Thursday, October 01, 2020

What Would Mister Rogers Do?

Based on the feedback I've been receiving and the general online chatter, most of us don't feel that doing school online is working. Children are bored, frustrated, and learning very little. Spending hours a day, seated, indoors, and muted while staring at a screen is the set up for a science fiction dystopia, yet it's happening right now. 

My advice to the parents of preschoolers, if they are able, is to simply opt out. If you're sitting with your child as they do online school, you're already doing most of the "work" of the teacher anyway, you're already not getting anything else done, and so you might as well dive into the real deal of homeschooling and the way to do that with preschoolers is to let them play. (I humbly offer the 3000+ posts in my archives as a place to start in figuring out what that means as it will mean something different for every family.)

However, opting out is not an option for many families so the remote learning continues. I'm going to try in this post to talk to teachers and parents about what can be done to make it suck a little bit less.

But first, the rhino head on the table: the problem is the medium, make no mistake about that, yet I want parents to know that much of what you find dissatisfying about so-called "remote learning" is baked into regular in-person schooling as well. The kids are still spending their childhood seated, indoors, and muted. The primary difference under normal circumstances is their teacher is live and in-person. And teachers, especially those who attempt to provide "academic" schooling to preschoolers, spend most of their time on what is called "classroom management," which is what parents are currently doing as they sit in the room with their children, doing everything in their power to compel or cajole their kids to at least behave as they're expected to behave, let alone learn anything. It's an incredible waste of everyone's time. The research, the evidence, tells us that your child needs to be playing, and there is no evidence whatsoever that sitting indoors muted is good for anyone, be it online or in-person.

I think most preschool teachers know this, but the same also holds true for elementary school children, even if it is not as widely known. If we're not going to turn off the computers, however, the least we can do is strive to use this technology to do some good and the first place to look is to the man who single-handedly proved that television could be used for good: Mister Rogers.

For those of you who didn't grow up on the North American continent, you may not be familiar with this truly legendary educator, but he managed to figure out how to connect with children through a screen like no one else. We can learn a lot by taking a closer look at how he did what he did.

First of all, his focus was not some curriculum with learning objectives, but rather simply being together with children as neighbors. If there's any one thing that children need, especially now, is connection with their community, and if that is all we do with our online sessions, then we have done enough. Mister Rogers greeted us with a song and a set of routines that could be called rituals -- putting on his cardigan, changing into more comfortable shoes, and welcoming us. He was happy to be there and was clearly happy you were there with him. If that's all teachers accomplish, then I would declare their online classroom to be a success.

Mister Rogers spoke not to a group or a class or to "you guys," but directly into the camera, to an individual, to me. He couldn't see me the way we can with today's technology, and I knew he couldn't see me, but still it alway felt as if he could. This is something I'd like to see more online educators work on, this kind of direct connection. Too many teachers spend their time trying to act like they're in a physical classroom as if those rows of boxes on the screen were rows of desks. They speak generically, to "the class." Or they single out individuals by name, which, of course means that the other 19 kids are left out, waiting their turn to be noticed. In fact, many parents have complained to me that the teacher doesn't notice their child, even when they are raising their hand. In fact, as in a physical classroom, the kids who get most of the teacher's attention are the ones who don't follow the rules, who speak out of turn and act out, and classroom management almost always precedes everything else. Mister Rogers never tried to correct behavior through the screen and nor should we.

Mister Rogers Neighborhood was delivered in 28 minute episodes, which is as long as you would want an online session to be.

I mentioned that he didn't focus on a curriculum, but he always had something very simple and ordinary to talk about. He was limited by the nature of broadcast television in terms of immediate feedback, but he would use his mailbag as a source of inspiration, confident that at least one child would be deeply interested in today's topic. As a teacher, I counted on the children themselves to provide us with these simple, ordinary subjects: a birthday, a backyard wading pool, a visit from grandma, a bug collection. Or sometimes we would talk about objects that a child brought to school, like a favorite toy or a cool leaf or a picture they had drawn. And sometimes we would walk the neighborhood, collecting shared observations and experiences. Whatever the case, the point is never to shove data into their heads according to a schedule, but rather to engage in sharing, wondering, and creating. This is what young minds need to develop.

Of course, Mister Rogers' number one topic, as it should be for all of us, was feelings. He would look into the camera and talk fearlessly about his own feelings, encouraging children to be equally fearless. He didn't have a special "feelings" curriculum or set aside a special time to discuss feelings, but rather allowed feelings to be the undercurrent of everything that happened on the program. These children sitting at home in front of screens need this now more than ever. If all our children were doing with their online time was discussing their feelings with one another, we would be doing the right thing.

It's tempting with all the bells and whistles made available to us through technology to use them all, but Mister Rogers understood the importance of simplicity, of giving children the time and space to breathe, to go deeper, to allow their minds to wander and wonder. Young children need lots of time in order to make new ideas and concepts their own, they need to be allowed to get off track, to diverge, to connect new ideas with old ones. In other words, less is always more.

As a child experiencing Mister Rogers Neighborhood, I was free to sit on the floor, the sofa, or stand on my head. If I needed to go to the bathroom, I went to the bathroom. After all, this was my home. Too many educators are spending their time policing those little Brady Bunch boxes. So what if a kid is building with Legos while the adult is talking? So what if a child is running in circles in their own home? So what if they spin in their chairs, draw pictures, or fiddle with a doll? Mister Rogers didn't care and nor should we. The kids are probably still attending, and if they're not, whose fault is that? Maybe they just have a better idea of how to use their childhood.

If I wanted to share a thought with my mom or my sister while watching Mister Rogers, I did. In fact, we often chattered as we watched. As an educator, I know that this chatter is always more important than anything we might miss on the screen. We don't have mute buttons in our classrooms, thank god, nor in the real world. The joyous cacophony of many, excited, curious, engaged voices is the only "test" I ever needed to know if my own play-based curriculum was "effective." The mute button puts the adults in control, suggesting that their voice is more important than the child's, which is complete nonsense. Silencing children in the name of classroom management, in the name of efficiency, in the name of delivering curriculum the way Amazon delivers packages, is perhaps the single greatest crime we are committing against children, and this goes for the muting we do to children in live classrooms as well. 

And finally, Mister Rogers sang a lot of songs. Teachers should be singing a lot of songs, reading a lot of books, and simply giving the children the opportunity to goof around. That's what they need, not just right now, but always.


I'm excited to announce that Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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