Welcome to the
San Joaquin Valley Writing Program
The End is Near!
As the 2020-2021 school year comes to a close, the teachers from SJVWP Writes! share a range of thoughts and emotions. Caitlin Nii responds to the lack of control we have all felt over this last year by offering a list of 5 things we can control, even when it feels like we have “Lost It All”. Jesus Gonzalez Renteria tells powerful personal stories about his own journey to becoming an educator and how he recovered his “Passion and Spark for Teaching”. Kristen Norton shares the inspiring words of her students that demonstrate all was not lost despite “Teaching in a Pandemic”. As the blog wraps up and we head towards a well-earned vacation, Jaclyn Smith makes use of an extended metaphor to reveal her “Flight Plan” for how to transition out of this school year and Karen Yelton-Curtis discusses her summer plans for how she will restore and re-energize herself on her way toward “Becoming Human Again.” We hope you enjoy this year-end collection of writing. Summer blog posts will include writing from new voices sharing their experiences with a variety of SJVWP programs including the New Teachers’ Writing Collaborative and the Invitational Summer Institute. To share your comments about our blog or for details on how to join our fall writing sessions, please email email@example.com.
5 Things I Can Control When It Feels Like I’ve Lost It All
Raise your hand if you’ve ever felt completely out of control. Nothing is going as planned. Your efforts are simply futile. Yup.
I can’t control if people will show up to scheduled meetings, if my students will turn in their assignments, or if my internet connection will be stable. I can’t control if my dogs will bark at the sound of a car door slamming three blocks away and wake up my (finally) napping toddler while I’m trying to have a Zoom conference with my boss. I really can’t control much of anything.
For the sake of my sanity, I had to figure out what I can control and learn how to let the rest go, because stressing over things I can’t change is pointless. Here are the five things I remind myself daily that I can control:
1. My Perspective
When I became a parent I shifted my mindset on a lot of things. Basically, I had to adopt a big picture perspective. Are my son’s teeth suddenly going to rot and fall out because he fell asleep before I brushed his teeth tonight? No. Will he starve because he only ate the peas from his lunch and threw everything else to the dogs? No. Will I even remember neglecting my laundry or dishes or vacuuming this week when I look back on his toddler years? Absolutely not. When I began considering how much stress I carried from my job, because I’m naturally the type of person who holds onto everything, I knew I needed to apply this lens in my work life as well. I worked on letting go of my frustration with overdue items on my students’ checklists by reminding myself that these were not a reflection on my personal work ethic. One missed meeting, or assignment, or tutoring session wasn’t going to make or break my students’ education. In fact, it’s probably better for them to make mistakes now and learn how to manage responsibilities while the stakes aren’t as high. Big picture. Education is a journey. Life is a journey. A couple speed bumps on the path mean nothing.
2. My Tone
I decided early on that I never want to yell at my son. I think a part of me would die if I ever saw him look afraid of me. So when he does things like play with power outlets or stand on his rocking chair, he gets a firm but calm “no.” He stops immediately, shakes his head, and mutters “no no no” to himself as he moves on to something else. Now I catch him walking past things that are off limits and saying “no no” all on his own. So, when I work with homeschool parents and students, I adopt the same philosophy of keeping things positive. Any time the phone rings, if I’m in a grumpy mood or a little annoyed that they haven’t responded to my last 20 emails, I answer the call with a cheerful voice. That time I texted a parent and only got an angry face emoji in response, I brushed it off and greeted her with a smile during our next meeting. I find that keeping my tone positive keeps working relationships working, keeps lines of communication open, keeps others willing to follow through with what’s expected even when it’s not fun.
3. My Resilience
Sometimes my son is straight up bawling because I won’t let him play with the propane tank in the backyard. Sometimes a parent is frustrated with me for asking them to turn in missing attendance 10 days in a row. Sometimes I feel like giving up on being positive or thinking about the big picture. But, I am in control of my response here. I can give up or I can keep trying. I can assess what’s not working, pivot to a new strategy, and keep moving forward. The laws of mathematics don’t apply here, the product of two negatives is not positive, and when it feels like everyone else is serving up the negative I have to remind myself of this. As a mother, as a teacher, I am a leader. And when leaders give up, all hope is lost.
4. My Productivity
The thing that makes me feel most out of control is feeling rushed. I hate the feeling of needing to leave my house in 5 minutes and still having to restock a diaper bag, get my child dressed, find my shoes and keys and cellphone, get everyone loaded in the car, and run back inside for whatever I inevitably forgot. I hate having 6 meetings stacked back to back and then staring at the monstrous list of follow up items I now need to complete by the end of the day. So when I do have time, I need to make it as productive as possible. That could mean putting on noise canceling headphones so I can filter out distractions, organizing my office so I can find everything easily, or scheduling myself to dedicated work time once my husband is home and can relieve the eye I have to keep on my son during most of my work day. I can plan time to do nothing, because that’s how I recharge best, and no one can be productive when they’re running on empty. I can’t control how much time I’ll get, but I can control whether or not I make use of it all in meaningful ways and set myself up to be as productive during these times as possible.
5. My Flexibility
A lot of my job requires me to rely on other people. I can’t format work samples if they aren’t turned in. I can’t hold required meetings with parents if they don’t schedule one. I can’t answer emails if my son decides he won’t nap unless I’m holding him (okay, I guess the beauty of cell phones is that this one I can still manage). And while I like clearing things off my to-do lists, I also need to make sure I am accommodating. Life happens. Emergencies come up. I have to be flexible when it comes to the needs of those I work with, but I can control that flexibility. Mostly, I can look at the bigger picture, decide if being flexible is okay, because most of the time it is. And when it’s not okay, I find having a history of being flexible actually lets people know how important something is to me when I decide to hold my ground.
So there are 5 things I can control. Do I wish I could control more? Yes. But this is where I can truly effect change. The best part is that instead of stress insomnia keeping me up at night, I can actually sleep. Well, until my toddler decides 4 am is the perfect time to be awake. But, hey, it’s something!
Regaining My Passion and Spark For Teaching: Why I Became a Teacher
As the 2020-2021 academic school year comes to an end I find myself with the need to reflect on why I got into teaching and what makes me want to continue to stay in this career. I am finishing my fourteenth year in the HJUHSD as an English teacher, previously completing one year of teaching in Fresno, and will be entering my sixteenth year of teaching. I’ve put a lot of my time and energy into this career, but in the last year and a half I have endured challenges that have shaken me. The Pandemic and the effects of Distance Learning have affected my teaching pedagogy. Student apathy and lack of effort have affected my mindset. But I want to regain the passion for teaching that I once had when I first started teaching. I know that as a high school teacher I can influence students to become the best version of themselves, and I want to be the best teacher that I can be for them.
The teachers that I had growing up always knew how to make me feel special when no one else in my life was doing that for me. They cheered me on when it came to pursuing my writing as well as brought me up when I felt pessimistic about the future. My Junior English teacher nicknamed me Eeyore because she said I was adorably pessimistic at times. But she was also the person who told me I should consider becoming an English teacher if I was going to major in English at Fresno State. I had had that thought go through my mind, but it felt unrealistic and overwhelming. However, if my nickname-giving teacher Mrs. Anderson could make such a bold statement, then it was best I adhere to her observations and recommendations. That lady did not mess around and did not suffer any fools!
High school lesson plans challenged me as a writer while helping me explore the world I lived in and the motives of human behavior. I saw the existence and challenges of life reflected in the works of Ayn Rand, Edgar A. Poe, Emily Dickenson, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Sandra Cisneros and so many other authors. I learned the cruelness of society when I read The Scarlet Letter. Sometimes I felt like an outcast amongst my peers at school. I learned that in a way we all wear some form of a scarlet letter at one point in our lives. We have to learn to be less judgmental and kinder to one another. I learned of human fear and hysteria when we read “The Crucible ”. The pandemic felt a little like a witch hunt and sometimes it was not easy to know when something was really happening or if it was heresy and “fake news”. I found myself fact-checking the information I read on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Everyone had something to say but a lot of opinions were being said in a way that made them sound like truth, and not merely someone’s personal opinion. Were there really witches out there in the Pandemic or were people making up lies to instill fear on everyone else?
