This past week, our school had to make a brief and abrupt shift to online learning for two days, and came back to in-person school on Thursday. All of my class already had some experience of remote learning, from last spring. But we did not know this class as an online community, and we found during our two days online that there were some difficulties, particularly with children removing each other from our class meetings.
There is more than one way to address this kind of problem. As teachers and staff, we are investigating whether, with our school accounts set up the way they are, it will be possible to limit students’ options so that the temptation simply doesn’t come up. But it’s also worth addressing inconsiderate behavior with the students themselves. Coming back together after two days online gave my class a precious opportunity to process our online experience face to face, before we (likely) go back to it later in the winter.
I started the discussion by telling the class that over the last 15 years, as adult life has shifted to take place more and more online, we have found that people feel less responsible for what they do and say through the internet. This problem is a common one; it’s not just kids! People leave mean comments. People use aggressive forms of speech. Clicking a little button labeled, “Remove,” doesn’t feel the same as shutting a door in someone’s face—and yet, it is the same. It’s shutting a classmate out of our community and out of school.
We know that when people are interacting through the internet, they are apt to forget that there are real people reading what they write and feeling hurt. I gave the students who had been kicked out of a class meeting the chance to share what it had felt like. Frustration and anger were mentioned repeatedly. So was confusion, which I hadn’t realized would be such a common theme. My students are children, and their comfort with technology doesn’t come from deep understanding. They described feeling uncertain and nervous: Is it my internet connection failing? Did someone do this to me? Did I accidentally remove myself somehow? How do I get back in? Am I on the wrong sort of device? Do I need to go get my parents to help me rejoin?
Once we’d gone around the circle and heard from each person who had had the experience of being removed, two students confessed that they had removed people. (Unsurprisingly, they were also students who had just shared their experience of being removed.) I don’t know if there were others who kept quiet, but I thanked the students who took responsibility for their actions. I asked them what it had felt like to remove someone. They said it felt, “Neutral—not really good or bad.” I pointed out that that seemed like a small payoff for causing so much frustration and confusion in their classmates. We ended by reviewing that the rule against removing anyone else from the meeting was now known to everyone, and that while I will give a reminder if and when this becomes relevant again, no more warnings should be needed.
This issue was one of two times this week when I saw grownup patterns of behavior manifest in parallel in our class. We also held a class election this week, as part of a unit on how elections can work (including the electoral college). There, too, I heard complaints that would ring familiarly for many adults: “I’m sick of people campaigning aggressively! It doesn’t make me want to vote for their candidate. I don’t like it when people tell me my side won’t win!”
I hope this conversation about participating in an online community will help, if and when we switch to remote learning for a longer time. I hope that my young students will be able to bear their classmates’ feelings in mind.