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.