I had always enjoyed my English classes because they would help me focus on the world inside my head and the mindsets of the society I lived in. I had chaos in my personal life and in my mind at times. I wrote a poem for English class describing my emotions as being in a constant feeling of “ emotional massacres”. Yet authors we read in my English classes resonated with me in a way that helped me live through an arduous high school life. I had endured a lot of trauma growing up in my homelife connected to gang activity my older brother was involved in and as well as with mental health concerns that were not addressed until years later. We had to move more than once because our home had been shot at. I was once writing an essay for Mrs. Anderson’s class and I had to jump on the floor because I heard gunshots. The police later told us that a bullet had hit my room and that I was lucky that it had not hit me. My mother and younger sister were in the other room and they too had jumped on the floor, saving themselves from the gunshots. My brother would eventually be in prison and forced to move back to Mexico, but the trauma my family endured because of his involvement in gangs and drugs was heavy.
I wanted to go to college to escape a fate that was expected of a Latinx student who was undocumented. I had a fire inside me that wanted me to be successful, a spark that was not allowing me to give up on my life, a passion that would not let me settle for anything but my own personal best. I wanted to become a successful person, and I knew that an education and a college degree were the keys to opening this possibility of success in the rest of my complex life. I wanted a life that would let me have the power and option to become whoever I wanted to be, regardless of where I came from and how much or how little I had financially.
Present-day I find myself lacking motivation to give it my best effort when it comes to teaching a novel or reviewing lesson plans with students. This has been the case because living over a year in a pandemic has affected all of us. The pandemic has become very personal to me as many people around me got sick from COVID-19, and some did not survive the virus. Teaching remotely did not help teachers and students connect emotionally as we once had when being in person at school. I want to hear from my students but they, like me, are still dealing with the aftermath of the occurrences of a Global Pandemic. I find my students not always connecting to the literature in a way that can help lead them feel better about the present-day. I pick literature and work from Latinx or other people of color that I feel will help my students connect to the work in the way that I used to connect to the work. I desire for my students to feel represented in the content we go over and to be represented in the work we read.
And yet I am reminded by the high school me, that it gets better! I survived the turmoil of high school when there were so many obstacles in my life. I can go on and I WILL go on. I want to and choose to continue to fight the good fight. I will be there for my students and help them learn the lesson plans while also hearing them out if, and when, they’re ready to talk about the past year. Currently, we are reading Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street and the novel helps open conversations with students in our google meets and with students who are in-person, about identity, gender norms, gang violence, prejudice, mental health, immigration and domestic violence. I share parts of my upbringing and the fact that I have dealt with all those topics, as many of them have. I made it to where I am today, Sandra Cisneros is now a reclaimed Latinx author, and my students can reach their goals and dreams. I will not suffer any fools, and they are capable of doing better now and in the future. I believe in them and will not give up fighting to help them believe in themselves.
Thus I plan on helping them get back into the daily routines of being in person in a classroom and the expectations that they are to meet to be successful in their classes. I will keep some of the lessons I learned on social-emotional learning and continue to check in on them on a daily basis. We will get through this shift together and continue our journeys as one. I will light the way through the dark as my past teachers once did for me because all it takes is for one person to believe in you to help you believe in yourself. We got this, I believe in them and the child inside of me still believes in my future as a teacher. I will continue this fight for the child I used to be and for the person I aspire to become.
Finding Inspiration in Student Evaluations: The Result of Equity-Minded Teaching During a Pandemic
After a seemingly endless set of trials and tribulations over the last nine months, it can be hard to even remember what our hopes and plans were for our students when we started this year. As the spring semester ended at Fresno City College, I found myself wondering what my English 1A students’ experiences had been like, trying to learn as students new to college and new to college writing. I knew I had seen growth in each of them, but what exactly that might mean to them, in their own words, was something I was eager to discover, so I asked them to share with me how they had grown as readers, writers, and thinkers this semester. What I found in their responses was a depth of understanding that mirrored the equity-minded tenets at the core of my teaching practice.
- Provide students opportunities to read and examine rich texts by writers of color.
- I’ve loved reading Heavy because I never knew people could write about coming from poverty, the ghetto and from a background so similar to what my family comes from and it still be considered a work of art in English literature.
- I’m actually looking for more books that I can relate to, as I want to know what other people do that are almost in the same situation as me.
- I had never really been given a book that holds the idea that something is currently wrong with an American system, and that is awesome.
The comments from these three students, in response to the assigned reading of Kiese Laymon’s memoir Heavy, emphasize a range of reasons why it is so important to teach texts written by contemporary writers of color who are responding to circumstances that are similar to what my students are facing. Since I first began teaching high school more than fifteen years ago, I have brought texts by writers of color into my classroom. As works by BIPOC authors have proliferated in recent years, it has opened up an increasingly wide range of voices to share with my students. I have joined a variety of book studies and devoured the ideas presented in a range of recent publications, not only seeking to expand my own understanding but to identify which texts will particularly resonate with my students.
I selected Heavy as the required book for my English 1A students not only because of its accessibility, but because of its complexity. Laymon centers his educational experiences from childhood all the way through becoming a college professor in the midst of an intricately woven web of topics with which my students have their own lived experiences (i.e., love, sex, body image, racism, family, truth-telling). It is such a rich text that students from all backgrounds, genders, and races have been able to connect with and make meaning from the life experience he shares. I knew it had a powerful impact on my students because I read the lengthy essays they produced after their work with self-chosen themes from his book. However it was the ideas expressed by my students in this most recent round of evaluations that reminded me why teaching a text like Heavy is so crucial for my students in ways that stretch beyond my course expectations. If I am to help my students see they belong in the realms of higher education, it is important to show them examples of other students of color, like them, who find their voice and put it out into the world, who encounter and overcome myriad barriers, who challenge the systems that do not serve them and advocate for necessary changes. How else can I assure my students that the dreams they hold for themselves are possible?
- De-mystify the writing process and make it accessible for all students, regardless of their previous writing experience.
- The biggest hurdle that has always plagued me has been “where do I start?” I see now that it was such a struggle because my writing process I started with was out of order. Now I know that the perfect place to start is with ideas, then I can elaborate and make connections between them and figure out what’s relevant and what’s not.
- Once the final assignment on Heavy was due, most of the essay was basically already written. Taking each assignment step by step instead of just starting one big essay from scratch has been immensely helpful in this class. And no other class I’m taking is as thorough with each lesson.
- I like how we are taught to edit and think for ourselves rather than relying on the comments and editing done by the teacher, which has been my experience in previous classes.
- The important part that I will continue to use from here on out is how I can build trust with the audience through my examples. I’m not just some random person who decided to write about myself, I’m writing to provide a window into the soul of who I am as a person and what melded me to be this way.
The comments from these students demonstrate a range of ways in which they have felt their voices as writers were encouraged and validated. By de-mystifying the writing process through a series of carefully scaffolded assignments, students at all levels of writing are given access to the messy and inspiring process of putting their valuable ideas about themselves and meaningful texts on the page. By revealing writing as a step by step process that centers their own ideas, rather than simply assigning essays, my students are able to build their confidence as writers. Privileging the act of revision throughout the semester helped my students understand that first drafts are always “shitty” (thank you Anne Lamott!) but also necessary as a starting point on which to build. As we work through a rigorous revision process, students are able to develop a clearer understanding of their own ideas and actively engage in decisions about how best to express those ideas in draft after draft. At the end of each writing unit, they can recognize and celebrate their own growth, and by the end of the semester they carry with them a solid set of writing strategies that can be used in all of their other classes. Most importantly, though, my students leave with the confidence that their voice is an essential voice to be shared with others in their world.
- Support students’ growth by creating strong support systems to achieve high expectations.
- This last assignment we had in particular really helped me go easy on myself about school because I thought I was having a hard time because of myself and feeling like I just couldn’t do it. Realizing there is more that comes to play with my education really helped me see things in a different light and helped me gain patience and understanding within myself.
