Virtual School in the Time of #Covid19

Photo by Mary-Francis Main

Since January we have been hearing of a highly contagious new virus in Wuhan province in China. First the Chinese authorities suppressed the doctor and bloggers who reported on it. Then they took complete action to shut down the province to “flatten the curve” or reduce the spread of the virus through social contact.

At the time, those who were listening/watching/reading were either amazed by this display of the Chinese totalitarian state or remarked that no other country would be able to deal with the crisis in the same extreme way.

Three months later, we have all become, it seems, Chinese. From the closing of schools to movie theaters and all gatherings of people 100+, the countries and governments of the world are scrambling to #flattenthecurve. The lack of coordination between governments and the cutting of funding to medical programs are subject for another blog (but definitely worth mentioning).

For this blog, I will stick to what I know best as an educator and parent: school. Because schools are the first line of defense for public interaction and closing them is the first sign that a community is taking active measures to stem a viral outbreak.

Now and Then

It goes without saying, but perhaps in order to appreciate the scale of disruption to everyday life at the moment, we need some contrast. In 1918, for example, during the last massive global outbreak, no one could say: let’s get kids to go to school online! Or during World War II. Or perhaps even in 2000 when I graduated from college. The technology for conferencing, uploading, recording, sharing, wasn’t there. Most students were using computers in a lab on campus and getting their first email addresses that they checked infrequently.

We know what’s happened since then, so a timeline of technological infrastructure is also not the point of this blog (but very interesting if you want to go read up on it here).

But it is worth mentioning that since 1918 school has not come very far from a model of public good to prepare future factory workers. Yet in our contemporary society school has become much more: now it’s a place children receive meals (something homeless American school children are now at high risk for in particular during any closure), support services for a wide range of issues, and in the best instances, can rise above familial circumstances to fulfill their obligations. (There are contrary views to the theory of a factory based view of education as well.)

The business models of schools haven’t changed however and that is something else to watch during this pandemic: we are already grappling with organizations that don’t have business continuity plans. And schools/universities are at the center of this vortex to try to teach effectively online.

While the technology may be available, that’s one piece of a very complicated puzzle as teachers, parents, and students around the world at all levels of education are learning (or will discover very soon). For virtual school to work, there are many things that need to be in place – prior to a school system shutting down.

Teacher Training

This covers everything from schools choosing specific platforms for teachers to use when sharing lessons, to teachers themselves understanding how to use various software packages as well as choosing which ones might best serve their subjects and students.

Teaching English, for example, is fairly easy to do online: I can record myself reading text to my students, or post links to the assignment and receive text back.

But Physical Education? Yes, a video of your teacher doing situps is one thing, but who is keeping you accountable to see whether you have done them?

Music? Foreign Languages? Yes there are workarounds and thankfully the school I’m apart of was operating in China, then had to close 9 schools there for several months, and therefore this was foremost on their mind. Our discussions about online learning began in February (as did the school where my children attend) so when the announcement came, last Monday, everyone went to their teaching stations and hit record. Not so throughout the school system, unfortunately.

Teachers will still have to mark work and with larger classes, this will be as challenging (if not more so) for large classes when individualized feedback is now in terms of recorded video, audio, or online entries.

Student Readiness

Photo by Ann

Ideally if you have time, students get to practice on the platforms as well. Logging in, accessing materials, posting their entries: all of this may sound mundane but these pedantic details are the difference between a smooth transition online and people throwing up their hands in frustration, plus having to extend the school year into the summer.

We can’t assume all students have access to reliable Internet or their own device on which to access their lessons. This opens an entire new box of questions as to what the school’s responsibility is – those with considerable resources can loan devices to certain age groups/cases.

Parental Preparedness

The shadowy, often unmentioned figure in education: parents, also need to be prepared for what/how virtual schooling happens. Particularly with those who have younger children in early years of elementary school, online learning will be entirely new territory. Parents have a wide range of expectations about their role versus the school’s as well as cultural expectations around learning. This is another weighty tangle that emerges once you hit the “online learning” button.

Many households worldwide have two working parents and virtual school definitely poses challenges in terms of supervision and management, not to mention instructional knowledge. This is particularly so if the lessons are live learning so that the teaching day adheres to the same schedule as a face to face learning day.

