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.

Published by

evaksullivan

Eva K. Sullivan teaches English Language Learners in Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland. She was an English Language Fellow with U.S. Department of State during the 2017-2018 school year, working with the Ministry of Education in Laos, Southeast Asia. She writes short stories, personal essays, and has completed a memoir about her experiences as an expat in West Africa in the 1990s.

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