From the Front Lines

Using Rituals to Survive Remote Learning

Early in the pandemic I found myself preparing for Passover at home. I would not be traveling home to celebrate the Jewish festival of freedom with my family this year. I was profoundly sad to celebrate this holiday at home alone. But at the same time I found enormous comfort and strength in preparing to observe this ancient tradition.
Around that same time I began observing Shabbat more regularly. Each Friday I would tidy my apartment, shower, put on some dressy or comfy clothes, and then bring in Shabbat by lighting candles, blessing wine, and challah. I began making my own challah on Fridays when I had the time and energy.
One of the many features of this pandemic has been the loss of our perspective on time. The days blur together. This year has felt a decade long at the same time that it feels like time has flown by.
For me, observing Shabbat has helped ameliorate this timelessness a little. No matter what Monday through Friday feel like, the ways one day of teaching drags on after another, Shabbat comes on Friday. And each Friday I create what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel described as a “palace in time.”
Anthropologists and theologians a lot smarter than me have written extensively on the creation and evolution of rituals and how they mark/make time. As a teacher though, I’ve been thinking about how to apply this wisdom to remote teaching.
Some of my fifth graders remarked recently that everyday of remote learning felt the same. They spent all week waiting for it to be over. I can’t fix this completely. Learning via Zoom just sucks. Nearpod, Peardeck, GoFormative and all these other sites would like us to think we can recreate classroom community and collaboration virtually. But ultimately they only offer facsimiles of what we miss: sitting next to another human being and having a conversation face to face.
Still, I have tried to implement certain rituals to help create a feeling of marking time. I haven’t come close to the genius or sacredness of Shabbat, but I do find that finding ways to distinguish days from each other has helped.
Tuesdays have become Teamwork Tuesday where students solve problems collaboratively or compete against each other on teams. Wednesdays are Real World Wednesday. On Real World Wednesday a student shares some numbers from a real world context and the class generates mathematical questions using the numbers. Wednesday is also Wellness Wednesday which means we use Morning Meeting to meditate and Closing Circle to dance. Fridays are Fun Friday of course where kids have a choice of games.
Are these gimmicky and a little superficial? Absolutely. But in the fight against the blurring of time, I’m willing to try anything. It’s only a few weeks into the experiment, but I’m noticing results. Kids are anticipating the different days of the day and look forward to them.
We have six months of school left in New York City and it seems likely that all of those will be spent remote learning. In order to survive this is it’s crucial to differentiate the days from each other.
One of the highlights of an otherwise brutal year has been reconnecting to and gaining a deeper appreciation for Jewish traditions and holidays. These rituals have helped me mark the passage of time during a year when days and weeks otherwise blurred together. As a result I’ve learned that to make sense of time, we have to attach meaning to it. This doesn’t necessarily mean getting gimmicky like I have. But if you’re looking for ways to break up the monotony of remote learning, rituals can certainly help.
If this year has taught us anything it’s that we can’t take much for granted. Our profession has been transformed in so many ways by this pandemic. But the core of it – caring for and nurturing young people – remains unchanged. Making our time learning remotely feel more meaningful – through rituals or otherwise – is just another way we can show our students that we care.

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