Another major issue is that the learning needs of students who need additional support can exceed their parents’ ability to support them. These can range from a ‘slow’ learner to children with complex diagnoses such as having ADHD or processing issues. The standard virtual classroom is not a one size fits all solution in this case.

So yes, there’s a lot to think about. And to those in paid school systems, like many expat communities around the world, questions swirl about what families are paying for in an online learning environment.

You’re still paying for the same thing face to face: tailored instruction that is delivered to students in a thoughtful and prepared manner. Just because the material is virtual doesn’t mean the person making it is. In fact, I hope we are confronted by the opposite: that the complicated, rewarding work of teaching and learning are on display.

Homeschooling is now … Homeschooling + Challenges

Homeschooling parents in your neighborhood may have become suddenly very popular as the possibility of virtual school comes to your community. They can gleefully smile at panicked parents who aren’t sure how to fill the day with their children. They will respond with “that’s my normal life” each time someone wonders how they will get to their children to learn. And they aren’t wrong. Though we may feel as though they chose homeschooling (and we wouldn’t be wrong) the additional restrictions on outdoor play spaces or socializing means that the outlets for homeschoolers (and their students) are now much more limited.

They too will be facing challenges when virtual school finds them. I say when because already children’s learning has been disrupted in China, South Korea, Italy, India, Spain, Qatar, and Ireland. And those are just from Covid19.

What’s it like where you are?

Let us know what teachers, students or parents are doing in your part of the world. And any advice you have for any of these groups :).

Let’s also keep perspective knowing that children in Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, Palestine, Sudan, Sierra Leone, and Sri Lanka have also had their education disrupted and for periods far longer with far reaching consequences for their societies.

Why Women Can’t Be Leaders – Not Even on HBO


33 million people are watching the final season of Game of Thrones, the fantasy series written by George R. R. Martin. And many of them are howling in protest.

The complaints about character arcs, bad writing, and rushed plots may sound irrelevantly shrill against the backdrop of abortion bans being signed across the southern United States.

But perhaps the objections are not as trivial as they seem. Viewers are objecting to a nonmaterial quality yet one that is intertwined with the very air we are breathing. We’re turning away from Game of Thrones season 8 because in the area of #metoo, a supreme court justice confirmed despite a rash of unethical behavior and the winner of the popular vote turning out to be a loser, we realize the system is never going to give women a break.

After 8 years of watching the women on the show wrestle with the powers that be, the penultimate episode saw one of the female leads, self-proclaimed queen, Daenerys Targaryen, lose control and burn a city to the ground.

See, the lesson seems to go, women can’t handle power after all. They’re too emotional. Never mind we watched this particular woman being sold by her brother into marriage, sexually assaulted, burn herself alive like a good widow should, and emerge as the liberator of millions. She commanded armies, swept across the seas, raised dragons, mobilized all types of people to her support, and yet when the throne she wanted was within her reach, she threw it all away.

Was her petulant, toddler like rage, inherited from a long line of flawed men, that burned down Kings Landing? Or was it a pair of writers who lost their way in their need to wrap up a show who had made stars of nearly all the actors and everyone enough money that they could all move on with their lives?

The pair of male writers, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, seem likeable enough. Yet, like so many other men in power lately, you wonder if they understand what they’re working with since they also managed to undermine another key story line in this same episode. This time of the first female knight, Brienne of Tarth, who fought the entire eight years to be taken seriously as a warrior, at great personal peril, only to crumble when her long term crush left a few nights after their first hookup. There she is, crying in the courtyard, Ser Brienne, a knight of the realm, she who stared down the Whitewalkers. After battling humanity’s greatest plague, side by side with the best fighters in all seven kingdoms, and soon as that’s over, she’s begging him not to go.

We at home are shaking our heads because our champion’s lip is now trembling like a teenager’s.

It’s going to be worth it, we tell ourselves, even as another sexual assault survivor, Sansa, also raped on her wedding night, once counseled to marry a man most knew to be a monster, assures the men around her that she is okay, because if it hadn’t been for all that abuse, she wouldn’t be who she was today.

Do the writers want us to believe that hey, it was tough and all being a teenage orphan but things seem to be working out now so she is thankful for it?

