Dear Students, (Student Letter #7)

To help me be more critical and mindful of the bonds I’m forging in and out of the classroom, I’ve decided to write letters to some of my current and former students. This is the seventh post in the series

Note: While all of my previous letters were written to individual students, given the COVID-19 crisis, this one is written to all of my current students.

Dear Students,

We’re three weeks in, and this remote learning thing is beginning to settle in. The Zoom sessions, mounds of emails, and teaching from my bedroom have somehow developed into routines. It’s all still quite strange, but markedly less strange than what it once was.

I wonder how you all are feeling about it. It may be hard to judge with many other aspects of your young lives evolving at the same time. Your stories are vastly different now than they were a month ago. Many of you are still picking up the pieces. Your families have been hit hard. Illness has gripped your reality, you have lost loved ones. For some, parents. Sadly, it seems that every day I learn of another one of you who has been wounded by this vile and unmerciful pandemic. Even though I have lost both of my parents, I simply can’t understand your loss. Others have had guardians lose jobs and are struggling to make ends meet, yet are still required to log on and fulfill empty demands. And for those privileged enough to have not been directly touched by this virus, many of you have expressed a sap in energy and severe lack of motivation. Through extended bouts of isolation and nothing but more bad news arriving each day, you are feeling helpless, alone, and uncertain about your future.

For these reasons and many more, being your teacher right now is hard. I mean, seriously, what am I doing trying to teach you polynomial long division? Is that what is important right now? And why am I having you drudgingly scan and upload your work to Classroom every day? So I can feel like I’m assessing your math thinking? Why am I tyrannically and insensitively pushing deadlines? I have cut the curriculum in half, but why have I given you so many grades? Am I leading with lessons — or love? Why am I attempting to recreate our in-person learning experience? Don’t I see that this will never be possible? I’m staring at a green dot!

I’m sorry, I’m just confused. And I miss you…and our classroom. I’m worried about not doing right by you and your needs. Right now, I don’t think I am. I haven’t been as sensitive as I should be during this time and it’s getting to me. I was already apprehensive about where I saw teaching and learning headed before this virus threw a tarantula on our lives, and now that it has, I don’t know what the hell to think. It’s hijacked our way of life and forced us to exist only as screennames on Zoom and Google Classroom. I’m sorry, but that’s just not good enough for me.

Speaking of Zoom, you have to excuse me each day as I plead with you all to activate your camera and share your faces with me and the rest of the class. I get that you don’t often want to be seen at a time like this (especially you, 1st period), but I find seeing you awfully comforting. Noticing you sitting atop of your kitchen counter eating ramen starts a conversation. It gives me something to hitch my floating mind to. It makes you human again. You see, I used to be able to walk up to you at any time and create a moment out of thin air. I could ask you about the essay you’re working on in ELA, your new hamster, or how your mom is holding up at her new job. Now I don’t even get to hear each of you speak unless you do it on your own (maybe that should change?), let alone see you. Even if you’re having a crummy day, please know my day will always be better after seeing you. It’s all I have.

I want to strike the right balance of compassion and accountability, but instead, I’m being held hostage by a screen and a keyboard. There’s a pressure — both externally and internally — to make things as normal as possible for you. Well, THIS ISN’T NORMAL. Putting those words in all caps — and this letter in general — is a self-imposed prick on my finger; a reminder of what’s important. Being aware of how ensconced I now am in remote learning is in itself a check for myself. With the school year now permanently severed and with us being detached for so long, I fear that the humanity that I tried so hard to solicit in our classroom is being drained out of me one Zoom session at a time. Gradually, over the last month, my settling into remote learning has pivoted my attention away from your struggles, hardships, and the state of flux that your lives have become. I’m getting comfortable staring at a green dot and it is getting scary. I apologize.

In lieu of that apology, I have nothing to offer you but my word that I will be more critical of how I serve you in the months ahead. I promise frequent non-academic check-ins and a greater emphasis on community and togetherness and less of a focus on the strictures of curriculum. I promise to remember that you are more than a green dot or screenname. I promise to do my best to lead with love, not lessons.

