Contact Matters

Image result for children dance circle
They do this without thinking.

Hey, teachers: raise your hand if you've never been frustrated with how little actual content you teach in any given school day.

I know I'm not alone in this. There are days when I'm lucky to teach even a fraction of the musical concepts I've planned for. Some of my 30-minute classes wind up being all about the drama going on between two classmates, or the never ending struggle to calm a severely disregulated child long enough to be able to give any attention to the rest of the group. The learning goals I share with children at the beginning of every class always include a promise not to talk without permission, and to listen at all times. In fact, there are times when it feels like all I'm doing is teaching children how to behave so a few of them can finally learn something about music. A full week of such classes--as often happens after children have been away from school for a vacation, break, or even a long weekend--leaves me far more drained than when I'm able to spend most of my class time on music.

That makes weekends, even of regular length, precious, and longer holidays a delicate treasure. It makes me long for smaller classes and private lessons, when I can focus on getting my students fully on board, and do more teaching in 30 minutes than I'm normally able to do in two weeks.

That's how I was feeling about spring break. I lost a few days in February to a cold, so I was already behind. Then, the first week of March, I was hit with another respiratory illness (perhaps the same cold, coming back) that knocked me out for the entire week. I returned to school the following Monday with laryngitis that, yet another week later, still hasn't completely cleared up. I felt irresponsible doing it, but the two bands I teach had a shared performance Tuesday night (preceded by a Monday night rehearsal), and I knew there wasn't a sub in town I could entrust with getting them ready for it. I was also fairly sure I didn't have COVID-19--they wouldn't even test me for it when I went into the doctor that first week, though I know that's more about not having enough tests--so I came and taught with minimal use of my voice for a week. The performance was great, and I generally found kids to be far better behaved knowing I wasn't feeling well. But there was an ominous foreboding running through the building, and on Friday it was confirmed that Spring Break would begin a week early, and not end until April 1. These extra days off are not, technically, a holiday. It's an emergency closure, as would happen if we had a blizzard.

During full-district closures, we're not allowed to assign work to our students, but there was plenty of speculation last week about remote learning, anyway. Again, it was confirmed in the school closure announcement that we were not to do any teaching during the next two and a half weeks--though we are expected to report back to the building March 30, two days before the doors open to students. That's partly to keep any district employees from experiencing interruptions in pay. It's also because there's a possibility the children won't be back in the building April 1. There was news this morning that Washington state will be keeping all its schools closed until May 1, and I wouldn't be surprised if we had an announcement like that in the next few days from Oregon Governor Kate Brown. The longer we keep people away from each other, the more likely we are to ride out the illness now, rather than have it continue to rage into the summer.

If the children aren't back in school April 1, I expect we'll be launching a statewide--perhaps nationwide--experiment in remote learning. I know the district is working on providing computers and hotspots to any students who don't have access to the internet at home. And I know many of my colleagues are working up lessons that can be taught by video.

I'm also aware that remote learning, like home schooling, is a far more efficient way of delivering content than much of what we do at school. Without the distractions of two dozen other children in the room, individual children can focus much more thoroughly on the lesson. There are ways for teachers to provide more equitable feedback to all the individual students of a class, as well: every assignment is already digitally available for teacher review, and scoring can be automated, giving teachers more time to direct their attention to specific problems individual students are having--again, without the distraction of other children (some of them disregulated) in the same room. Remote learning also triggers a skill most children possess: when engaged in a project, to be their own best teacher.

Economically, remote learning also reduces many of the unavoidable expenses of operating a school building: HVAC, cleaning, sanitation, meal preparation and delivery, wear and tear on classroom equipment, purchase and maintenance of huge collections of textbooks, printing costs for the reams of worksheets every school goes through every day of the year, and so on. Schooling without schools is a far smaller burden on the taxpayer.

Why, then, hasn't the world taken a more serious look at remote learning, especially now that the technology exists to make it a reality?

The answer is in the picture at the top of the page: children need contact with each other.

Observing children for even a short time, it's easy to see how true this is. Kindergarteners, for instance, are huggers. The more aggressive ones don't just hug each other; they pick their friends up. Kindergarteners, first graders, second graders, even third graders gravitate naturally to games that involve touching each other. Playground games often involve children holding hands in a line or circle. Fourth and fifth graders will balk at holding hands with a child of the opposite sex, but they're fine with doing it with their same-gendered friends. Middle school and high school kids are back to touching, though now there may be a sexual dimension to it.

