The Fourth P of 2020

Others are writing more profoundly about the meaning of 2020: Politics, Pandemic, and Protests. I can only write about the 4th P: the Personal. The Personal includes my family, my community, and my experience teaching public high school during the most disruptive year of my professional career. 

I miss my students. People keep asking me how they’re doing. My answer: I don’t know. Most of them attend my Zoom classes most of the time. Most of them turn in assignments most of the time. I don’t see them or hear them. Cameras are off and their microphones are on mute. I teach to little black boxes with names written in white. I teach like I’m a radio dee jay in a sound booth.

It’s the students who don’t attend class and don’t turn in work who worry me. I spend a lot of time reaching out students who have disappeared. I contribute money for PTSA gift cards and support the MCPS Foundation. I post links to food distribution sites and help students navigate the Pandemic-EBT card requirements. I call parents, and I email counselors. I chat with co-teachers and document every outreach effort in our new Synergy system. My ESOL department chair says that we’ve “lost” 11 students so far this year, students who have been withdrawn from school. I’m really worried about what this means going forward. 

I miss my hard drive. In July I spilled a glass of water on my laptop, losing more than two years of creative writing and work. I thought everything was backed up in iCloud, but only my photos were saved (and I am very grateful for that). I lost all of my writing from my year living in Laos. This spring, I was at my most prolific and am publishing my first short story based on this writing. I am devastated by the loss of personal documents. 

I miss my family. Like the rest of the country, I’m in mourning about what we’ve lost this year: 340,000 people to Covid-19, dozens of black lives that matter, countless graduations, proms, weddings, funerals, and homecomings. I haven’t hugged my mother in 10 months. I haven’t seen my son since last Christmas.

My relatives are divided by politics. Those who remain in the Deep South supported the Vulgarian in the White House for a second term. I could not fathom what qualities in him they admired. Then I figured it out. My respect for them has diminished. My siblings are divided by decisions about my mother’s health care and estate management. I am grieving for the togetherness we have lost. 

A crisis does not build character; it reveals character. 2020 has shown who we are as a country. It has shown who my family really is. I still love them. I still love my country. A new year always brings hope. 

2020

Rhythms of virtual teaching

For nineteen of the past twenty years, I have woken up at 5:00 am every school day. By 7:00 am I was in my classroom welcoming early students who needed a place to put their heads down or eat breakfast until the bell for first period rang. High schools in MCPS usually start at 7:45. Not any more, not with Covid-19 keeping us all connected by computer. Most of my professional life has been measured by bells ringing, 10-week marking periods, testing schedules, holiday breaks, and seasons. This year has disrupted the usual rhythm and made me much more aware of what I have lost, and what I have gained. 

My schedule is still segmented into hour-long periods and 10-week quarters, but there are no bells ringing. Just my alarm, which now goes off at a reasonable 6:30 am. This is how I begin my day: yoga stretches, shower, walk in the neighborhood, coffee and breakfast, read emails & news, and talk to my husband. My duty day starts at 8:15, but virtual classes don’t start until 9:00. I begin by checking online work platforms, chatting with co-teachers, checking which students handed in assignments the night before, and planning for the day’s instruction. 

A lot of people don’t understand that teachers working remotely are still teaching. Here’s my weekly schedule:

I teach four hours a day, four days a week, live on Zoom. On Wednesdays, we have meetings from 9:00-10:30, then meet with small groups of students – if they show up – for check ins. My camera is on, the lesson uploaded, and we deliver instruction to groups of 28 at a time. I say we because high school ESOL teachers have moved to a co-teaching model this year, so I support 6-10 English Language Learners in Honors English 10 and Honors English 12. There are no regular English classes (we’re all above average in MCPS).

In our district, we have to record every lesson, which is posted to Canvas (our platform), and self-destructs in 72 hours. Students are not required to turn on their cameras so we teach to a screen of black tiles with the student’s name written across it in bold, white Arial. With so many students and two teachers, everyone has to keep their microphones muted, or the feedback noise distorts our voices. Fortunately, we have the chat feature, and high schoolers know how to use it. Some days we’re lucky if we get even that much participation. We put students in breakout rooms with instructions to discuss a reading, and when we pop in on them, black-tiles and silence. I really miss seeing their faces and hearing their voices.