- I feel that since you put so much effort in making sure everyone understands the material, that no questions will seem silly to you, and that you would be devastated if someone putting in the effort fell behind.
- You challenged me to grow, you helped nurture the feeling of belonging, opened my mind up to interpretation and deeper thinking to meaning as a whole. I feel like I learned other things like staying resilient when dealing with hardship, putting time aside to study/read and to accept accountability.
- None of my other classes had a method or formula to approach assignments like this one did, and that was very annoying, especially at the beginning of the semester when I was still new to school.
- Thank you for putting in the effort to teach us, being tough enough to break lackluster molds previously built by others who I felt let me down, asking that I put in effort where I previously thought I didn’t have to.
For more than fifteen years, I have taught students from poverty and students of color who come through educational systems where their current abilities are often mistaken for their potential. My students have spent years in classrooms where well-meaning teachers did not know how to reconcile students’ need for emotional support with students’ equal need for and right to academic rigor. Indeed, it is a tough balancing act, as it varies for each student, and the margin of error can often be very narrow, even more so during a pandemic. For this reason, I was more explicit than usual about helping students recognize my virtual class as a safe space to learn new academic skills and strategies they might never have encountered and to build on those skills they already possessed. This required building an academic community, albeit a virtual one, where students felt safe enough to make themselves vulnerable to the learning process, to ask questions about what they didn’t understand, and to become a part of a support network for their classmates.
This sense of emotional safety was coupled with a sense of academic safety that resulted from presenting intentionally scaffolded reading and writing assignments that gave students at all academic levels opportunities to grow their skills, their confidence, and their voice. As a result, students were able to develop in ways that most suited their needs whether it was extending patience and understanding to themselves, building resilience, or putting forth the effort necessary to achieve success. These student-determined lessons demonstrate the variety of ways they were able to bridge the emotional and academic landscapes and gain insight into themselves that transcended the course content and expectations.
Giving my students an opportunity to voice what most resonated for them throughout the semester proved not only informative about how they were impacted by these three equity-minded values I clung to throughout the troubled spring semester, but served as an inspirational gift at the end of a year where I felt emotionally drained. As the year wraps up I encourage you to see what your students will be taking away from this challenging year. That this unexpected wealth of student growth was possible during the pandemic has given me enough light to find my way forward into next year. Give your students a chance to shine some light on all the good you did for them this year. It will no doubt be more than you could have hoped for.
In just a few weeks, my students & I will exit the plane–this plane we call the 2020-2021 school year, this plane that they didn’t choose & this plane they trusted to keep them in the air, traveling toward their educational destination. They trusted my expertise as the pilot, that I would use the best tools I know how to facilitate their learning, and the educational system, which built the plane, to protect them. According to Kristen Norton, community college instructor and SJVWP Teacher Leader, many of us, including students, “got onto the plane, not knowing where it was going”. Now that I’ve arrived at June, how do I transition myself to the ground, keeping in mind I have a quick turnaround and that my next passengers are already queued, ready for flight?
As I prepare to “deplane” from this school year, I’m remembering the steps and rituals I go through when leaving an actual plane, hoping that the metaphor will help me think through my transition to summer.
Gathering Travel Materials
Before I get off the plane, I make sure I have all my stuff–either with me, or placed in the trash. It’s tempting to write off this year as a garbage pile, but I’m wondering if there are structures and habits that I want to take with me. One habit that we developed in my junior English class is Daily Writing–literally, I put up a prompt and we all write for 5-10 minutes each day. Every 6 weeks or so they choose one, revise it, and submit it for “grading” (which is a joy). Many students have commented that they really enjoy the few minutes of writing (sometimes drawing) at the beginning of the period; this “souvenir” is a practice I’m going to incorporate next year. This summer I’ll spend time looking for writing inspiration that encourages reflection & introspection.
I’m going to include students in this process of reflecting on our year, asking such questions as: What do you hope to keep from this year? What systems or structures did you develop that you find productive?
After I’ve deplaned, I look for my travel companions. In this metaphor: Who do I want to take with me? Books, podcasts, Twitter hashtags or discussions, the “moveable feast” that is the NWP Writing Marathon? I’ve already started my summer TBR list (which will inevitably grow too ambitious–part of the joy of such a list!): Jenny Lee’s Anna K and it’s sequel Anna K Away (An Anna Karenina retelling following ultra-rich New York teens doing ultra-rich new York teen stuff.), Newkirk’s Writing Unbound (Newkirk is an auto-buy for me; this book focuses on the place of creative writing in the classroom. Full disclosure: I was interviewed for this book.) and Marchetti & O’Dell’s A Teacher’s Guide to Mentor Texts (I already use mentor texts and want to hone my skills in this area.).
Now that I have my travel companions, my first pit stop is physical. As someone who holds my stress in my shoulders and neck, my body regularly tells me to take a break–and I ignore it for the sake of whatever I’m doing at the moment. This is taking a toll, especially as I have been sitting–literally sitting–for hours during my day. My body has found all of the uncomfortable places that, previous to this year, I didn’t know, because teaching is active. How can I show my body that I have moved (literally) from the teacher chair into the summer? Walking, being in nature (whatever that looks like), or creating–reconnecting to our physical selves may look very different from person to person, but is essential for closing the stress burnout loop.
Even with supportive administration and working with an incredible team of teachers I’m feeling emotionally exhausted, inefficient, and generally overwhelmed–and I know I’m not alone. The doctors and sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski teach that though there are many ways to complete the stress cycle physically (like doing jumping jacks or walking), there are other ways as well. Breathing, positive social interaction, affection, laughter, and creative expression are several ways to complete the stress cycle; even petting a dog can lower stress.
My next pit stop is mental/psychological and spiritual: music, reading poetry, writing, creation, engaging in change (gardening, painting the house, building something). Some people are grounded by rituals; some by spontaneity. A mental pit stop is necessary because we need our emotions to catch up with us: many of us have been going nearly 24 hours a day (I’m sure I’m not the only one getting messages from students at 2:00AM) and we are exhausted. Taking a mental pause acknowledges the heavy load that our subconscious has been carrying this year.
Pit stops look very different for each person, and they are essential for teachers to engage in, at least if we want to avoid burnout, especially in a year such as this one, where our coping mechanisms were under regular stress.
As I write this, it’s near the end of May. I’m already considering what I want to pack for my next flight, and how to decide what from this trip to hold lightly, cling tightly, and release. Some details about the fall are clear (returning five days a week); some are still hazy. To abate familiar mental stress loops, I’m going to make a list of what I felt were takeaways from this year, and leave it until I know more details of the year to come. I’m going to remind myself that I can’t solve for every unknown, but I can trust my experience to help me figure my way through a challenging situation. To start to prepare for my next adventure, I’ll be nourishing myself physically and mentally: taking long walks, having long chats with friends, and enjoying good meals.
Turning Off the Tech and Becoming Human Again
May has departed and June is upon us. I have never been one to count down the closing weeks of school; however, I am making an exception for the COVID-19-driven calendar. Students and I are functioning on fumes, but we are finishing with classes largely intact. Students’ perseverance and resilience will remain a lasting memory from a year we hope to never repeat.
At times, my school laptop has nearly throbbed with overuse – the constant attempts to build curriculum from the spare parts allotted me during a compromised school schedule. Once the school year ends (the last essay is read and grades are finalized), I plan to give my computer a much-deserved rest in the dark environs of my rolling briefcase and the headset a home in a classroom cabinet. These gestures will release me from the robo-teacher persona I have been forced to adopt since March of 2020 and allow me to reclaim my humanity.
Books are calling my name.
Books are lurking atop furniture, inside shelves, in orderly and not-so-neat stacks around my house – desirable objects shunted aside to accommodate extraordinary hours of pandemic-year lesson planning, digital platform negotiating, and online grading.
I will turn to books – poetry collections, novels, history, biographies, lavishly illustrated coffee-table sized art catalogs. I will step into writers’ shoes and live their lives. I will walk through the doors of fictional worlds and dwell there for days. I will admire brushstrokes, contours, light, and shadow and think about the hours artists invested in each of their works.
