Concretizing Connection: How Do We Determine “What’s What?” In Remote/Hybrid Learning
By Melissa Bryan
In Daniel Alarcón’s short story, “Absence,” the central figure, Wari, reflects on a time he went to visit his girlfriend while still living in Peru. She wasn’t home, and since they were both learning English, he leaves her a note in English.
He writes to her, “I come see you, but instead I meet your absence.”
In my ESL classrooms, we spend ample time on that line, and yet they all intuitively know his meaning linguistically, epistemologically, and personally. The intersections of their identities sort of heave a collective sigh or groan at the possible complexity of Wari’s “meet[ing] absence.” Aside from, of course, the purposeful incongruity between those two words, the line is really meant to explore how Wari, now in America, and like most immigrants, experiences a “double absence.” He is both missed and not missed at home in Peru, and is both here and not here in America. Where then is he? To whom does he exist and matter? What anchors and connects him to place and community?
It’s this note that I am thinking of as I consider the foreign worlds of education in the hybrid or remote classrooms in which we find ourselves teaching today. We, too, are all strangers who experience a double absence of sorts.
In a recent DWP Community, Family, and Youth Committee meeting, as a few colleagues and I discussed what our goals are for the year ahead, the conversation kept circling around the theme of “connecting.” Members wondered if teachers and students were connecting, if teachers were connecting with teachers, if students were connecting with students, if we were all even, truthfully, pausing to connect with ourselves. The answers are harder to distill, though. Aren’t they? Obviously, we are connecting “in theory,” and maybe so in practice as well, but we all sense the harried existence of the new foreign world in which we teach and the longed for old “country” of the fully in-school learning model. Perhaps this is why we still seem to expect more out of our teaching and learning than the digital world alone appears to provide us.
Classic literature, as Alan Jacobs writes in Breaking Bread With The Dead, helps us make sense of the “presentist’s” world. It is precisely through reading older texts that we can stand outside of the present and see how “social acceleration…traps us in the moment.” To Jacobs, when we spend time “breaking bread” with earlier literary traditions and ancient authors, comparisons to the past make visible that which is blind to us in modernity; history, then, becomes applicable. From this vantage point, the present is reframed in context and it no longer exists as context alone.
In reading along with my classes these last few weeks, the distant voices of the past have provided us with a “fellowship” to prior generations, and even a glimpse into how we might better “connect” with one another today. Where once open communication percolated easily because, as bodies in a physical space, the gestures, movements, and stifled laughs all contributed to a greater collective communicative competence, now we find ourselves flatly amiss.
As I am teaching The Lord of the Flies again, for example, and asking students to reflect on the text through certain philosophical and psychological lenses, I keep reverting the conversation back to the conch, but — in particular now — the conch as related to assembly* — an ancient tradition reborn briefly and essentially in Golding’s novel. Just think how The Odyssey opens?! Is it not precisely Telemachus who is informed by Athena to hold an assembly in Ithaca, staff in hand, and determine, as Ralph does generations later, on an unknown island,“What’s what?” In the absence of “assembly,” the suitors and hunters rule, and some serious chaos develops and some detrimental loss occurs. Through a committed assembly, though, and through the tactile talking piece, humans are centered, communities focus, and people are made present.
Without the committed effort, and as Yeats always chimes in my ears, “the center cannot hold.”
Connecting With Our Students Through Writing
There are many of us in the Zoom or G-Meet world, teachers and students alike, who feel like we “apparate” onto a “class meeting” and awkwardly and immediately encounter a staring, several-headed judgement, or who, when we are put into Google groups or Zoom or G-Meet breakouts, “meet” only red mics and circled avatars. No one is there with whom we can commune. We are together but separate. We are seen but not known. We “meet absence.” This is true, too, of course as we sit alone in our socially distant homes and “meet” with our classes. We are detached not only from people, but from the school we go to, and even from the home we live and now teach in, too.
When you think about it, as we sense Wari does in hindsight, “meeting” absence is ghostly. It is scary. And, for this reason alone, as educators, we have to find a way to concretize and materialize the “assembly” in our classroom. We have to determine “what’s what” within our sphere, and we have to encourage engagement so that fear can be demystified and communal comfort can ensue.
The DWP Community, Family, and Youth Committee determined to start discussions on connecting with teachers. And, knowing what we know, we planned to use writing as the concrete tool that gives us power, and sharing as our assembly to help us discuss “what’s what.” In an essence, it is no different than the push toward SEL and Restorative circles in the classroom that many schools have been doing for a while anyway. And, it certainly is no different than the training all NWP educators receive and, likely, do already in their classrooms. Now, there is only the necessary constant practice of it, and the need for it to be an interdisciplinary approach.
A few weeks ago, I presented on this very topic in my district. The workshop was titled, “Connecting With Our Students Through Writing.” I led my colleagues through a series of writing activities in a fully virtual workshop, and I replicated writing practices in my class for workshop attendees. Participants included teachers from the high school English department, but also administration, physical education, special education, social studies, and elementary and middle school educators as well. For willing colleagues who have been wandering through their digital world looking for connection, the workshop was a space for them to share, unburden, and commune with peers. Given that nearly every other workshop was tech-focused, the space to write was a welcomed pivot. For others, those much more savvy in the digital realm, the conversation about digital-dualism asked them to confront a reality that the digital world, like Wari’s physical experience of displacement, doesn’t have to be a “this or that” experience, but a “this and that” experience. Indeed that paradox alone, that the digital world and the real world are really one and the same, brings us all a lot closer to communion anyway. Perhaps in merely acknowledging the irony (that we aren’t in one space or in another space, but that we are in both simultaneously), we might come to know our students better, they might come to know us more, and we might laugh and find joy together as we assimilate into distance-learning.
