Desmos closed its San Francisco office on March 9, about a week before the surrounding county issued a “shelter-in-place” warning. When it became clear that our local school systems were going to close, we assembled a small team of people from across our company to figure out how we could support educators during a period of school closure that has no precedent in our lifetimes.
I ran webinars for teachers on Saturday and Sunday. (Check out the recording.) Approximately 600 people showed up and all of us were clearly looking for more than tips, tricks, or resources for distance teaching.
I told the attendees I figured that, because they were attending a webinar on the weekend, they were probably teachers who held their teaching to a very high standard. But now isn’t the time for high standards for teaching, I said. I referred to Rebecca Barrett-Fox’s fantastic essay, “Please do a bad job of putting your courses online.”
… your class is not the highest priority of their or your life right now. Release yourself from high expectations right now, because that’s the best way to help your students learn.
I also mentioned Barrett-Fox’s admonition not to pick up new tools right now:
Also: If you are getting sucked into the pedagogy of online learning or just now discovering that there are some pretty awesome tools out there to support student online, stop. Stop now. Ask yourself: Do I really care about this?
You and I are likely receiving the same emails from ed-tech companies, ones that cloak in generosity their excitement to expand their user base, offering services for free they’ll charge for later. In our webinar I explicitly released the group from any expectation that they would learn Desmos as a beginner right now. Now is likely not the time. (It’s probably also worth pointing out that we’ve committed to never charging later for anything we make free now.)
But I told the attendees I had two hopes for their teaching during this time. That they would:
- Give students something interesting to think about. Hopefully mathematical, but maybe not. Hopefully towards grade-level objectives, but let’s be realistic about the stresses faced by students, teachers, and parents here. (Remembering also how many people cross more than one of those categories.)
- Make connections. I encouraged the group to make connections from teacher to student, from student to student, and from student ideas to other interesting ideas.
As an example, Johanna Langill, a teacher in my hometown of Oakland, CA, assigned her students our Turtle Time Trials activity. Students completed it on their own time, and then she recorded a review of their work, celebrating their early ideas, connecting those ideas to each other, and connecting those ideas to other interesting ideas.
In the week since that webinar, my team has had hundreds of conversations across every digital medium except maybe TikTok. We set up an email address and a hotline where teachers can ask for support, ask questions, or just vent omnidirectionally about how awful their situation is right now.
Our Facebook community is geared full-time towards supporting teachers in school closure. We are running webinars and drop-in office hours every day. We’re delivering new features and new activities specifically supporting distance teaching. We’re collecting all of these efforts at learn.desmos.com/coronavirus.
We’re trying to help teachers adapt to distance teaching, yes, but that’s really a secondary goal. Mainly, we’re trying to sustain community. Everything we’ve built or offered during this last horrible week has been an effort at preserving community between teachers and students, teachers and each other, and if I’ll confess to any selfish motive here, it’s that we’re trying to sustain our own community as well.
I’m convinced that when teachers and students find the other side of this, it won’t be because edtech companies offered junk for free, it’ll be through community, through solidarity across all of our usual divisions and now across divisions of time and space as well.
Like the Spencer Foundation’s Na’ilah Suad Nasir and Megan Bang said in an open letter this weekend:
It may be that social distancing isn’t quite the right frame for what we need right now. We certainly need physical distancing. But we also need to imagine and act from places of social closeness and care.
Teachers are our community and right now we intend to stay as close to them as possible.