Teacher touch matters, too, though I'm careful to limit touches I initiate (high-fives or, now, elbow-taps), and to keep child-initiated hugs short and not too tight.

Looking back at the end of last week, I find myself dreading a shift I see society about to make: avoiding physical contact. Children crave touch, and I hate to think the world may be moving away from it to a colder, more distant sharing of space.

Physical touch, as essential as it is, is really a tangible symbol of a more important contact: that which we have when we acknowledge each other's presence in a shared space. We do this with words, expressions, gestures that help us know we're both present for each other.

It's true that we're close to being able to do this digitally. I frequently have delightful Facetime calls with my granddaughter, a precocious almost-3-year-old named Aela. I love our video calls, and I'm frequently using my phone to snap pictures of Aela in action that I might not think to take if we were both in the same place. These calls are far better than the voice-only communication that was, until recently, the standard for electronic interaction. They are, however, still far from comparable to being in the actual presence of this child, being able to hold her on my lap as I read to her, play games, push her on the swing, comfort her when she's sad about something with a hand on her back.

This is what's lacking in even the most sophisticated of online contact applications. That high-definition image on your monitor still can't touch you. There's no technological substitute for me being able to guide a recorder student's posture and hand position with a few light touches, correcting problems that are keeping them from playing with an acceptable tone.

That's just the one-on-one side of it. A far greater loss in remote learning is the sense of community that develops from sharing a real physical space for a year. My two bands, meeting after school in two different buildings, are too small, and lack too many instruments, to be able to perform band music by themselves. Put them together with each other, and students from several other schools, and suddenly they're experiencing music as a community activity, rather than just a private pursuit.

Music is communal. After fifth grade, most Americans' experience of music in school comes from belonging to a musical group--a band, choir, or orchestra--learning musical concepts by applying them on a daily basis. Long before that, in my classroom at least, children are learning music by making music with each other. Outside of a recording studio, the technology does not exist to have individual musicians play together without being in the same room.

Music is communal because it is an expression of humanity, and humans are communal. It's our nature to want to be in the company of others, to do things in groups, to have shared, as well as individual, identities. We bond as squads, classes, troops, teams, bands, choirs. Even the most interior of introverts gets lonely. Being communal is what enabled early humans to leave the trees and begin the long climb to intelligence and civilization.

Being isolated from each other is the antithesis of this essential aspect of humanity. Yes, now that we're all on the internet, we do have ways of building community across great distances. I have Facebook friends on every continent but Antarctica, and I enjoy interacting with them in ways no one could just twenty years ago.

I'd love it far more if I could meet up with them in a real place, though: have a chat over a beer, have a reunion dinner, meet up for the sheer joy of just being in each other's presence. Phone calls and even Facetime can't measure up to this.

I worry that we may lose this, that the Corona-driven hypercaution of social distancing will instill lasting fears in our world, to the extent that people will not return to the bars and restaurants and arenas and concert halls and stadiums and churches and classrooms to which they once thronged. Further, I fear that this will carry over into education, and that this crisis will plant the seeds of the end of the school building as the heart of learning. Seeing how efficient and cheap it is to teach over the internet, I worry that taxpayers may begin to ask whether it's time to dispense with the ancient institution of the school.

If this happens, human civilization will suffer in ways we can only begin to imagine. Because as frustrating as it is to me as a music educator that so much of my day goes into teaching children how to behave, I have also come to realize that this is as important a part of my job as the content I teach; that, in fact, teaching children how to live together as a society has always been the primary reason schools exist.

Thursday, I had my weekly home room cover duty: for the first forty-five minutes of the school day, I'm in a general classroom while the teach is meeting with specialists to discuss high-needs students. This week it was fourth graders, and the main thing we did was a group sharing of scary experiences. They took turns telling their scary stories, and it lasted for half an hour. I was impressed with how attentively children listened to each other and, when they had questions, asked them politely. Here was an experience that most of these children could not have gotten anywhere else: a lesson in living together as a community, making space and time for each other's self-expression, receiving it respectfully and with gratitude, sharing one's own story with candor and passion. It's an experience they also had to be in the same room to have.

It will be decades before communications technology can even begin to simulate the experience of sharing space. So despite the fears I've expressed in this piece, I really don't expect school buildings to disappear from our communities anytime soon. And as soon as we're over this virus scare, I expect we'll be back in those buildings, bringing children together to learn about this most essential aspect of humanity: contact.

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