Co-teaching has been a huge adjustment for me, since every lesson takes twice as much planning and I work with four different teachers across two grade levels. The curriculum is new and has to be pared down to the bare minimum. We are getting the revised curriculum materials just a week before delivering instruction, and there isn’t sufficient time to prepare alternate readings or provide appropriate grammar and language support for English Language Learners during the whole-group meeting. With some of my co-teachers, I play an active role in class. With others, I am a silent observer delivering ESOL support through Zoom chat. Focused Intervention groups are put in place to help the at-risk students, but the neediest ones never show up at that designated time. 

And yet, we have made it through the end of November somehow. What seemed unsustainable in early September has become routine. I’ve learned how to engage in careful dialogue with my peers about instructional materials and methods of delivery. They have learned how to simplify their assignments and the importance of using visuals when speaking. I’ve reached out to struggling students – not just those learning English – and gotten to hear the voices of parents, guardians and the students themselves. Most are really appreciative to have a phone call and a compassionate listener. 

My duty day ends officially at 3:30 pm but I am never off-duty in a virtual world. I constantly check email, Synergy mail, Canvas mail and platforms where students might have questions or submit late work. Every two weeks, I follow up with students who have zeros – sending explicit instructions with live links of how to complete the assignments. Where co-teachers are comfortable with shared responsibility, I grade papers and make comments. I create rubrics and slides to share with colleagues. It’s nonstop, but it’s rewarding. Most students are showing up. Most students seem to be okay.

This year, I have gained a huge appreciation of the natural world around me. I am so lucky to have rowing (even though the season is officially over), and I’m lucky to have the woods near my house. Every morning, I walk through the neighborhood or hike down the path. I listen to the birds, I breathe in smells of damp leaves on the forest floor, I focus on the seasonal changes around me, and enjoy this rare moment to walk in the early-morning sunlight before school starts. 

Unmuting myself

           I haven’t lost any family to COVID-19. My home was not ravaged by floods or blown apart by a hurricane. I did not have to escape a wildfire with just the clothes on my back. My school district has (mostly) listened to teachers and kept students home doing online instruction. I am fully employed. I feel grateful for good health and enough food to eat. But an unsettled feeling of restlessness, tension, and anxiety keeps me tossing and turning at night. 

           The combative tone set by the White House and uncertainty around the November 3 presidential elections permeate every daylight hour. Teachers are working harder than ever – learning new platforms, new apps, new instructional models, adjusting to new schedules, and adapting curriculum. We are juggling our own family responsibilities on top of four+ hours a day of mandated live Zoom meetings, each of which requires additional prep time. Yet we are being torn apart in the media for being “lazy” because we fought to do virtual-only learning until it is safe to go back into school buildings.

Where society is failing, teachers are getting it done. The Board of Education seems to think that regulating our every waking hour will justify our salaries. We are the professionals – we need to determine how our own time is spent. I can guarantee that teachers will put in extra hours to get the job done, no matter what the Board says. Schools are distributing meals, providing mental health counseling, and reaching out to families who need tech support. Schools provide a safe space and a community for the children we teach. Nobody knows better than classroom teachers how important it is to get kids back into the building. Online instruction is far from ideal, but it is better than putting a single life at risk due to COVID-19.

This year, for high school ESOL teachers in my district, there’s an added layer of complexity to our jobs. Instead of small, self-contained ESOL classrooms, we are now coteaching Honors English classes – we have no on-level English courses. My English Language Learners (ELLs) are now in classes with 29 students. Am I supposed to deliver ESOL services via Zoom chat while the regular teacher is talking? I’m struggling with this model. Coteaching is really hard. So much harder than teaching alone. It requires patience, diplomacy, careful dialogue, and mutual respect. I appreciate that my colleagues are so open-minded and hope that I am not stepping on their toes or pushing my ideas on them too much. It’s supposed to be a collaboration, but I feel marginalized. Just like my students.

