On Teaching Writing with Protective Gear
August 3, 2020 § 8 Comments
By Morgan Baker
Imagine a head piece like a crown encircling your head, with a plastic shield attached with Velcro hanging down covering your face – the kind healthcare providers wear to protect themselves from COVID-19 when they’re working with sick patients. The patients are in beds, spewing, breathing and coughing droplets that are potentially contagious and can contaminate the people caring for them.
Imagine a mask – the kind you have been wearing to protect yourself and others from the virus as you walk and shop, and sometimes visit with friends and family. Some of these masks are homemade cotton with ties and elastics. You have used yards of material for your loved ones. The fabrics have been selected with each wearer in mind. Cheery, multi colored dog fabric for the dog lover, darker checked fabric for the men in the family; fabric with airplanes for the man who worked in aviation for 15 years; sheep for the daughter who likes animals; and orange for the son-in-law who loves that color.
Now imagine a classroom full of students. There are 16 of them. Once upon a time, they were in a small, intimate seminar room, sitting shoulder to shoulder, in a circle discussing their ideas for writing projects, and then sharing their work so their peers and you could mark up photocopies with suggestions on how to improve the work. Maybe the work needed more quotes, or better transitions. Maybe the story’s opening wasn’t catchy enough. Maybe the theme didn’t carry through. Students passed the papers along one after the other until there was a pile in front of each person ready to critique. In the small classroom, you and the students got to know and trust each other. You cracked jokes and laughed with the students as they gained more and more confidence in their work.
Take that classroom and stretch it. Now you will be teaching the same number of students but in a much larger space. Perhaps an auditorium or a performing arts space. The 16 students are spaced apart, six feet between each of them, all facing front – some won’t be able to see others. They are all masked. Some are wearing custom made masks; others are wearing paper masks ordered online. The one thing that is consistent – you can only see their eyes. You have no idea what their faces look like, except from the little out-of-focus pictures you get on the registration page on your computer.
You stand in front of this group, with your mask and shield on. Perhaps the school has given you a microphone to help project your voice across the auditorium you are unaccustomed to teaching in. If you don’t have a mic, you’re one of the lucky ones, you have a loud voice, you’ve been told by family and friends, so it should carry. Either way, your voice bounces off the walls of the mostly empty room, and you feel self-conscious with this new technology and garbed in protective gear.
Imagine critiquing the students’ papers in class. No more paper to pass along. No more pens. Only computers, behind which each masked face disappears as they read the work for the day and mark up their peers work online. To comment, students raise their hands to talk. You call on each of them, hoping you get their names right as it’s hard to distinguish them from their eyes. Do they know each other? The students share their thoughts, pushing their words through the masks covering their mouths. There is less room for spontaneity and joy. You are there to get a job done.
Morgan Baker teaches at Emerson College where she was honored with the Alan L. Stanzler Award for Excellence in Teaching. She is also the Managing Editor of The Bucket (thebucket.com). Her work can be found at The Boston Globe Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, Cognoscenti, Talking Writing, Under The Gum Tree, Expression, among other publications. She is working on a memoir about her empty nest.