The first-to-be-read titles include An American Sunrise, U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo’s most recent collection, a new release by former Poet Laureate Billy Collins, and the YA novels Dry and Ground Zero. A more challenging title is White Rage, which examines the underpinnings of Caucasian hostility in American history. Also in the stack is the second book detailing the history of Highclere Castle (the setting for PBS’s “Downtown Abbey”); a biography of actor/comic Robin Williams; a catalog of Jacob Lawrence’s The American Struggle paintings and a collection of students’ written responses to his art works. I am looking forward to slowly paging through Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, which showcases the work of competing painters in Renaissance Italy, and lingering in Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, an exhibition catalog featuring the talents of John Singer Sargent. I find moving from one genre to another a welcome workout for my brain.
A sketchpad is reaching out to me.
The blank pages are beckoning to be filled with representations of objects and people. Last summer, as the pandemic kept people in their homes, I was drawn to California Audubon’s bird sketching series with Bay Area artist John Muir Laws. In the fall of 2020 and spring of this year, I happily spent late-afternoon hours in the Fresno Art Museum’s online classes where participants revisited the fundamentals of drawing and practiced portraiture. During the past year I felt a desperate need to engage in old-fashioned creation. Scratching a pencil across paper reminded me that I was flesh, blood, and bone in a year when many aspects of public-school teaching were dehumanizing. This summer, I will sit with a set of pencils and draw – not with the goal of achieving the skill sets of the masters but with the objective of improving, one pad sheet at a time.
My inner poet yearns to write.
For nine weeks last summer I “traveled” across the United States and drafted poetry through the National Writing Project’s Write Across America virtual writing marathon. Each stop attracted hundreds of participants – most, but not all, teachers – who explored a story map highlighting the host city, found inspiration to write, and then shared their writing in small groups. By summer’s end, I had led several breakout rooms, created a collection of poems, and reawakened a hibernating aspect of my writing personality. Two of the poems are being published in the spring edition of the Louisiana Literature Journal & Press.
Having registered for this summer’s marathon, I am looking forward to visiting Michigan, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Idaho, Montana, and Texas. I will again focus on writing poetry but with the goal of making bold choices with style and form. I hope to see familiar faces from the summer of 2020 and look forward to meeting new participants who, like me, know that effective teaching of writing correlates to being a teacher who writes.
I do not know if seven weeks will be enough to heal the psychological and emotional wounds inflicted by online teaching. But I anticipate that a creative summer will be a balm for this teacher’s mind and soul, that it will help me to feel like a hungry student, and ultimately, remind me of the reasons why I became an educator. I am looking forward to sharing my passions with next year’s students; my grade-level partner and I have roughed out the first month’s plans, which include an art project, a range of reading, and the writing of personal narrative. I hope this hands-on and personalized curriculum will create a gentle, welcoming entry to the new year and help students regain their humanity, too.
May 2021 Posts
As schools have recently started allowing students to attend class in person, teachers and students have had to adjust to a new way of learning. This month the members of SJVWP Writes! joined forces to reflect on the journey we are all enduring when it comes to returning to face-to-face instruction in our classrooms. As we talked and shared our writing, we found parallels in our stories that helped us feel less frustrated and isolated, and we realized many of us were having similar challenges, but also some similar benefits. Karen Yelton-Curtis compares the formality of watching the funeral service for England’s Prince Phillip to the formality of coming back to teaching in person. Her reflection is insightful and conveys a range of adjustments she has made in order to help her students succeed in the now unfamiliar territory of the classroom. Trish Renfro compares her return to the classroom to her experiences having just given birth to twins. (There are more similarities than one might have expected!) Marci Haas contrasts distance learning with in-person hybrid and shares her understanding of the struggle from more than one angle. Jesus Gonzalez Renteria reflects on his experience of starting back in person and expresses his frustration of his students and himself being silenced literally and metaphorically by the Pandemic. We hope this month’s blog posts resonate with you in ways large and small, and we invite you to join us for future SJVWP Writes! sessions. To share your comments about our blog or for details on how to join our next writing session, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Final “Pivot”: Taking it One Day at at Time
Watching the funeral service for England’s Prince Phillip, who died April 9 at age 99, I could relate to the circumstances of the occasion:
- The guest list was limited to 30 family members at St. George’s Chapel, which accommodates 800 people. Masks guarded attendees’ faces.
- The choir had become a quartet.
- The widow, Queen Elizabeth II, sat several seats away from her third son, Prince Andrew and across the aisle from her heir, Prince Charles. All guests were socially distanced.
There was no lingering afterward, no time-consuming emptying of the rows, no waiting at the doors to extend condolences. It was, as funerals go, a business-like event – one that tradition mandated but whose format was dictated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Live TV coverage brought the funeral to the masses. Still, it was a sign that familiar rites are returning.
Similarly, the reopening of school has felt like a hibernating engine sputtering back to life. Wide-eyed freshmen have wandered the halls, peering closely at room numbers to pinpoint their destinations; seniors have popped their heads in the door just to say hello. Classrooms are at one-third of capacity and adults and students are masked. At lunchtime, teenagers dot the grassy and shaded areas of campus to eat their meals.
When asked how it felt to return to school, students responded with mixed feelings. “I’m glad to be back so I can get more attention.” “It feels so different.” “I don’t like it but it’s what we have to live with.” My Thursday group in Period 5 is a lively bunch; on their first day in class, they were game to compete with their online peers in a synonym challenge. In contrast, Tuesday’s Period 1 contingent was quiet and sat stiffly in their chairs as if one false move might prompt a reprimand. I have learned that some students scheduled to return in person have opted to stay online; others who have come to campus are back to learning through a screen – the in-person experience did not live up to their expectations.
I struggle to adjust to wearing a headset, which requires toggling between muting and unmuting depending upon which group of students, or individual, I need to address in the moment. I am grateful to look up and see faces and relieved to get out of the desk chair and circulate in the room, while reminding myself to keep a respectful (and safe) distance. I can stand at the classroom door and greet students as they enter while reassuring those online that I hear them logging in. I have tinkered with the webcam and marked spots on the floor where the tripod can be positioned to show whiteboard activity. Already, students have been willing to step up, grab an Expo marker, and take charge at the front of the room. (Used markers are dropped into the “Items to be sanitized” basket.) I reverted to scrawling whiteboard notes one day when the lesson plan made it convenient to do so; my in-room students helpfully monitored the camera position and let me know when it needed adjustment. In this modified environment, it is best to proceed one day at a time and allow all of us to adapt to a version of what we have known.
Our district has indicated a return to full-week instruction when the new year begins in August. I wonder if students who have succeeded online will want to continue in that venue and whether the hybrid-classroom arrangement will extend into 2021-2022, or if there will be exclusive online classes and a return to “pure” in-person instruction for those of us who are itching to break open the cabinets and pull out the hands-on tools and resources that easily engage students. I understand the value of technology in the classroom – I expect to retain some practices and resources gained this year – but I am not someone who relishes teaching through a screen full time.
In the meantime, there is a school year to finish. I must strategize curriculum planning around multiple class periods of SBAC testing to support preparation for the unit essay. Students are talking about their COVID vaccination appointments, making plans for summer, and setting goals to raise grades before the end of the semester. Some who had logged into class but barely participated are revealing a different side of themselves now that they are in the classroom. For many, the return to campus has lifted the pandemic gloom that enshrouded them for months. Sadly, others in the online cohort appear to be done for the year; they are consistently absent and do not respond to offers of assistance. I worry about how they will fare with a summer credit-recovery program that is strictly online.
My goal is to manage the aspects under my control. I can still provide students focused feedback, support their reading of the unit novel, take the energy I have at this point in the year and use it to “game up” some pieces of the unit. I can encourage my students with creative writing, I can devise homework that gets students offscreen during the weeks of online testing. I can continue to coach students to stay the course, make the effort, do the best that they can. I tell myself to aim for best effort, because truthfully, I cannot conjure anything more at this point.