All I want is for our leaders to recognize how hard it is to be a teacher right now. The students are showing up for class, ready and willing to learn. They need the structure and the opportunity to engage with peers. Even though I rarely see the students’ faces on Zoom or hear their voices, I know they are participating in this new way of doing school. When I lose sleep over the workload or the direction of the country, I remember the students. And I feel grateful for the best job in the world.

Jump! How high?

Teachers are by nature long-range planners. So when the school district says “Jump!” they usually respond, “How high? How far? How often? By what measure? Where do we record our progress? Using what platform? When is it due?” But this year is different. In the state of Maryland, Governor Hogan announced that buildings could reopen – two days before school started. Teachers are asking, “Why?” and not getting good answers back. So we have taken to collective action to protest the reopening physical schools, and I’m happy that it seems to be working.

In my district, teachers wrote thousands of letters to the Board of Education before their vote. One member said she’d never felt so much pressure. Good! How can administrators, politicians, parents, and Board members fail to think about teachers when they make decisions to reopen schools? Nobody wants to teach to a computer screen full of little black tiles with microphones muted and cameras turned off. We all want schools to reopen – but it has to be safe. School officials must address teachers’ “what if” questions. 

What if students refuse to wear their masks? What if a student gets sick? What if a teacher gets sick? What if she has no more sick leave? What if we teach Special Education and have to help students with personal care? What happens during lunch when students take off their masks to eat? Who cleans the classroom? What if the ventilation is 40 years old and inadequate in the best of times?

We just finished the first week of online school and I’ve been inspired by my colleagues. We’re adapting to the virtual world like superheroes! In the last few weeks, teachers have turned spare corners into classrooms with professional lighting, microphones, sound systems, and props. Teachers have become the stage crew for their own superhero productions. I think some of my colleagues have even mastered CGI special effects. 

Those in my professional learning community have shown the power of collaboration — helping one another implement a new instructional model, master a dozen new apps, use a new platform, navigate a new database and grading system, adapt a new curriculum, and a live a new schedule. We’ve got multiple laptops open, countless training hours logged, we’ve prepped and met, and it was all worth it, even if we couldn’t really see the students. I have never appreciated my colleagues more.

Everyone wants to get back to school – we yearn for the relationships developed in person. I miss my students so much, and I know they miss school. But here we are, teaching and learning in a global health pandemic, working harder than we’ve ever worked before, doing the best we can.

When politicians make decisions about my working conditions without considering our legitimate health concerns, I just have one final question: what if none of the teachers agree to go back to school? 

Lost and Found

So many people are mourning their losses this spring and summer. A killer virus lurks around every corner – or every person not wearing a face mask – and we have lost the ability to do almost anything normal. We can no longer go to work, gather in large crowds, sit indoors at restaurants, or attend parties. Virtual cocktail hours have replaced the real thing. Political divisions and raw emotion have replaced civil discourse. When I most need a friendly hug or a collegial conversation, the best I get now is an elbow bump or Zoom. I miss my colleagues, my students, and my friends. I miss my mother.

With almost at 150,000 deaths from COVID-19 in the US, I think about Mum sitting alone in her assisted living apartment, safe from the pandemic for now. She is recovering from hip surgery and will probably never walk again, due to her advanced dementia and the fact that no physical therapists are allowed into the facility. She can barely hear, so a phone call is frustrating. I feel like I’m losing my mother bit by bit. However, I know that she is still here physically, and am thankful for that small grace, when others have not been so lucky.

Yesterday I found a little moment of happiness when I went to visit her. I expected to sit outside her window and communicate through the glass. Instead, the Activities Director wheeled her out to the front porch, all bundled up in a blanket, and allowed us a precious 30-minute visit. Just hearing her voice was a salve to my heart. She reminisced about her life as an Army nurse during World War II, about how they gave her so much responsibility, even though she was very young. I wanted desperately to hug her and warm her hands in mine.

Small moments of success like this take on new meaning during a global pandemic. My mother is a fighter, and she has passed down that optimism to me. In spite of the mounting losses in the world, I can feel grateful for this brief human connection.

