Rising to Meet the Challenges of Distance Learning

By Elena Kamenetzky, 2020 SCOLT Teacher of the Year

In my Japanese classes, when I need to call on a student, I always make a show of utilizing what I call The Hand of Fate: a fistful of identical round wooden chopsticks, each with a student’s name written on it. I always make sure to dramatically look away from The Hand of Fate while I grasp for and then pull out a single chopstick. This is so that the students can never claim that I biasing the process in any way. The Hand of Fate is truly random, but also inescapable. I only use it for situations when I am calling on students to use language which we have already practiced, to respond to prompts or questions for which there is no wrong answer, and always with the understanding that if they need help saying something they can absolutely ask me for help right there on the spot with no penalty.

The only thing that is verboten when I use the Hand of Fate is if a student refuses to respond at all. When that happens, I try to lighten the mood by extremely over dramatically quoting a (slightly modified) line from the film Princess Mononoke:

Darenimo unmei wa kaerarenai daga, mizukara omomuku kadouka wa kimeraru.

“You cannot change your fate, but you can rise to meet it.”

The word fate gets thrown around a lot in my classes. The Hand of Fate and the accompanying quote from Princess Mononoke were things that I started doing as a way to hold my students accountable while also appealing to their silly “nerd” sensibilities.. But fate has since become somewhat of a meme in my classes. The students will jokingly debate about which of them is favored by fate (definitely NOT the student who was called on to answer the warmup two days in a row). The students also love to laugh at me when The Hand of Fate blows up in my face. Sometimes I use the chopsticks to pick conversation partners, and sometimes the two students whom I usually have to separate because of their incessant talking end up paired together. “Unmei wa kaerarenai,” I will sigh dramatically while the students laugh. You cannot fight the forces of fate, especially when two students are apparently destined to talk to each other.

I’ve been thinking about that quote a lot during the past few weeks. I am no longer in my classroom. I no longer get to see my students every day. I can do my part to support my students, to support my community, and to try to be one less link in the epidemic chain. But there is only so much that one individual can do. If given a choice between continuing online learning or being back in the classroom, I can tell you emphatically that I would rather be back in the classroom. But whenever I get overwhelmed with confusion about new district policies or frustration with the limitations of technology, I have to take a deep breath and tell myself the same thing that I’ve been telling my students for years: You cannot change your fate, but you can rise to meet it.

Online learning has forced me to scrap many of my favorite activities and assessments, and come up with wholly new ways to teach and evaluate standards that I have also been forced to radically re-prioritize. When you cannot change your fate, you can rise to meet it. Online learning has forced me to put myself “in my student’s shoes” moreso than ever before, not just in terms of anticipating problems they will have with new technologies, but in terms of

understanding that many of them are scared and grieving, and that while they may welcome the social connection of online classes they may also not be in the right frame of mind to learn new content. When you cannot change your fate, you can rise to meet it. What I CAN do to rise to meet my fate is to be supportive, to be understanding, and to dedicate my time to helping students who need even more personalized attention than before. What I CAN do is be willing to adjust my standards and expectations as the learning environment changes from week to week. What I CAN do is to laugh at my frustrations instead of stew about them. What I CAN do is model patience, positive attitude, and compassion as I interact with my students, in whatever form those interactions may take.

None of usnot teachers, not students, not parents – none of us chose these circumstances. These are challenges that we did not ask for. But we can still all do our part to rise up and meet those challenges.

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