I’m watching my seventh-grade son navigate digital learning. Not like it was at the end of the last school year, when the Los Angeles Unified School District (abruptly) shut-down and everyone – district, teachers, students, families – figured it all out as we went along.

This time around, everyone – the district, teachers, students, families – had the summer to prepare. We knew it was coming. We knew that the 2020-2021 school year would begin digitally and continue that way for, an as-yet, undetermined amount of time.

But I’m also watching all this as a former elementary school teacher. I can empathize with both sides of the desk, or in this case, both sides of the screen.

While my son’s teachers are trying, there just is no substitute for an in-person classroom environment.
Here’s what’s missing:

1.  Nonverbal Cues.  In a classroom, teachers know. We sense when a child isn’t feeling well, when a child is passing a note, when a child wants to volunteer an answer but is hesitant to. What you notice as you wander around the room, while your eyes scan the desks and the bodies in the chairs, is lost when all a teacher can see is a face within a box on a screen. (And that’s only possible if a child has their video option on.)

2. Affection.  Nothing quite compares to a high-five. A fist-bump. A pat on the back. A shoulder squeeze. A hug. Teachers are oh-so-limited in ways they can express their affection for their students.

3. Discomfort.  Children need to learn how to handle less-than-ideal situations – sitting next to someone who isn’t your best friend, sitting towards the back of the classroom when you’re really more of a front-of-the-room person. There’s something to be said for having to sit in a hard school chair. Sometimes you just have to learn to handle less-than-ideal circumstances, without it impacting your effort and focus.

4. Cooperative Opportunities.  Students don’t only learn from their teachers. They learn from each other. They learn by watching how a classmate solved a math question. They learn by listening to a classmate’s opinion of the text. And over Zoom, those sorts of sharing opportunities aren’t happening as easily or as often as they do in a physical classroom.

5. Social Interactions.  Distance learning is lonely. Our kids are missing out on all the socialization that usually happens during recess and lunch. Our kids also aren’t dealing with peer pressure – how to make the decision to follow the rules and not run on the yard as opposed to doing what your friends are doing, and run to your play area because the adult in charge isn’t looking.

6. Necessary Preparation.  There are a lot of moving parts to keep track of when our kids go off to school. Packing a backpack, making sure homework is in the folder. Having your cafeteria money or a signed trip slip. When kids are learning at home, everything they need is never more than a room away.

7. Spontaneity.  Some of the best conversations aren’t planned. They’re not even anticipated. They just happen, based on something one child says or does. I remember with great fondness a science lesson that veered pleasantly off-track, when my English-Learner students weren’t familiar with the dandelion pictured on the front of their science book. We had a grand conversation about dandelions and wishes, and cultural traditions related to wishes.

8. Movement.  At school, our kids are moving. They are lining up – for recess and lunch, for a visit to the school library, standing for the flag salute. On days, when the sun just called us outside, I would take my students to the school garden, to read about a plant’s life cycle or to the schoolyard to use sidewalk chalk to draw scalene, isosceles, and equilateral triangles.

9. Mentor Opportunities.  Older students often pair up with younger students at the same school as reading buddies or peer tutors. Kids are missing out on these cross-age experiences and learning how to handle themselves around older and younger students.

10. Being in the Spotlight.  It feels different, more difficult, to speak up in a classroom setting when everyone is looking at you. Especially if you’re the one student who has a difference of opinion, or you are the lone dissenter in the room. It’s a lot easier to speak up from the comfort of your own home.

11. Support System.  Students aren’t merely looked after and cared for by their classroom teacher. Within a school setting, multiple sets of eyes are watching each child, and they report back to the teacher. Other students will report if a classmate didn’t eat during lunch, or a teacher’s assistant will alert a teacher to an argument between two friends before school. And all that contributes to the focus, attitude, and effort a child is bringing into the classroom.

12. Independence.  A child’s school is their own space, their domain. Even if our children are in their own rooms at home, they’re still at home. There is no break from the family dynamic. No chance for a child to feel that spark of independence and freedom that comes with going off to school each day.

Wendy Kennar is a mother, writer, and former elementary school teacher. You can read more from Wendy at www.wendykennar.com where she writes about books, boys, and bodies (living with an invisible disability).

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