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The Prison of Belief

February 20, 2023

I have to admit, I have stolen this title from Lawrence Wright’s superb book about Scientology, “Going Clear.”  Part of the reason this is on my mind is due to the fact that over the past few weeks I have been watching Leah Remini’s show on the Aftermath of Scientology, which she co-hosts with fellow former scientologist Mike Rinder.  Mr. Rinder also frequently invokes  that phrase since it patently describes what life is like as a scientologist.

If you aren’t familiar with Mike Rinder, he was a scientologist for 46 years–and was an important, high ranking member of the church until his departure in 2007.  He was raised in Scientology as a child, and knew nothing else–his entire family were members.  And when he left the church, his family (as is common practice) refused to have any contact with him and dismissed him as “evil”  in media reports.  In spite of this, Mr. Rinder has made a good life for himself, remarrying and having children, and devoting his life to educating the public about Scientology and assisting other members of the church who have departed and also been disowned by their families.  Mr. Rinder is honest about the awful things he did in Scientology, and has worked hard to make amends with those he harmed.  What I have learned about Scientology from Ms. Remini and Mr. Rinder reminds me of a quote from physicist Steven Weinberg: “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion.”

I bring all of this up because I think it provides insight into our current politics. The “Prison of Belief” is not confined simply to cultish institutions like Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Unification Church (known as the Moonies).  I think this prison can manifest itself today with the likes of QAnon, Proud Boys, and even benign sounding organizations like Moms for Liberty. 

The Proud Boys being…proud, I suppose.

Many such conspiratorial organizations are not simply expressing a view or a vision of what society should look like that might be different from mine, or yours, and any number of people.  Indeed, factions with differing visions of what the country or civilization should look like go back to the founding of the nation.  Of course, there have always been extreme factions uninterested in compromise or having their thoughts enter the “marketplace of ideas” as Justice William O. Douglas would later put it.  Such compromise was not possible because those who differed with the views of extremists were considered “enemies” “traitors” and, of course,  “evil.”  Historically, this was not always a cause for alarm, because such groups were fringe religious cults or hate groups largely confined to the margins (the Ku Klux Klan’s early 20th century resurgence being something of an exception).

Today, the margins have moved to the center of the page. QAnon has elected its adherents to Congress.  The President of the United States implores the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by.” Moms for Liberty candidates win school board races, and in one case in Georgia, fire a superintendent without cause.  These groups bear a remarkable resemblance to Scientology and other cults–those that oppose them are satanists, a cabal of child traffickers, school officials “grooming” straight kids to become gay or trans.  It is tempting to simply laugh them off, but they too are imprisoned by their beliefs. It is difficult–if not impossible–to have any sort of dialogue with individuals from these and like-minded organizations.  Every counterexample is either a lie or more evidence of the conspiracy.  

Scientology leader David Miscavige

Of course, members of QAnon or Moms for Liberty don’t suffer the same consequences for leaving as those of Scientology.  They are not necessarily cut off from all of their friends and family whilst trying to navigate through the world without an education or much in the way of life skills.  Those who are contemplating a departure from Scientology know what the cost is, and that awareness often keeps them tethered.  Whereas someone mired in QAnon is staying not because they fear the consequences of leaving, but because they believe they are correct.  This, I think, is far worse. 

Being a professional educator, I know that I am among those who are viewed as wicked, traitorous or abusive.  The facts do not matter, and it is difficult to protest otherwise; as attorney Marc Elias says “there is no middle ground between an arsonist and a firefighter.”  I would love to be able to say that there is a solution to this problem, or simply dismiss it as a select few, and comfort myself with the fact that these views are not majority opinions.  As scientologists are a small number, so too are the Proud Boys and the Moms for Liberty.  

But that’s the thing–there don’t have to be a lot.  There just has to be enough.  

The Big Tall Wish

January 22, 2023

We met at the trailhead of Mt. Willard in New Hampshire at 3:45 a.m.  Myself, Darlene, Kelly the Justice of the Peace and Shado and Isabelle, the photographers.  And it wasn’t just that we were meeting to begin a hike–we were literally all meeting for the first time.

