In this episode, Brent Spirnak interviews 9th grade humanities teacher Carol Cabrera about staging student-written “zoom plays” in quarantine.
This is High Tech High Unboxed, I’m Alec Patton. And I’m here today with Brent Spirnak. Brent makes the movies for High Tech High Unboxed and a lot of the music for the podcast. And today he’s done the interview. Brent, you talked to Carol Cabrera who teaches ninth grade humanities at High Tech High North County. Why did you want to talk to her?
I kind of put my net out there once the school started moving to distance learning. And a colleague of mine from North County suggested I talk to Carol because he was already seeing her craft her new class online by testing it out even before the kids were technically in school, because they had gone to spring break. So, you know, just the idea that someone was piloting something with students was like, “Okay, she’s doing something pretty thoughtful here.”
Did you know Carol before?
Having worked up in the middle school in North County, you know, we have cross-school collaborations and professional development. So she was someone who I definitely knew, but you know, doing this interview, I feel like I know her a lot better now and a sense of how her students participate in her class. And that is that she really cares about them. And she designs all of her projects and lessons to just move kids forward. As she kind of says that she wants to ultimately allow them to step into who they want to be. And that shouldn’t stop because you’re holding class on zoom or other things are happening in the world or challenges in your school, but you should constantly be aiming for that goal.
All right, with that, let’s hear it.
So we’ll be talking about, you know, just how the transition to online learning is going, but before we get into some specifics I want to ask you, and this might be a large question: what is human-centered learning?
Yeah. What a fascinating question! So, when I hear “human-centered learning,” I think of “student-centered learning,” and actually I would answer both questions exactly the same. So I operate my humanities class out of three really core questions that I tell students I ask and answer MYSELF on a spiral, like in a spiral way throughout my whole life. And I try to design my projects and design the things I do with students based on these questions. They are “Who am I?” “What is my place in the world?” And “What am I capable of?” And so when I think about human centered learning I think about identity, like what is our identity and how can we honor identity? What are all the parts that make up our identity? Our, our dreams, everything that is surrounding us. Second, what is my place in the world? What is my purpose here? Why am I here? What is it that I can contribute? Which dovetails nicely into the, what am I capable of? So what can I do? What do I have access to? What am I able to dream up to think up, to explore, to discover, to create? In my life, asking and answering these questions over and over again has led me to some pretty magical experiences. So if I can get students to start asking and answering those questions for themselves, I really feel like I am targeting that human center of who they are. I think translating that core of my practice into distance learning has actually been pretty fluid. The things that have changed are the “how,” right? So if I can’t be with students to build with them what can I do?
That third question is really helpful here, right? What am I capable of? So I’m not able to be at school and build roller coasters with the students based on historical events right now, but I can still look at history with kids. I can still write with them and I can still write things that still target those same questions. So an example of something that we did a couple of weeks ago that I feel like was a really cool way to get at all three questions at once is we wrote different scenes. So we wrote scenes inspired by quarantine: where are you right now in this situation of quarantine? Are you feeling anxious? Are you feeling excited? Are you feeling relaxed? Like, what is it that you are feeling right now? And how can you take those emotions and translate that into a scene of some kind of, and use dialogue? And then we read some of the scenes out loud. We gave a little bit of critique. Students went back and revised and continued to work on these different “quaranscenes”.
So When you give assignments like that, and when you’re working with students through those questions, I think that there’s still a whole universe of possibility of how to answer those questions in creative ways online. And when we were reading the scenes out loud, I was assigning different students and unmuting them on zoom so that they could read the scenes. And for the purposes of two weeks ago, I let all of the scenes remain anonymous. So I was casting, I was casting all of the different scenes, inviting students to read those out loud. And so when students are participating in that way, and it’s not just a one-way show like the teacher, I am not just something that mirrors a television and it’s something that they can still interact with and have a part of. I think that brings us the connection that a lot of us are missing due to our current conditions.
So did that, did that wide range of emotions that you are experiencing with students, did that come out in their quaranscenes as well? Like through the writing and the plays?
Yeah, I mean, I really like playwriting. I like playwriting for a lot of reasons because I’m a playwright myself and I’ve used playwriting to process through a lot of my emotions and I also like to do it with students because it’s a funny, like, interesting, fictional way to get out the real emotions that are inside us. You know? So when I was looking at the scenes, I could see a lot of those feelings bubbling up inside the different scenes that I received. So I had a student who wrote about like, just ’cause it was supposed to just be inspired by quarantine. It didn’t have to actually be set in quarantine. So there was a student who wrote a lot about this new planet and these two people who were, who were like trying to face the new planet and they were really scared.
So they’re trying to leave their little bunker and they’re trying to face this new planet. And you could just see, even though the dialogue was goofy and these two characters kind of crazy that there was this fear of “What is it going to be like after this?” And that fear is very real, even though it’s this goofy little scene of these two characters who are like bantering, it is this, I mean, that’s a fear that I feel like a lot of people have. I mean, my husband came home the other day. He works in a biochemical lab and he was talking about somebody at his lab brought in an article that said the handshake is dead. And my husband was so concerned about that because he’s also a professional magician.
And he’s like, “Can you imagine what it’s going to be like to get people to pick a card after all of this is done?” When I looked at that scene written by that student, I mean, that fear of like, what is it going to be like when we emerge from this? I mean, that, that question, that’s so real and so relevant to all of our experiences right now. And then add another one of this another student who submitted a scene where there are two characters who are neighbors and they’re both quarantined. And so they’re speaking all over the phone, even though they were neighbors and could see each other through windows. And one character was feeling really sad about it and the other character like – ’cause they were both surfers – “Well, we could still surf” and the other characters just so down, “I can’t surf in here.” And the other character helped the girl find materials in the house in order to create the sensation of surfing, standing up on something and balancing on it. I mean that, like that innovation, figure out how to make the quote-unquote impossible, possible. Like that’s a real thing people are experiencing right now too. You know, like it’s just, there are so many things that we didn’t know that we could do, not just as individuals, but as, as a human race right now that we’re figuring out how to make those things possible.
Wow. That was genuinely inspiring. Is there anything else Carol said that really stuck with you?
Yeah. She just was commenting on the situation and the time that we’re in, that it’s an opportunity for students and, and just everybody to take a step back and think about what they’ve built in their life and just reflect on where they’re at currently. And then I think ultimately how they can push themselves forward.
All right let’s listen to that!
Being separated from one another is an opportunity for us to really evaluate what we’ve built and to sit with it. Right. So like taking a look at what kind of life we are living and being able to sit with what it is that we have become, what it is that we have surrounded ourselves with, like what it is internally that we have. So that’s an opportunity for all of us. So the more and more that we can point our students to that, to like, “What is it that you have become and how can you step more into who you are?” I love school and I love being at school. I love really teaching project based learning because of all of the projects, but what an interesting time to distill all of what we do. Because isn’t that what education is like? Getting students to step into more of who they are like. And so we can do all of these fancy things with education, but like ultimately that’s what all of us are trying to do, right? All teachers are trying to get students to step into more of who they really are and the person who they want to be. So in a lot of ways, this transitioning to distance learning can feel complicated, but really at its core, it’s really simple, right. Just be that same teacher who is continuing to ask students, how can you be more of who you are? How can you be the best version of who you are?
High Tech High Unboxed was written and edited by Brent Spirnak. Our theme music is by Brother Herschel. You can find some of the resources Carol made for this project, as well as examples of the scenes that students wrote in the show notes. Thanks for listening.