Mary Robinette Kowal’s Lady Astronaut novels, set in an alternate history in which a meteorite takes out the Eastern Seaboard and kicks the space program into overdrive 10 years early, are a gripping, fascinating read, full of well-rounded characters and heart-stopping crises.
You are probably wondering when this became a book blog. It hasn’t. Kowal’s novels are steeped in the language and realities of the actual space program, and some of those insights and practices are surprisingly relevant to the challenges and stressors of online teaching and learning.
Slow Is Fast
In space, slow is fast. A mistake can be literally fatal. You can’t rush the process or you could miss a step. Even in non-life-and-death situations, rushing in zero-g can mean putting too much force in your movement and careening into a ceiling or doorway instead of gliding gracefully.
What does this mean for us? Take the breath. Slow down the lesson. Emphasize grace and empathy.
Are you a teacher feeling overwhelmed by the breakneck pace at which we’re careening into a cobbled-together Fall? Slow is fast. Do one small thing. Then do the next small thing.
Are you a caregiver drowning in ed tech apps and trying to help with homework that looks like gibberish to you? Slow is fast. Ditch the tech and find a piece of paper. (You can always snap a photo and email it to the teacher.) Find a kernel you do understand and start there. Send a message to the teacher and ask for guidance, even if it means the assignment gets turned in late.
Work the Problem
Problem-solving is a critical part of the space program. The most famous example, of course, is Apollo 13, but every “off-nominal” moment requires an immediate solution. Working the problem transcends interpersonal conflict. It demands innovative thinking and creative solutions.
Perhaps most importantly for our current moment, the space program has a long history of “preventively” working the problem. Engineers, mathematicians, and astronauts collectively brainstorm everything that could go wrong and preemptively map out solutions, so that if those problems crop up during a mission, they can pull a solution out of a binder (OK, probably pull up a solution on a computer these days) in a matter of seconds.
For teachers and families alike, an important part of our collective preparation right now should be brainstorming all the ways things might go wrong and sketching out potential responses or solutions, so that you’re not scrambling from scratch in the moment. What’s your plan if your power goes out? How do you want to respond if the app you need to use doesn’t work on your device? What’s the backup plan and contact list if you get sick?
You might be thinking, “Isn’t this just borrowing trouble?” I hear you, but the goal here isn’t directionless anxiety, though. Having a clear plan to fall back on is surprisingly reassuring, and knowing that you have clear backups to reference makes the certainty that something will go wrong less daunting.
Build In Redundancies
If you are on a space station, and the oxygen system breaks, you’ve got to have a backup system, or you die. Everything the space program touches has redundancies and legacy systems built into it. Building in redundancies is a good pedagogical strategy even when there’s not a pandemic, but it’s a particularly good approach at the moment. What do I mean by building in redundancies?
- Let’s say you want to use Seesaw to have first-graders submit a multimedia response to questions about the video on the Olympics you had them watch.
- You’ve posted a template on Seesaw for them to load their comments into, but you also create a bare-bones Google Doc that can be emailed quickly, just in case a student can’t access Seesaw.
- Maybe you want to use the poll function in Zoom to do a quick comprehension check to identify the three branches of government at the beginning of class, with the intention of re-running the check after your lesson to see if more students correctly retrieve the information from their neural pathways. (Again, that’s a pretty standard pedagogical method, even in-person.)
- But even though you programmed the poll into Zoom last night, it won’t let you release the poll to the class. It’s not a problem, though, because the question is also in your presentation slides, and your backup plan is to have students use the thumbs-up response for A, the thumbs-down response for B, the clap response for C, and the break response for D, allowing you a less elegant, but still effective way to quickly see how many people chose each response.
- Perhaps your fifth-grader is supposed to be in a synchronous class session at 11:00 AM, and that’s also when you’re supposed to log on for a town hall with your company. You’re pretty sure the Wifi won’t support both sessions.
- You pull up your resource document for your fifth-grader’s class to find the dial-in number that you requested from her teacher at the beginning of the year, just in case, so that she’ll be able to listen to class and get counted as “present” for the day.
Find Your Crew
One of my favorite things about Kowal’s books are the relationships she creates between and among her characters; the astronauts, in particular, bond tightly through their shared ordeals of training, strapping themselves to what is essentially a giant bomb to shoot themselves into space, and then living in tight quarters in what is essentially a tin can surrounded by an unsurvivable vacuum. In space, you don’t have to like the people you work with, but you do need to trust them, because your life is literally in their hands.
Our situation, while precarious, is not quite that perilous, but the importance of a supportive “crew” remains. Even under ordinary circumstances, teachers rely on both social capital and decisional capital to deepen and enrich their pedagogical skills. Social capital requires guidance and feedback from an empathetic person or group whom you trust sufficiently to share your pedagogical crash-and-burns as well as your successes.
Decisional capital involves the development of improved reflexes and judgment in your teaching over the course of time. (There is an obvious parallel to parenting here, as anyone who has ever observed the difference between the parenting choices made for an oldest child and a youngest child can tell you.)
On both the teaching and parenting side, our decisional capital is a mess right now, because none of us has ever had to teach or parent (or both) like this before. We can access some limited decisional capital based on our experiences this Spring and the experiences of those who teach “normal,” non-pandemic online courses, but neither of those situations maps neatly onto what we can or should expect this Fall.
As teachers and as parents, we need a supportive crew, one we trust enough to share the bad days, meltdowns, and failures so that they can share empathetic feedback and offer course corrections.
Like the crew of a spacecraft, you might seek people with different specialties, which might mean subject area expertise, teaching (or parenting) style, teaching level (or age of children), or communication style.
Into the Great Wide Open
The prospect of this school year certainly feels like we’re about to launch into the unknown while strapped to a giant bomb. If we’re going to survive it, borrowing advice from the actual space program seems like a prudent strategy. Kowal’s wonderfully-cadged insights give us useful language for describing how to adapt our mindsets and instincts to an educational landscape that has become as disorienting and alien as Mars. To infinity and beyond? Let’s hope.