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Future of Learning

The Sound of One Hand High-Fiving

By Matthew Dicks
The Sound of One Hand High-Fiving

I was teaching a fraction lesson to a small group of kids this week over Google Meet. Dividing fractions: something you probably can’t do anymore but is required of eleven-year-olds.

One of my students was struggling with the concept, so I was trying to explain the rationale behind a strategy to help her better understand. She was confused, but I pressed on, doing what I often do when working with a struggling student—looking for a novel way to say or demonstrate the same concept, seeking another angle in hopes that it will connect with a kid.

Then it happened. I held up a drawing of a model, and I heard her say, “Oh!” She returned her gaze to her paper, wrote a little bit, then held it up for me to see. Her answer was correct.

Her use of the strategy was perfect. She had even drawn a little model beside the problem to show what was happening behind the numbers.

I was so excited that I reached out to give her a high-five, forgetting for a moment that she was about five miles away, sitting on a couch in her living room, staring at me through a screen. I was amazed by how easily the digital platform had tricked me into thinking we were sitting across from each other. But that feeling was quickly—almost instantaneously—replaced by the sadness that my student wasn’t sitting across from me, able to receive my high-five.

I felt the palpable absence of her hand striking mine in excitement over another concept mastered. Even when I can be physically present with my students, it might be a long time before I can high-five any of them.

My student must have seen the sadness on my face, because she quickly asked, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” I told her, smiling. “I so proud of you.”

But I lied to my student. There is an enormous number of things wrong at this particular moment in history, as we all know. Thank goodness I can still remain connected to my students through technology. Though it’s not even close to the benefits and joys of a traditional classroom, my students are making academic progress. Mastering new concepts. Reading and writing and solving equations. Many of them have even embraced new areas of study. They are learning to cook and knit. Learning to code and speak new languages. Quite a few have engaged in serious exercise regimens. Several are studying photography and art. One is building birdhouses.

But it’s not the same as going to school each day, spending time together in a shared space, and they know that, too. They also talk to me about how much they miss their teachers and friends. How much they miss their school. They constantly ask me how long it will be before we can see each other again.

We might be raising the first generation of children who truly understand the value of school and appreciate all of the educational opportunities that have been afforded to them.

Unfortunately, it is coming at great cost.

But there are still these bright, precious moments, like when a teacher reaches out to high-five his student, when things feel almost normal.

And terrible.

I keep telling my students that this time will not last forever. There is light at the end of this especially long tunnel, but thankfully, blessedly, this tunnel need not be a waste of time. Learning is happening. Progress is being made. My fellow teachers are working longer and harder than ever before to keep their students engaged and moving forward.

It’s not even close to the joy of sitting beside students, helping them navigate new territory, express themselves in words on a page, or collaborate with a peer, but it does have its high-five moments.

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