This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
These interviews for the Notebook’s summer edition about teachers’ efforts to promote learning and stay in touch with students during the pandemic were conducted in mid-May, before the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests.
Gill Maimon – Dr. Gill, to her friends – has been teaching at Powel Elementary School for 21 years, most of that time in first grade, although this year she is teaching second grade.
She says she is managing well teaching remotely. As she describes it, the experience has been at once unsettling and transformative.
For two decades, Maimon has helped train pre-service teachers from the University of Pennsylvania and now works with its Urban Teacher Apprenticeship. The Penn students regularly visit her classroom to learn and observe.
She also teaches classes at Penn in children’s literature, occasionally online. Teaching adults this way, she said, can be useful and effective in moderation.
But, she was convinced, not for seven-year-olds.
“Teaching is human work. Teaching should be a meeting of people.”
Maimon is, if you will, not just a teacher is constantly reflecting on what it means to teach. And a firm believer that teachers must constantly be learning and reevaluating what they do.
So while she describes herself as “a little tech suspicious,” she was always willing and able to learn how to use new teaching tools, like the smartboards introduced in her school a few years ago, but until now says she “never took all the opportunities given to me to get myself really up to speed.”
Soon after schools closed in March, she spent some time learning Zoom, and used it to meet with students. That’s when she got her first taste of how disorienting this could be.
“The hardest thing for me, which I found vain and idiotic, is that on these video platforms, your face is in this little box.” When she is teaching in a classroom, she is not thinking so much about how the students perceive her. In her own mind, “I’m formless,” she said. She found it unsettling “to become aware of one’s own image as children are perceiving that image. For the first time in a palpable way, I had an idea of the kids seeing me.” She chuckles. “It’s crazy.”
When the District banned Zoom for security reasons, she had to bone up on the various features of Google Meet.
Now Maimon does live teaching three days a week on that platform and has mastered several skills, including how to use a plugin that lets her see all the faces at once, like on Zoom, and pulling up an ebook that she and her students can read simultaneously.
She has learned to genuinely appreciate how the technology can deepen the teaching and learning experience. She mentioned a tool called JamBoard, which she described as a smartboard that everybody has contact with remotely. “Using that shared platform for kids to type and post quick responses is a useful way of gathering many ideas quickly and for kids to see each other’s ideas,” she said. “I like that.”
In fact, she has come to realize, the experience has turned out to be a major paradigm shift for her.
“When we moved online, the most basic teaching moves became suddenly unfamiliar,” she said. “Of course teachers, no matter how long they have been teaching, are always learning how to teach. But for the past few months, I have been learning with an intensity I have not experienced for many years.”
Her interaction with students is on many levels, but she conducts classes on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays at 10 a.m. She has 26 students, and in the beginning, the most she ever had attending the class was 12.
Now, as the semester nears its end, she said the daily number still hovers around 12 to 14, although not always the same students. About 18 have attended live lessons at one time or another, and she has received assignments from another two or three through Google Classroom.
With five students, however, she and the school has not had any contact, despite repeated efforts to track them down, including by Powel’s team of social workers.
“You don’t stop trying, but after a point, what you do is defer until next year,” she said. On May 28, she got an email that the special education teacher managed to contact the grandmother of one of them, “but it’s a different level altogether once you make contact with a family member to make contact with the child. To this day, we are trying to get Chromebooks to kids.”
But there is also an upside.
“I feel with some parents in particular, we are in relationship with each other on terms like never before,” she said. “We are all struggling through this together. I feel it’s been such a great equalizer in such a wonderful way.”
She talked about one parent who she has known for a long time – she has taught six of her children. “We’ve had a bit of a rocky past,” she said. But she called the parent and helped her obtain loaner Chromebooks from the District, informing her that she was entitled to one for each of her children still in school. They bonded over the difficulties of accessing Google Classroom.
“It took us days of back and forth, learning how to log on, we were joking with each other. On the day she finally made it on, I congratulated her. Over time, we started signing emails with our first names. That’s a tiny little thing, but the tech struggle is emblematic of the larger struggle through all of this…we are in this war together.”
As for her students, the ones who participate “are great at coming up with activities for us to do together.” They’ve had a talent show and performed a play.
Still, while she finds it possible for both her and her students to grow through the remote contact, she cannot imagine doing this with young children without having gotten to know them in a classroom first and wonders what will happen if school is forced to be remote only in the fall.
“In a funny way, all this defamiliarization has helped me to think more clearly about issues that are always the main issues, whether we are online or in person. Like how we must never give up trying to include all children in a classroom. Like how we must find ways to listen closely to children’s ideas. Like how we must include families in the life of our classrooms. Of course, I miss so much about the way it used to be. But I like thinking about all the things I’ve been thinking about.”
One thing that particularly bothers her, but, she hopes, will also turn out to be transformative, is how these circumstances have brought into sharp relief issues of inequality of opportunity and inadequacy of resources that the traditional system has long masked.
“The real takeaway from all this is that different families have such very different levels of access to education, and that’s profoundly, profoundly problematic,” she sand. “The current situation is giving us a very literal picture of what is harder to see but just as salient in regular times.”