An Ode to a Year of Distance Learning
When I had my twins by C-section in 2006 it was a couple of hours before they brought them into the room. They finally brought the boys to me and let me spend just a few minutes getting to meet my babies that I had spent 38 weeks falling in love with. After a few moments, they came in to take my blood pressure and get my vitals. Then left us again. A few minutes later someone came in to get a blood sample from the babies. And thus began the longest 72 hours of my life. Every hour or two someone would come in to take vitals, or to try to teach me to breastfeed, or try to get me to buy hospital pictures of my babies, or to weigh the babies and tell me I needed to feed them formula, or to take blood samples, or to give vaccines, or to fill up the air mattress that was my bed on the second night. Finally on the third day of no sleep when the doctor came in for their 30-second conversation during rounds, I asked if I could go home. He responded, “Are you sure you are ready to leave all this support?” I didn’t know whether to punch him or cry. Support? For whom? Not me and my babies that was for sure.
The “support” that comes with childbirth is no different than the “support” that comes with education. It is data collection disguised as support so that those people not in the room can see what is happening in the room. It is all well-meaning and the data collected can absolutely give insight into what is happening. But data collection is not support. The relief that I felt when I left that hospital room and finally got to go home and just be with my babies with the real support that was my family, both newly created and extended, was the same relief that I felt during the first three quarters of the 2020 – 2021 school year. Finally, a break from all of the well-intended roadblocks that prevent me from doing the one and only thing I want to do: teach.
It might seem odd to say but the first three quarters of the 2020 – 2021 school year have been some of my favorite teaching I have ever done, and the purest. For 75 minutes a day, I got to have 100% of the time for me and my students. For the first time in my 16 years of teaching my teaching time was protected. Sure there were interruptions in the form of technology fails and wifi drops. But there weren’t:
- Phone calls from the office telling me to take roll
- Student aides coming in to hand me slips for students to leave class to meet with support staff
- Rally schedules
- Student-athletes leaving my 1:00 class to catch the bus across town for a 5:30 pm game
- Days taken off from instruction for school-wide PSATs and SAT testing
- Students asking to leave my class to go pick up their PE clothes, instruments, or McDonald’s that had been delivered to the office for them just as we got class going
- Sub days so that I could go and learn how to more efficiently teach my students
- Lawn mowers roaring four feet outside my classroom in the middle of fourth period
- Fire drills or lockdown drills
- District pre tests followed by more time of instruction missed for post-assessments.
And when the administration came into my class, they were truly invisible for the first time. They didn’t distract my students by asking them what they were doing or taking pictures of work over the students’ shoulders. We just read, and discussed, and analyzed, and wrote, and learned.
For 75 minutes each day, we got to unpack our AP Human Geography content and skills. Students got to be present on their terms for the first time. Cameras off, because who at 14 wanted to be seen by anyone most days? Because none of us knew what we were doing, we got to create it together from the ground up and it felt so organic. And while I did become a convert on some technology that I had been resistant to, I became much more of a convert to the uninterrupted instructional time that I got.
I am not going to lie, re-entry was tough. In the first 30 minutes I taught hybrid on my first day in front of students there was a support staff who came to visit during instruction just to “see how it was going”, a lawnmower, a leaf blower, and a fighter jet overhead. Teaching is performative and the vibe in the room is hard to steer and it is susceptible to the slightest changes. I am slowly getting my feet under me teaching 70% of my class online and 30% of my class in person and we are figuring out what works and what doesn’t. I am so grateful for the routines that I created last semester. But if you ask me what was the golden age of teaching for me, I would be tempted to say the first part of this year when it was just my students, my curriculum, and me.
Peeking In: A Comparison of Distance Learning and Hybrid Learning
from an “Outsider”
Standing, jumping, wiggling boys in front of computer screens. The tapping of fingers on a keyboard, a small voice saying the pledge of allegiance, a toddler babbling, kindergartners singing a color song, a preschooler asking when it will be her turn. A parent moving from learning station to learning station set up in the large living area of the house ensuring everyone was where they were supposed to be while another parent was working through Zoom. This was the view of an “outsider” peeking in on distance learning in the Fall of 2020.
I spent the final three months (March – June, 2020) of my time in public education not “peeking” in, but in the midst of the pandemic as an administrator. Working in the middle of the unknown I saw administrators supporting teachers and families. We dealt with the constant “pivoting” as plans changed constantly per the latest directives from the state, county and district. Time was spent encouraging and equipping teachers to do what they do best in a less than best scenario. In addition the admin teams worked endlessly to locate and deliver updated computers to families and figure out wifi access. Learning packets were copied and collated, readied for parent pick up to ensure learning would continue for ALL of our students. Then, in June, I retired — a decision that had been made pre-pandemic.
During the summer of 2020 I was able to work with SJVWP, co-leading the Invitational Summer Institute and working with a team to develop workshops to address the increasing Social Emotional Learning needs we were seeing as a result of the pandemic. I also enjoyed time being Grandma to five, ranging in age from 1 to 10. As August drew near, I did what I could to support and encourage their family in preparing for whatever challenges the 20/21 school year might hold.
As the 20/21 school year began, the home struggle was real. I saw parents I knew doing their best to keep younger siblings quiet during distance learning, set up learning areas in the home that met each child’s needs, and monitor the youngest ones who needed individual help maneuvering through the technology and finding all the needed materials to participate, all while trying to meet the demands of working from home themselves.
My spare bedroom became a preschool as my four year old granddaughter got on the “Nana” bus each day so I could assist her as she participated in an hour of preschool Zoom and then completed asynchronous work on the computer at my house. I also helped out with the others from time to time. What I saw on the computer screens were teachers rising to the occasion, doing their very best to keep their students engaged. They were experimenting with different technology and programs available to find the ones that best worked to keep their students learning. I saw kindergarten teachers dancing and singing on Zoom. I saw teachers at every grade level doing social emotional check-ins. I saw Zoom dance parties on Fridays with teachers joining the fun. I saw teachers trying to make it work. I saw librarians introducing students to new books hoping that the students would visit the library in person one day soon. I saw music teachers doing their best to teach students to play instruments over a computer screen. I saw empathy and grace at work in a difficult situation.
In November some schools began bringing some students back. My time as Teacher Nana with my preschool granddaughter came to an end as she went to her classroom four days a week for instruction with a small cohort of other students and the teachers she only knew through Zoom. The others did not return to the school site until February 2021. The return to the classroom came with positives and negatives for the school, teachers, and staff, but they each have stepped up to make the 2-3.5 hours that students are on campus meaningful and filled with the social interaction and face to face instruction they had been missing.
And what about the kids? What did I see them doing? How did I see their behavior change when they went back to the school site? I saw students who had difficulty staying focused during distance learning able to focus better, even during asynchronous learning times. I heard how teachers were better able to hold their students accountable (maybe because they were face to face?). I saw some student frustration decrease when doing independent work and teachers I know report it occurs less frequently in the classroom than it had been during distance learning.
As their children returned to the classroom I saw parents maneuvering throughout their own work schedules to transport their different age students to school at two or three different drop off and pick up times throughout the day. The “new” school day was only 2 to 3.5 hours per day as compared to the traditional 3.5 to 7 hours of the pre-pandemic school day. I saw the smiling faces of the children going to school replace the look of frustration on those same children as they struggled to remain focused and engaged during “Zoom”. Social interaction returned and even though recess has been replaced by “mask breaks” children get to be together outside the four walls of their homes.
As an educated “outsider peeking in“ during the last tumultuous year, I believe that much has been learned. Most families and teachers worked long hours and continued to do the best they could do for every child. Teachers were forced to learn new ways to teach through the computer. I believe that some of what was learned will continue to grace the classrooms of our schools making the learning environment that much more accessible to all students. And the importance and value of face to face interaction and instruction was affirmed as we experienced the decline in the mental health of many around us.
Did learning happen for our students? I believe it did. I have witnessed the reading of my grandchildren progress. I saw critical math skills mastered and writing happen. What was lost was the social emotional growth and the relationship building. Learning to interact with those in authority (teachers, etc.) other than parents was not the same through a screen. Making new friends, playing games, cafeteria conversations, and the celebrations of successes, birthdays and holidays were not plentiful during the last year resulting in much loss. Social emotional health has been a struggle for us all.
