There is a solo project I do with my Drama students. I have them pretend they are a small child trying to fly a kite on a windless day. I tell the actors that despite all odds, their character should never give up. Here is what the actors show me.
At first, the child is excited about flying a kite. They beam with anticipation. They organize their kite, making sure the tail is perfectly situated. They carefully lengthen the string, holding one part in one hand, and bring the other hand a little further down to brace the kite once up in the air. Of course, the first attempt is a complete failure because there is no wind. But the child does not give up. By about the third attempt, confusion ensues. They try to vary the position of the kite on the ground and even attempt to modify the kite to see if that would lead to a positive outcome. Unfortunately, the kite does not fly. Frustration ensues. After a few more attempts, including more modifications, frustration evolves into to anger. Anger eventually advances into sadness. Ultimately, the combination of confusion, frustration, anger, and sadness, leads to surrender and the character abandons the idea altogether. However, the next day, the character checks the forecast and despite the projection of another windless day, the ever-optimistic child goes through the entire process again with the hope of flying that kite, trying, failing, but always trying again.
As I worked on remote teaching these past few weeks, I felt much like that child. With every lesson I send off into the Fresh Grade breeze, I am excited about the possibilities. Like those first steps in which the kite flyer lays out their kite and makes sure it’s perfect and ready for flight, I slave away at each lesson plan, meticulously trying to layer it for remote learning while explaining it in words, diagrams, and, of course, a learning map so that all learners can access it. When I post the assignment, I wait. I wait in wonder, hoping that it takes off. For some students it does. A small gust of wind crosses their path and the lesson is carried out with a depth and breadth. I’m is awe of the energy put into each assignment. These students have support at home, someone to hold them when they feel down and provide positive encouragement to try and try again. Others create their own wind; they know how to find just the right amount of wind inside their soul to carry the assignment away. There are also those who struggle but reach out to me on their own. I am quickly able to, via text or phone call, show them how to generate the right amount of wind or modify their assignment so it can fly.
But there are those students with whom connecting has been a constant struggle. That time between sending out the assignment and receiving it, I feel an emptiness, an invisible anticipation. It is ghastly. I never know if the assignment is taking off until I receive it in a haphazard way, or don’t receive it. Did they understand it? Do they need help to get going? Why won’t they respond to my texts? Despite my attempts at connecting with some kids, some just don’t communicate back. I’m left with knots in my gut wondering if their kite is lost in the trees. When I do connect, the emotion behind the texts or phone calls is often joyless. I sense a running I’m running on empty so why should I even try to get it off the ground? There is no fervor to pick up where they left off. I’ve got so many versions of the same assignment out in the digital atmosphere, I can barely keep track of who is flying what right now. And even after eagerly making modifications to meet their needs, I eagerly check my in-box for their uploaded work, to see if they tried to make it fly, only to discover there is still nothing to show for it. I put on a brave face and try the process it all over again. Like the kite, the assignment, sometimes, just doesn’t get to fly and the students don’t get to experience the joy of seeing their kites soar.
After weeks and weeks of this assault on my emotions, selfishly I admit that it’s getting really hard for me. I keep dreaming of a big gust of wind in the form of a classroom full of kids not this chaotic attempt at teaching. I feel blind. I feel lonely.
You see, I’ve flown a kite, a literal kite. I know the exhilaration, the pure joy of feeling the wind carry the flying wonder up into the skies. If I close my eyes, I can feel the string, taught between my fingers. There’s always a moment when, I felt that if I didn’t hold the string carefully, the kite might take off. Sometimes, it lost traction and came waffling towards the ground in a zigzag formation, but with a quick maneuver, it soon caught the wind again and sailed across the sky.
Like that pure kite flying moment, I can, as I am sure many of my colleagues can, recall lessons and assignments taking off in a delightful way. In these experiences, I circulated and supported. Students raised their hands with questions. I spotted a reluctant learner cowering at the back of the room, so I immediately intervened. The room was abuzz with the sounds of activity, all levels. The learning map on the board was a beacon, a reference point for all, with challenges for the novice and experienced flyer. Upon entering the room one would see numerous students flying different kites all to some degree of success. All the flyers and the kites are visible.
Sometimes lessons don’t fly even when all kids are in the room. But there is a much greater easiness to fly with a new lesson or project in the moment. There is often discussion. An idea is floated, and the new kites take off into the heavens. Teachers are trained to examine the room and adjust accordingly. This is assessment for learning. Too strong a wind? Pause. Not enough wind? Pause. Starting over from scratch is one of the fantastic things about teaching this renewed curriculum. The goal stays the same, but the path changes when the weather changes.
In remote learning, it’s hard to lock eyes on a child so many kilometres away. It’s difficult to know who has a wind to carry their kites and to what breadth that wind is. There is an uncertainty if they are flying the kite independently or if someone else is flying the kite for them. We don’t know if a child has even looked outside, checked for wind, or has someone to hold the kite for them while they try to fly it. Maybe some have a barometer or weather vane to test the weather. Lastly, we don’t know how many kites students are trying to fly simultaneously.
Speculating, assuming and generalizing how kids are coping with remote learning nourishes my anxiety. Those are the days when my nails are chewed and my head throbs. I’m used to knowing or at least being in the position to intervene to know. I’m used to getting to the core of kids, pulling them out in the hall and finding out how they are doing. Remotely, it’s difficult to know where their kites are and if they’ve even considered flying the kite. Sometimes, when I click SEND on a text, it’s as if my words are floating away and no one is on the other end to catch them.
Now, to be fair, it hasn’t all been one terrible experience after another. I have witnessed some stellar flying from students who initially packed it in and they’re still with me thanks to some pretty sweet interventions on my part and showing vulnerability on theirs. I’ve been told to hang on to those moments to drive me forward, so I am, and I do. But I still lay awake at night untangling kite tail knots and searching for masking tape to mend emotional tears.
I need to remind myself (and others feeling the same way) that inclement weather comes with the teaching territory, remotely and in the classroom. What we are experiencing are just a few windless, cloudy days, and maybe some showers and thunderstorms on the really bad ones. It isn’t a hurricane or tornado, for those forces wreak so much havoc that the environment is often irreparable, or the damage lasts for a grandiose amount of time. No, what we have isn’t fun, but it isn’t that catastrophic. In fact, rainy days, windless days, and even stormy days give us the chance to reflect; it is an opportunity to construct and reconstruct our lessons so we’re ready to take on the wind when it arrives. I suppose we should be grateful for this opportunity with children even in imperfect conditions.
I also suppose the best we can do is breathe into this uncertainty. I thank God for staff members to whom I can vent, share worries, express fears, communicate positive moments, and find inspiration in. Never have I felt more appreciative of parents who are doing their best to interpret my lessons and help ‘our’ children set their kites to sail. And as upsetting as it is to let some kids go because they simply don’t have the means, the time, or support to fly their kites, I need to be content that they may be unhappy, but they are safe and some are even on other, meaningful adventures. I need to be content that they may not have the capacity to do the learning, but I’ll still keep trying to connect with them.
You see, my students stole my heart the moment they walked into my classroom. All of them. If I stop trying to connect, I’m worried they’ll feel like I’m giving up on them. So, I’ll keep calling. And I’ll keep texting. I’ll keep reminding them that I care and that I’m here, ready to help them fly that kite even on a windless day. We’re in this together.
As difficult as it is to teach right now, I’ll keep building lessons out of the joy for this job and for my kids. And if dark clouds appear on the horizon, I’ll hope that a gust of wind carries those clouds away and leaves just enough of a breeze to carry my students’ kites high into the deep, blue sky.