Some of the lessons that I shared with participants, the ones I have learned along the way or folded into my practice from those colleagues who I “delight in” because “they do what [I] do better than [I] do it,” are:
- Offer free writing at the start of the class every day. For me, this is always Writing Into The Day, or Taking A Line For A Walk, but it may be journaling, or a ledger, or doing more with place-based writing (as many of us did with #WriteOut).
- Provide them with structured or ruled creative writing exercises. Many authors understand that writing creatively unblocks them as they prepare to write their more formal, public pieces. However, free-writes may be too unwieldy for their sequential minds. To that end, scripted dialogue writing exercises can be used to have students create conversations with themselves, with other historical or literary figures, with teachers, etc. The mechanism of the prompt can be hugely generative.
- Ensure your students have “share-proof” writing spaces. As we aim to create life-long writers, they must have a place they know is unassessed and for their own private daily practice. The share-proof writing might be a focused meditation on “precepts” or beliefs they have. If you recall, this is the exercise done by Mr. Brown, the English teacher in Wonder.
- Write beside them through Nanowrimo. I am doing this now with my two ESL courses, and a healthy, inquisitive writing community has spontaneously developed. The questions about craft and our struggles as writers come unbidden. Sharing, too, is an exciting and eager action.
- Celebrate events and take part in interconnected projects. December 7th is National Write A Letter Day. There is almost no better way to connect than writing an ACTUAL letter. It is “bonafide printed matter,” and it doesn’t just make the recipient happy, it satiates the writer, too. The sheer fact that there is an intended audience collapses distance, and connects people. The DWP CFYC hopes to host a virtual workshop on this for students. Stay tuned!
- Write in digital spaces. Many of us are doing this all of the time anyway, but effective collaborative writing happens in Sutori and Parlay, or Kami or Skitch BookSnaps, and/or Book Creator.
- Use Google Meet Activities: Polls and questions have been a great friend these last several weeks. The beauty of them is that they operate as quick writes, formative assessments, engagement prompts, and they are recorded automatically by G-Meet and emailed directly to you in data charts as soon as the meet ends. You can garner a great deal of information from your community through those G-Meet activities.
- Backchannel while watching something together: This is like a Netflix Party, but for school. I have shown parts of Romeo and Juliet and The Outsiders in class, and we discussed scenes and lines together remotely while backchanneling in Padlet. It is a fast-paced and fun conversation for all.
Janet Burroway, in Imaginative Writing, says what I find to be a haunting line and hard truth about writing. She writes, “People are often not eloquent, precisely about what moves them most. Half of the time we aren’t sure what we mean, and if we are, we don’t want to say it, and if we do, we can’t find the words, and if we can, the others aren’t listening, and if they are, they don’t understand” (Burroway 94). How much more true is it today, in the digital realm especially, that we find it hard to determine what is what for us? Wrangling in those words that hover at the periphery of our vocabulary that might best express our souls and minds is an exhaustive battle, and so much more so on your own and in isolation. When writing only on Twitter or posting to social media sites, for example, it tends to be writing that easily puts one’s self out to anonymous or digitally removed consumers without the conscious care of trying to be deeply understood. It doesn’t bring us “nearer” to one another, it obliterates others. Writing what we think and feel is already so daunting a task, and writing for an open void, then, won’t press us to make those elusive thoughts ever more clear as we write. Yet, writing for a known reader or listener, working with an interlocutor as we write and share, and assembling together for a specific purpose has the capacity to connect us. The social aspect of writing and the fact that writing is, ultimately, a material production, is precisely what makes it the best, and most unobtrusive, way for us to remain present in our new world. It is the one tool we have, the one real concrete object we have to empower us, and it is the thing around which we, and yes, our students, will be able to assemble together, share, and make known that which “moves [us] most.”
Alarcón, Daniel. War by Candlelight. Harper Perennial, 2005.
Burroway, J. Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft. 3rd., Pearson, 2011.
Jacobs, Alan. Breaking Bread With The Dead. Penguin Press, 2020.
Turner, Kristen H. The Ethics of Digital Literacy: Developing Knowledge and Skills Across Grade Levels. Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.
*Merriam-Webster’s definition of assemble is: (of people) to bring together as in a particular place or for a particular purpose. This is the definition of which I speak. The assembly, in ancient literary traditions and etymologically, is about bringing people together for a common purpose. But problematically, in 2020, as dictionaries are starting to determine the word of the year, our contemporary world of Covid-induced separation is being cemented in history. Lockdown was just named by Collins Dictionary as the 2020 word of the year. It really makes one wonder about the ways in which language constructs reality. If we continually celebrate, use, and point out separatist language, how then can we really hope to “break bread” with different times let alone different people? How can we hope to build a community in distance-learning? As Jacobs suggests in the end of his book, we ought to not run away from dissonance, but meet it. Therefore, our students should assemble with a daily common purpose in mind, and — in so doing — we can court connection.
Melissa Bryan is a high school English and ESL teacher in New Jersey. She has an MA in Teaching English from Montclair State University, an ESL certification from Rowan University, and she is earning an MA in Creative Writing and Literature from Fairleigh Dickinson University. She also is an adjunct professor at Union County College and at Drew University, and she is a teacher consultant with the National Writing Project at the Drew Writing Project/Digital Literacies Collaborative in Madison, NJ.