 

Little Black Boxes

Each black square represents a student who has logged in to our ESOL 5 Zoom class. Their video is turned off and the microphone is muted. I stare at my face in its own little box as I pose the circle question to get started. “If you could create the ideal society, what would you be sure to include?” One at a time they unmute their microphones and speak. “Free health care for everyone, equal opportunity, no race discrimination, free university, and free food.” We were reading a short dystopian fiction piece, and I was pleased with their thoughtful responses. It was before George Floyd and the marches for racial justice. It was in late April, a long time ago, and students were worried about COVID-19 and getting their next meal. They were still engaged in online learning. I was still wearing lipstick and earrings to class.

Now school is finished and I’m heartbroken that it was so anti-climactic. I didn’t get to return their Reflection writing from the first week of school and have them comment on their goals. We didn’t have a party. I didn’t get to send the seniors off with a final celebration or watch them march across the stage to Pomp and Circumstance. I didn’t get to remind the ESOL 1 students how much their English has improved. We didn’t talk about summer plans. I’ve been so focused on getting to the finish line, that I didn’t expect the rush of emotion that came with the slow fade out.

As frustrating as it was to conduct classes with my computer screen, I relished every single contact I had with students. Breaking with my 15-year policy of not sharing my personal cell phone, this spring I routinely gave my number to every student. I cringed in anticipation of abuse, but it never came. Students were super respectful of this new relationship and never contacted me too early or too late. On Sunday I got a message in Spanish from a newcomer: Are we finished with school? I think you said yes. Another student asked for a second supermarket gift card for her family. A third student wanted to confirm his new address so that he could get his diploma mailed there. These are not normally things I would have to address.

Some students fell off a cliff after March 13th and I never really heard from them again. I spent hours trying to reach them, documenting every call, every email, every U.S. Mail letter that I sent. Bilingual counselors got involved. Administrators followed up. Three students moved back to their countries. I logged every contact in the system. I excused missing assignments and graded with compassion, assuming hardship. When students turned in work, I found something positive to say. When students showed up for Zoom, I talked about my cat, my neighbor, my son, or what I was reading before I reviewed the week’s work. I never “wasted time” like that before, and it felt like a much-needed mindshift.

If there’s anything good that came out of this COVID-19 crisis teaching, it’s that I’ve built new relationships with students. I feel much closer to the ones who stayed active. We know each other better in a different way than we would in a classroom. I know who has noisy little siblings and who has tension with her parents. In spite of this, the ESOL students have given thoughtful, mature, philosophical answers to questions that I posed for discussion. In part, it’s because they’re well-rested and there’s little else for them to focus on. Another part is that they actually crave a connection to school and learning.

School’s out for summer, but I’m not naïve enough to think that we won’t be using some form of online instruction in the fall. I know now that I will have to work hard at building real relationships with students from the very beginning – that means learning about their families, their culture, their thoughts and feelings, their music, hobbies, and interests. It means sharing more of myself with them, creating a safe environment where they can open up, and encouraging genuine reflection.

If I could create the ideal classroom, every student would have equal opportunity, free food, and universal health care. There would be no discrimination by race, gender, or other indicator. I’m optimistic that the dystopian nightmare we are living through will one day end, and my students will show up ready and eager to learn. I will have engaging, meaningful lessons matched perfectly to their interests and abilities. In the meantime, I’ll be reading, reflecting, and reaching out to colleagues this summer, hoping to rebuild a routine in the fall. I will have a new haircut and nobody will notice because we’ll all just be so happy to see each other in person.

This moment is too big

You would think that with all of this down time I’d be blogging more than ever. Instead I have been almost paralyzed by the enormity of this moment in time. Where would I even begin to make sense of it all? I’m taking an online writing class and the instructors always recommend that we “write small.”

Do I write about a newcomer ESOL student whose first day in my class was the Wednesday before school ended? The one who spoke no English at all? I got her a Chromebook to take home and she signed into my Google Classroom. When she asked why (in Spanish), I didn’t have the words or the time to explain. I thought it would be a two-week shut down and at least she could see my announcements.

