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.

Tiny wins #SOL21 22/31

I probably should have called in last night, but I was honestly hoping I wouldn’t have to, even though both my partner and my eldest child were complaining of a sore throat or sniffles or the ever-dreaded “feeling off” as we went to bed last night. Public Health’s rules state that if you have a symptom, you stay home & get tested. Sometimes this feels pretty silly to me – we’ve been home several times for things that are clearly not Covid – but nine schools in our area have “open outbreaks” (meaning someone is still sick) and the variants are clearly here, so when the 12-year-old rolled over and sort of moaned at me this morning, I knew we’d all be staying at home.

Oh, that’s the other rule: if one person has symptoms, they have to get tested & the whole family stays home until the results come back negative. This Spring we’ve had a lot of in-the-house family time. Sigh.

Now, I haven’t used this blog to say a lot of good things about pandemic teaching this year. In fact, I’ve been pretty grumpy about the whole thing. I feel rushed & disconnected & over-connected & pulled in too many different directions to be effective. I could go on. But today I found myself grateful for some of the pandemic changes. Unexpected.

First, I convinced (coerced?) the 10-year-old to read with me in French. This is nothing short of miraculous. We made it through two chapters of Mon Hamster est un Détective before I had to be “in class.” Because I can see his Google classroom, I knew to have him work on math and an outline for his persuasive essay. (He’s pushing for three-day weekends – prescient.) Then, right before my own class started, I made a second pot of tea and then settled in at the kitchen island. Yes! I was able to teach a full class even though I wasn’t physically in the school. My students could see my unmasked face (finally!) and I got to see what it’s like to experience the classroom virtually. Even better, my “sick” child was “able” to do the math test he was missing while we were at home. (I’m not sure he counts this as a good thing.) The teacher simply sent it to him & I supervised.

I know there are downsides to all of this. I don’t think that anyone should teach or study when they are unwell, and I’m *really* going to miss snow days (well, around here that’s “bus cancellation days” because we almost never cancel for snow), but today felt like a series of tiny wins. Not bad for a Monday.

Pivot

Educators in Ontario are starting 2021 by pivoting. Again. 2020 saw us pivot from what we quaintly referred to as “school” to “emergency remote learning” from April to the end of June. Then, in my school board, high school teachers started September in “quadmesters” organized into what is possibly the weirdest teaching I can imagine (and one which I still cannot describe succinctly): we teach one course for approximately four hours a day every other week. During that week, half of the class is in person one day and the other half is at home; the next day, they switch. Teaching is hybrid because the at-home cohort requires “some” synchronous connection with the in-class cohort during the day. Once both cohorts are home and have had a lunch break, they are supposed to do asynchronous learning for another hour. I’m pretty sure we used to call that homework, but whatever. The next week, we switch to a different course. Apparently, this is a mere pivot from our previous practice.

Now, as 2021 starts, we are “pivoting” again because Ontario is back in lockdown – or at least partial lockdown. First, we’re teaching fully online for three weeks. Because that doesn’t feel quite challenging enough, we are going to teach two classes a day for 112 minutes each (the two classes which we previously taught on alternating weeks for 225 minutes). The instruction must be synchronous for some amount of time that I can no longer remember, and there will still be an asynchronous component at the end of the day for those whose heads aren’t already spinning.

Also, while no one knows exactly what will happen, we’ll probably pivot back (re-pivot? un-pivot?) for the last week of January when we may or may not return to the original 2020 quadmester plan, except that this would give one course a full week of instruction and the other course none – so I may or may not be seeing the students who may or may not need something to learn. I mean, it’s not a problem because when we get there, we’ll just pivot.

But the current pivot means that all I need to do during winter break is cut my pre-planned two weeks of hybrid daily instruction plans in half, spread them over three weeks and – maybe? – two days, download and practice using a few apps (hello, colleagues who have time to practice with me) so that fully virtual learning can go smoothly, convert any planned in-person instruction to a different delivery mode, and get ready to handle any residual upset the students might be experiencing from the last time this happened – when we told them we were extending March Break & then separated them from all their friends & didn’t allow them back in the school for 5 months.

You know, pivot.

As 2020 ends and people suggest various phrases that define the year – “You’re on mute” is a fave – I vote for “pivot.” Oh, how I have come to loathe that word. To me, it implies an easy twist to a new position. Just turn a little and keep doing what you were doing. No biggie. No need to reconsider your pedagogy to take into consideration the trauma adolescents might be experiencing as the world around them goes haywire. No need to think about how that affects their ability to learn. No need to recognize that in-person, hybrid, and online education are, in many ways, entirely different beasts. No need to examine which educational practices are foundational and which are, perhaps, merely habitual. Just pivot.

So I looked it up. Because I’m a word nerd like that. And, while I regularly tell my students NOT to start essays with definitions (Dear Heaven, but they don’t need another way to avoid saying actual things), I’m going to share two of the definitions I found at dictionary.com.

Pivot
– to modify (a policy, opinion, product, etc.) while retaining some continuity with its previous version
– Basketball. to keep one foot in place while holding the ball and moving the other foot one step in any direction.

Suddenly I am back in high school, playing basketball with my athletic younger sister at the top of our driveway. She is on the Varsity basketball team. I am terrible at basketball, and my inexpert play is not helping her improve her game. Frustrated by my inability to block effectively, she sighs, “Just… set a pick,” and she places me between her and the basket. “Spread your feet, bend your knees a little, and stand still.”

I do, and she dribbles around me again and again, her brown hair flying as she finds different ways to create space for her shots. Sometimes – often – she pivots, confusing the imaginary defense before she spins around me and shoots.

Pivot, huh? Keep one foot in place and move the other foot in any direction. Retain some continuity. It sounds easy when the government or our school board assures people that we will simply pivot to online teaching, but I know better. Pivoting isn’t an effortless turn, a round peg gliding smoothly in a round hole. I think of my sister, relentlessly seeking improvement, earning her starting position one afternoon at a time, bouncing and bouncing, turning and turning, intentionally putting obstacles between herself and the basket. She was working.

Thanks to twowritingteachers.org for hosting this weekly space where teachers can hone their writing skills – and have fun doing it!

Still, even if we had to work at it, we had fun on those afternoons, and we got better – or she did, anyway. I didn’t, but I was mostly just standing still. It wasn’t easy, but, well… I think I need to go try out a couple of new apps. I’ll try to remember to keep one foot in place, but I’m constantly stepping with the other because on Monday, we pivot.