I never really loved the old television show, The Brady Bunch. I was an old, cynical college student when it started, and I had had my own experience of being a child of divorce and remarriage; my narrative outweighed their narrative. But the show had its appeal, being basically about kids and their joys and concerns, many related to school and school life.
Now “the Brady Bunch” has become an apt working metaphor for Zoom screens and their kin. Arrayed in equally portioned little rectangles of pixels, teachers and students come together to commit education in a medium that most people find annoying and even a bit hard on the eyes. It demands a certain level of tech-xpertise and attention on the part of teachers and students and/or their caregivers, and “Zoom” has become a kind of freighted code word for all the frustrations and limitations of our COVID pandemic world of education. In this code, “the Brady Bunch” is just shorthand for a kind of learning that no one much loves as an alternative to the in-person, on-campus paradigm to which the world had grown accustomed.
But The Brady Bunch show was fun in its way, and part of the entertainment value of the old intro was imagining relationships and just watching individuals in an ensemble cast BE in those little frames without being able to REALLY interact with their castmates. A DISCLAIMER: The faces in the old intro are all white and straight out of central casting circa 1969, but the emotional content of the composite is the point—a handful of kids and a couple of adults trying to figure out how to be themselves, simultaneously isolated and brought into juxtaposition by a trick of technology. At least they had the benefit of a studio-made background, Green Screen v1.0.
Do a screen grab of your next on-line class or meeting, and take a look.
What will you see? It’ll likely be a kaleidoscope of earnestness, discomfort, engagement, boredom, distraction, and posing. Whether it’s all flesh-and-blood and right there in the room with us or whether it’s virtual and mediated by Owl cams or SmartBoards, school is just people together, trying to figure stuff out. We’re funny, we’re confused, we’re fake, we’re distracted, we’re deep into it, we’re moved and overjoyed and inspired and sad and lost and hopeful…
There’s been a message for me in looking at that Brady Bunch intro screen: our goal, the main goal and the only one that matters, is to find joy and inspiration in each of these Brady Bunch moments that have been imposed on us—the same joy and inspiration that we all so loudly moan have been “lost” as we look back and impute them to each moment we spent in brick-and-mortar classrooms. But who “lost” it? The same ones who left their car keys or their homework or that letter from the insurance company or the note from their teacher somewhere that they can’t find it. We did.
And if some students or some teachers are physically present while others must serve as Brady Bunch re-enactors on a computer screen while class marches on, we’ve got to remember why we’re there and what we’re doing and take EQUAL joy from each moment and EQUAL inspiration from each lesson, student, peer, or great idea—whether these moments, these cognitive events, and these fellow humans are sharing physical space with us or not.
I’m not pushing this joy-and-inspiration concept just as feel-good advice. Every education researcher out there tells us that joy and inspiration, like physical comfort, are absolute necessities if real learning is to take place.
We have to start finding ways to love the new, weird, uninvited modes of learning that we find ourselves having to use. Yes, much about this on-line stuff or wherever you and your school lie upon the FOPOL spectrum (“full or partial on-line”) is a pain in the neck, and there’s a learning curve that keeps rising to the distant sky even as the arc of history seems to be wavering in its bend toward justice. The world seems more complicated now than it was, and we sure do miss what’s past.
Consider the Brady Bunch. Mike Brady’s three kids’ mother had died, and somehow Carol’s kids had lost a father. The kids hadn’t asked for the situation in which they found themselves, and surely neither had the dad. Circumstances threw them all together, and they made it work. Many episodes even revolved around—wait for it!—joy and inspiration.
Yes, I know that was a TV show, and writers, not real people, made it work. But actual humans have been making hard things work and finding joy and inspiration as they do it—even after unimaginably terrible loss—as long as we have existed as a species.
Making FOPOL education in its infinite manifestations work is on us—on each of us. No one asked for the novel coronavirus; circumstances imposed it. Nobody asked to have to stay home for a year or wear a mask or to attend grandmother’s memorial service online. But we can make this work if we all just remember that learning starts with comfort (says Maslow) and depends for all its greatest successes on joy and inspiration.
We’ve become the Brady Bunch without the benefit of scriptwriters, much less clergy. But we’re all part of the human family, and we can do this.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)