Welcome back. Goodbye.

On the last day of instruction for high school seniors, I greeted many for the first time. “Nice to meet you,” I said as student after student took a seat – every other desk remained empty to keep social distancing. Our last hybrid Honors English 12 class began. Does anything encapsulate this disjointed year better than welcoming students and sending them off on the same day? 

“I didn’t want my last memory of senior year to be clicking the ‘Leave Meeting’ button,” said Kaleb. Yet, that’s exactly how 60% of the class of 2021 ended their 13 years of public education in my school district. The students who opted for in-person instruction started returning to the building on April 6, alternating A weeks and B weeks so that we could stay six feet apart in the classrooms. 

The result is that students couldn’t sit with their lifelong friends until the last week of school, when they collapsed the A-B weeks as more community members got vaccinated. Any seniors who wanted to return in-person could do so. Suddenly, 15 students in a class felt jam-packed. It was great to hear their voices again and see those beautiful eyes looking up from their laptops. 

On the way out, Aaron gave me his senior photo, a little wallet-sized memento – the facial hair visible above his lip caused me to smile. I’d never seen his full face. At the Senior Farewell Party earlier in the week, Marta and I posed for a photo outside the football stadium, maskless for the first time. She’s been in my class all year, but I didn’t know she wore braces. Her nose and mouth looked different from how I imagined it. 

Bidding adieu on Zoom was anti-climactic – even though teachers made little speeches about resilience and perseverance. “Does anyone want to turn on their camera to wave goodbye?” A few faces popped up briefly on my screen, but most virtual students just disappeared when class was over. Some have chosen to skip the in-person graduation ceremony in two weeks as well, remaining enigmatic little black boxes in perpetuity. 

It’s too raw to process what this pandemic year has meant for young people. I’m a married woman with decades-long friendships to bolster me throughout the year. However, I’ve been back at school for two months, and have nearly forgotten how to make small talk. Kids will be affected for the rest of their lives in ways we can only imagine – a new kind of PTSD will take hold as a year of social isolation becomes a silent national crisis.

I hope that our school system will examine some of the old policies and procedures. What used to seem so normal — 18-year-olds asking for permission to use the rest room, penalizing kids for missing a due date — already seems antiquated. We will need to teach students how to talk to each other, how to interact as a class. We need to address the deep mental health challenges that will affect teaching and learning.

But the graduating class of 2021 will be on their own to figure it all out, to heal from the traumatic year. I hope that they’ll be okay as we send them off to “the real world.” I hope they’ll teach us all how to be resilient and persevere through hardship. I hope they come back to say hello and introduce themselves again one day. These seniors will remain in my heart forever.

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.