What Online Teaching during a Pandemic Has Taught Me

Photo: Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash
Teaching online classes have taught me a thing or two: I’ve lived in my apartment building in Brooklyn for 16 years and I never knew I could go on my roof.  Craving fresh air but needing to do social distancing, I took matters into my own hands. I found a part of the building I never go to, climbed stairs that led to more stairs and a kinda sketchy door, and there I was. Let’s call it pandemic-inspiration.

So now our days consist of incredibly labor homeschooling lessons and then we head up to the roof. Bubble wand in hand, we seek a little social distance…alfresco. I’m not sure it is even legal for us to be up there but #desperatetimes. This is just one of many weirdly wonderful things to come out of this otherwise deeply trying era of coronavirus. Other happy discoveries:
Attempting YouTube cardio kickboxing classes with my husband in our living room. Getting super creative with tuna (capers + arugula = yum!).   Busting out the musical instruments and having a spontaneous family jam session.
But by far, the thing that has blown me away the most is the kids I teach—silver linings in the storm. We moved all our Child’s Play NY programming, from pre-k to high school productions to online classes this week. It was actually…amazing. Working in this way reinforced the resiliency, commitment, and bond that we all shared! It made me believe in the power of art and community even more than ever. Much as I would love to be in the same room with all these creative kids, the probability is that we are all in for a long-haul of social distancing and can be a very isolating and stressful time. 

Of course, our students and our own children can’t help but take this on. Now more than ever, it’s imperative that we can find ways to stay social—even if it is through a screen. So, for the time being, I’ll be at the foot of my bed, singing, dancing and directing. We are all working together, separately.

Basically, every time I see my students’ faces pop onto the Zoom boxes I start to choke up. Teaching theater through a computer is challenging, energy-consuming, and totally gratifying. That said, there’s plenty to be grateful for and myriad ways that you can use the format to great effect. Call me Pollyanna, but I’m seeing the silver linings in this on-line teaching. The positives of online classes? The screen is a great leveler. Here’s something that I didn’t anticipate: Our shyer students have thrived with the on-line classes. They find themselves in the camera, their voices come out strong, they are making really awesome character choices. Conversely, kids who have a harder time sharing the spotlight have had no choice but to take turns with this online platform. 

The lens is a fun In addition to our voice and body, becoming another useful tool that the young actors can use—especially since we are doing online theater classes we can lean into this medium. Actually, it is turning them into young directors or cinematographers, newly aware of this visual medium and the storytelling that is inimitable to the camera. Kids have been experimenting with things like a director. They play with distance, close-ups, positioning their hands in the frame. There is so much curiosity as they play around with the new eye pointed at them! Less is always more and during these times, we are forced to use what we have. Thankfully though, from constraint comes creativity.

The tagline of Child’s Play NY is “Acting on Imagination.” Never before have we all been called upon to use imagination so much. Instead of relying on props or costumes to tell a story, we use what we have and make-believe from there. In an online pre-k class, a black sock becomes a worm. Kids lose their minds as that worm leaves one teacher’s house and magically travels to the other teacher’s house. So while we don’t have our puppets, we do have socks! A banana becomes a phone that we use to call each other! In an online class for 2nd grade, when asked to grab something that makes noise, Nathaniel reached for two pencils and they became his musical instruments. Transformation is necessary and possible and because of the need, our collective imaginations are being stretched like never before! Kids know their cameras and if there ever was a generation that can hang with these cameras and this tech, it is these kids!

Just this week, our teachers have made up so many games specifically for this format and they are fast becoming some of my absolute favorites. For example, Instagram Stories Game, TicToc Improv, News Pundits are unique to the online classes and speak to what these kids know. As we consciously lean into the technology and build games with the camera in mind, the results are awesome. 

Alternatives are bleak so let’s embrace this! I feel incredibly grateful for the connection that these online classes are providing in this time of social distance. I love seeing my students smiling back at me each day—working through games, improvisation, dance, and song together, separately. I feel incredibly lucky that we can provide the continuity, structure, and community inherent in this learning experience. Even as we take in the world from our own windows, we can keep the window of our screens open into each other’s lives.
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