Monday, June 29, 2020

In Retrospect: School in the Time of Covid

This video about online learning, "numb" by Liv McNeil, is making the rounds:

This has been a difficult time, and the video is cathartic for some.

But first a bit about the video structure as a short film:

Some things were fantastic, like the sound of kids laughing as she's looking at pictures of her friends and the close-up of her emails and assignments. She used the camera to tell the story beautifully! We don't need any dialogue to feel the conflict. She's isolated from her friends and overwhelmed with work. Many viewer say it made them cry which shows that the video hit all the right points to get us to really empathize with the character. And, as time was passing on the bed, particularly the writing and screaming scenes, there was some amazing editing and stop-action acting. That takes dedicated persistence to match up those frames! Well done!

But... Next steps:
She sets up the problem beautifully, but then she just got stuck there. How does it end? The character needs to act on the problem and try to resolve it (even if she fails) rather than just succumb to it. Because the character resigns themselves to this, passively, instead of rising to the challenge, there's no arc or character development as they learn to overcome obstacles.

Imagine, when Buzz got taken by Sid, if all the other toys just got upset about it, and everyone stayed in Andy's room, depressed. Or, in Breakfast Club, when Bender wanted to get his weed, if they all just stayed put because they're not supposed to leave the room. Or in Shawshank, if Andy didn't try to use his personal skills with banking to improve his situation, but just sat in his room, beaten. Passive resignation doesn't get us out of the first act.

She has a great breaking point scene. We know she's done; she's had enough. But now what??

She has two main options here: to attempt an escape or to learn to cope. And, with either option, the resolution could be action-based or entirely internal or a bit of both.

She could escape the work, email her teachers that she'll re-do the year if necessary, and facetime with her friends, or go the other way and deep dive into her studies, researching above and beyond the curriculum. Or she could escape the room altogether and meet up with her friends in the parking lot - all 6' apart and wearing masks, talking and laughing together, then cut to a scene of them walking down a main street, spread out, owning the city. Or she could escape and go for a bike ride or walk by herself, with the camera showing her noticing the sun filtering through the trees, flowers, and blue skies. Or, if we want to go dark, she could escape by jumping out the window.

But if she can't escape, then she has to learn how to cope.

In short documentary films about prisoners in solitary confinement (see 60 days in solitary and 5 years in solitary), they make an desperate effort to maintain their sense of self. The isolation changes what they notice - the details of the room, both sight and sound. But then there's often a focus on a specific incident that's a turning point, that helps them manage. Humans are resourceful; eventually we'll find something to connect with. Remember Steve McQueen bouncing his ball against a wall in The Great Escape?

After the scream, and a bit of a cry, she could fall across her bed, with her head hanging over the edge, and suddenly notice her journals or art supplies or something stored under the bed that she re-discovers. She needs to ask herself, 'What part of me can come out to play if we have nowhere to go?' Maybe she has to push aside her ball and glove to get to the supplies, to the more solitary activities that she once loved, illustrating that there's a loss to our situation here (and maybe with a nod to McQueen), but it's not entirely a loss. Or, if creating's not her thing, then there's reading and video games and movies!! This can be a time of incredible indulgence in our more individual passions.

The film needs a Part 2: Back to Life.

In real life, we have to do both. We have to escape our isolation regularly, reminding ourselves that we're not in solitary confinement. We can see our friends as long as we're masked, six feet apart, and outdoors - or at least two of the three. (I actually think we can still hug for as long as we can hold our breath. Warm hands on our back aren't likely to infect us.) And, alone, we also need to find ways to make the situation work for us.

This is the time for ancient stoic lessons: focus on what we have, not what we're missing, and on what we can control, not what we can't. We can't change the existence of this virus, or the weird choices the Ministry of Education is making (not to mention a few heads of state), but we can change our attitude towards wearing masks, using a variety of fabrics that match our outfit, or even go all out with masquerade type face coverings. We can see the lack of contact as one giant tease, allowing sexual tensions to rise if nothing else. And we can feel much more free if we pay attention to what we can do instead of a lingering closeup on the barriers.

I know; it's all so boring. We're still in contact with each other, but we're missing the little dramas of life. There's no big events to plan for and then debrief afterwards, and no gossip about who made out with whom at which party, or what a bitch so-and-so is for whatever. Life needs moments of interest to maintain focus. The news is full of drama, but it's way too stark. It's like when you want to watch Friends or Outer Banks, but all that's on is House of Cards and Syriana! Drag. Lots of people are doing things online, but it's not the same. Absolutely. This situation does suck.

It's frustrating to be stuck, but this can also be a time of creativity and imagination, free from distractions. There are even some students really flourishing without al the subtle taunts and derisive comments in the classroom - without all the drama. It's not just about the bright side either, though. It has to be about capturing the authentic reality of the situation.

Unfortunately, it's unlikely to be over soon: herd immunity is less likely than originally thought, and governments aren't taking the necessary action to either fully and immediately lock down like Norway or New Zealand, or to obsessively test, track and isolate, like China and Japan. If we compare deaths/million, Canada only has 60% of the number in the U.S. (232 to their 384), which might seem like a success, but Norway's almost a tenth of that with 47, and New Zealand has 4. Trusting herd immunity to save the day put Sweden at 574 deaths/million. This is a serious tragedy, and we can't forget that people are dying horrific deaths all over the world, no matter how much our brains try to save us from that level of grief. Memento mori.

But we're still here, continuing to live. So we have to let go of the obvious personal losses as well and focus on the possibilities. Our lives have changed irreparably. But we can make this work. It sure beats the alternative.


Anonymous said...



Marie Snyder said...


Anonymous said...

Marie, I often look to you for a clear, well thought out, level-headed take on things that are currently happening and you did not fail with this post. I too watched this video and felt sad for what many students went through during distance learning but it wasn’t until I read your reaction that I realized that I didn’t feel like it gave the full story. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and giving me another perspective to consider.

Marie Snyder said...

Thank-you, Anon. Maybe she'll make a part 2!

The Disaffected Lib said...

Thanks for posting this, Marie.