What was perhaps most remarkable about today is that we were here at all.  Throughout much of my five plus year relationship with Darlene it was clear to both of us that we didn’t want to get married. Not only did it lack emotional appeal for us, it also seemed impractical. We lived in different states, and until we retired we’d never be able to cohabitate–and retirement was still several years away.  

Leah, Darlene’s oldest granddaughter, viewed the matter very differently.  She definitely  wanted us both to be married, and would occasionally bring it up, usually in the form of a question:  are you going to get married?  Do you think you will get married?   This was often followed by Leah’s suggestions on what our wedding should be like (the Avengers themed wedding seemed to have the most appeal. To Leah, at least.).  Even though we didn’t really give Leah any reason to be encouraged we were headed that way, we sometimes found ourselves discussing it.  Absolutely not.  Well, there would be some financial benefits.  But that’s not a reason to get married.  No way. What, we’re going to be married and live in different states?  That’s stupid.  Well, if we ever decide to do it someday–at some distant point in the future–it will just be you and I on a mountaintop.

And then one day last spring, perhaps because we stopped analyzing it, we decided to do it.  Just because.  Just because it felt right.  On a lovely March afternoon in Rhinebeck, New York, we walked into Bread Alone cafe hungry for lunch, and walked out engaged.  But this was going to be our secret. We were eloping. And we weren’t going to tell anybody until after we came down off the mountain.

But which mountain?  Some Google searching and we settled on Mt. Willard, near Bretton Woods in New Hampshire. It looked beautiful, the hike seemed reasonable, and Darlene was born in New Hampshire.  A perfect fit.  What we needed now was a photographer and a justice of the peace that were game for an early morning mountain hike in the darkness to do a wedding.  I would like to tell you it was difficult, but it really wasn’t:  Shado and Isabelle are young, energetic, and outdoorsy, so they loved the idea.  Kelly was an experienced hiker who lived twenty minutes away from Mt. Willard. We found them all on the internet–it was shockingly easy.


So there we all were, a bit awkward at first, hiking a mile and half up the mountain in the darkness. I had found a garment bag that folded up into a backpack, so my blazer and all of our other supplies fit perfectly in it.  We hooked Darlene’s dress onto the backpack, then sherpa’d our way up Mt. Willard. 

We changed into our marriage ware, and took a look at the mountaintop. It was perfect–the light, the clouds, the temperature–we could not have custom ordered a more ideal day.  The beauty of the mountaintop immediately washed away any awkwardness between us all–it became instantly clear why we were doing this here.  We all seemed overcome with joy, and  all started to feel like friends. 

Of course, no one was more joyous than Darlene and I.  As you can see, we had wonderful photos, and Kelly did a terrific job with the ceremony.  I have never been as deliriously happy as I was the day Darlene and I became husband and wife on that New Hampshire mountaintop.

Darlene and I have a tradition wherein on New Year’s Eve we light wish paper and watch it float up to the heavens as we silently make a wish.  We discovered during this recent New Year’s ceremony that we both had the same wish a year ago.  

And it did indeed come true.

A Disappointing Turn

September 15, 2022

I had mentioned in my previous post that my play “Invincible Summer” was being performed this fall at a local community theatre. Unfortunately, I have learned recently that the theatre had changed its mind about staging my play, citing the “inappropriateness” of my script for the theater’s target audience.

As you can imagine, this was quite the gut punch. Not only is it a grave disappointment to be told this, but how the theatre carried it out is perhaps the worst part. Back in June, a director I know called me to tell me that Nelson Hall Theatre in Cheshire, Connecticut had agreed to stage two performances of the play. The theatre’s entertainment director read and loved the play, and set aside a day in October for two performances. We knew Nelson Hall was a conservative institution, so I went to work doing some rewrites to satisfy objections they were likely to have. I had to remove some of the foul language and sexual references, and while there were some passages and dialogue I was sad to give up, I felt the play was still strong, and still worked as rewritten. I even had to change the ending, and decided what I came up with was even better than what I had. One of the things I learned writing plays for play-in-a-day festivals is that constraints can also be opportunities.

The director and I were happy with the changes, and we sent them off to the theatre at the end of June. In August, we began rehearsals, the tech and stage people at Nelson began working on the stage, sound and lighting, and the marketing department began working on the promotional materials. There was even a two week window left open on the theatre’s schedule for theatre rehearsals, tech week, and the performance. Everything was in motion–and then the plug was suddenly pulled.

