but our growing knowledge of bacteria relates. We’ve found that humans cannot survive without bacteria. Exposure to bacteria from birth is important to our survival. It even helps with our allergies.
Like many things, bacteria has joined the ranks of the litany of grey area influences over human health. Instead of living in an anti-bacteria life, we are now living in a bacteria-filled life, but not quite so full.
As a comparison, mice raised in sterile, bacteria-less environments “live shorter lives, grow more slowly, develop abnormal guts and immune systems, and become susceptible to stress and infections.” In fact, human gut bacteria compositio can affect your weight and eating habits. Furthermore, bacteria or the lack of bacteria have been linked to such diseases as Alzheimer’s or multiple sclerosis and even Crohn’s.2
Such a complex but necessary balance exists between laissez-faire teaching and helicopter teaching. With every education era, we recalibrate one way or the other for reasons that seem unescapable at the time.
In this era, I suspect that we are, like our understanding of bacteria, understanding the value of autonomy. There are theories that allowing children more autonomy to play and to make potentially injurious choices makes them less fearful in life.For instance, climbing trees may help dispense with a fear of heights for later in life. Nothing at school, barring gym and science class, could be so physically dangerous as climbing a tree, but we could certainly use this corollary to think about ways to allow students more choice, creativity, and feedback to make more self-sufficient students. In short, making room for safe errors. If we try to get rid of all ways to err, then students will never learn from errors, and that’s part of the point of school, academically and psychologically.
Being told where to be, how to do things, what you shouldn’t do, creates a dependence and also creates a feeling of “should.” That whatever someone else says is how it will be. And how can any child determine the parameters of another person, let alone two?
That is why parents who loosen their authority and allow their children to interact with the world like little scientists create students who are better able to handle their emotions and behavior than those who grow up in non-autonomous households.
We have evolved so much with technology, that it has made us reorient ourselves even with current methods of transportation. Über and Lyft have both created a new type of transportation using existing technologies. Surely we can learn from such creativity and create an environment where students feel empowered at school but also safe.
Space for Movement
There used to be a time in my career when students frequently asked me if they could go outside. Perhaps I haven’t been asked this recently because I no longer teach in a Tennessean climate. Or perhaps it’s because I have adapted a no-nonsense elder aura that pre-forbids such a question. Regardless, it doesn’t happen, and when it does I say, “No.”
I get why students ask this. The outside certainly re-energizes us. There have been times in my career where I have used my plan bell to get outside, at least just in the parking lot to feel the air or the sun or to move my feet.
One time in my own high school days, my English teacher led us outside to walk around the school. We wrote down our noticings and observations and later turned them into poems. It was exhilarating, like the outside had somehow made class more real than it was. And we were doing no more than walking around a school, taking notes. Something we’d all probably vehemently avoid in our free time.
Humans are made to amble. At school, student ambling happens in only three scenarios: going to class, going to the bathroom, and going to the lunch room. Perhaps there is a locker stop at some point, but you get the idea. Not very freeing. Not very “ambly.”
Despite the rules, some students do get their ambling in. But these are students that have, in their minds, devalued school. Meaning, they are not afraid of skipping class.
You wouldn’t think it, but ambling is built into the SARS-CoV-2 era. It’s one of the things I genuinely love about working from home, and here I mean “when” I work. Not only can I manage a schedule that I largely make up, but I can interrupt that work schedule, when there is space, with things that will keep me fresh and productive. I can go for a walk or a run. I can get outside and work on the porch if the weather is nice. I have the room to pace without disturbing others. (I am, not surprisingly, usually the only one that paces in my classroom.) I can have a small chat with my wife to break things up.
This is immensely refreshing, but if done in a modern high school setting, it would take up a lot of time and administration. Thus, the reasons for not doing so. But I wonder if burnout would be far less if we did. And, really, with a short-term-oriented clientele, wouldn’t it be prudent to give bits of breadth for all of that energy instead of clamping it down, pitting ourselves against biology? Work discipline comes in a litany of different forms. Many of us do not work in a classroom environment when we leave K-12.
(Check out Mason Curry’s Daily Rituals for a wonderful curation of different approaches to successful work ethics.)
What I’d Like When We Get Back
In elementary school, students are traditionally in one room, with one teacher, learning fundamentals that will serve for the rest of life. Soon the mind grows and subjects that could all rest in one room with one teacher open up. Now scholarly subjects need their own space and a different expertise. Thus the change from elementary to a sort of intermediary school and then on to high school.
High school seniors, when they get to the mid-year slump aren’t lamenting the fact that they leave high school as much as they crave the freedom that is usually associated with that of college. It is the freedom of time as well as the freedom to pursue specific interests. Perhaps if we gave them more freedom in high school, if we fiddled with that transition some, we’d have students not so stoked to “get out of this place,” as many of them term it.
Perhaps that means a later school day. Perhaps it would include a sizable chunk of time in the middle of the day for exercise. Perhaps we’d juggle a schedule of different times for different classes. Maybe a period of a collective work hour where students can work and teachers can hold office hours? We have the technology to database this all up and shape it. How wonderful the possibilities!
Not everyone loves early mornings like I do. Especially not teenagers. In a society that values higher-level thinking skills, it is up to us to allow space for these skills to be practiced genuinely. To be a life-long learner in our society is to know all the complex factors needed to learn, even if a lot of times to learn is to fail, whether its choosing the right issue to vote for or the right word to use in an email or the right approach in the design of an electric car. And because learning is so complex and subjective, we need enough space to see it through.