Nathan Houston: Bringing Meaning to Online Learning

Nathan fishing behind the Holy Family Mission in Browning, Montana.

Being a Lasallian Volunteer in the midst of a global pandemic has put me on a journey I could have never predicted. My name is Nathan Houston, and I am a first-year teacher at the De La Salle Blackfeet School in Browning, Montana. It is January 12, and I am a day away from making it halfway through the school year. At the halfway point I have never physically met one of my students. I would be lying if I said the nature of online education has not been disappointing. My disappointment comes from the difficulty of forming positive relationships with my students online. I fully understand the importance of remaining socially distant for the safety of the community. However, the relationships that could have been made over coaching or proctoring recess were not possible.

Teaching online to a bunch of Google profile photos (when a student has their camera off) makes me feel like I am educational TV show like Bill Nye the Science Guy or Dora the Explorer. It is not always easy to tell if someone is on the other side of the computer listening. In my first few months of teaching I have learned to strive to fill the classes with meaningful moments in order to capture the students’ attention. Competing against apps like Tik Tok or Among Us for a student’s attention is a lot harder than I could have thought. But when the class is meaningful and relevant to the student’s life, I have noticed that students can surprise me with just how much they were listening despite having their camera turned off.

Learning to trust my students with their cameras off reminds of an experience of the apostles from the Gospel of John. John 21 tells the story of Peter and the apostles failing to catch any fish. They fished all night and turned up nothing. That experience is something I can relate too. Not catching anything after spending such a long time fishing can feel deflating, casting self-doubt about your own abilities. As the sun rises in the morning and the apostles return to shore, they fail to recognize Jesus on the beach. Yelling from the shore, Jesus tells the apostles to cast their net to the right of the boat. Not knowing that it was Jesus on the shore and not having any good reason to believe that there are any fish to be caught, Peter and the apostles cast the net as instructed. Their willingness to keep trying and faith that something was worth casting their net for, resulted in a huge catch (it also let them know it was Jesus on the beach). As the days go by with online education, I can relate more and more to the apostles from this Gospel passage. I must continue putting in effort to make the lessons meaningful for the students and have faith that they are listening. (I could also give them quizzes to see if they are listening but that’s no fun.)

Nathan Houston is a first-year LV serving at De La Salle Blackfeet School in Browning, Montana. He is a 2020 graduate of Scranton University with a major in theology and religious studies with a concentration in peace and justice studies.

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