Back Together Again

Fall brings a jolt. Being closed up in a classroom together, unable to get away, creates sure tensions for students, all of whom bring their own quirks. One might sniff with allergies, another interrupt too often. A third might be always tapping—pencils and fingers and feet—while another spreads books and papers across the aisle, expecting others to maneuver through. And so in these and a hundred other ways, everyone gets on each other’s nerves.

And this fall seems especially fraught. Added to the usual challenges of socializing still-immature humans, teachers will welcome some students whose social skills have atrophied with remote learning and others with pandemic-induced anxiety. Students who share the same classroom will come from families with different political leanings in a time when these mindsets show themselves in visible and specific ways—masking, or not; opting for the vaccine, or not.

Once again, the teachers of this pandemic will carry on, adapting as they go. But here are three ways to consider engaging students without letting the pandemic and its accompanying politics derail a classroom:

Lead with the lesson—I once went whale spotting in the Pacific Ocean. The sea was rough, but the ride was exhilarating. Until we found the whales and stopped. Without forward movement, the waves tossed us until I was so seasick I wished I would die.

While classroom discussions should be relevant to the times, they should also advance the curriculum and be contextualized by it.

“Read not the Times,” Thoreau advised. “Read the Eternities.”

Moving forward toward the larger context can keep students from tossing about in tumultuous waters.

Find company from other times and places—When students read the stories of young people caught in the polio epidemic and those whose families were divided during the Civil War, they find companions for their own journeys. And they begin to understand that they, too, are living histories.

Cultivate kindness—“Kindness isn’t about what someone else does or believes,” I like to tell students. “It’s about who you are and your code of living.”

Kindness is good, not only for others, but also for the person being kind. Studies have verified, for example, that giving compliments actually makes people happier than receiving them. And so kindness, working both ways, brings people together like a social glue.

It’s daunting for students to live every day in the classroom with people who grate on their nerves, who see life a different way, and who won’t ever be a best friend. But what is more frightening, in this already polarized age, is for students to huddle with their own ilk, to reach for relationship only with their own kind.

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