I wrote earlier this year about my desire to step in as a parent when my child is at home doing online learning and my struggle to step back and let him navigate things without me doing it for him. That impulse to intervene continues to be strong even as I tell myself that his growing independence and collaboration depends on me not jumping in every time something comes up that makes one of us uncomfortable.
I was reminded of this again last week during parent teacher conferences. Conferences looked a little different this year not only because we were doing them over Zoom but also because his teacher was sharing work that I had already seen (…because I see everything he does right now…we are together ALL of the time). Although I had seen all of it before, I was appreciative to hear her interpretation of his work as she shared with me both strengths and next steps she hoped to support him with.
The moment of surprise came when I was sharing that I (as his parent) am working really hard to stay out of his online class meetings. Knowing that I wouldn’t be there to put up boundaries in the classroom, I’m also trying to not be the one to put up all the boundaries around school on the computer. Even when (especially when?) he has just discovered that he can send emojis in the chat box and spends the first ten minutes of EVERY SINGLE MEETING sending emojis to his class in the chat box.
I shared with his teacher the initial strong desire to create a family rule (no emojis during meeting!) but that I stopped myself from doing that because I’ve been trying to stay out of it, to let him navigate this new terrain with his classroom community (and adding “But of course let us know if it’s not working and we’ll intervene!”). She replied, “I’m so glad you didn’t tell him just to turn off the chat box!” (Maybe we both had Aeriale Johnson’s post in mind.) She continued to share about what happened because he was playing with — and then asked about — whether the chat box was open.
He started the meeting one morning by asking, “Sarah, is the chat box open today?” She tossed that question back to the group, which led to a whole discussion about whether or not the chat box should be open, what happens to people’s ideas when they see emojis pop up during meeting, people’s intentions in using the chat box, and what kind of agreements they might create as a group. Rather than answer his question, she saw this moment as a real opportunity for this group of children to do some genuine problem solving around an idea that they were interested in and that impacted each of them.
She shared some of what she valued in this moment. That it provided an opportunity to:
- navigate a real issue that both came from this group of children and that was one they cared about
- identify different needs and perspectives
- consider what would be fair or unfair…and for who
- hear multiple different ideas about what would feel supportive
- communicate to the children that she wouldn’t solve this problem for them
- make some agreements and try something out, and
- reflect on how it went.
Hearing her thoughts and appreciation for this moment was a great reminder for me of why I keep reminding myself to step back and not intervene, even when my first impulse is to do the opposite. Although my fear keeps trying to lead me to a place of certainty, I know that my hopes for what my child experiences in school don’t align with that. It’s not what I claim I value. So I’m going to keep reminding myself (and be reminded by others) that what I hope for my child and his experience at school (whether he’s on the screen or not) isn’t grounded in certainty and doesn’t look one specific way. It’s centered in real life problems and relationships and meaning making. It looks messy and complex and beautiful and not like something any one of us can control.
My newfound resolve to live those values was tested the week after conferences when Google rolled out some new features in Meet. During his first meeting, my son quickly discovered that he could change his background (there’s a lot of them and they are really cool and he wanted to try out all of them).
During the first few minutes of class as everyone is logging on and settling in, my son puts up a background of clouds. HH, a classmate and someone my son considers a new friend, begins narrating.
HH: Hey WS, watch out for that bird!
WS changes his background to an underwater one.
HH: You better hold your breath under water!
Sarah: Ooooh! Let’s all try something that HH just did. WS, you put up a background, and keep it up for a little while so that we can tell a story about it.
WS agrees and puts up the outer space background.
LM: Once upon a time a dinosaur was chasing WS in outer space…
TV: and it was trying to eat him!
WS changes his background to the ocean.
HH: Then WS went into the ocean and met a mermaid that loved him and they kissed! (HH giggles)
AS: He ran away from the mermaid and met a unicorn!
WR: And the unicorn tried to stab him!
WS changes his background to the beach
HH: But the mermaid jumped out of the water and saved him!
Sarah: Ok, WS, give us a final background.
WS chooses the mountain background.
TV: And he made it safely into the mountains.
The group takes a minute to laugh at the silly story they created using the new background features. Then Sarah paused and asked WS what it felt like to be the character for other people to tell a story about.
WS: Well, it took a lot of bravery for me to do that…
Sarah: How did you have to be brave?
WS: When I’m in front of everybody and they are telling the story about me, it feels kind of brave. It was fun though.
To be totally honest, part of me is still thinking, “Really? Backgrounds? Isn’t this the chat box all over again? How much weight (time/attention/energy) are we putting into all of this technology? Is this really what we want to pay attention to?” The other part of me remembers, it’s not really about the chat box (or the backgrounds) at all. It’s about a group of people coming together to share stories and make meaning and learn more about one another and how to be together. It’s about being brave and vulnerable and trying new things and figuring out that sometimes that’s fun. And when I think about school and what I want him to learn, that’s what I’m going to keep hoping for.
Thanks for this. Rumbling with fear, hope and the beautiful complex mess is difficult and sometimes seems impossible. But then you find a gem, like this one and you know you can keep leaning in and stepping back. Appreciate your reflection…gillian