But what really pissed us off was the fact that Nelson Hall had the script for two months, allowed all of those balls to be put in motion and then they finally decided to tell us they don’t want do it. Why the fuck couldn’t they have told us that in July? Or, at least given me the opportunity to address any further concerns they had in the script? But instead, they decided the best course of action was to handle it this way.

I guess I am not completely surprised by their reaction. A director who worked there once told me that he was directing “Arsenic and Old Lace” at Nelson and they asked him to take out the part where two engaged characters kiss because they were not married. My play also has a kiss between unmarried persons, references suicide, divorce, and includes a joke about a bris and another about an STD. So, from that perspective, I could see their objections–but then why agree to do the play at all? Especially when so many people–with whom they both contracted and whom they employ–had began working so hard.

I think the primary reason is that the entertainment director who contracted with us to do the play quit working at Nelson Hall this past summer. I think at that point the play lost its champion on the inside. Perhaps she thought she could navigate the play through those who would object. I suppose we’ll never know. One thing I do know: Nelson Hall’s supposed religious values clearly don’t include competence and treating people with whom they hire with respect.

And I do realize writing these words in public means I have ruined any chance of working with them again. However, it appears clear that my work will never be a good fit for them as it is. Thus, if I just burned my bridges, I have to say I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a fire more.

I don’t wish to leave it there, though, because there is good news: the director and the cast are very enthusiastic and really want to perform the play, so we are determined to find another venue. I can take the best of the earlier version of the play with the revisions I did for Nelson Hall and create a strong fusion of the scripts, especially if we find a theatre acutely aware of what century this is. I have to say I am touched by the energy and enthusiasm of the actors–their dedication honors my work in ways I could never truly express. I learned so much watching the director work with the actors, and I was moved to tears at one point because it became abundantly clear how much he truly gets my play–on every level. That was a new experience for me.

I am very lucky indeed to have such amazing, creative people interpret my work, and I look forward to the day we can be on a stage and share it with the world. Or at least, our little corner of it.

Note: I have intentionally left the name of the director and actors out of these piece, in case they wish to work for Nelson Hall again. I don’t want to ruin any future employment for them by being associated with my uh….shall we say, brutally honest critique?

Some Catching Up

August 19, 2022

I can’t believe it has been seven months since my last post! I can assure you that’s not because there has been nothing happening. Quite the opposite, in fact.

–I mentioned in an earlier post that I am working with filmmaker Ela Thier on the development of a television series. That work continues.

–Through Ela, I also enrolled in a writing/filmmaking mentorship program. That occupied me from early February until the end of July.

–Thanks to the mentorship program, I worked on a new revision of my screenplay “Season of Mists” and organized a table read in May.

–Thanks to the revisions for “Seasons,” it was a finalist in two contests: Table Read My Screenplay and the Mystic Film Festival.

–I also wrote the first draft of another feature screenplay. Currently at work on the second draft.

–Through my new friends in the mentorship program, I attended a film festival in Brooklyn and got to meet several of them in person–not just on a screen!

–I found out my stage play “Invincible Summer” is being staged for a production this fall. Rehearsals start this Saturday.

–In July, Darlene and I flew out to San Diego to take my mother’s ashes out to her final resting place in the Pacific Ocean.

–I attended three concerts (or five, really): Marillion weekend (that was three), Jon Anderson, and Belew, Fripp and Mastelotto–probably the closest to seeing King Crimson perform live as we’re going to get at this point.

–And I have certainly been paying attention to the madness that is gripping certain political sectors about Critical Race Theory, Moms for Liberty and the “grooming” of trans kids. I have many thoughts to share on these things as well…

–Oh, and Darlene and I eloped on a mountaintop in New Hampshire and had a honeymoon in Portugal!

All of these merit individual entries, and they are coming over the next few weeks. So please stay tuned–it will be worth it!

Thanks for sticking with me.

