Filed Away

by Eva K. Sullivan

During the last week of school, I stared at the gray, four-drawer, metal filing cabinet in the corner of the classroom. In the last fifteen months, I hadn’t opened a single drawer even once. We’d been back in person since April, but everything I needed was inside the four-pound laptop that I carried everywhere. Thirty years of well-loved teaching materials now seemed like a burden. It was time. Most teachers my age wait until they’re retired to clean out their folders. But the pandemic changed forever how I will look at stacks of paper.

As a high school teacher of Multilingual Learners, I never knew what level I would be teaching from year to year. The carefully labelled folders ranged from Phonics/Vowel Sounds to Argument and Research. Before Covid-19 forced school closures in March 2020, I taught two sections of Developmental Reading for immigrant students with interrupted formal education. Most were reading at a kindergarten level. Even without a global pandemic, it’s hard to find appropriate reading material – no baby books – for teens learning to read English! So my curated collection represented hundreds of hours of valuable prep time.

This year we piloted a new districtwide coteaching model. All juniors and seniors are now enrolled in Honors English classes, and I’ve moved to a supporting role. All my Beginner English files are in the trash and I’m not even wistful. Teachers never throw anything out, so this feels momentous, a tectonic shift. 

I filled a recycling bin with The OdysseyRun-On SentencesExistentialismSurvival Project, and Subject-Verb Agreement. I found overhead projector film carefully preserved with the original copy next to it for reference. Grammar games on laminated index cards. I didn’t bother to ask if any new, younger colleagues want them this year. All those things are gone. Paper worksheets may be a thing of the past. 

A friend who retired in 2020 asked if I carried my materials from room to room on a cart this year, as I have in the past. I laughed. Nope, all I carry now is a laptop. Every student has a Chromebook preloaded with Zoom, Canvas Instructure and Synergy platforms. Even 5-year-olds in kindergarten know how to do school on a computer. 

When we left the building in March 2020, we gathered food from our desks and cleaned out the refrigerators, but left everything else as is. It was the first time for teachers to just walk away. We had no time to take down bulletin boards, put away pencils, or erase the white boards. We thought we’d be out two weeks.  

The way we’ve taught during the pandemic has permanently changed how educators understand school. As I eyed my fat folders containing emergency substitute plans, I asked a colleague if I should throw them out. “Ha, ha! They’ll probably make us teach via Zoom when we’re out sick!” she replied. I felt nostalgic as I looked at my neatly-outlined notes on top of 30-page sets, a large binder clip holding everything together. I had to wait in line for the photocopier to make those worksheets. Do subs know how to use our new technology? I decided to keep the emergency plans. 

Pandemic mode is forever etched in our memory. Like any good survival story, we escaped from danger with what we could carry – plants, photos, whatever we were currently working on. We reinvented teaching every day, learning and teaching new new apps (Kami, Peardeck, Nearpod), new platforms (Zoom, Canvas, Synergy), new instructional models (coteaching), new virtual curriculum (no textbooks), and new ways of interacting with students (mute black screens in a breakout room). We made it work because there was no choice. In my three decades in the classroom, it was by far the most stressful year that I have ever taught. 

I already miss handwriting. I miss hands-on assignments with physical items that students need to manipulate. I hope those aren’t gone forever. The Romeo and Juliet speed dating activity was so much fun! The Socratic Seminar, the Bicycle Chain activity. Partner work. I don’t need paper for that. Maybe next year?

 Text, letter

Description automatically generated
Will school ever look like this again?

Teaching to a computer screen from the corner of my bedroom for a year has made me realize that I don’t need paper to create relationships with students. When you take away all the extraneous details of teaching – the great experiment of the 2020-2021 school year – it boils down to building a community in a classroom. 

This past year, I shared more of my personal life than I’d ever intended – like when the cat brought a live chipmunk into my lesson and the whole class heard me scream. I used humor, music, catchy visuals. I lowered the affective filter with silly stories. I called home when students didn’t show up. I invited them to participate in activities any way they felt comfortable – unmuting and calling out, typing in the chat, or participating in an electronic discussion board. 

