Putting the “Room” Back in the Classroom

Putting the “Room” Back in the Classroom

{Author’s note: this piece includes quotes from students in my current winter seminar used with permission. I’m sensitive about the instructor-student power dynamics, but I’ve found that students really want to be included in these conversations. It’s no coincidence our Kalamazoo College Student Representatives recently wrote an extended letter to the faculty about the strains of this winter quarter.}

If there is one thing conversations about this moment have reinforced, it is that many people working in education are in different places with their comfort, options, privilege, and vulnerabilities in spending more time in-person on college campuses. As someone who works at a campus, Leanna Wen’s framing of a “risk budget” makes sense to me and has helped me define my personal choices.  I’ll be candid and say that one of the factors that led to me returning to the office three days per week was the feeling that staying home and working productively as a parent with a small child was not sustainable.  I could hold it together for a while but not indefinitely.

That said, no one dragged me kicking out the door as I protested.  I’d been doing my family’s grocery shopping for months.  Out of “necessity,” I had already been compelled into places that felt far riskier than a sparsely populated library where I had my own office with a door.  In addition, I knew that my workplace likely had a disproportionate population of responsible, cautious people.

Teaching “Hybrid”

With that practice already established, I decided to be one of the faculty members to offer an in-person (hybrid) option for my winter sophomore seminar.  Let me circle back to the risk budget.  What was I walking into?  My sophomore seminar had a cap of twenty students. To allow social distancing, a normally 60-person renovated classroom was capped at enough spots to include everyone.  That said, I knew it was unlikely that all twenty students would want to show up physically in-person.  Early on in the class, I sent an anonymous survey to get a rough, no-commitment idea of who might want to meet while masked & distant.  Roughly one quarter of students expressed a desire to meet in person making likely attendance around five individuals.

I’ve included a picture of the room. I’m going to be honest: For me, five people at separate tables in this giant room was fine.

How to provide an in-person option?

One of the more useful questions for others is the logistics of how I decided to provide an in-person option for some students while maintaining an equitable, practical learning situation for everyone.  First thing, I made a quick decision to avoid the technique of hosting class with everyone while some of us joined via Microsoft Teams and others sat in the room with me.  I did not agonize much over that decision.  On a technical level, it would have required significant planning and equipment to execute well.  Would everyone be able to hear each other?  Follow live captioning if they preferred it?  Where would these online attendees “sit?” Would I project Teams onto the screen?  These are only the basic tech issues. I know my title is “Educational Technology Specialist,” but I quickly decided this format would be setting everyone up for frustration.  I didn’t even get to the exacerbated equity issues and potential hierarchy/ inclusion dynamics between students online and in the room.  That was another challenge. Ideally, with a lot of planning, testing, and resources, it may have worked, but I did not go there.

Instead, I took advantage of the fact that my class was scheduled to meet in the morning on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Here is what I did:

  • Reorganized my weekly structure into two “sessions.”  The first session was either Monday in the physical classroom or Wednesday on Microsoft Teams.  I designed the sessions to be largely the same and someone would only need to attend one.
  • There was no expectation or reason for a student to feel “locked” into a track. If you wanted to show up on Monday to the room one week but needed/preferred to be on Teams the following Wednesday, great.  No problem there.
  • The second session was on Friday and involved all of us meeting on Microsoft Teams.

The astute reader might immediately realize that I’d cut my ten-week class session number from 30 to 20. Please let me explain the multiple reasons why I was perfectly fine with this.  Allow me to make another list!

  1. Meeting online three days per week for 75 minutes is a recipe for burnout. I wouldn’t and didn’t do that anyway.
  2. Moodle provided plenty of opportunities to construct a weekly experience that functioned as a complement to the scheduled class meetings.
  3. It’s common for online classes to have an extra workload creep.  Because we’re not meeting in-person and have less flexibility there, students have to do more, more, more! Load the LMS with stuff! Based on the reading, writing, and other activities, I had no anxieties that my students were working/engaging less than they would if we met all together physically thirty times per quarter. 
  4. If they were working and engaging a bit less, who cares! There is a pandemic going on, for crying in the mud.

