Helping Students Embrace Social Interaction: Guest Post by Jordan Sonnenblick

When I outlined my first memoir, The Boy Who Failed Show and Tell, one thing that immediately struck me was how much of my preteen life was spent rocking back and forth on a pendulum. Half the time, I wanted to be completely invisible to everyone around me including peers, parents, and especially teachers. The other half of the time, with equal ardor, I wanted to be noticed, exceptional, famous.

What an impossible way to live.

I taught public school for 14 years before my writing career became a fulltime gig. Then I took 15 years off to write and raise my kids. I’d toyed with the idea of teaching again someday, once my own kids were grown, but had no real plans or timetable until COVID hit. Suddenly, like every other children’s author in America, I found myself with a calendar completely devoid of in-person school visits. After a year and a half of Zooming from my tiny basement office, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore.  I applied for a one-semester job teaching 10th-grade English in my old school district in New Jersey.

Being thrown into the crazy world of COVID-era education after a decade and a half of civilian life held lots of shocks (Google Classroom?  Lockdown drills? The dreaded Devious Licks TikTok trend?), but those didn’t make as much of an impact on me as the overarching change I saw in the students’ mental health. After a year and a half of Zoom school, half-empty in-person classes on alternating schedules, masking, distancing, testing, vaccinations, illnesses, deaths, and—above all—unpredictability, these kids were right where I’d been as a preteen, but even more so. After hiding behind screens (often with cameras off) and masks for so long, these 15-year-olds almost seemed like gigantic sixth graders. They wanted to be seen, heard, and noticed, but they were also overwhelmed by social anxiety.

During my original career as a teacher, I had always tried to make my classroom as interpersonal, learner-focused, and socially interactive as possible. However, every time I tried to use my 2005-era interactivity tricks in 2021, they bombed. The same few bold kids would participate every time, while the other 17 members of each class would stare blankly (provided they weren’t pointedly looking away, burrowed down into their hoodies, or—horrors!—surreptitiously on their phones). After a whole bunch of trial and error, I figured out that the majority of my students simply were not willing to take even the slightest emotional risk without significant support and relationship building. After 18 months of basement-Zoom anonymity, being seen was, as they say, a lot.

So, how do we make this generation of traumatized kids, who’ve lived a bizarre mix of anonymity and total social media immersion for so long, come out of their shells and reveal their best selves within the four walls of our classrooms?  Honestly, I struggled with this on a daily basis the whole semester. I did find some things that tended to work, though.

One is getting the kids up and out of their seats and letting them “vote with their feet.” When I was introducing Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, for example, I tried to do a standard anticipation guide with my first-period class, but nobody was willing to give an opinion on anything out loud. I decided I had to change things up on the fly, and for the rest of the day, I had the kids arrange themselves on a continuum between the dry-erase board at the front of the classroom and the one at the back based on how strongly they agreed with each of the five statements on the anticipation guide. For example, the first statement I wrote on the front board was, “No dog should ever be killed, for any reason.” On the back board, I wrote, “Dog owners should be able to kill their dogs whenever they feel like it.”  Once the kids in my second-period class (my toughest and most clammed-up group of the day) had arranged themselves between the two boards, I asked them to justify their positions, and—to my thrilled surprise—a raging debate broke out between the kids near the front board who felt that even a one-legged dog with end-stage cancer should be sustained for as long as possible at all costs, and a pair of students near the back, who insisted that keeping a suffering dog alive was done more for the benefit of the owner than for the dog.

On a normal day, I had to beg these kids to open their mouths and say anything aside from, “May I go to the bathroom?” Imagine my delight when they started literally shouting “Wuss!” and “Dog killer!” across the room at one another. And even more so when, days later, we got to the dog-killing scene in the novella and the class avidly debated each character’s actions and motivations.

Another thing that worked for me was getting the kids to show their knowledge silently. Making up online BINGO games for Julius Caesar and figures of rhetoric worked well. Having them move colored paper markers around their desks so I could see they knew the answers, but other kids couldn’t, was another hit. So was anything that let them draw or do graffiti around the room. Perhaps the most effective thing I ever did along these lines was on my last day in the classroom. As an introductory activity so their new teacher, who was returning from maternity leave, wouldn’t be starting from scratch with them, I gave the students a choice. They could either decorate a paper plate with everything that’s “on their plate” in their own lives, or do the same for the outline of an iceberg: What do people see “above the surface” when they meet you? What deeper stuff “below the waterline” are they missing?

The kids knocked this one out of the park. They wanted their new teacher to see them.

But still, now that I’m back to doing author visits, and mask mandates have ended, I am seeing tons of students wearing sunglasses indoors.  These kids are still struggling against the urge to be invisible. I think we are all going to have to give them a lot of love, a lot of grace, and a lot of different means of self-expression if we want them to feel safe opening up.

I mean, these are the things I needed from adults back in 1980. The need is just greater and more urgent now.

Betsy Bird