Millay Residency Photo Journal

January 16, 2022

Darlene and I are currently at our annual January writing retreat, after a one-year coronavirus induced hiatus. I decided to use this opportunity to do a final post on the Millay Arts residency we recently completed between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

Both of us took photos of the house in which we stayed and worked, and the grounds. A snowstorm simply enhanced that natural beauty that enveloped us. Several of the photos are shared below.

The view from Darlene’s writing studio.
We would stretch our legs once a day and take enjoy beauty here in the foothills of the Berkshires.
Darlene spotted this hole in the ice, caused by water dripping from the tree. You can see the tree reflected in the water. Beautiful!
This was the view outside my studio.
This was taken on one of our daily walks.
This was the wing where our bedroom and bathroom. It’s also the studio I ended up working in.
There is a tradition to write or etch your name and year into the doorway to document your residency. Here is mine!

So there is our residency in photographs. I hope it give you a sense of what a magical week it was! I would return without hesitation.

How to Finish the Year

December 31, 2021

This past summer, Darlene and I applied for the Wintertide Residency at Millay Arts in Austerlitz, New York (near the Massachusetts line, just on the edge of the Berkshires). Millay Arts is located at Steepletop, the home of Pulitzer prize wining poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. The residency would be for the week between Christmas and New Years’ Eve, and we would each have our own studio in which to work. Happily, both of our applications were accepted, so we checked in here on Monday.

Darlene came with the intent to use her time to complete an extensive revision on her novel; I arrived to do research on the television series, as well as work on many of my own projects. Darlene set up in the writing studio, while I chose an artists’ studio. I have never written in an artists’ studio, but there was space and several tables upon which to spread out, and the floor was covered with the paint splotches. I relished being in a room that an aura of so much creativity. I did rewrites on two of my features, one on a television pilot, and another on a stage play. I did some work developing the story for a new feature–and got an idea for yet another, for which I free wrote an outline. And, of course, daily blog posts!

The main building at Millay Arts, the location of our rooms and studios.

It turned out to be a superb residency for us both–we made significant progress on our work, enjoyed a daily walk to get out of our chairs, and as you can see the setting was beautiful. We also had the good fortune to share the space with Maine visual artist Jennifer Schmitt. Jennifer turned out to be both disgustingly talented and a lovely person.

Darlene took this beautiful photo.

As I write this, it is about ten in the morning on New Year’s Eve. We have to be out of here in about two hours, and while we have thoroughly enjoyed our time here, we are sad to see it end. Neither Darlene nor I are interested in leaving–we want to stay and write for as long as we can. Reality, however, has an annoying habit of beckoning. A beckon that cannot always be resisted.

2021 was challenging in so many ways. This was the perfect way to end it. Here’s hoping for a better 2022.

Critical Race Theory: Not Actually A Thing, Reprise

December 31, 2021

It was just five months ago I first wrote about this controversy. I am not fond of returning to topics in which I have made my views abundantly clear, but if these last few months have shown us anything it’s that this is not an issue that is disappearing anytime soon. It is futile to simply point out that Christopher Rufo and his cronies at the Manhattan Institute don’t know what Critical Race Theory actually is. As Rufo makes clear, he doesn’t care what it means. He just want to ensure that any culture war item he and other conservatives object to finds itself attached to it. In other words, his objection isn’t intellectual or even moral–it’s strategic.

Certainly, public education as a battlefield for the culture war is not exactly a new concept–we are fast approaching the 100 year anniversary of the Scopes Trial. The rise of the Moral Majority in the 1980s with the likes of William Bennett and Edwin Meese and their dire prognostications of A Nation at Risk almost pass for quaint four decades on.

So this isn’t new. But why is it happening now?

There are few possible explanations for this. The mainstreaming of Black Lives Matter has no doubt frightened some who were quite happy to dismiss the organization as a violent, fringe group. It is much harder to dismiss them as such when the name of their movement appears on your log in page. Those that are quite content never having to confront the challenges of racism often don’t take kindly to an insistent voice that reminds them of their moral obligation to do otherwise. Railing against Critical Race Theory and the teaching of antiracism and cultural diversity is a way back home–if we get those things (whether real or imagined) out of the school, we can go back to not thinking about it.

This may account for some of the backlash. But I don’t think that’s all or even most of it. To really get at the heart of what’s happening, we need to travel back to pre-COVID America, which was really just two years ago.