I also spent time considering whether to make the in-person opportunity on Monday or Wednesday.  The choice was intentional.  I was mindful to avoid any extra coercion for reluctant students to attend class in-person.  My goal in this whole endeavor was to provide people with a similar risk assessment as mine with an opportunity to meet and talk in the classroom if they found that desirable.  It was not to pressure people to “come to class.”  If I were to make the in-person option on Wednesday, I speculated that busy, overwhelmed students would miss prep for Monday’s online class and instead feel like they had to show up to their “last chance” for Session One on Wednesday.  The result would be more anxious people on campus who didn’t feel safe being there.  Instead, I chose to make the in-person option Monday.  I’m confident that had the opposite effect.  Students who might otherwise have wanted to attend in-person instead used the extra days to prepare for Wednesday.  That’s not ideal, but it was a positive trade-off for me.

How has this quarter gone?

How did this go?  This first session included four students showing up to the building.  Mostly, it was great (in my experience). The intimacy allowed us to have a casual, flowing conversation and exchange of ideas that is the ideal of my “seminar” setups.  There was likely a fair amount of self-selection bias here. These attendees were particularly excited to meet in person for dialogue so they arrived prepared and interested.  After that initial session, attendance slowly dwindled.  After a few weeks, I had one consistent student who preferred meeting in person.  This was fine with me, and we resolved to continue meeting even if it was just us. (Props to this bold Kalamazoo College student! You know who you are.)

As opposed to speculating, I decided to gather some feedback on why those early adopters chose to cease coming to further classes. The reasonings varied, as did people’s motivation for wanting to arrive in the first place. Brady offered, “I had preconceived notions of what that classroom experience would be, pre-Covid, and what I wanted, and I realized that this experience with masks and only a few people wasn’t the same.”

In other cases, there were material realities about getting to class. Suja was initially open to attending in-person saying, “Why not? Let’s give it a try, see how it is. But then it started snowing.” There’s no doubt that a 9:40am class in the Michigan winter was a legitimate impediment.  I’m not sure I’d want to travel to campus in the 0° weather either if I didn’t have to.

More than just teaching

I recognize that deep in the core, there are philosophies and preferences about what life in the Covid-19 era looks like at work here. I’ve made a decision that with masks and distance, I’ll resume certain practices.  I don’t eat in restaurants (the idea horrifies me), and I miss going to the movies even though I desperately wish to see King Kong battle Godzilla in IMAX.  I do, however, show up to Dewing Hall once a week and sit in the same room with masked students who are ten feet (or more) away. That activity is not without health risks, but weighing a collection of factors and acknowledging that risk can only be mitigated not eliminated, I am comfortable.  Part of my motivation for writing is that I think it’s okay if “you” are well-supported and therefore comfortable too.

My daughter and son are both going to be wholly online for the conclusion of their kindergarten and freshman experience. Higher education in many consequential ways is not K-12 so I understand. A friend shared the Anonymous blog post of an elementary teacher on the intense strain of being in-person over the past year. What does the idea of “worth it” look like in comparing those situation to ours? While people across the educational sphere have done incredible and unexpected work to pivot to online, there are things missing when we can’t share spaces. Daniel, another student in our seminar, told me, “I think it’s really important personally to be able to attend in-person classes in the fall because it’s a vital part of the learning process for me. Being able to receive the one on one instruction allows for me to develop my ideas in a structured environment where I know my ideas are being evaluated and reviewed by professors.” I’m hoping that we’ll continue to look for mechanisms, resources, and strategies to be together again. In some ways, the move back in to the classroom will be as fraught and uncomfortable as the exit. However, there is enough worth preserving that I hope we approach that goal with the same creativity and resolve.


On the final Monday session, a dozen masked and distanced seminar students showed up to our giant classroom today to wish me happy birthday, deliver cards and gifts, and discuss Kristina Jacobsen’s The Sound of Navajo Country. I was beyond touched!

A man (the author) holds a black shirt in front of himself with a picture from the book Audiotopia by Kun

Featured photo: “empty class room.” by 8 Kome. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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