Lauren Merkley: The misadventures of remote learning

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Sydnee Dickson, State Superintendent of Public Instruction, left, presents Cottonwood High School English teacher Lauren Merkley, as this year's teacher of the year ahead of the schools big pep rally on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019.

I made a mistake setting up a Zoom meeting for my 11th grade English students. I clicked the wrong drop-down menu of the wrong time zone in the wrong distance learning module, carry the one, i before e except after c, and suddenly multiple students tried to join the meeting at various wrong times.

Later, I sent a poll to my kids that was inexplicably “full,” thus preventing their response and making me feel like a royal doofus. I ended the day by filming a dorky video in which I am sporting a truly astonishing double chin due to an unflattering laptop angle and … my double chin.

This seems to be my modus operandi as I make the frenzied shift to distance learning. The announcement came fast and furious on the afternoon of Friday the 13th that Utah schools would undergo a “soft closure” for two weeks. The choice was prudent. I applaud state leadership for adopting a proactive approach that prioritizes the health of children and communities. Minds greater than mine will debate the length and type of closure.

Here in the trenches, schools are using “distance learning” and “online learning” to describe this new educational world. Program descriptions, including the Beehive State’s, include the word “learning.” Not “teaching.” The focus of this endeavor is, and must be, on the students.

If the learning is remote, we must get them a device. If they do not have Wi-Fi, we must get them Wi-Fi. If they do not have food, we must get them food. Teaching is not teaching — remote or not — if learning does not happen. And learning does not happen if the learners do not have tools. No house is built without a hammer.

Once students are outfitted, what and how should they learn? Do we recreate bell schedules and the “normal” school day? Do we assign graded work or enrichment? Are distance lessons synchronous? Asynchronous?

I have answers for none of the above. (Except for bell schedules: That’s madness.) These are local decisions that should be based on individual school’s circumstances. However, I would argue that perhaps the most powerful lesson we can all learn in this bonkers time is the most human one: that of struggle and failure.

During school closure, students and families should learn that their teacher wanted to see their kids’ little donut faces so much that they would tinker unsuccessfully with Zoom for an hour. That educators will continue to show up, even through a poorly lit screencast or an ill-designed Google slide. That all adults wrestle with adopting a growth mindset amid uncomfortable change. That, like them, teachers are anxiously navigating labyrinthine apps, armed with little more than a laptop and relentless hope.

If this distance learning misadventure teaches students these human lessons, it will be a success. Teachers have the opportunity to model what true learning looks like in real time as we 1) try something new and scary, 2) fail at that something new and scary and 3) get up and try again. Teachers are leaders. Our honest yet optimistic struggle with this transition will grant students, parents, and families the space to do the same.

Of course, we should concern ourselves with multiplication tables and comma rules. Content is vital. Kids need it. But perhaps we can also focus on helping students learn that no pandemic is a match for the devotion of their double-chinned teacher, who just can’t wait to read them a poem or sing them the quadratic equation.

So, teachers: Keep diving deep into the work in this new paradigm. You’re nothing short of a friggin inspiration. Trip over the tech, but don’t obsess. Stumble over and over in your videos. Give kids wild, unexpected, deeply human work. Give yourself grace. Give your students grace.

Distance learning will be gnarly and difficult, but we are trained in those martial arts: We are teachers. We have always known how to alchemize the strange into the sublime, the listless into the lovely.

For now, technology might be the medium. But, as always, love is the lesson.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Cottonwood High School English teacher Lauren Merkley, is honored and humbled as she is interviewed following her announcement as this year's teacher of the year during the schools big pep rally on Friday, Sept. 6, 2019.

Lauren Merkley is the Utah 2020 Teacher of the Year. She teaches English to juniors and seniors at Cottonwood High School in Murray and lives in downtown Salt Lake City with her husband.

Twitter: @lmerkles