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Op-Ed: Throwback Teaching – Outside Classes Amid a Pandemic

Jonathan L. Wharton. Courtesy photo

Jonathan Wharton, an associate professor at Southern Connecticut State University and a frequent guest on NPR’s ‘Wheelhouse’ radio show, grew up in West Hartford. He wrote this column for CTNewsjunkie.com, where it originally appeared.

By Jonathan L. Wharton

It’s hard to believe that this semester I will be teaching two decades in the classroom. Actually, I often taught outdoors, especially at my prior college, Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. And now amid the coronavirus pandemic, I would prefer to teach class outside at Southern Connecticut State University.

But having classes outdoors is not a radical thought. The ancient Greeks held classes outside and debated ideas under olive trees. It was inspirational to have teachers lead students into philosophical thought as others could witness and be a part of the discussion. Even in the early 20th century, New York City was known for outdoor learning during pandemics.

Because of coronavirus concerns, several colleges are planning to have outside classes. A notable institution in our region, Amherst College, was one of the first to plan on it. Other colleges like Eckerd College, Rice University, and the University of California at Davis are setting up tents around their campuses. At Eckerd, they have assigned 51 locations for classes and their bookstore will sell camping chairs. These colleges are rightfully concerned about indoor instruction since coronavirus infection rates are significantly higher in Florida, Texas, and California.

Meanwhile, educators in Connecticut are concerned about returning to the classroom. My CTNewsJunkie colleague, Barth Keck, raised concerns about reopening the public school system. “The current push for a regular schedule is simply not the wise option right now.” He advocates for alternative teaching methods like half-days to divide in-person classes, remote teaching, or both.

Beyond Keck’s suggestions, I want to add teaching classes outside. I was proud of teaching outdoors at Stevens for several reasons. Often, the classrooms were too small and I would have larger classes than expected. I also thought it was inspirational to have outdoor classes since we sat atop of Hoboken’s cliffs overlooking New York City.

Students, especially during late afternoons in the summer, were motivated by discussions and it was not unusual for additional students, administrators and alumni to join our classes. Most importantly, there were dozens of picnic tables and Adirondack chairs that we could move in various places around campus.

Since being at SCSU, I tried having outside classes a couple of times a year. But there are few places conducive to gathering tables, chairs, and benches. Unfortunately there’s also little outdoor furniture beyond the tables around the Adanti Student Center. I know one particular location (that I dare not mention) that has a small wall for students to sit on. But it is difficult to conduct class outside unless everyone wants to sit on a grassy area or stairs. One particular class last year did so and we enjoyed several spring mornings outside instead of in a windowless classroom.

For the upcoming fall semester, many SCSU classes will be online and others will be on campus while some will be a hybrid of both – or hyflex – where classes will be recorded and divided into sections. As an educator, I miss teaching in person but like many of my colleagues, I do have concerns about returning to campus. I chose to have a couple of classes online and on-campus as I know many underclassmen want to be a part of the college experience.

A couple of weeks ago, SCSU had an online forum about reopening campus. I typed in my question about having classes outside. Administrators initially laughed at the thought. I get it, since few underclassmen take a crazy professor’s ideas seriously. But a vice president admitted that a friend’s daughter attends a college where students will bring camping chairs for outdoor classes. The university president mentioned that he would consider taking his freshman class outside. Another vice president was unsure about organizing outdoor chairs but would be willing to help.

I would hope SCSU – and our Connecticut State Colleges and Universities – would seriously consider having outside spaces for classes. Ordering tents is probably pushing it. But having extra benches, picnic tables, and chairs could be a good start. I am used to teaching classes outside, but I need the tools to successfully do so. After teaching for 20 years, I now fear being assigned to windowless classrooms especially with two dozen students during a pandemic.

In the interim, I will ask students in my afternoon classes to bring camping chairs so we can assemble outside. I already have some camping chairs for outdoor office hours in front of my office building – and I have conducted outside office hours before. I am also tempted to go to Ocean State Job Lot in a couple of weeks to get a dozen or so camping chairs since it will be the end of summer and they will likely have a sale.

Republished with permission from CTNewsJunkie.com, all rights reserved.

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