Over lunch, when I mention that I have opted Mr. 13 out of the new online learning requirement for high school, my mother in law asks casually if I think online learning is the way of the future. I do not.
Listen, I know that e-learning works for some people. And I know that it can be done very well. And I know that there are times and places when it is the right option. I’m not anti e-learning. (Well, ok, I’m a little bit anti e-learning, but I can live with it. I’ve done all of my credentialing/ post-graduate school classes online, and there are definitely advantages.) I am, however, against an e-learning requirement in high school – especially when I believe it is a nakedly political attempt to increase class sizes and destabilize public education rather than increase student learning or wellbeing. And I absolutely do not believe that e-learning can or should replace in person learning.
In the kitchen, I start to explain the reasons that mandatory e-learning doesn’t make sense to me. I reach for evidence; my brain goes into fact mode. Even now, as I write, I have paused to find articles to link to, statistics to back up my beliefs. I have searched the internet for other voices to back up my own (there are plenty). But I decide not to include them. For the past two weeks in Grade 12, we’ve been working with analysis and reviews, reading mentor texts and noticing how writers choose and use evidence, so I realize that I am defaulting to logos even though I firmly believe that the most convincing arguments must first appeal to pathos.
Let me tell you a story.
Last week, on the way to school, I was listening to poet Ada Limón’s podcast “The Slowdown“. Each day, she shares a little bit of her thinking and reads one poem. The show is usually about five minutes long, and I love it. In fact, I love it so much that I was listening to back episodes as I drove in, and I stumbled across an April episode where Limón read Alex Lemon’s poem “Credo”. Its energy blew me away, and I knew immediately that I would use it in class.
So there I was, less than an hour later, reading this poem to some sleepy 12th graders. We noticed its exuberance (ok, that was my word), then grabbed our notebooks (ok, because I made them), and wrote “I can be…” at the top of the page (the repeated line in the poem). I set a timer for three minutes and we let ourselves go, completing the line in any way we wanted to. I wrote on the board so they could see me working. An observer in our class also wrote – if you’re in the room, you’re in the class. When the chime sounded, we paused to take a breath. I could feel the changed energy in the room.
“Let’s each share a line,” I said. We’ve done this before – we do this regularly – so even though reading our writing out loud can be tough, most of the students were up for it. Sometimes people only share a word; sometimes they share far more. That day, most people had picked up on the freedom in Lemon’s poem – some were still writing! – and the sharing began quickly. We heard from most of the class, including our visitor, but of course, there are always those who are reluctant; in those moments I try to encourage, maybe even push a little, but not to over-pressure. This day, the extra push allowed M to share a line that they prefaced with, “this is a little weird.” Their line began, “I can be a frog…” Afterwards, they added, “I mean, poems aren’t really about frogs” and they blushed a little.
My response was immediate, “Of course poems can be about frogs! I can think of one right now,” and I launched into Emily Dickinson’s “I’m Nobody! Who are you?” I had only gotten out the first two words when another student chimed in and recited the rest with me. This student is neurodiverse and participates in class in their own rhythm; in saying the poem with me, they astonished their classmates.
Then class moved on. And that would have been it. Except that the next day I opened class with 32 translations of Basho’s Frog haiku. By the time we got to, oh, the 15th or so, people were smiling. We spoke very briefly about how translations can help us see a poem in a new way – and how well they do or don’t communicate the original. Then class moved on. But our original classroom frog poet was absent that day, so the next day I arrived with Hilaire Belloc’s “The Frog.” We giggled about calling a frog “Slimy skin” even as we learned the word “epithet”. Unfortunately, the student poet who kicked this off was at a track meet. “Don’t worry,” I assured the students, “I have plenty of frog poems. I’ll just keep going until they’re back in class.” Their best friend laughed and students around the room shook their heads at what is, essentially, the teacher version of a dad joke. Then class moved on.
(Fear not, there are a LOT of frog poems. I can keep this up for a while.)
I have finished telling my mother in law this whole story – from the podcast to the writing to the ongoing frog poems. She is not a fan of e-learning (in fact, she’s a firm believer in energy and creativity and more), so she has been an easy sell. And even though I have decided not to link to any of the statistics or evidence out there – and there’s a lot – I know that the online classroom can’t replicate this, the gentle push to share a bit of yourself, the wonderful astonishment of a quiet student suddenly reciting a poem they know by heart, the moment of mild discomfort that leads to a world we didn’t know existed, the serendipity that allows one moment to become a string of moments that creates a community of learners, a community of people who experience the beauty and humour and affirmation that leads to learning that lasts a lifetime.
So, no, I don’t think that online learning is the way of the future. Unless we can find a way to include a lot of frog poems.