The episode (and series) is winding up towards the battle of the two queens, the mother of dragons and Ceseri, the one who put it all into motion to protect her offspring, products of incest, not true heirs of the usper, Robert Borathian. She has beheaded, manipulated, schemed; in short next to the Whitewalkers she is the evil that persists in the real. So powerful, and yet she is reduced to dust by a bunch of falling rocks, mewling in the arms of her brother-lover who has come to soothe her final earthly moments.

This is when we throw our hands up. Fine, they’re not the author. And sure he consults on the show. But maybe he’s too busy finishing up the final book to tell the showrunners and HBO that they have got it so, so, so, wrong.

Did they understand the series they were completing? The fandom certainly didn’t think so.

The same show that two episodes before saw the plucky, unlikely figure of a teenage girl sinking her dagger into the Night King, the most feared enemy in all the realm, now has us throwing our hands up in despair, because, as our timelines fill with the news of a pregnant black woman being shot 5 times by police and 11 year old rape victim having no choice but to have a child while still a child herself, we think can’t women catch a break – even in fiction???

If the fictional, imaginary world can’t be feminist, by presenting women as equal to men in ambition, desire, and power, then what can?

Sure if the purported 35,000 who wrote to HBO wrote to their senators maybe these restrictive bills wouldn’t be signed into law. But perhaps because we are fighting for better entertainment we will fight for a better world. The two feed each other because we don’t know which came first; the misogyny or the media bias.

There are small glimmers of hope, if we look to the big screen. In the final fight scene of Avengers Endgame, when Captain Marvel is trying to take the infinity stones away from Thanos, all the female superheroes step forward to help her. Within a second the action moves on and so do all these capable women, fighting alongside their friends.

I’ve written about movie characters, like Furiosa from Mad Max, who are reshaping the way we think about the female sidekick.

Let’s see what the HBO bros have in store for us in the final installment of the most watched show in television history. We know now Jon Snow is the rightful heir (but he was qualified anyway) to the iron throne but he doesn’t want it.

Could we find a better example of male privilege if we wrote it ourselves?

#nanowrimo the Princely Papers

A carriage during a pre-dawn military dress rehearsal for the royal wedding, London

I’ve been very quiet on the blog these past few weeks because it’s November. For the last five years, I’ve been participating in National Novel Writing Month, which involves writing 1666 words a day for the entire month.

Some people write many more than that. For me, 10 pages every 24 hours is a lofty enough goal. If you stay on track you get to 50,000 words by the end of the month.

I’m happy to share this exceprt from this year’s work in progress, The Princely Papers. I wanted to explore an idea that’s lingered with me for a few years: what if someone in a royal family wanted out of that family but couldn’t leave?

This is a major a departure from the crime series or romance plots of years past which makes it all the more fun.

Have a read below and let me know what you think!

Hundreds of people, several lines deep, pressed along the carriageway. The crowd’s roar of approval vibrated the glass carriage. “Oh.” She sank against the cushions. Watching the video of her parents’ marriage was one thing. Experiencing the adulation in person, knowing the masses were now trained you, was another. As far the eye could see the red, white and blue of the Union Jack fluttered from lamp posts and in people’s hands.

True Love Does Exist read a life size poster with a reprint of their engagement photo. You’re Beautiful and Your Prince is Charming boasted another. She drew back from two people hanging over the barricades, their faces masked by cardboard cutout likenesses of herself and Thomas. “Oh my goodness.” She rubbed at her upper lip. For a woman sheltered from the press since her mother’s death, Torie cringed from the attention. She didn’t have the peacock gene. Her mother passed that on to Albert exclusively. Torie had to look elsewhere for a role model in dealing with the public. She spied her grandmother’s carriage, moving several hundred paces ahead of them.

George squeezed her knee. “You look lovely.” He brought her attention away from the crowds, who called to them from either side.

Torie grabbed at those fingers. “Yes?” His bony hand lay limp in her grasp. More brown spots dotted it, disappearing under his jacket sleeve.

“Smile.” With his other hand, George waved to the hundreds of well-wishers on his side of the carriage. “Wave.”

“Yes Father.” Torie waved, a smile stretching from ear to ear. She waved as they practiced in the rehearsal. I’ve done this before. For Granny’s Jubilee celebrations. The reminders did nothing to soothe her tumultuous thoughts. Her heart cried out for Thomas. His texts that morning came in a flurry. Gifs of vows gone wrong – brides falling into water, animals grabbing at bridal veils, children running off with the rings. She laughed so hard at the last, tears forming that the makeup artist warned her she would have to start over because of smudges. A few minutes more she reminded herself. Nearly there. The carriage rumbled to a halt. She gathered her dress into her hands, leaning forward to exit.

