Closing the Weirdest School Year to Start the Weirdest Summer

This month, I’m donating all proceeds from Punk Pedagogy to the National Bail Fund to help the ongoing democratic revolt resist unjust imprisonment as police prioritize themselves over all others. Please increase your backing level if you can! I will match every dollar over $143 up to $100.

Online classes have been successful in some ways — and point us to some new pedagogical techniques — and also have presented some challenges. It’s getting to be time to share some of those experiences with other teachers and students.

I’m using Discord because the kids are already familiar with it. Every other platform I’ve tried for communication seems like playful exchange of information is, at most, a tertiary use of the system and generally discouraged. And, I’ll remind you, that playfulness is a core value of my pedagogy.

Some features of online teaching that have been really beneficial:

  • Side channels. It’s easy to pop out into a separate little room to have a quiet conversation with a kid, or for them to do it with each other. I encourage students to teach and learn from each other, and sometimes that makes the main chat really rowdy and hard to hear. So, in my largest class (six students), we have three “Tutorial rooms” that we can bounce in and out of for private conversations when things are too loud in the main conversation.

    This is most important, though, when students contact me to talk about family stuff. It’s a channel that’s already open and the shift from talking about school to talking about themselves is really easy.
  • Active linking to references as we converse. Wikipedia links, news articles, prior art, circuit diagrams, and reference materials come up in conversation and, unlike face-to-face conversations, can exist in a parallel dimension of conversation. References that we’ll want to come back to, I keep in a separate #references channel so we can look back and think about them over time.
  • A channel for bullshit. Memes, jokes, and the general phatic communication that social environments require as a carrier signal get their own, separate channel. I want the kids to be able to play around in the space without shaking conversations apart. This is a weakness of Discord: you can’t move a post to a separate channel once it’s been posted. All a mod can do is delete it, and that’s not the kind of control I want to exist in a communication channel.
  • Letting kids use their attention differently from each other. There are definitely kids who have a hard time paying attention to what each other are doing. But, for instance, in Rocket Science Isn’t Rocket Science, a bunch of the students are working on their own, parallel projects. While one student is working out a lunar rescue mission for their previous lunar rescue mission (along the way, rapidly coming to understand what thrust and specific impulse are, how to change orbits and do Hohmann transfers between them, as well as the infuriatingly difficult inclination change maneuver), another is coming to understand how airplanes work, and a third is developing airborne science experiments. But when one of them has decided to pilot a mission in our main save, even the most distracted student keeps their eye on the pilot’s stream. What they’re doing is all really, really hard, and they have all come to a greater appreciation of each other’s efforts by doing their individual projects, themselves.
  • Supporting each other. This is one of the primary objectives of this class: to get a group of boys, aged 9 to 16, to listen to and support each other. As they’ve engaged in the difficulties of each of their individual projects, they’ve started to understand how the other students have struggled. I’d been worrying that I’d been failing in this aspect of the class until just last week, as the students who’d been struggling most started getting encouragement from the ones who’d been coming to understanding most readily. A lot of it is just crises of confidence; the cruel double-edged lies of Dunning-Kruger. And once students start recognizing it others, they can recognize it in themselves, and vice-versa. It’s been a long haul, and I need to develop more empathy-building processes into the class, but I can start to see how to make it work. I was considering not doing this class in the future because of this deficit, but now I’m starting to see that it can work. It’s just a long-term process.
  • Keeping shared resources in GitHub. GitHub is the worst system except for all the others for sharing up-to-date files. We keep our Rocket Science Isn’t Rocket Science shared files there so we know that we can all see the same shared project, but using the system is awkward in its guts. I’m considering installing an Open Source alternative on a school server and seeing if we can develop a better interface for shared projects.
  • Getting students out of bed. There’s a lot of depression in my students right now, and the fact that I’m using Discord (rather than something dedicated to schoolwork) means that they hear it when I @ them. For some, simply getting to class is an emotional struggle, and being able to communicate with them through a medium they’re already comfortable with means that not only can I ping them to help them crawl out of bed for the social contact of class, but also that they are comfortable contacting me — always important, but critical right now while everyone is stuck inside with their families.

Face-to-Face experiences that are lacking

  • Watching students’ facial expressions. In general, I can only see a student’s work OR their face. Incidental communication is really important to understanding where a student is coming from emotionally, and this channel is at least a little constrained.

    That’s not to say that it’s choked off completely. I can still hear tone of voice and recognize changes in behavior. But the reduced channel definitely makes it harder.
  • School as Sanctuary. Some students come to school to get away from their family. There’s a little bit of that going on where I can hear students saying, “I can’t, I’m in class right now” to other family members. But whatever tensions exist within my students’ families are put in a bottle with the lid on and allowed to ferment. I can tell that I’ve lost at least one, and maybe two students to this phenomenon in the last couple of months. I can’t help but notice that both are female, leaving me with all male students (though not all are girls). Not all my students are white, but I don’t currently have any Black students, and all of them are native English speakers. It’s clear that the students that get the most support in these circumstances are the ones who get the most support in every other circumstance. We endeavor, as an institution, to do the opposite, but our resources are so restricted that when we stumble for any reason, the same students as ever take the blow. I’m not happy about that.
  • It’s hard to provide expensive resources that we can’t share. In school, we have a large selection of beautiful paper and other art materials. Spools of electrical and armature wire. Modeling clay. Soldering tools. Computers. To get materials to students right now, I have to assemble and disinfect bags to drive them over, specifically, hoping that I know what materials they’ll need. A lot of them are from my personal stock because driving additionally to the school to pick stuff up adds another layer of difficulty. I drop shipped some pliers to a student from Harbor Freight the other day because I didn’t have the hour and a half to drive to school, pick things up, drop them at his house, and come back home. We don’t have a solid system for this yet, either financially or logistically.

And so, we begin the weirdest summer program imaginable. It looks like I’ll be dropping students electronic materials and we’ll be building MIDI instruments this summer in an intensive course. I’ll have to find the funding to do so, so maybe you can help by increasing your support level to Punk Pedagogy or by purchasing us items from the class wishlist.