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.

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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