Do I write about how I’ve taught myself how to use a new platform? How I’ve downloaded unfamiliar apps, selected, edited and published assignments, then performed troubleshooting tech support when my students couldn’t access the content I spend hours and hours creating? I could talk about my first Zoom meeting with 21 students. Before I knew how to use all the features and before my district blocked some of them – one of the students took the entire class with him into the bathroom while he checked his hair in the mirror. He made loud, rude noises while we all watched, listened, and laughed uncomfortably. Now I’m happy if students show up at all for Zoom class.

I could write about my ESOL 5 class, the advanced class. I’ve noticed that even with these nearly-proficient students, there’s some back-sliding. They’re making grammar and pronunciation mistakes that I thought were corrected back in January. But the good thing is that I’m focusing less on the errors and more on the substance of they’re saying. If one good thing has come from this coronavirus shutdown it’s that students are giving better, more thoughtful responses to questions I pose.

“If you could have any superpower, what would it be?” or “If you could meet anyone, living, dead, or fictional, who would it be and why?” or “What is more important, fairness or freedom?” My students have more time to be reflective. I have more time to read all their answers, to give personalized feedback, and to have the sense of real and valuable exchange. I wish we had more time to be reflective during the school year instead of running on a treadmill. This slow down is causing us all to be a little more philosophical.

Students all over the world are being affected negatively by this shutdown. But many of my students are hungry, fearful, and bored. Immigrant families are not getting a stimulus check or filing for unemployment. They’ve lost jobs and have no safety net. Every day I call the families, and they seem grateful for information about community resources, food, medical assistance, immigration centers that offer financial aid, etc. One student said she’s afraid for her mother to go shopping for fear of deportation. Another selected an image to describe for an assignment. It showed a woman walking down an empty city street. “She’s probably going shopping because there’s no food at home.”

I understand what a heroic effort it takes to learn new technology. My students are doing it in a foreign language, during a global health pandemic, often without any support at home. The ones who most need my help are not able to ask for it. One of my Level 1 newcomers sent me a message that she had deleted by mistake all the slides on Google Classroom. She hadn’t deleted anything; she had simply added 10 empty slides by mistake and didn’t know to scroll down to see them. Most can not even tell me why they’re not doing any work.

I’ve got half the students most high school teachers have. I won’t say it’s easy, but I have now telephoned, emailed or sent USPS letters to every single one of them, starting with seniors and working my way down to the ones who have disappeared. When that doesn’t work, I can ask bilingual counselors, administrators, or pupil personnel workers for help. I can also text students whose cell phone numbers I have and ask them if they know how to contact a classmate. These are not normal times, and sometimes we have to go against “the rules” to make sure our students are okay.

I want to write about my Level One ELL newcomers who will barely open their mouths during a Zoom conference, even when I provide sentence starters, a model, and plenty of wait time. They prefer to speak Spanish. But I’m so happy they’ve shown up at all; I cherish every moment together, even if I’m doing most of the talking.

I want to write about how I’m working way more than 40 hours per week, and learning so much that I didn’t have time to learn before. We will come out of this shutdown stronger, I think, with more compassion for each other. I know for sure that I will change my teaching style and try to get to know my students better, faster. I will need to foster communication circles so that we know how to talk to each other (in English) face-to-face. The importance of human connection has never been brought so starkly to the forefront.

As a teacher, it is my duty to instruct English language, but in the future, I will focus more on authentic tasks that bring students closer together. The rote homework-completion tasks will have to be reduced, and the classtime spent on learning who our classmates are. This “relationship building” will not just be relegated to something to check off a list during the first week of school. I need to get better at the touchy-feely aspects of learning that I once used to be skeptical of. There is nothing more important than human connection right now.

The terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week

In spite of the beautiful spring flowers, we have endured one of the most anxiety-filled weeks I can remember. It started with Daylight Savings Time taking away the morning light. Most high school teachers know the effects of asking teens to wake up an hour earlier. First period was zombie land for three days.

On top of that, it was a full moon. Students are usually agitated just before a full moon, but this was not just any full moon; it was a bright supermoon that shined like a glowworm through the eyes of every miscreant. S is not usually the most focused student, but when she called me a bad name in Spanish, I pretended not to understand. I had to remind J & K not to fake chokehold each other while I was presenting literary elements.

