the tale of 3 emails in a time of distance learning

A student emailed last night from a personal email account, so it took a moment for me to realize who’d sent it. I’d seen other emails from whatIwant@gmail.com* this year, so it just took a minute to attach a students’ face with his message. The note said that my office hours weren’t working for him.

“I have been working overnight from 8:00pm-6:00am and sleeping the rest of the morning waking up in the afternoon. This has been affecting me with my school work since I can’t attend the online classes. So I would just like to have a chance to communicate more personally so I can better understand…”

My students know by now that when they appeal to me for flexibility, my answer is always yes. The lines in the sand my younger self drew have all been scuffed out by experience with students who react to firm boundaries defiantly, and warm to learning invitations with slow reluctance and mistrust. The only way for either of us to win, I’ve come to realize, is for both of us to play the game.

I got two things from the email: First, I don’t need to look in Google Classroom for last weeks’ assignment. No big loss. Second, I get to talk to whatIwant@gmail.com about his job, the night shift, and how he’s doing with distance learning.

He may very well be confused about what I expect from class. If I remind him about Monday’s email, or the YouTube video I created to explain our assignment, or the instructions at the top of Google Classroom, he may thank me and get right on it.

I doubt that, though. I think the email explaining his new night shift is a substitute for the wisecracking that would accompany his many returns to class after extended absences. Sure, he cares about what we’re all doing and what I’ll ask of him, but he’s primarily interested that he still has a seat and a chance to pass. All year his sojourns away from school seemed to me like he was testing if he still belonged, like he’d intentionally strayed from his path toward graduation over and over again, like a hiker who has grown bored of the trail and decided to bushwhack. His confidence that he can find the trail again is always momentarily shaken when the trail isn’t where he expects it.

The conference we’ll have won’t be about the work he’s missing for me, it will be about the work that is feeding him and his family. If he’s doing well, he’ll tell me stories, however brief, punctuated with details meant to shock or amuse me. I’ll tell him, as I always do, that even when he was absent from class, he was still learning, and that what he has to say, or what he’s interested in writing is more valuable now than before. Our class is Humanities, after all, so the decisions of young people coming of age in an ever-changing world are our content. I’ll tell him about my work- what we’ve been doing in class- if he tells me about his, and the stories we tell will help us both make meaning of this strange time. As it turns out, the economy is open for whatIwant@gmail.com and me, two essential workers negotiating the terms of our continued collaboration.

*I changed this email to protect the identity of my student, but not much.


My email from KQED Education isn’t spam, it is a reminder that there are media makers of goodwill hoping to invite students from the margins into their ranks. Fittingly, the civic education they hope to impart to teachers and students will be a messy co-creation, in spite of the orderly application process the email presents.

Apply now to become a KQED Media Literacy Innovator
The education environment is changing rapidly, and you can take a leading role in supporting your colleagues. If you are an educator who is passionate about media-making, youth voice and civic engagement, click to learn more about our teacher ambassador program and how to apply.

A few years back, a close colleague and mentor of mine asked for feedback on the way she was using technology with her classes. Like me, she’d been a literacy coach for years, and her natural inclination was to ask for coaching and define the coaching interactions that she wanted, which was fine with me. What wasn’t fine with me was that she seemed to want me to structure, praise, and affirm her backward planning with out much investment in instructional change or teacher learning to accompany the students’ use of digital tools. I leaned on our friendship and pushed back. Instead of jumping right into a coaching cycle of co-planning and discussing student work, I showed her KQED’s web site. It invited students to explore and interrogate the media while they produced media at the same time it invited teachers to engage in networked learning. She argued playfully that I was refusing to coach her, and I argued playfully that the students’ learning with digital tools would be dependent on her learning with digital tools. Months later, she enthusiastically shared with me how well her free course on KQED Teach was going and said it was a good thing, too, since I’d refused to coach her.


My email from Khan Academy sits in my inbox as a reminder that while the critical thinking of ed tech theorists is vital to the evolution of learning tools and systems, that critical thinking won’t help my daughter with pre-algebra.

Just like empathy is at the heart of all great teaching, understanding your students’ experience is the foundation for confident remote teaching.That’s why Meaghan Pattani, our amazing Professional Learning Lead, is hosting a webinar tour of the student experience on Khan Academy on Thursday, April 23 at 5 PM ET / 2PM PT.

Last week, when her math teacher directed her to Khan Academy by way of Schoology, I had no concern for high minded arguments decrying the tyranny of the LMS, or explanations about how Sal Khan was one of four horsemen of the ed tech apocalypse. Nor was I concerned with what a math curriculum expert might say about the video tutorials at the bottom of the Khan Academy webpage. I only noticed that the math problem that stumped her now had a video at the bottom of the page.

Hailey’s reluctance with math is born from long experience with math in school, and the problems her teachers have been putting in Schoology all year go unfinished in class and are presented to Kelli and me after dinner, along with a disinterested shrug.

While I’m the family mathematician, Kelli helps as often as I do. She turns to Khan Academy for concept refreshers because her experiences with math in school all ended with nuns telling her to stop talking, or scolding her work ethic rather than addressing her confusion. When I’m called to help, Hailey and I transfer the problems from Schoology to our whiteboard easel before she and I take turns with dry erase markers.

Yesterday, the 11-minute Khan video reviewing slope meant less confusion for Hailey, it meant Kelli got to keep working, and it meant one less trip to the whiteboard for me. The person behind the voice on the video has my gratitude in these moments. As it turns out, ed tech theorists and math curriculum designers don’t help do dishes or walk dogs, either.

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