LISA BROWN / EDUCATOR / WELLFLEET
When schools went largely online this year, teachers were faced with a daunting challenge: how to reach and connect with their students sitting at home in front of computer screens. Lisa Brown teaches music and a course called Exploring and Respecting Differences at Nauset Regional High School. She says it’s only since returning to in-person classes this spring that she’s beginning to know her kids. Here’s Lisa in her own words, recorded over an extended period.
So, my school year has been pretty difficult. My classes for the last 23 years have been highly personal, very socially, emotionally oriented. We sit in a circle; we don’t have anything impeding being able to look at each other or interact with each other. We might as well be sitting around a fire pit, the way that we lead our discussions.
There is a camaraderie that happens in class. Kids walk into my classroom, and they get to know each other really, really well. Freshmen end up being friends with juniors and seniors, and the juniors and seniors take these younger kids under their wing. It’s really magical. Because of this remote learning, it’s something that we’ve missed a lot this year.
I have been teaching online all year. For the most part, I had between one and six kids live and in class a couple of days a week. And then most of the other kids were always on the screen — in the abyss, I call it.
I’m a kinetic teacher. I do a lot of walking around in the classroom. So, sitting in front of a computer, having a little four-by-four-foot space that I couldn’t move from all year, was torture! I found myself narrowing my focus and talking as though I was talking in my own head. So, when I say something funny, I laugh at my own joke. And when I say something profound or meaningful, I get a little teary at the story, and I’m in an abyss myself.
Figuring out the technology at first was daunting. And I had a little bit of performance anxiety around it. I was very appreciative that kids helped me technologically right away. Once I started to get the groove and feel comfortable, the part that was most difficult for me, absolutely for sure, was losing the dynamic of in-person kids.
The thing that’s so disconcerting is that when kids are at home on the other side of that abyss on the computer screen, not only do you not see the breadth of who they are, but you see a TV image. I see a caricature of a student. I don’t get the depth of who they are. I don’t get their humor. I don’t get how they pause, and how they use their hands. I would see the tops of kids’ heads, or just an ear and an eye, or a hand. They would be looking away. They’d be looking down. I’m wondering, are they looking at their phones? Are they playing a game? Are they checked out? Are they listening to music? I couldn’t tell. I couldn’t tell.
I’ve lost something in my relationships with kids this year. I don’t know my kids this year as much as I’ve known them in the past. I feel kind of bereft. I feel sad.
We’ve just recently gone back to in-person classes. I’ve got about 70 percent of kids in class. It’s liberating! It is exciting! Everybody’s in a big circle, and I’m in the gladiator pit. So now, I’m a little wild! I get to wheel around in my chair. I encourage kids to wave their arms around and make some noise now, because everybody’s been so shut down. I’m really trying to encourage them just to shake it loose.
We’ve just started the conflict unit, and this is how we’re ending up our year. Just now I’m starting to get to know my kids, because they get to write anonymously about conflicts that they’re having in their lives: whether you’re going to buy a Celtics shirt or a Patriots shirt, which is a designer conflict, or whether they’re going to take a year off from school next year. And this is where kids really start talking a lot more about themselves in relation to their world. I purposely have to wait until the end of the semester for this, because kids need to bond with each other and trust each other and build trust in the classroom before we can start talking about really personal issues.
Now that we’re in person again, we’re starting to get back to normal, which means that kids are laughing, and they’re talking to each other. There’s a lot of eye contact, and we’re finally getting back to joy!
When school’s out, I try to keep it real and outside. I’m a farmer at heart. I’m a dig-in-the-dirt person. I love to build things. In fact, that’s probably one of my biggest values — building stuff, building relationships, building gardens, building tree houses, building a bus, you know, a travel bus.
So, way before the pandemic, my wife, Dierdre, and I wanted a kind of an RV thing. But all these fancy RVs cost a bajillion dollars, and we couldn’t really afford it. And it wasn’t really what we were looking for. A couple of years ago, Nauset [High School] got a whole new series of mini school buses. I got in. I got behind the wheel. I was taking kids to the State House that day on a field trip. I sat in that driver’s seat, and I backed up the bus, and I started driving down the road, and I said, “This is it!” Of course, I’m a teacher! All I want is a school bus to renovate into a camper. So, that’s exactly what we did.
We plan to go across country and to national parks everywhere, as soon as I retire. These last couple of years, they’re very poignant for me, and I’m going to pack as much of myself into my classes as I can. And that’s going to be my final hurrah.