Families were forced into situations where they were more involved in their children’s education – will this remain the norm? I hope that it will. Many families found ways to cope with the pandemic lock down. I spent several evenings on my Alexa device reading books to my grandkids at the beginning when we were in complete lockdown mode. I still get a call once in a while to read them a story or sing a song with them and it has become a new way to create memories. Neighborhoods often became “the bubble” for families as parents came together to supervise “recess” times from Zoom school, provide some fun activities and became a place where parents could gain support from one another while “socially distant”. The neighborhoods became their “bubble” of existence. Kindness, a need for new learning, grace and service to others became the norm for many of us during this very long time of uncertainties. Will we take it with us into the future and strive to make our schools, our neighborhoods, and our communities better places for ALL? Will we be more prepared in the future for the uncertainty that is our world today?
We have before us an opportunity. An opportunity to create a “a new world” in education. I believe the school site can be a place of change for all. Relationships have become even more important to us during this pandemic. The encouragement, support and learning that has been so prevalent can continue. Our schools can be places where not just the students, but the families and teachers, are valued as essential. Together we can create a new normalcy. One of positivity and learning for all.
Returning to In-Person Learning: Losing and Gaining Back our Voices
What has your experience been straddling these two groups of students?
We started having small cohorts once a week for our ELD and Special Ed. students at the end of September 2020. This was surprising and alarming for those of us who taught these populations because COVID -19 infection rates were still high at this point. Scientists were predicting that we would have a significant rise in cases by the end of November and it would continue from there on out. Therefore coming back so early made me anxious. I felt like my worries and concerns were being silenced and ignored. As a matter of fact , ELD and/or Special education teachers at my school site were experiencing frustrations with how poorly our students were performing on Distance Learning. Many of my students were not showing up to our google meets or completing their work. In general, my ELD students struggle in person when I am able to assist them. Now we were working remotely and even though I was following their IEP plans and accommodations as best as I could, they were still not being successful in my classes, or most of their other classes.
All teachers in my district were ordered to come back in person on November 8th, with a schedule that had Cohort A, Cohort B, and Cohort C. Cohort A would be in school in person on Monday and Tuesday, while Cohort B would be in school Thursday and Friday. Wednesday students are allowed to attend their ELD or Special Ed Cohorts, but it is voluntary. We followed the schedule above.
We are teaching our class Synchronous, so when a student is at home, they are in google meets with the students who are in person, going over assignment directions in real-time. My in person classes were tiny at first, with sometimes a period being one student or none. The biggest class I had was five students.
The advantage that students in person could have is that they can directly talk to their teacher. We use the GoGuardian Program to see students’ screens and as another means to communicate with students, whether students are at home or in person. Some students still preferred to communicate with me in person using GoGuardian, more comfortable that I keep a distance from them while in the same room. It was as if they truly had lost their voices. Their chromebooks were now their way to communicate with me even if they were right in front of me.
After spring break my district has combined Cohort A and B, so students come to school four or five times a week, unless they are on Cohort C, they will continue to work remotely full time. Class populations increased because of this. My classes went from being four students to eight, from being five students to twelve. This makes me nervous because students and teachers are to follow COVID protocol in their classes. But it gets harder to social distance in classes when you have more students in your classrooms. The masks I wear started to feel suffocating physically and emotionally. Was I to stay a prisoner of the COVID-19 aftermath, and for how long? It was getting harder to breathe in the literal and emotional sense.
What have been some successes you have had?
For some students who have been struggling, I have seen an improvement. But this is not enough so that I feel it is justifiable that we started in-person Hybrid classes so early. Many teachers fought to have students begin hybrid classes after Spring Break, without success. We sent long detailed letters to our superintendent and our school board members, asking for them to reconsider starting school so soon. This caused moral issues but we pushed through. We were fighting to be heard even when we felt that our mouths were not only covered by our masks, but covered by an invisible force that was keeping us from the freedom to feel safe at work.
Students who are in person have said that they enjoy leaving their homes and that they feel like things are somewhat normal. This has helped their mental health and overall their well-being. For this I am thankful, but getting them to talk in class and to participate continues to be a huge issue. They are not talking to me or one another. They have gotten used to being silenced and prefer a classroom of no sound than one where they have to verbally interact with one another and with their teachers.
What are some of the biggest challenges you are facing?
Unfortunately, there are still many students who are still not being successful in completing their classwork. They are showing up to school but still not completing their assignments. Some of my students have failed their first semester of school and are also failing their second semester.
I am frustrated because the payoff for having my students in class, in person at the risk of their health and mine has not felt worth it at this point. I have attended a high volume of IEPs, SSTs, and parent meetings to try and help my students. But I have seen students who don’t want to do their work whether they are working from home or in person at school.
It feels as if students are having trouble getting their mindset back to being in the classroom. They have not overcome the disruption that the COVID-19 Pandemic has caused in their daily lives. It feels like some of them gave up on themselves and in their education. How can we get them to get their voices back, even while wearing a mask or if they are working from home?
What has it been like being back together with students?
It has been nice to connect with students in person. I missed having small conversations with students while they work in class. It feels a little closer to being a normal school year when I see kids in their seats and working. I can also have small one-on-one conversations with students who I want to reach and communicate my concerns with. Yet, it still feels like what it is, a Pandemic. We are all wearing masks in classes and out of classes, all day long. I am wiping down their desks between classes and they are sitting three or more feet apart in their desks. They try to talk to me and others out loud when we are having class discussions, but their voices are muffled. They have to keep their masks on at all times as do I. Everyone’s voices are literally and metaphorically being taken away from them. Teachers are left wondering if this is happening only at their school site, their district, or everywhere? Is this going to be our new norm for the rest of the school year? Will the 2021/2022 school year be any less strange than this? Are our student’s and teachers voices coming back to us?
How are students responding to being back in the classroom?
Some students are happy to be in class, but nervous about their safety and they find the long block classes exhausting. They can’t get out of their desks unless they go to the bathroom, so some of them feel like their day is boring and long. Most of my students are in class in person because they were forced to come back by parents and administration because they are failing most, if not all of their classes. Therefore some are in class upset, and still not producing work. There are also some that are grateful to be out of their homes. They enjoy feeling like life is going to someday be what it used to be like, and they are waiting in anticipation!
What are some of the social-emotional components of this shift in learning for you and your students?
My mindset and student’s mindsets are slowly shifting, but we all have quite a ways to go. Getting back to being a teacher in a classroom and a student in a classroom pre-pandemic is not going to happen overnight. Many of us have had COVID-19 and we know that even with vaccines, we still have to be vigilant and follow protocols to be safe. There is still a palpable anxiousness and uncomfortableness in the air in my classes. Most of my students lack the drive to work most of the time and I am trying hard to do my best and accept that as being all I can do at this point. I am trying to help my students gain their voices back. I want them to be confident again in speaking to others, in a classroom.
We all need to be okay with not always being okay. Students can talk to parents, teachers, school social workers and school therapists if they need extra support. I have SEL assignments and activities to check in with my students. I have had to call fewer parents or refer fewer students to our school social worker these last two months, compared to having to do it quite often for multiple students, at the beginning of the school year in August.
I believe life will be back to normal over time but it’s going to happen in parts, not all at once. Are we ready to coexist after we all endured the pandemic? Will our mental health stay at the forefront of life or will we simply carry on, business as usual? What will it take to get our voices back? Are we going to have to fight for them to be ours again, or will the discovery come willingly and naturally? Will all that we learned about BLM and other social issues continue to be looked into or will we forget and move on? Only time will tell, but I am doing my best to stay optimistic, I am honing my voice as it’s coming back to me again.
