University of Minnesota Alumni Association

The Last Word

Distance Learnings

It’s not easy to teach middle school, or to be in middle school, or to raise a middle schooler. This year, a very hard thing has gotten even harder for teachers, students, and families.

Illustration Credit: James Heimer

I t’s not easy to teach middle school, or to be in middle school, or to raise a middle schooler. This year, a very hard thing has gotten even harder for teachers, students, and families.

I have taught 8th grade for over a decade. I know firsthand that most students really want to learn. They react well to work that is challenging and important and interesting. When they are physically in school, I can use proximity and presentation and pressure to get them to do all sorts of stuff they don’t want to do.

That gets a lot more challenging when I’m teaching from my home to theirs.

Pandemic teaching is at its worst when it tries to re-create school: Asking kids to sit for hours, asking teachers to watch students while they try to sit for hours—the idea that watching someone teach is the same as learning doesn’t hold up. I spend five times more energy to produce lessons that are far, far less impactful.

At its best, pandemic teaching lets go of a lot of the stuff of school—worksheets, dress codes, and lectures—and focuses instead on the goal of learning. We teachers are finding success when we rely more on creativity than compliance. Yes, there’s lots of trial and lots and lots of failure. But I’ve never been disappointed by what students can do when they’re given a chance.

Last spring, we were just getting by, doing anything to keep kids engaged and to give their brains a chance to think about things other than the world burning down around them. We showed them grace and concern when it was all too much. I gave a final project where students were able to pick anything they were passionate about and find a way to share that passion with each other from a distance. There were podcasts about the NBA, impassioned pleas for gun control, treatises on alternative fuels, and essays about the removal of politics from school (I have my own feelings on this, but the writing was amazing). One of my favorite projects was an insightful critical analysis of Sharknado 2.

This fall, we’re all getting used to whatever “this” is and settling in for months and months more of it. We all realize we’re going to need to get some work done. We miss seeing each other in person. Students, especially, are increasingly desperate to get back to school, but they’re also getting better at using email and message features to ask questions and stay in touch with teachers. They are more willing to share their jokes, their pets, their feelings, their lives with each other. They are showing up. This fall, my last class of the day was having an impromptu argument over Fat Bear Week 2020, which is a competition to vote on which bear at Katmai National Park in Alaska is most ready for winter. The class had taken sides for either Chonk (the former champion) or 747 (the young challenger). As 747 pulled ahead, one student shouted, “just wait until Alaska votes! Everyone knows Alaska is a swing state for bears! Chonk will pull ahead!”

Another student picked up his ukelele and spoke directly to the classmate who was hoping Alaska would put Chonk over the top. “I wrote a song just for you,” he said, before strumming a few chords. Then, he looked into his camera and said, deadpan, “We all know 747 is the fat king. Stop trying.”

It’s early, but I already know this will be a strong contender for best moment of the year for me because it reminded me for the millionth time that the kids are OK. The kids are weird and hilarious and brilliant, and they just need all the chances we can give them to show it. 

Tom Rademacher (B.A. ’04, M.E. ’07) teaches English at St. Anthony Middle School in the New Brighton school district. He was named the 2014 Minnesota Teacher of the Year