This was originally drafted for one of the best educators, @LarryFerlazzo. He is incredibly generous and collaborative: he shares his platform for a wide variety of teacher-writers and has included me in two podcasts, including this one: https://www.bamradionetwork.com/track/yes-teaching-poetry-can-be-powerful-riveting-and-fun-if-you-do-this/
This article didn’t make the cut, however. (technically my first writing rejection!) And that’s totally cool. I was honest with him and in my writing: it might be confusing, emotional, and rambling. I can’t hit a home run every time, and that’s why I am honored to be given a chance to try. Here it is, and thank you for reading.
The First Days…Teaching 21st-Century Students During a Pandemic
Somewhere in an obscure psychology text, published after the 1918 influenza pandemic, I imagine a wise doctor described the mental health issues that arose after the pandemic was over. World War I raged until November of that year, and the outbreak occurred during the final months. What might the good doctor have written, if such a text exists? Would he have said one might experience shell shock, depersonalization disorder, or depression? Maybe this text exists somewhere with the perfect passage that provides not only diagnosis but therapeutic suggestions. But this wishful thinking won’t serve our needs in the present tense. For someone who believes anything can be solved by reading, I am not finding that answer now. Looking to the past for answers only goes partway.
This time, just over 100 years later, we aren’t in a World War, but we are in a time of crisis. No matter one’s partisan views, there is abundant evidence that the current President of the United States came to power because of deeply racist beliefs. He did not start these, but he crystallized and coalesced the “masterless men” (Keri Lee Merritt). Capitalism, and other “isms,” are not living creatures, but simulate and replicate systems that work for or against humanity. And one of those institutions of civilizations, the education of citizens, (and who has access to that education), is in distress.
This moment did not come unannounced. The past informs us, just like we use data to inform instruction. And yet, we did not put the “data,” rather the history, to good use. While I amuse myself with thoughts of random 20th-century psychology books, I know it’s just a mental exercise to keep my mind off of the issues in front of me. I, and thousands of teachers around the country, had to say goodbye to our students for the next eight weeks, and perhaps longer. My roster is small but large in need and love. Saying goodbye to those who attend the high school where I teach was as challenging as years past when I had twenty-five or more students, five times a day. The confusion and chaos about what things are going to look like must be answered with 21st-century skills, but I am wondering what can we borrow from the early 20th century to help our students best?
My students are academically fragile: students who attend alternative high schools are in need of safe alternatives for credit recovery and graduation. Each student was given a Chromebook to take home, and I provided a hastily worded letter with my email address, some ideas of things to do, and reminders to please check in with the school website and my Google Classroom. I asked each one to bring home a book of their choice from my classroom library. I’ve been practicing blended learning for years, preparing creativity bundles for kids before breaks, building relationships, and know-how to teach online. But nothing has prepared me for this. I feel that I’ve pushed them into an educational lifeboat with flimsy lifepreservers.
Keep in mind many of our students around the country are not going to check online for work. They’re just not. And my students are no exception. I gave them what I could. What plans are in place for students who fall off the radar? So, for those of us who teach students who may not be checking in, we’ll just have to keep calling, emailing, and making ourselves available.
What people had in 1918 that we lack one hundred years later is processing time. And that time is what I want for my students: time to create, think, be safe, read, breathe, eat, stay warm and dry. But they weren’t readers before this, and they didn’t write before this: they never saw the value. One freshmen girl constantly chastises me for “wasting money on books.” This must be my focus and responsibility, now more than ever. I am the only ELL teacher on staff and have the honor of supporting students whose middle and high school experiences brought them in my life. I cannot change their pasts but am dedicated to their futures. I will keep sending out messages to them, and keep reaching out and make a schedule of contact with each of them. I’ll provide a daily creativity break, and send reassuring messages, Let’s use the technology available to us in this century to reach out with words, love, and hope, lessons of the past to ease the present and hope for the future. Connect with your students as humans first, not students. Which is what we should have been doing all along.
I’ve heard from 5 of my 25 students. Some have joined me on Google Meets. I have a plan to reach out to more. I am trying to remain positive, active, and hopeful.