In pre-COVID America, there was a group of people called education reformers, who were desperately trying to dismantle the public school system. They wanted to replace it with vouchers, or private schools, or for profit charter schools. To do so, they had to emphasize the need for high stakes testing ( to manufacture the data of failure), demonize teachers unions as organizations that protected the jobs of child molesters, insist that enthusiastic young college graduates with no job protections were ideal teachers, and even better: you could be protected from the potential sex offender teaching your kid algebra by a face on a computer screen. This was all for the endgame of turning education into a profitable venture for investors.

Moreover, this approach was working, so much so that mainstream Democrats like Rahm Emmanuel, Cory Booker and…Barack Obama became enthusiastic supporters of the reformers’ agenda long before Betsy DeVos became Secretary of Education. It was looking good for the reformers.

Then the pandemic hit, and suddenly no one could go to their local school. And something remarkable happened–parents suddenly realized how difficult a job it was to be a school teacher, and perhaps teachers were not overpaid, lazy leeches on the taxpayer. Many teachers worked hard to engaged their students in distance learning, showed up at students’ homes with a Chromebook and donated food, organized end-of-year car parades, and dropped off personal, individually printed graduation signs to seniors stuck at home. In short, teachers started to become popular, and taxpayers started to think of their schools as the community centers they were always intended to be.

And everyone realized that distance learning should not be the future of education because it sucks.

So what were the reformers to do? Their entire agenda had been debunked by a coronavirus. They had a choice–admit they got it wrong and support local schools, or reframe their objections in a way that would galvanize a different kind of outrage. Spoiler alert–they picked the latter.

So the problem with schools now is that they are indoctrinating students with anti-racism (why teaching only a Eurocentric version of history does not count as indoctrination is never explained), forcing students to surrender their constitutional freedoms to mask mandates (which are usually put in place by state governors, but it’s much easier to harass school boards because they tend to lack armed bodyguards), and offering recognition of transgender students (which overall bothers parents way more than students). In other words, a channel for outrage and apprehension at a moment when large swaths of our population are overwhelmed with anxiety and feel an alarming lack of control.

You have to hand it to the reformers. They do know how to read the room. If only they would put their energy into actual problems with public education (poor funding, lack of qualified administrators, too much high stakes testing) they might become part of the solution, instead of generating most of the problems.

But that approach won’t make any profits for investors.

…And Then This Happened

December 29, 2021

I had thought that the performance of one of my plays by the US Army in Germany would likely be the most exciting thing that would happen to me as a writer this year (even considering the two Zoom readings of another play.) It turned out to not even be the most exciting thing to happen in the month of September.

Over the summer, I watched a free webinar from Ela Thier, who aside from having an impressive career as a filmmaker (sixteen IMDb credits as a writer, director, producer, actor and editor) also runs an online film school. I am always looking for individuals who can help me get my scripts over any humps they may face and into the hands of producers. I thought Ela would be someone worth listening to–online classes and webinars are a dime a dozen, but only a few are taught by individuals with success in the industry. After viewing the webinar, I signed up for her pitching and screenwriting classes, and enjoyed her approach to teaching and crafting scripts.

In September, she announced that she would begin a new venture through the film school–a mentorship program. Although I was slightly intimidated by the price, I thought perhaps this, more than online classes, might be what I really need to take the next step in my career. I sent Ela my writing sample and scheduled a Zoom meet. If nothing else, it was certainly worth exploring.

The Zoom meet was not quite what I expected. Ela told me that she was very impressed with my writing sample, and asked me questions that I assumed were solely to ascertain my writing practice: “Can you work quickly?” “Are you good at research?” “How do you do collaborating with others?” It wasn’t until later I realized what was really happening: this was a job interview.

Ela let me know that while she would love to have me in the mentorship program, she has something else in mind: she wants to develop one of her features (Tomorrow Ever After) into a television series. It would be a science fiction dramedy on the climate emergency. She thought I might be the person to help her create and write the series.


As caught off guard as I was, it didn’t stop me from realizing what a remarkable opportunity this was. I agreed to audition through some writing assignments, and also to take some time and see if this was a collaboration with which we were each comfortable. Since then, we have exchanged scenes and ideas, while I have shared the notes from extensive research on time travel and the climate emergency. One recent weekend, we worked together on Zoom to revise the series’ pitch deck and bible. I think it is safe to say it is working.

