Montague ’21: “A Tin Can of Friendship Beans: Creating A Community for Kids in the Age of Virtual Learning”

The following essay was written by Chapin Montague ’21 as an assignment for the Spring 2021 semester course Topics in Journalism: The Art and Craft of Journalistic Nonfiction

When Michayla Robertson-Pine ’22 returned to her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts in March after receiving Wesleyan University’s “Do Not Return” email, a message all too familiar to college students across the country, she knew she couldn’t sit around and do nothing. So she teamed up with her friend Tessa Levenstein, an Amherst College student, to create an after-school Harry Potter book club for children of Amherst professors. After a few Zoom sessions, they realized that while witchcraft and wizardry were an enticing draw for kids, what they really needed was a space to play, a fix that would normally come from recess and play dates but was deemed disposable in the new reality of virtual learning.

Robertson-Pine and Levenstein adapted. They hosted a TriWizard Tournament via Zoom–an iconic competition drawn from the Harry Potter universe. Robertson-Pine manufactured a goblet out of a Kiddush cup and candle, and the kids created their own imaginary academies of magic under the ice in Antarctica or in a treehouse hidden deep in the forest. They hosted trivia nights and scavenger hunts, asking kids to look for something they would find in Dumbledore’s office. The kids loved it, and their parents gained a much-needed respite from the chaos of early quarantine.

Then, things got serious. Word spread among parents that kids were falling behind in math, especially concerning considering data predicting that students could lose months of math instruction in the 2020-2021 school year. Kids also became sounding boards for their parents’ anxieties. They were nervous and frustrated about having to stare at screens all day and could not fathom getting through a 9 a.m.-4 p.m. school day alone in their rooms on Zoom. So, Robertson-Pine and Levenstein got serious, too.

They added three new members to their team — Vanderbilt student Natalie Elliot, UMass Amherst student Rafael DePillis, and Wesleyan student Elizabeth (Liz) Woolford ’22—and started a Google folder titled “Let’s Start a School.” From there, the group came up with lesson plans focusing on everything from pre-algebra to movie-making to a full-blown NASA mission simulation. They added tutoring sessions and additional clubs for crafting and baking. They applied for a grant, created a website, made a budget, and launched an advertising campaign. They decided on tuition—$185 for three weeks—but offered a pay-what-you-can option for parents who were having trouble making ends meet. And so, Tin Can Learners was born—a virtual after-school program for the kids of Amherst, Massachusetts, dedicated to building a virtual, after-school learning community for kids.

To unpack the world of Tin Can Learners is to fall down a rabbit hole of chaotic genius and layers of lore that makes you wish you were part of the gang. The average day for a student may consist of concocting a field guide for a one-of-a-kind mythical creature in Homegrown Naturalists, building a shot list for the Tin Can Film Festival: Murder Mystery production, or experimenting with family recipes with the Cook Book! course. The instructors, in the words of one parent, are young enough to feel more like an older sibling than a teacher. Their enthusiasm matches the kids’ own level of imagination and wonder, showcased best in the final project of the Music VideOh! course where instructors Woolford and Robertson-Pine go all out with their students in a choreographed performance featuring Katy Perry’s “Hot N Cold.” Complete with lip-syncing, funky hats, and hairbrush mics, it was like one long virtual slumber party you never want to end.

Each six-week session ends with the long-anticipated showcase—a virtual exhibition for parents to see the work their kids have created and for the students to celebrate. Many students were Tin Can veterans from the early days of Harry Potter, and for them, the showcase was the event of the season.

Emceed by the instructors, these nights were jam-packed with easter eggs of Tin Can lore. There was King Ga Zorp A Zorp, an alien known for abducting instructors and demanding student artwork as ransom; the elusive founder of Tin Can, Old Man Roger Cannery; and, of course, the iconic friendship beans taped to the wall that held everything together. Within a year that had taken so much from them, these kids took ownership over these rituals. In Woolford’s words, it became their thing.

Now, Woolford and Robertson-Pine sit on the floor of Woolford’s room in their wood frame. They decided to come back to campus in-person this semester, and they’re still trying to find words for how they feel about it, but it’s clear they really miss their students.

“Adults on Zoom are just so boring,” says Robertson-Pine before they both assumed the mannequin-esque position of every virtual college student– muted, sporting a sulky face, and slouching.

The Tin Can kids never showed up to class muted with the camera off; they came in blabbering, peering into the lens like a telescope, constantly climbing on desks and peering out from behind walls. They spammed the chat with emojis, came to class dressed as wizards because it was their birthday, and had an ongoing prank of renaming each other in the chats. They acted like kids, and kids are so much more fun.

But Woolford and Robertson-Pine also recognize that Tin Can had to end after their final session this past winter. Eventually, their students had the opportunity to do in-person classes, soccer practices, and tae kwon do in parking lots. They got to actually be together, albeit outside, masked, and distant after the time warp of online school.

“We made the internet the best that it could be for kids,” says Woolford. “In the beginning, some parents told us it was the reason their kid got up in the morning, and now, there’s something better out there.”

And yet, for the instructors, a lot of these kids only ever existed online, which made for bizarre goodbyes. There was no big cleanup, no meeting the parents during pickup, no real closure. Instead, like so many virtual relationships of this past year, these tiny humans they had come to care for blipped out of their lives as quickly as they had Zoomed in. Unlike the fleeting memories of camp, however, virtual learning yielded a vault of Tin Can archives. Now, Woolford and Robertson-Pine are able to marvel at their students’ homemade movies, comics, coding games, and yes, the illustrious Katy Perry music video, whenever adult Zoom just isn’t cutting it.