"Talk less. Smile more." This advice, offered by Aaron Burr to a young Alexander Hamilton in the eponymous musical, provides a good shorthand for my approach to teaching. If I talk less, the students will talk more. Opening space for students to talk is a necessary prerequisite for student voice and choice, a key element of PBLWorks' Gold Standard PBL and a vital ingredient in a student-centered classroom. At the same time, when I smile more, I demonstrate to my students the love I feel for them and the joy I work to cultivate in our classroom. Ultimately, my approach is to co-create with my students a joyful learning community where they feel safe to take risks and share their ideas.
But how does "Talk less. Smile more." work in a year of universal masking, mute buttons, and remote students with their cameras off? I've spent the 2020-21 school year largely in person, with a small number of students learning remotely. Naturally, I've had to adapt my philosophy to these unusual circumstances. I've found ways to listen more carefully—both in voice and in text—to make sure that I can hear every student's voice. I've also come to appreciate the value of broad body language and over-emoting, to ensure that my positive feelings are conveyed to students through masks and screens. In emails and chats, I've learned to be more effusive, a trauma-sensitive practice that I will certainly be carrying forward. When we're all masked, we all have to listen—really listen—to keep our learning community running smoothly.
I'm very much looking forward to the time when my students can see my smiles again, and I can see theirs. Until then, you'll recognize me as the teacher gesticulating wildly in the classroom and sending heart emojis over chat.