April 2021 Posts
A Brief Introduction
Welcome to the first monthly installment of the SJVWP Blog. During the month of March, six SJVWP Teacher Leaders came together to practice what they preach and to commit to the page some of the lessons they learned while teaching in a year like no other. Karen Yelton-Curtis offers her musings about how she is preparing for the return of students to the physical classroom while Kristen Norton considers how to adapt a love for online writing technologies upon returning to a face-to-face class. Jaclyn Smith explores how this past year has given her the chance to redefine her pedagogical values to life in her teaching practice while Jesus Renteria takes his readers on a journey through the past year doing a series of now and then comparisons addressing topics such as mental health, social dilemmas, and isolation. Marci Haas follows that up with her examination of the traumas teachers have faced over the last year and how they can address their own social-emotional health needs even as they are modeling that for their students. And Caitlin Nii closes out this month’s blog posts with a letter that will resonate for anyone who has ever wrestled with all that it truly means to be a teacher. We hope you enjoy this inaugural edition, and we invite you to join us for our next SJVWP Writes! sessions.
Returning to the Room
If I have learned anything through teaching my 11th-grade classes at a distance, it is valuing the physical classroom: a space for quiet contemplation, affirmation of original thinking, humming conversation, and opportunities for physical movement – all of which help develop a community. In August, I was denied the opportunity to prepare my room at Fresno High for incoming juniors. There would be no table groups, no classroom library within easy reach, no tidy filing systems for students’ assignments. As the months rolled on, I reminisced about colorful displays of unit artifacts on the walls. A digital bulletin board does not have the same cache.
I typically begin the year by treating my classroom as a blank canvas that students will decorate with their thinking. Now that I know some of my juniors will return to campus the week of April 13, I am wondering how to reintroduce the refuge students will rely on to help them transition back to a version of “normal”. They will need silence and socialization as well as movement and time for meditation. They will need comforting words as well as critical appraisals of their work. They will need to use their hands but also require opportunities to hone the digital skills they have acquired.
I know that table groups are still on the back burner – social-distancing requirements will prevent physical proximity that helps one student bond with others. Masks will be mandatory for all and I wonder how they will affect plans to promote oral discussion. In distance learning, students have been reluctant to speak aloud but not necessarily because of shyness. Those who are willing to share verbally are often interrupted by background noises, which range from crying toddlers to the crash-boom-bang of dropped objects to the occasional parent yelling at the person trying to learn through a screen. I hope that students yearn for old-fashioned conversation with peers, even if it is conducted through a cloth barrier and at a six-foot length.
I wonder if students will want to handle objects such as index cards, mini-whiteboards, highlighters, and other resources housed in my room – or if they will prefer the technological tool that has been their portal to school for the past eight months. I wonder if students will want to participate in socially distanced gallery walks or if they will feel less anxious anchored to a table and chair. I wonder if hands will reach for the books on shelves or if students will be reluctant to touch volumes their classmates have perused. I wonder about and ponder just how much of the familiar routine I can reintroduce to those who come to campus two days each week.
I think about preparing for this next phase. Norms must be established for those present and those learning at home. Lesson plans that include social-emotional components will be even more critical to support students. Simultaneous learning will be a juggling act to ensure equity of instruction for all. New tech tools – a wireless headset and a wide-angle web cam – pose logistical challenges. Training – multiple sessions, I envision – is on the horizon. It is another wave of changes in a year when I constantly reinvent what I do again, and again, and again. Sometimes I wonder if I have enough energy to pivot in another direction.
But here is what I know: I am looking forward to driving to school, to toting the rolling briefcase, to walking across the quad and up the stairs to my sunny classroom. Students who elected to attend classes in person have expressed excitement about their return. I have cheerfully unpacked the book bins and sorted the contents by genre. I will distribute notebooks and annotation tools to my classes, courtesy of donorschoose.org and my school principal. I will celebrate seeing my colleagues in person, even if it is from the nose on up. Despite my wonderings, I know we are moving forward, step by cautious step.
As you prepare for the final phase of the school year, what are your hopes, concerns, and questions?
Karen Yelton-Curtis teaches 11th grade English in the International Baccalaureate program at Fresno High School. Since joining the San Joaquin Valley Writing Project in 2005, she has led the Summer Invitational Institute and study groups and presented a range of workshops on the topic of academic writing.
Teaching Writing Online: Better or Worse?
When I think back to the days before the pandemic, I remember my classroom crowded with desks, students, backpacks, snacks, and drinks. I remember trying to navigate around the cramped space to look over a student’s shoulder at what they were writing or answer a “private” question, trying to make sure I made it around the whole room, and always coming up short. I remember standing in front of the class writing on the white board and waiting for the few willing and eager students to politely raise their hands before contributing to a “class discussion”. I remember walking out of class loaded down with piles of papers to grade so everyone could get feedback and know how they were doing.
A year later, after making the required switch to teaching synchronously online, I marvel at how archaic those practices seem now. As I began to reflect on those face to face classes so many of us are nostalgic for, I suddenly realized what I had thought were best practices that I had been so sad to lose during the initial transition to online learning, were actually full of limitations that privileged a few students over the many.
Limitations of class discussions during face to face (f2f) learning:
- Only one student can speak at time
- Students don’t like to raise their hands or have other students look at them as they talk
- Students don’t feel like they have anything important to say after the first person has spoken
- Students may forget the idea they had while listening to the person speaking
- Students don’t always speak loud enough for other students or even the teacher to hear them
- Students listen but don’t transfer what they hear into their notes to refer to later
Although I had been vaguely aware of these obstacles to effective student participation in class discussions, I had never spent much time thinking of how to make changes to adjust for them. Until online learning.
Risks and Rewards of Online Apps for Writing
As I tried out different apps and experimented with different uses of them, I arrived at increasingly more opportunities for students to express themselves in writing during the course of a synchronous class period. When I think about how much writing my students did in my f2f classes compared to how much they do now, I can’t help but realize how much more practice they are getting in this new virtual world.
This opportunity for growth started by establishing a class culture built around writing as a primary means of communication. I open every class with a chat in which all students are encouraged to participate by myself and by their peers. The chat continues throughout the session, as I pose thought-provoking questions related to the day’s content and wait for the class to respond with a flurry of responses in the chat. Best of all, when students have spontaneous moments of brilliance during these online conversations, their words are recorded for them and others to refer back to later when they are working on related assignments.
Another app that I frequently use is jamboards where students can anonymously participate in the building of a class understanding of a certain concept rather than viewing a pre-made PowerPoint covering the ideas I want them to know. Students eagerly participate and take risks in posting ideas because they know they will get feedback, but their identity remains confidential. As students post their ideas, I organize and curate their posts to help students see patterns and ensure that correct information is being identified. This process allows me to get a thorough understanding of where the class is and correct their misconceptions. It gives students an active role in constructing the knowledge with their peers that will help them move forward on the next assignment, and a link to the jamboard is always included in assignments so these class notes are available for all students to use.
The final app I frequently use is shared Google Docs. This app creates a bridge between our interactive class work and their asynchronous assignments. By having students start their assignments in these shared documents they are able to get past the initial struggles that inevitably accompany challenging writing assignments. I am able to see and provide feedback in real time and guide struggling students to look at how other students are approaching the assignment. Students then copy and paste the work from the shared Google Docs into their own documents for completion and submission.
Benefits that Address f2f Limits with Student Participation
- Students all write at the same time so no one is privileged to be “first” and have their ideas dominate
- All students have equal access to being heard and no one has to raise their hand
- Students share their ideas as they occur to them rather than having to wait until someone else has finished speaking
- Students can complete their ideas and then scroll through and read a variety of other ideas without having them influence their own ideas
- Students who have lots of ideas can post as often as they want without interfering with other students opportunities to contribute or voice different ideas
Benefits that Address f2f Limits with Student Feedback
- Students can receive immediate feedback on their ideas from the instructor and their peers
- Students who are too shy to speak in front of others can start to build confidence in their ideas by sharing them in writing and receiving positive feedback from the instructor and their peers
- Students can reference the written feedback provided myself and their peers in comments rather than having to take in verbal feedback that I used to give during f2f instruction
- Students can see the feedback I leave for other students which gives them additional opportunities to see what works and what doesn’t
- Students can view the work of their peers to see how others are responding to the assignment to help them self-correct or confirm they are on the right track
Although it’s true that I am not likely to recognize a single student by their face, as most of them opt to keep their cameras off, I have grown very good at identifying them by their “voice” on the screen. In a climate where students are reluctant to show their faces or speak, I have established routines and expectations that help students to emerge through their written voice–a goal I have had for years with my face to face students. With just a sentence or two of writing, I can often tell exactly who wrote it. Which is to say, I have gotten to know them deeply in an academic sense, as writers expressing meaningful ideas to me and their classmates.