Sincerely Yours,
Mr. P

Haiku #6

As an alternative means of capturing my thoughts and reflections, I’ve been writing Haiku about my teaching practice. This is the sixth post in the series.

Teaching and learning have both been upended in recent weeks and, while I am energized by change, I’m still searching for ways to process this one. Our new normal has arrived with no mercy for what we took for granted. Who would have thought I would miss my trapezoidal desks and the fight my SmartBoard always seemed to give me. I miss making copies and catching up with colleagues who I never see around the building. I miss the building. Maybe it misses us too.

School reborn on screen
Empty classrooms left confused
Where are the humans?

 

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One week in, a conversation with myself about remote learning

In this time of sun-deprived isolation, pardon me as I indulge in a much-needed conversation with myself about remote learning.

Me: So, you’ve been doing remote learning for a week. How’s it going?

Remote Learning Me: I don’t like it. No matter how excited I am about breakout rooms in Zoom, being tethered to my MacBook and staring into a little green light for hours on end is torture. I’m buoyed by the details of personal interactions. A brighter-than-usual smile, a new backpack, a pair of slumped shoulders; it is the minutia that drives me and my teaching. Not having access to these subtleties have blinded me from my kids. I don’t see them and I can’t stand it. But it does present my teaching with a new challenge — which I am learning to savor. Plus, it beats sitting around refreshing the NY Times homepage 23 times a day. My apartment is a mess, but I need the structure, and so do my students. That said, my days don’t feel organized or even separate. They’re bleeding into one another, creating a very strange experience.

Me: Given the strangeness of it all, how are you approaching things?

Remote Learning Me: I let go a lot. While I’m fascinated by how I might reinvent learning for my students, hoping along the way that I’ll become a more robust teacher when this is all over, I’ve relaxed my curricular expectations. I’ve embraced that, at best, I’ll probably accomplish 40% of what I would have in a normal setting. We’ve been yanked in all directions by this virus. We’re all overwhelmed. There’s no way I am going to make the situation worse by shoving Common Core in my students’ faces.

Me: OK, then. What’s working?

Remote Learning Me: Nothing, yet. I don’t get my kids to work hard for me in person, so how am I supposed to work my magic when they’re concealed behind a screen, wrapped up in a blanket, eating cereal? That’s another reason why I’ve become far less aggressive with the curriculum. Anyway, pre-corona, I structured our Algebra 2 course to revolve around interleaved problems that I asked them to complete prior to class, which we then interrogated during class. The problems surface key ideas. I have no plans to abandon this structure, but helping my students have meaningful conversations is proving to be hard on Zoom. On more than one occasion this week, having asked them to talk about a problem, I entered silent breakout rooms, with every kid having muted themself. I couldn’t help but wonder what cereal they were scarfing down.

Me: How might you improve this?

Remote Learning Me: I envision using a lot of student work to guide their discussions. In person, we did this using giant whiteboards around the room. On Zoom, many students are working from computers, and holding up their work to the webcam is awkward and clumsy. So towards the end of the week, I began having students scan some of their work using Genius Scan and upload it to Google Classroom.

When we meet on Zoom, I want this bank of student work to be the backbone of class. Before we meet, I imagine sifting through their work and pasting a few of them in a Google Doc. I would then put kids in breakout rooms to debate the work, discuss errors, and agree on a correct solution. Ideally, then they have something tangible to latch on to even if they didn’t do the problem (all the while enjoying their cereal).

Me: So everything will revolve around the work they scan and upload before class?

Remote Learning Me: Nah, I don’t think so. I plan to leverage the work-based discussions often, but I’m also making short videos to overview certain problems that are less complex. Students would watch these on their own outside of our virtual class time. There are also problems that will require direct instruction. I hope to keep it to a 10-12 minute lecture, with time for the kids to practice an example or two in breakout rooms. This may also come in the form of a YouTube video (not me) that I direct them to watch before class. I’m also relying a lot on Desmos and DeltaMath — which now has instructional videos.