I was telling my close friend and filmmaker Brant Smith how odd this is that I am working on a sci-fi series, since none of my screenplays and stage plays have anything to do with this genre. Brant reminded me that I have been a sci-fi fan since I was a kid; I wrote and submitted a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode when I was in college; and I have taught the paradoxes of time travel in my philosophy class for the last two decades. He summed it up:

“You have been preparing for this job your whole life!”

Greetings from the US Army

December 28, 2021

Don’t worry, I haven’t enlisted. The title is the opening sentence of an email I received in August from someone named Amy Kosby, who has the rather lengthy title of Program Analyst, G9, Copyrights and Royalties, Leisure Travel, Arts and Crafts, Installation Management Command. In short, it’s her job to locate and obtain entertainment for active U.S. Army members.

The rest of her message continued:  “I am the Music/Theatre program manager for the U.S. Army and I have a theater in Kaiserslautern Germany that is interested in performing ARCHETYPES IN REHAB.” Archetypes in Rehab was performed at the 2017 Play in a Day Festival at the Playhouse on Park Theatre in West Hartford, Connecticut. It was a play I had written overnight sitting in theatre in which it would be performed the very next night. Four years later (almost to the day), I was receiving a request to have the play performed again. By the United States Army. For troops stationed in Germany. And I would be paid royalties.

I have had some surreal things happen to me, but this one was hard to beat. I immediately began to suspect that it was some sort of scam…but to what end? They were not asking for my social security number, or any other sensitive information. It was also very elaborate–if it was a scam, someone decided to make up Amy Kosby, a story about staging my play in Germany, and each communication written with the various bureaucratic flourishes of unclassified military communication. It was a long way for a scammer to go for not much payoff.

Actress Sarah Kozlowski, performing Archetypes in Rehab at the Playhouse on Park Theatre, August 2017

It also appeared that my play was discovered on the New Play Exchange, which exists as a place for producers to locate plays for possible production. In other words, Ms. Kosby found Archetypes in Rehab in a place that was designed specifically for that purpose. With suspicions largely corralled by my sense of reason, I gave permission for the performance. Ms. Kosby then requested an invoice for royalties, and she would be certain to send a check when the performance was completed.

I immediately contacted members of my playwright network, unsure of what a playwright with few credits in front of a nonpaying military audience should charge for royalties. With their advice on board, I submitted an invoice to the United States Army. There were, indeed, a lot firsts for me in this transaction.

Ms. Kosby thanked me for the invoice, and let me know that the four performances would be September 17-18 and 24-25. I would have loved to have hopped on a plane to Germany to see the performance–I imagine it wouldn’t have been too difficult to arrange a pass, and it was hardly likely the play would be performed in the most secure wings of the base. However, it just wasn’t practical or financially viable. So I was left to hope for the best.

I still have no idea how the performances went, or how the audience reacted. I do know that my very first royalty check as a playwright arrived in the mail around the first of October.

Plenty of Distance, Not Much Learning

July 23, 2021

Those of us who are professional educators probably want to shoot the next administrator who starts a conversation and/or email that begins with the phrase “In these unprecedented times…” Not only is it an unnecessary modifier (does it actually deepen our understanding of what follows?), it is intolerably cliché. It reminds me of a line from the television show Doc Martin:

“If it goes without saying, why are you saying it?”

Of course, what ostensibly makes these times “unprecedented” is the global Coronavirus pandemic. Historians, however, might take exception to that statement. There have been many pandemics in history (Live Science lists the twenty worst here) so it seems facile to describe this pandemic, as awful as it is, as unprecedented. However, one thing that is unequivocally without precedent is the affect that COVID-19 has had upon educational instructions. When the Spanish Flu (which originated in Kansas) hit a century ago, approximately 60% of children attended schools. Today, that percentage is approximately 96. So the Kansas Spanish Flu affected schools had to figure out how to continue to educate a significantly smaller percentage of the population than today. Of course, their response was just to keep kids in school, as many of the urban schools at the time offered better hygiene than could be found in tenements and crowded neighborhoods. Today, the decision was made to keep students at home and continue to educate them remotely via their internet connection.