His arm shot out to keep her in place like a steel bar.  “Not yet,” her father said. The words dropped from the corner of his mouth, as when they were children misbehaving on the sidelines during polo matches. “The next one is St. Paul’s.”

Torie collapsed backward, leaning into his arm. “Oh my God. I can’t do this.”

George peered at her through the veil. “Are you alright?”

Torie shook her head. “Water?”

He passed her a bottle, which she drank from greedily out of sight behind the side panel of the carriage.

“This was your choice,” George said. “Why the nerves?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” She tossed the bottle between their feet. “Hundreds of millions tuned in from around the world,” she said in her poshest accent. “This is the BCC, bringing you live coverage. The princess today is wearing Chanel, breaking tradition by choosing a French designer over a homegrown talent.” My face is on the tea towels she bit back the mounting hysteria. And t-shirts and lapel pins.

“Is that not Alexander McQueen?”

“Of course it is. You’re missing the point!” Torie hissed. “They’re scrutinizing every little thing.”

George harrumphed. “Our wedding had coverage lasting for five hours.”

She drew away from her father. The silence in the coach was at odds to the rumbles of enthusiasm from outside. The carriage slowed as they approached the Abbey. Torie saw lookalikes of her and Thomas. Some were wider. Others were darker. She held in a laugh bubbling to the surface. People want to look like me for fancy dress. A surreal idea, even as the reality confronted her outside the window. What if they didn’t get out – they picked Thomas up instead, and sped off into the distance?

Her mind skidded to that other perfect bride, the one who radiated calm on her wedding day, then fell apart during the honeymoon. Was this how she felt? Dread, nerves, and mounting horror? In the photos of her mother’s wedding, the ivory veil shielded so much from the camera. The angle of Frances’ head, aimed towards the world beyond the window, the tiara sparkling in the sunlight – her mother was the vision of fairytale princess. Everyone said so. Except for the tragic end.

How she longed for her, today of all days, to ask what those moments had been like. Torie realized with a sinking heart there would be dozens more like this. The birth of her first child, naming him or her, choosing a school. Should she follow tradition or make her own way? Frances’ death pricked anew. She should have taken the Xanax Thomas suggested. His advice came on the heels of some bad memories of doctors prescribing Valium for her mother. The rumors of her emotional instability were legendary, chasing Torie throughout her childhood and adolescence. The press took it as a given she would succumb to the pressure as her mother had. Torie hid it as best she could, in the girls’ finishing school. In her darker moments, she knew the appeal of bulimia wasn’t far away.

“Your mother would be so proud of you.”

Victoria gripped the door handle. Street after street thronged with people. Here in this one hundred yards, there was no one but the footmen, and her father. The words seared her like a brand. How many times had those same words fallen into her ear from the secretaries, ladies in waiting, media commentators. To hear them now from the man who made her mother’s life miserable – Torie took a ragged breath. You don’t care. You got go live and your lover is now your wife. Seated at a place of honor at the wedding breakfast. The strength of her rage took her breath for a few moments. Albert wasn’t the only one who needed to talk about it.

“We have arrived.”

The footmen approached the door.

“Did you have her killed?”

George turned to her as she if she’d asked for a tissue. “I beg your pardon?”

“Mother. Did you kill her for embarrassing you?”

“Victoria,” George sighed.

The door to the carriage hung open, waiting for the princess to step down and into the glare of ten thousand cameras.

“Now is not the time for this discussion.” He pulled at his tuxedo.

“That’s not an answer.” Anger surged through her, the strength of which took her back to the moments after they first told her. Your mother is dead. She died in a car accident. She wasn’t wearing her seatbelt. The string of details came one after another, the last one hitting her in the chest like a boxer’s punch. She could have done something to survive. She didn’t and now you’re alone.

            “She is the past. You are the future.”

Another set of words, repeated over and over until she heard them in her sleep. Victoria pushed herself off the bench. She took the hand of the footman waiting for. As she stepped onto the red carpet, wound like a wagging tongue out the front of the Abbey, the roar of approval filled her ears.