by Marc Vincenti
When it comes to online learning for teenagers — which is being hailed by many people as the Next Big Thing for our students at Paly and Gunn — I feel like some guy in a bowler hat, standing on the dock amidst the ticker-tape and well-wishers, calling at the top of my voice, "Watch out for icebergs!"
True, a mere 11 "blended classes" in our city's high schools may not add up to a Titanic, but there's such a hue and cry these days, touting online education as the next technological marvel, and Silicon Valley's schools as the most logical port-of-departure.
What's a "blended class"? It's a course, whether on biology or math or French, that moves as much as half of the teaching and learning out of the classroom and onto the Internet, so that the students can read and watch and listen, at their own speeds and on their own schedules, at home. Lectures, directed readings, video clips — it all comes to the teenager's household nook or kitchen table or bedroom. Time in the actual classroom, then, is reserved for discussion, debate, problem-solving, games, simulations, building on the material learned at home.
In our district for 2014-15, 11 blended classes have now been blessed with an official, encouraging "bon voyage."
My deep concern though, born out of teaching for 15 years at Gunn, is that when we take instruction out of the classroom, and put it onto screens at home, we face irreparable loss.
Lest you roll your eyes at me as a Luddite, let me say that I'm more of a technological agnostic. Every time I rejoice to hear, let's say, that George Clooney has a satellite above Sudan to spy out horrible human-rights violations, in the very next moment I hear about blinding laser-beams, shot from the ground into airplane pilots' eyes. No sooner am I glad to find out about the latest gadgetry of emergency response than I discover that Amazon is toting up every step its warehouse workers take. Or I reflect on the good old handsaw, and what it's done for carpentry, then get images in my head of Raymond Burr, across the way in "Rear Window."
And I don't wish to disparage my fellow teachers, who sincerely want to help our young and naturally want to "keep up with the times." Parents, too, say that because our teenagers already live on their screens and phones and other devices, well, it's only common sense to meet them "where they live." (I've yet to hear that, since teenagers average more than 3,000 texts sent and received per month, we should be teaching them by I.M. and Twitter.)
But let's not forget that our kids also live — and thrive — at school. At the heart of teaching and learning, and surely so for teenagers, is a relationship that exists face-to-face, in real time.
Let's say you're an English teacher, up on your feet to begin, oh, "A Tale of Two Cities," Chapter One ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." — then a 119-word sentence that is guaranteed to bamboozle teenagers and even befuddle adults). If, in your classroom of 20 young faces, you see many frightened eyes, well, you call for raised hands on the French Revolution, which your kids have already studied in history and will feel proud and reassured to instruct you in. (The boys will happily tell you about the guillotine.)
If your students still look scared, you read Chapter One aloud in a ridiculously over-the-top "Downton Abbey" voice, hoping secretly they'll begin to catch Dickens' subtle humor. And then if they complain, as you hope they will (because complaining means they're alive and kicking) that Dickens uses too many words, you challenge them to define what is "too many." And if they seem still too shy to ask all their questions, you give them a minute to write them onto slips of paper for you to answer, and then it's a win-win, because you'll either floor these whippersnappers with your flawless professional knowledge or you'll serve them as a delightful example of the fallibility of grown-ups.
None of these things can be accomplished online. Kids and teachers need to be with each other.
And I'm not even talking about how we teachers engage our students' love, and thus their desire to learn from us, by giving them Kleenex or Band-Aids or by opening a window when we see they're too warm. Not to mention a classroom mascot of mine, a stuffed hippopotamus named Snodgrass, whom one of my junior girls (yes, a junior) cradled at her desk every day.
Teenagers aren't college students, and they can't be taught and shouldn't be taught online. I'm not a specialist in other disciplines, but I'm sure it's possible to engage teenagers with anything in a personal and interactive way, whether it's photosynthesis or French verbs or Freudian theory, and we'd be well-advised do so, and as engagingly as we can, because these are 14- and 15- and 16-year-olds who are excited and distracted about sex, about being independent, about manners and driving and sports, and up against problems at home of parental drug use and infidelity and divorce.
God forbid a worst-case: that blended courses really catch on in our schools. Job-seeking teachers might view our district as a place where you don't have to spend so much time with kids, can be away from campus, can get technical help to tape your lectures, then market them on the Web to a lucrative world, to eke out a better living.
And I'm not saying our district is on board the Titanic. I'm just saying we shouldn't sail this boat too far out to sea.