Now in the second month of quarantine, some new realizations. I’m sure many are discovering new things about themselves and others. I know I have.
As a teacher, what was in store was the great unknown. Students had to be on the same page. I think for all of us, this was the most unknown we’ve ever known. When you think about refugees, fleeing for their lives from their home countries and trying to gain entry to a largely hostile country dominated by people who speak a language they don’t, dress the way they don’t, eat the things they don’t, have money they don’t, etcetera, this wasn’t such a big deal. But for us, not being actual refugees, it’s been a big deal.
At the outset, teachers in our district – like many across the globe – settled on Zoom as the way to carry on and fulfill our obligations to the profession, our students, and the community at large. Our district established a minimum daily schedule for each class period, and teachers were trusted to decide how they’d use those time slots for each class. Some teachers planned to meet every day, others every other day. Many have modified or proceeded ad hoc. Each teacher had to figure out how to manage the situation, trying to balance learning objectives with a myriad of new forces: radically different and unequal or non-existent Internet connections for students and teachers; class periods cut in half; wildly disparate levels of technical proficiency among students (some simply were unable, they said, for several days in a row, to find the link to click to attend the Zoom class meeting); un-registered and even un-recognized shock of having to change anything about the day-to-day, to say nothing of the massive shift from the school building to everyone’s “spot” at their house; hesitancy and shyness about being “on camera” for everyone, resulting in a bizarre juxtaposition of Zoom’s Brady Bunch-like grids of “real-time” personages occupied by a forehead here and one eye there, up-close low-angle nostril shots, dark-room reclined girls, behooded faceless hirsute boys, and distant longshots of students trussed among ceiling beams and drapes. The visual spectacle alone of this new reality even Don Delillo or Salvador Dali could never have imagined.
So yeah, here we all are, trying to keep teaching and learning. We’ve got a month left until the end of the “regular” school year. The thought of a groove of some sort to have come to be settled into has long since evaporated. I’ll be the first to admit I haven’t been able to master this domain. And, to be honest, that’s okay with me, although it has been far from pleasant. And I sincerely hope that most teachers don’t master this situation. Teachers mastering this situation – whatever that means – would be suggesting that we’re not needed in the classroom, that students don’t need live teachers in real time and space. All the best education research (Google John Hattie visible learning) says otherwise.
For me, as an English language arts teacher, not being with my students has been particularly stressful. I’m not saying it’s been more stressful for me than it’s been for other teachers; I know that’s not true. We all miss our students, and some of them miss us. My particular stress – and I just realized this today, believe it or not – comes from the fact that English is about communication (all learning requires “communication,” but what I’m talking about is back-and-forth communication, dialogue, speaking-and-listening-and-speaking-again, which is the primary dynamic in my classroom, or at least I like to think it is). All freshmen learn from Mrs. Johnson’s Speech class that 90 percent of communication is nonverbal. Not being in the same room with students means that we’re at a 90 percent disadvantage. Zoom’s virtual environment cannot reliably and consistently deliver body language, tone of voice, or – depending on the quality of each person’s device and Internet connection – even clear speech, so add that to the disadvantage. Also add the frustration effect, for the students and teacher, with the inadequate technology for at least some members of the meeting. Also add the fact that students know they can’t be monitored while Zooming in the same way they’re monitored and kept engaged in class. Also add that students figure out the loopholes in this platform more quickly than most teachers. Also add that most students strongly believe they can multi-task, jumping from Snapchat to Tik Tok to Instagram to Facebook and back all while appearing to be participating in the class’s Zoom meeting. Also add that many students are dealing with the unprecedented reality of having the entire family home all the time, with siblings and parents vying for the same devices, bickering, dogs barking, and all of the typical distractions of the domicile. I have a hard time working in my relatively peaceful home just because I’m distracted by a million projects, my needy Brittany, the mail, emptying the dishwasher, an epiphany about something unrelated to school but that I know if I don’t write it down it’ll be lost forever. Thinking about all this, and my initially intense frustration that my students weren’t getting it done or showing up at all, I’m realizing more clearly each day that it’s a bloody miracle that any student is able to do anything remotely resembling “normal” schoolwork.
Thus, the environment of “school” as a real place begins to look much different. I’ve often shared my criticisms of traditional education with my students, focusing on the regimented start and stop times of classes, the rows of desks, the endless rules (which differ from classroom to classroom), all the while not realizing how much we all actually benefit from a lot of this structure. More than most in my building, actually, I have relied on that formality, often to a fault. This year I was voted “Teacher Most Likely to Send a Student to the Office for Breathing.” I like to think it was in jest, but I earned that recognition from past years trying to develop a reputation. I guess it worked; now I rarely send anyone out of the classroom, but students easily remember certain kinds of things. Still, I’m hearing in our twice-weekly staff meetings that some students who never seemed very “into” school are expressing the desire to be back in the building. For us, and the vast majority around the country, that won’t happen this school year.
So where does that leave us? How can we salvage something positive from the 2019-2020 school year? For graduating seniors, these questions are particularly galling. Even though this summer would be my 40th high school reunion I can still remember the bittersweet ecstasy of late spring graduation time, where everything, even the weather or an insurance billboard, seemed celebratory, ephemeral, transitional. It’s unimaginable how wrong it must feel for these students not to attain anything even close to what they expected, aspired to, hoped for in April, May, and June of their last gasp at high school. I truly feel for them. Recently, some of them drove to my house for our daily meeting, parking in my big gravel driveway, and we just ate lunch and chatted. It was warm and sunny, and was the first time I’d seen them in the flesh in nearly two months. It was a beautiful group sigh of relief. I knew I’d missed them, and had regularly told them so on Zoom, but didn’t understand how much I’d missed them until they were gone and it was quiet again and I didn’t know when, or if, I’d see them next. We’ve got some time to find some better answers, and I just hope I stumble on something better than what I’ve come up with so far. I also feel it’s important to prepare myself for the possibility I might not.
My dual-credit English class of juniors and seniors are finishing this year-long “Literature and Ideas” course reading Chinua Achebe’s important novel Things Fall Apart, which begins with an excerpt of W.B. Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming,” including the lines: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” I started by asking them to analyze Yeats’ poem. One of them began her introduction, “I’m not sure if you specifically chose this poem for us to analyze due to the current pandemic, or if it was a coincidence. If this was a coincidence, I think it’s quite ironic that you assigned us a reflection on a poem about the ‘second coming’ during a time when many people believe we are about to experience a revelation.” It was a coincidence, as I’d planned the course more than a year ago. It has been intensely frustrating for me not to have the time and space to discuss this book and the satellite material I’d prepared to bring into the discussion, plus listen to my students’ ideas about how all this might relate to our current moment. Zoom can’t abide what’s necessary to do justice to this stuff. My frustration boiled over the other day and I took it out on the class during our meeting. It didn’t go well, and I’ve felt like rubbish since. I know several students are in the same boat and I wish I could make it up to them somehow. These kinds of realities are par for this uncharted course – we’re all imperfect humans, after all — but knowing that doesn’t help. I keep thinking about the book and one of its main messages: things fall apart, but that doesn’t mean we stop trying to put them the *&% back together. It’s really all we can do. And, looking back, it’s been done many times before. So there’s that. I do believe there are better days ahead and that we’ll be better — including better to one another — for having lived through it (those of us lucky enough to survive this). Right now, though, I’m going to try to be a better listener.