Me: Any thoughts on formal assessments?

Remote Learning Me: Well, stressing academic honesty, I “administered” a quiz on Friday. I posted a problem on Classroom and gave students a six-hour window to scan their work and upload it. Glancing over their work on Friday Night, I provided meager written feedback as a private comment on Classroom. It’s not perfect, but the quiz served its purpose: to put me on to what they know and what they don’t know. The results were typical of what I know of about students and I plan on making it a routine until something makes me change my mind. It’s not the best solution to the issue of asynchronous, at-home assessment, but I don’t want to give up and say that we cannot formally assess our students anymore just because we can’t do it in a controlled environment. Benjamin Dickman’s thinking around take-home exams comes to mind.

Me: Anything else?

Remote Learning Me: 

 

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A week ago

A week ago, I administered an exam to my students. It focused on the leading coefficient test, rational exponents, exponential functions, radical and polynomial equations, and the Pythagorean Identity. The class averages for the exam improved across the board, except for period 7. They struggled, performing 10% worse than they did previously.

A week ago, A-S expressed their frustration over their lack of progress in Algebra 2 this year. I’ve been working closely with them since September. We spoke in the hallway. It may have seemed counterintuitive, but I admitted that I loved being deep in struggle with them. They smiled with renewed energy. I did too.

A week ago, I was overwhelmed with finishing the Preface and Introduction to the book I’m editing that features my students’ writing from this year. I had a goal of finishing both by Friday to give to a colleague at my school who is penning the Foreword. I failed by two paragraphs.

A week ago, out of frustration, I chewed out a student during class for not being their best self these last couple of months. They have had a lot going on and I apologized afterward for not being my best self at that moment. They didn’t deserve that.

A week ago, I was scrambling to plan our discussion for our book study on Innumeracy by John Allen Paulos. It was around chapter two and was the fifth “session.” I’ve had high hopes for this all year, but my lofty expectations were met with stale looks and respectful boredom from my students.

A week ago, I playfully bothered C-O about a drawing they had been working on that I sabotaged during class by inserting a huge horizontal line where the head was going to be. They were supposed to show me what they made of it, but forgot their sketchbook.

A week ago, I was looking forward to playing L-C in one-on-one basketball during open gym in the weeks ahead. I’d been attending the early morning sessions and reconnecting with my game.

A week ago, Y-P asked me whether I researched Muhammad Ali. I didn’t, but their excitement was enough for us both. I felt bad.

A week ago, we started circular motion in physics.

A week ago, I was prepping the metacognitive journals that my kids submitted. I had to remove identifying information for the peer-review. This journal was their third of the year. After giving them a once-over, they looked more polished and more thought-out than the others. I told J-C that I really appreciated the extended effort that they put into theirs.

A week ago, I exposed my students to this graph about this price gouging happening around hand-sanitizer.

A week ago, I was handing back my hand-written responses to the Friday Letters I received. The longest one was to C-I, who asked for advice on how to handle a delicate situation with a fellow teacher. I told her to be herself. That was enough.

A week ago, I had my sights set on seeing my students play in their baseball, softball, and soccer games this spring.

A week ago, I didn’t know that I probably wouldn’t see my students in person again this year.

A week ago, I wasn’t checking and rechecking the New York Times homepage 10 times a day, a sinking feeling eating me alive each time I closed my laptop or put my phone down.

A week ago, I wasn’t fretting over how to reimagine my classroom for remote learning, hoping that my students and I would stay healthy enough to even do it. I never thought that I would have messaged them on Google Classroom yesterday, saying, I will miss looking each of you in the eye because I rely heavily on the face-to-face moments that bond us each day. I will miss sharing the air with you in the coming weeks. We’ll make due. Stay tuned.

A week ago, I wasn’t wishing that I would wake up from this nightmare.

 

bp