Classroom Semiotics

I’m trying to teach my 12th graders a tiny bit about semiotics and it’s not going well. Or maybe it is? Honestly, I have no idea. When I pause and use the poll function in the meet to ask if they want to keep talking about this concept or if they’re ready to move on to the next or if they don’t care, the vote is almost evenly split. What does that mean?

Semiotics is the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation. (Forgotten that grad school lecture on semiotics and now you want to remember? No need to rack your brains: this visual essay by Thomas Streeter is a short reminder.) The longer I teach in the purely virtual classroom, the more I realize that a big part of my teaching style involves a minute-by-minute awareness of my students’ signifiers and what they tell me about how the students are learning. In the physical classroom I take in the way the students’ eyes move or their heads tilt; I notice when they shift in their seat or when the second person asks to go to the bathroom. I have made a years-long study of the semiotics of high school students, and reading them has become indispensable to my practice. It determines how I pace my lessons, when I talk and what I offer next. Today, as I talk to a screen of circular icons, I realize that much of teaching is deciding how to answer the questions of when and what next. When do we move forward? When do we linger on a topic? What is the right activity to use to increase thinking in this moment?

A good teacher is a master of classroom semiotics; unfortunately, I recognize very few of the signifiers in this virtual world. As a class we haven’t yet developed a culture of significance that we can all recognize. Too often, the one student who regularly leaves her camera on becomes my guide for everything. Does E look engaged? My brain, stuck in the physical classroom, tells me that everyone must be engaged. Did I catch a slight nod? Good, my subconscious accepts that they all understand well enough to move on. Meanwhile, I make up for the lack of signifiers by exaggerating my own body language. I smile and grimace, move my face closer to the camera to give them “the look”, widen my eyes and make giant gestures, as if somehow my body can make up for their disembodiment. It does not work. Or maybe it does.

I am trying to use good online teaching practices – polls, questions, music, quick takes, “waterfall” in the chat and more are all part of my practice – but I can’t figure out how to know what my students know. What are the signifiers when we can’t see?

I keep thinking back to the year I taught in Bulgaria. One of the first things I learned after I arrived was that Bulgarians use a quick upwards gesture with the head to mean “no” and a side to side motion to mean “yes” – nearly the opposite of the yes and no motions that I took for granted. The students knew North American head movements, and some of them – but not all of them – tried to use my signifiers in English class when I asked a question. Early in the school year, I asked if students understood something, and I found myself bewildered by a chaotic sea of bobbing heads. It was impossible to know who was signifying what. Slowly I learned to stop asking yes or no questions; slowly I learned which students were likely to use which system of nods; slowly I learned to gauge their attention and understanding in other more meaningful ways.

Those lessons came near the beginning of my teaching career; today, older and much more set in my ways, I am struggling to change. For example, right now, our class writing time is nearly over and I have no way of knowing who wrote and who didn’t, who found it difficult to get words on the page today and who would keep writing if we had more time. I don’t know if they read during reading time. In five minutes, I will not know who is watching with the documentary we’re studying. I suppose I could tighten up – insist on reading logs and online notebooks, give content quizzes and call parents – but all those years of reading my students have taught me that those things don’t really work. The students learn best when I offer engaging and important work. Since I can’t read the classroom right now, I’m going to have to trust that the lessons I’ve created are important, that the learning is its own goal. It feels like my four-legged chair has become three-legged: this classroom will still balance, but only if I keep paying attention. Like now, when writing time is over.

2 thoughts on “Classroom Semiotics

  1. I have thought a lot about this exact topic recently. There are times when I have to stop and move on. I worried so much about what the parents must have thought about me being loose with our schedule, adding breaks on the fly, and sending everyone outdoors for impromptu scavenger hunts. Now I know they realize the kids need frequent movement breaks so I worry less. There are also times when I feel like we aren’t done with something, but the clock says we are – the next teacher is coming in, the lunch break is starting, the day is ending. It does feel easier, I think, than it would have 20 years ago when I was a new teacher. I continue to be in awe of how connected you are to your students. I am connected because we spent the better part of seven months in the same room every school day. I don’t know how we’d do it if I didn’t already know them and speak their semiotic language.

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