By Thursday, the anxiety over corona virus had spread to my classroom. On Thursday, I had to stop instruction 15 minutes early to talk about it. Teachers were instructed not to “ad lib” so we went to the district and the CDC website and looked at information there. Mostly I just let students vent. My students are all from foreign countries. One student has a mother in Wuhan, China and his worry is already two months old.

On Thursday evening, the governor of Maryland announced that all schools will close for two weeks. Friday was a scramble of trying to finish work, clear out the refrigerator and make sure students could get on to Google Classroom for any information. We are NOT allowed to create new assignments for a grade or to continue instruction. I told students that I will check email every day and post optional assignments so that they can keep up their English language proficiency.

Now I’m heading outside to enjoy the spring weather. I hear that sunshine is a natural antibiotic. I plan to get a lot of it in the next two weeks.

Paperclips in my pockets

On the last day of school before Winter Break, I cleared off my desk, stuffed student papers into color-coordinated take-home folders, took down my classroom holiday decorations, cleaned out the shared refrigerator, and headed to my car before the sun went down. When I changed clothes before bed, I noticed that my pockets were bulging. I pulled out chewing gum, mints, an Advil, and a handful of paperclips. I don’t remember putting those things in my pockets, but I was clearly prepared for coffee breath, a headache, and organizing stacks of papers.

Teachers subconsciously prepare for every single school day like this. Anyone who’s been around children long enough knows to expect the unexpected. It’s one of the reasons teachers have such good auto insurance – we drive with eyes in the backs of our heads, too. As we head into 2020, it’s hard not to proclaim perfect vision for the next year just for the effect. Even though I don’t have any clue what’s coming, here are the paperclips I’ve got in my pockets. Metaphorically, that is.

Money in the bank. I’m old enough, stable enough, and married long enough to have some savings for the first time in my life. As I witness the generation before me starting to pass away en masse, I feel prepared for our next life stage – financially, at least. If I don’t blow it. I have good insurance, I own a house and a car, and I don’t have any debt except a monthly mortgage. My children have no more student debt. That is a huge relief.

A bucket list. Although many of these things are still just vaguely-formed desires floating around in my head, I have travel journeys picked out, a pile of books to read, and writing goals to accomplish. I hope to visit as many Maryland state parks as possible in 2020, to drive cross country, to publish something with my name on it (short story, memoir, poetry, curriculum), and to travel to Eastern Europe and maybe Madagascar.

Good health habits. Every day when I get home from school, I take a walk outside. I’m fortunate to live in a woodsy suburb where fresh air feels good no matter the time or temperature. As I walk up and down the hills, I feel fortunate to call this my neighborhood. I greet neighbors out walking their dogs, I see basketball games under the lights, and I recharge my energy. Since we don’t eat too many meals together anymore as a family, I usually eat something small early in the evening and finish before 6:00 pm. I’m not sure if this counts as intermittent fasting – the health trend of the year – but I like how it makes me feel.

Family. During the holidays, most of us connect with important people in our lives. I am grateful to have a big family that, in spite of all our differences, can come together for Christmas every year. We have a White Elephant gift-giving tradition that seems to be our “new” family model – a way that my autistic brother, my elderly mother, the unemployed young people, and the Jewish in-laws can all feel comfortable participating. Like the ever-ready teacher, I always bring an extra gift or two in case someone shows up I didn’t expect.

Friends. More than ever, I am grateful for friends. My oldest friends are women I have known since I was a teen. We have shared big moments in each others’ lives: weddings, babies, international relocations, new jobs, retirements, and funerals. We can call each other up to share moments of pain or joy, or to invite the others to join us in a new adventure. When I was younger I did not place enough importance on these friendships. But now I realize that my female friends sustain me like nothing else in my life. Just like I put paperclips in my pockets, I put my friends there without thinking. In 2020 I hope to bring more mindfulness to nourish these relationships.

As we roll into the new year, I am ready for the unexpected. My desk is clear and my pockets are full. I am bursting with plans and gratitude in equal measure.

 

Paper Clips