Fall 2020: The Challenges of Teaching in a Jenga Semester

A typical surface for Jenga, sparking memories of the pre-pandemic classroom.

Even with the tension of the first move, rearrangements are easy early on — sliding pieces out and stacking them on top. A few more rounds bring confidence before the precarious state of the unbalanced structure seems to become too much before CRASH!

Our first week of the semester felt like the beginning of the game. Between the Zoom outage and skyrocketing university COVID cases, it was “game over” (at least temporarily) before many players had a turn. For those of us still teaching hybrid, hyflex, web-assisted or whatever you’re calling the partially online, partially in-class experience, week 2 parallels the midway point of the Jenga game.

It’s not just the cloud of potential quarantines and campus shutdowns that threatens this game though. The demands of what teaching now looks like have skewed how the game is even played. Instead of placing the Jenga tower on a flat table in the dining room, it’s as if we decided to foolishly set the blocks on a porch swing.

Jenga on the swing. Not the best idea.

Things may be relatively still or quiet for the moment, but we know that current conditions are unstable at best.

We have to factor in the additional challenges to the initial environment. Add a breeze to the rickety old swing. The technology that enables social distancing-teaching and flexible attendance also burdens us as instructors. We now have to consider whether or not the system is capturing our lectures and if our makeshift classroom spaces will adequately serve the day’s content. Wearing multiple microphones, we have become amplification marionettes and must be careful not to tangle our wires.

For good measure, let’s let two dogs out to the porch as we play.

This is not going to last long.

Or that’s what it feels like as we find ourselves needing to police the state of classroom health. Was that a sneeze? Or two? Is two too many? Should the student be excused? How do we balance the feelings of one student with the anxiety of the many?

I’m not attacking the protocol of what needed to (and needs) to happen for any in-person classes to occur, nor am I condemning these interactions. My point is to highlight the numerous obstacles shaping our teaching this semester. Just like porch-swing Jenga, we cannot demand “normal.” It’s not going to happen.

We need to redefine expectations. Instead of focusing on class as a vehicle for information delivery, we should aim for the experience itself. Why are we meeting in this way? For me, the real purpose is for us to engage with each other about the course material in (hopefully) meaningful ways. Reducing the emphasis on course objectives helps us to center on class discussion, communication, and camaraderie. All of my good moments thus far have come from student engagement, with me and with each other — the answer to why are we here and even trying this?

This is not a semester for lofty goals or an overhaul of, well, anything. We are already in the midst of that overhaul and must do our best to compensate as we teach on the fly. Much like the Jenga game, we can only take on so many challenges before the tower falls.

Who will clean it up? Will we be expected to immediately play again without changing up the situation or putting the puppies inside?

The game should be the fun part. Picking it all up (especially out of the bush), not so much.

A special thanks to Rosie and Rivet for their participation in my photo illustration.

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