Even though it’s been seventeen months since the pandemic shut down schools last spring, I have not chimed in about the phenomenon of distance/remote learning. The reason is I wanted to spend some time experiencing the different forms, study the research and put careful thought into deciding how I felt about it. My knee-jerk reaction is that it was going to be terrible, but I felt teachers had an obligation to make it work as well as we possibly could. So, I chose to keep an open mind and see if reality and research affirmed or refuted my initial reaction. And after a year and a half of experience, discussions with colleagues and students, and a dive into the research, what is my conclusion?

It is terrible.

First of all, there are a variety of distance learning models that school districts have imposed: one is full distance learning, where every student is at home and the teacher instructs via computer. There is hybrid, wherein half the class is at home and the other half in school for part of the week, then switch places for the rest of the week. Then there is the live stream model wherein some students are in school every day of the week, and others are home every day. Since last March, I have taught using all of these models. While the live stream model is far and away the best approach, it is by no means an ideal way to teach.

Do not get me wrong: I am aware there are students who do well with this model, because they are independent and self motivated. They, however, also do well when they attend in person class, so it’s hard to make the case that remote learning is somehow preferable for those students. I also had three students do well enough to pass my class last year once they were at home, as they were no longer distracted by their social groups and no longer incentivized to blow off their work because it was “cool” to fail classes. I firmly believe that these students would not have passed my class had they continued their in person learning.

Having said that, the number of students who did not succeed dwarfed the number that did. It’s not difficult to see why. For many young people, the ability to focus on academics is challenging enough in an school environment that is conducive to academic focus. Take that away, and then leave students in a place where they are surrounded by all of the things that compete even more heavily for their attention. You don’t need to be on staff at Columbia Teachers College to ascertain what is going to happen next (or what is not going to happen).

That doesn’t take into consideration the students with learning disabilities and/or are neurologically atypical. Many need the structure and the tactile instruction essential for them to learn. Many cannot learn at home without parental support, and if parents are working, there is none to be had. Many students also don’t’ possess a device or quality Wi-Fi in their homes, which makes it very difficult to attend class regularly. Over the next several years, you can expect a significant number of civil rights lawsuits for students with disabilities who did not succeed distance learning.

There is also the social aspect. Whilst anyone who teaches is aware the texted that students engage in what appears to be largely unnecessary drama, and are not always kind to each other, most of them need the social interaction that school provides. As you have no doubt experienced yourself, spending a day at a computer screen interacting with others is paradoxically isolating. Our brains really require the physical presence of others to feel any meaningful connection. For young people who are still developing emotional intelligence (and still lack fully formed frontal lobes), the dearth of social interaction could end up having the most acute long term affects on the students.

There’s also the physical aspect. It is simply not healthy to sit and stare at a computer screen for hours upon end. Aside from the somatic stress on your body from sitting, absorbing the persistent screen radiation is draining for both students and teachers. Yes, we sit a lot at school and use our computers, but there are other types of classes (art, music, physical education) that can offer relief from sitting and staring at a screen. Even walking the hallway or the stairs to the next class is good for you. All of those benefits vanish during distance learning.

As my friend and colleague Nick Ferroni points out, teaching is a vocation built upon relationships. We succeed largely based upon how well we can nurture those relationships. It encourages students to trust us, to cooperate and put in their best efforts, and allows us to immediately intervene when students are not putting in their best efforts or are struggling emotionally. It is very difficult–if not impossible–to form those types of relationships with someone on a computer screen. As Nick puts it, remote learning takes away the best tool we have to be effective.

The research is bearing all of this out. Students are not as successful, they don’t enjoy distance learning, and they are finding that it is adding unnecessary stress to their lives at a time when life is stressful enough, thanks very much. Of course , the problem is scalable: while it is preferable to have some or even most students in the classroom, the percentage that are struggling with distance learning remains static. Of course, while many school districts have said they will return to full time in class learning this fall, we know what could all change depending on vaccination rates and the vigor of the Delta Variant.

Thus, distance learning isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. However, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that it is an effective model. While it may be necessary to once again resort to it. it will at best be a necessary evil.

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