PANDEMIC MINUS TWO
TWO DAYS AND COUNTING
Two days and counting until the end of another school year. I am usually thrilled and happy at this time of year. Thrilled at what got accomplished and happy for the break. The atmosphere at school is generally filled with tears of many colors. Sadness tears–“Oh, I am going to miss you so much,” and happy tears, ” I can’t wait for camp.” We always had a party.—Can’t do that anymore. We painted memory murals in groups—Can’t do that anymore, and we hugged– Certainly can’t do that anymore. In a nutshell, we celebrated our year together. We celebrated the family we had become and we mourned the breakup of the family as we knew it. It was bittersweet. I would gladly take that bittersweet. These next two “last days” do not have the warmth and joy usual last days have. Perhaps it is because the end came in March. Yes, many of the sound, research-based educational practices about reading and writing continued in the midst of the Pandemic, but somehow, we all know that Zoom or Google Meet writing conferences are not the same as sitting up close and talking craft. A Google Meet with 25 kids, or even 10 in a small group, if you can get one, is not the same thing as sitting in a circle reading the passages you find that can become your mentor text, or the launching point for a piece of writing. The whole flavor of a reading and writing classroom can get lost in a room that is not filled with students, but food instead. The poet in me can get a muse from the dining room turned classroom turned root storage.
So close together we are in our white bowls,
Together, but not really.
We stand next to each other
The apples, the bread, the potatoes
So much alike
Born of earth
but different, too
Apples with apples
Potatoes with potatoes
Bread, alone and insulated away
Protected by plastic
Our intentions are all the same
Yet, we are blinded by the difference.
But what good is muse without an audience? The quick-writes and the shares. The hand-offs–“Quick, read what you wrote, find the best two lines. Great, next?” are gone. You can try it on Zoom until the internet goes down or someone’s dog starts barking, or when, well, life happens. Life happening is great. So many unborn stories get born from life happening, but the writing classroom is more than a Zoom picture. And I miss it. So do the kids.
What next? How are we going to create the safe, communal classrooms that students need to succeed and be happy in a world filled with fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and distance–when what we all want and need is closeness? If we could guarantee that distance learning and its problems would end on whatever day your district says school is out, we could breathe a sigh of relief and begin reflecting on the experience. But we can’t guarantee that. In fact, there is very little we can guarantee other than uncertainty is going to be a certainty. That being said, with two days left, this teacher wants to share with you some thoughts and experiences. Use or lose–as we say in our department.
1.) Make yourself available– My middle school students, despite their bravado, need to feel connected and attached. They need to know that there is an adult they can depend on and seek out for guidance. In fact, one of my students said that it was the uncertainty of not being able to meet with teachers that created the most stress. I heard that and then multiplied it by a lot. I made sure that on our classroom website, the students knew that I was available and willing to be there. The only requirement was to let me know when we could meet. And overall, it worked. The kids came and talked. Some came to have questions about class clarified or to ask about an assignment. But as trust grew, so did the conversations. This one was worried about mom losing a job, this one was worried about Nanna being ill, that one was worried about her growing depression. These talk-times helped close the gap in separation, and it is a practice I will continue as long as I teach distance learning or otherwise.
2.) Keep a sense of humor– In uncertain times, showing your humanity and what makes you just a regular person does wonders for you and your students. An approachable teacher is a teacher that students will be able to trust and confide in. It is more important than you can imagine to build that trust. Think of ways to be human. Talk about them. Share that old story, that mistake you made, the 4 bags of cookies you ate when no one was looking. Remember that old friend you miss or the dog you have now that you love more than anything ever. Being real makes school, in these unreal times, more real and inviting. This will help your students become comfortable and engage in the learning process.
3.) Be flexible in your expectations- One of the greatest lessons learned in these past three months was the need for flexibility. Trying to do everything the way it used to be done is not possible. You can’t talk to kids briefly as you would in class as you walked up and down the aisles offering a tidbit here and there. “That’s great. You really coined that claim.” Or, “Why don’t you try moving that phrase?” That type of teaching just was not possible virtually in either synchronous or asynchronous classes. It took time to stop feeling guilty about not being able to do that, but I don’t tend to wallow in self-pity, so I learned another way to do it. Padlet became my go-to for quick responses. Instead of trying to duplicate longer writing sessions with more quantity, I taught to clarity, brevity, and message. Good lessons for any type of writing education. I rethought many of my teaching strategies and revised them because it really is impossible to fit a square peg in a round hole, or a giant leek with kale in a tiny pot. And I found that it worked. Maybe not the way I had envisioned it, maybe not the way I wanted, but I learned that flexibility is a key factor in distance learning.
4.) Model Model, Model, Write, Write, Write- This is not new. Modeling is important at any time, but somehow, modeling became even more important now. It was so authentic. I have always practiced writing when my students wrote. In fact, many of the revisions that I made for my dissertation became the revision lessons I taught. I showed them the drafts, I showed them the cross outs, the deletions, the reinsertions, the professor’s comments. Dr. Turner, you were Dr. T. in those lessons. I knew that real practice creates authenticity, but I discovered that modeling my thinking and writing during this Pandemic created many teachable moments. I wrote about my fears during Covid. I wrote about my parents, 94 and 95 years old, who both had Covid. My dad got really sick, my mom, sick, but totally asymptomatic. They both survived. It made it easier for the kids to voice their fears about their own families. I learned about their family members who survived, and those who died, and I cried with them because I understood.
I wrote about developing new past times, what I liked about being in lockdown, what I did not like, and a whole host of other topics. But most importantly, they wrote. Their writing was poignant, heartfelt, and authentic. A writing teacher’s dream. I tried to make sure that all of the important concepts were introduced and developed. Ideas, themes, craft, reading like a writer, and writing like a reader, audience, seeing revision as a process not a punishment, and enjoyment. We made it work.
There are more, but these are the ones I want to share right now. Right now as I enter the final grades and comments. Right now as I plan my last meet. Right now as I plan how I can make my goodbye memorable without the traditional hugs, tears, and mural painting. I am very proud of everyone in the educational field who are tirelessly working each day to help mold our students into happy, healthy, responsible, just, and fair human beings. That is really what we do. Until next time, happy summering.