Many students thrived in the flexible online classroom. I was amazed by some of the profound, philosophical, mature responses that they shared. All these lived lessons from the past year are filed away in our collective memory – not a four-drawer cabinet – and can be pulled out to help plan for next. But first we need a summer vacation to figure out what it all means.  

Will we ever need to photocopy packets of work again? It’s a rhetorical question. That folder got thrown out too. 

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.

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.

One way to end the school year

It was 75 degrees and sunny with low humidity and a bright breeze rustling the leaves around my suburban brick home. A perfect June day. I was sitting on the front porch after a long day’s work watching Honda vans and GMC SUVs full of kids coming home from practice in time for dinner. There were 10 days left of school year. I was trying to come up with a profound way to end the school year – maybe I could give humorous little certificates of achievement to the students, like paper plate awards that the rowing team used to do, or have a pizza party. Maybe I could return the letters they wrote me at the beginning of the year, the ones with their mission statements, and ask them to reflect on their progress as writers and critical thinkers. Maybe they could make little speeches about their goals, or we could play Two Truths and a Lie. My other class loved that game. It would be good for oral language development. I sat on the porch planning all this in my mind while drinking a rosé d’Anjou in a tiny etched glass that used to belong to my grandmother.

I want the end of the year to be meaningful and memorable because I’m leaving it all behind. I’m taking a one-year leave of absence to work as an English Language Teaching Fellow with the U.S. Embassy in Laos. I want to savor every last moment at my MCPS high school.

Instead, I spend my last days trying to grade my Required Quarterly Assessments, which some Board members thought would be a good substitute for semester exams and forced teachers to give up semester exams – and the time to grade them that was built into every high school schedule the last week of school. But ESOL RQAs are not just bubble sheets that can be run through a Scantron. They require days of practice just to expose students to the hastily-written, poorly formatted writing prompts – which this quarter included a checklist for students with misspellings [Did I organizer my writing?]. In the final days of the marking period, so many students were pulled from my class (it wasn’t random, but it sure felt that way) to take PARCC and H.S.A. tests that I gave them independent projects to work on for weeks. I was providing the same mini-lessons over and over again until each group cycled through the tests. I couldn’t move ahead with instruction, so I had to come up with extension activities for those students who weren’t testing. I knew I’d lost them when C., usually my best student, asked if she could just listen to music one day. She was so far ahead of the class that I had to say yes.

So the final days were spent trying to score the RQA exams while students sat in the classroom doing no new work. So many kids have missed so many assignments that the last week was mostly make up work. Thirteen students are failing the semester, even though I tried to save them. It is demoralizing to realize that I care more about their grades than some of them. Today I managed to give out summer reading assignments and to distribute little gifts, but I almost forgot to give out the little candies I bought and return the portfolio of work that I’d been collecting since the beginning of the year. The students opted to watch videos, play Uno and throw their folders in the trash. This is not how I want to remember my nine years as a high school ESOL teacher.

Tomorrow is a half day, and I don’t expect many students to show up. That’s good, because I have to clean out my classroom. I’m having a little lunch with my colleagues then attending a staff meeting, where we’ll celebrate the retirees and those moving on to new schools. I know my name will be on the Saying Goodbye list. I’m going to miss the daily smiles and stresses. I’m going to miss my colleagues, who are such amazingly dedicated teachers. I have so much to learn from them, and I’m grateful they’ve shared another school year with me. I hope I can come back to this place in a year. I know it seems hectic now, but in retrospect, it will seem so wonderful.

A man and a woman are walking by, with a dog on a leash and a toddler in a stroller. I wave at them. The tree branches above my head dance in a mesmerizing forward and back motion. I’m sitting on concrete steps under an American flag. I’m thinking that this is the coldest weather I’ll feel for a long time. By the end of the summer, I’ll be leaving it all behind and I know I’ll miss it.