A year ago, when we first switched to online learning, this was not something I ever expected would come as a result of that immediate and dramatic shift to a virtual relationship with students. At the time, I felt like teaching on Zoom was a daunting task that I was more than a little unprepared to take on. However, a year later, with the promise of schools returning to face-to-face instruction, I have found that my students and I have grown dependent on many of these tech tools, and I am wondering how I will be able to integrate these expanded opportunities for writing and sharing of ideas in a face-to-face learning environment. It is a problem I did not expect to face, and one I am still working on solving.
What are some strategies you have learned to value during online instruction and how might you be able to implement them once we return to face-to-face instruction?
Kristen Norton currently teaches English at Fresno City College after spending more than 15 years in a high school classroom. She is the Associate Director for Youth Programs with SJVWP and has been reaping the rewards of being involved with the Writing Project for twelve years.
Pedagogy as Values in Action
As I think about how my role as a teacher has changed over the past year, I keep coming back to the recognition that, though I have cut curriculum “down to the bone”, in doing so I’ve revealed my values: the curriculum my students are studying is my values in action. In the Fall of 2020 I moved to a public comprehensive high school after teaching at a local public charter school for five years, and changed grade levels from sophomores to juniors and seniors. The district, school, and curriculum changes allowed me to re-evaluate and re-apply my values, both professional and personal.
Know what’s non-negotiable
Of course, applying my values happens within a system of non-negotiables.
At the District and/or School Level, I needed to know what is required. In my district, it’s a shared cumulative unit assignment within a broader adopted curriculum. Though we are strongly encouraged to use the adopted curriculum, how we “get there” with students is up to us. I take advantage of this professional leeway to ask students in our biweekly survey to rate their understanding of concepts and skills, a feedback method I learned from Candace Cano, a SJVWP Teacher Leader and middle school teacher. This allows me to quickly note both class and individual trends to identify where I need to reteach or reinforce.
In my class, one of my non-negotiables is that students must see themselves in the curriculum and the instruction. This not only means that students read texts by authors that share their culture, heritage, race, or ethnicity, but also that I take a communal stance to teaching and learning: not only sitting in (virtual or physical) groups but also in discussing work (their own as well as professional models), sharing resources, and how they came to a specific conclusion/reasoning. These are ways I attempt to eliminate what I describe as individual students’ “hoarding” of information, where they figure out a response to the prompt but refuse to share with the group. I value working together over one person having the correct answer, and my instruction and assignments both reflect this.
Some questions to consider while thinking about District and/or School level standards:
- What’s non-negotiable (curriculum/programs, assessments, ways of instructing)?
- What professional space can I occupy?
I also consider the State Standards, especially the nuances for my particular grade level. In understanding that the difference between grades 9/10 and 11/12 Writing standard 1.b is “values and possible biases”, I can focus instruction on those complexities. We can focus on doing the challenging work together, with mini-lesson small group instruction focused on particular recursive skills needing reinforcement.
Some questions to consider while thinking about State standards:
- What are the nuances for my particular grade level(s)?
- How can I creatively teach these, while staying aligned with other non-negotiables and my values?
I think carefully about my professional standards. What do I think “every junior” should be able to do? They should be able to write a multi-paragraph response to something they’ve read, using their own reasoning to explain a logical response, reflect on themself and their life experiences, and create artifacts of their learning. “Every senior” should be able to engage with the world around them, using writing and creating in other mediums to donate back to the global community. Professional standards might be shared–for example, in the junior year students create a resume, because teachers know it will help them as they apply for jobs and scholarships.
Some questions to consider while thinking about professional standards:
- Do I find myself drawn to certain types of assignments? Why might that be?
- What do I tend to ‘take’ with me when I move grade levels or subject areas?
- What deep reasoning do I have around the “work” I ask students to produce?
How I approach curriculum & instruction–my pedagogy–can also be a non-negotiable element. Pedagogy is sometimes described as solely what happens when teachers are in front of students, but I think about pedagogy as all-encompassing: my stance (mental), attitude (emotional), language used, assignment layout & descriptions, assessment, classroom ‘management’ techniques and, yes, curricular & instructional decisions. To me, pedagogy is values in action, and as I keep reflecting on how to teach my students well, I bring my values more clearly in focus.
I work from a strengths-based stance. Every student comes with a wide range of knowledge, skills, and abilities. It is my responsibility as the teacher to look for what they know about writing and reinforce that, celebrating their full talents, abilities, and languages as we work together to continue to strengthen their literacies. For example, when I give feedback, I use phrases such as, “I see that you have [insert what they have used/done]. This made the reading experience powerful because…”. Coupled with what Carl Rogers called unconditional positive regard, when students need more time on assignments, or don’t understand a concept, I assume they need the help and work to support them. Shame has no place in my classroom: when a student has missed three classes in a row, I send them a quick message (something like: “Hi, I haven’t seen you in a little while! How are you doing? I hope to see you next class period!”). I send a follow-up if they miss again. This has led to connections with students that would not have happened otherwise, and opens the door for students to tell their own story if they choose.
We think & write every day. Full stop. Students engage in Peter Elbow’s four writing modes: private writing, writing that is read aloud but receives no responses (now we use Padlet or Flipgrid), writing with responses that are non-judgemental, and writing that will be evaluated. We use writing to process, to think through, to wrestle with, to question, to argue.
Some questions to consider while thinking about pedagogy:
- Do I find myself drawn to certain ways of doing things? For example, do I tend to assign group or individual work?
- What types of group work do I assign? Do I give individual or group grades?
- In what areas do my students tend to be “strong”?
- What do other teachers comment that my students know well?
How do I figure out what’s non negotiable to me?
You may not fully & consciously realize what’s non-negotiable to you, but your values are your pedagogical DNA: they are evident whether you have articulated them or not.
They might come out in discussions with colleagues (between classes, over Twitter) or in what you emphasize. Do you find yourself having the same types of conversations? If so, what’s the common thematic thread?
Look for patterns in your teaching. Do you spend time talking about social justice issues? Or the gender inequities in stories? Or helping your students tell their counter narratives? If you tend to return to specific texts, what are their themes?
And, of course, ask your students, in surveys or exit tickets (If you could talk with incoming students, what would you say is important to me? What is important for doing well in my class?”). In my first teaching job one of my students told me, “This is more like a social justice class than an English class. You keep talking about how we’re going to change the world”.
This year of change has helped me crystalize how my values in action determine not only my students’ experience, but my own. By bringing my full self into the classroom, it is a more vibrant learning community for everyone.
What are some of your non-negotiables?
The Impending 2021-2022 School Year
When the pandemic started many of us were ready to quarantine and stay home; Safety for our families, friends, students and ourselves was a priority at this point. There were so many unknowns when it came to COVID-19 that staying in the classroom made no sense. I felt the stress of the “ New Normal” and a strange comfort in the acceptance of uncertainty. The positive for me and my colleagues was that teachers felt heard and protected in our district; we couldn’t always say this was the case. Schools were going into Distance Learning while life changed due to mandated quarantining and new rules and regulations. No one had ever expected schools across the nation, the world in fact, to close in the way that they did in March of 2020. I was gobsmacked that this was real life, I was living through history in the making!
Life has been hard for me and everyone in the world. I saw friends, family, colleagues, and students suffer from contracting of COVID-19. We all took precaution to not get sick and yet, many of us still got sick with the virus. For some, it was a flu like illness that lasted a week or days. But for others it lasted months and was more traumatic. We are still living with the after effects of contracting COVID-19. I have tired of being at home, and I have not traveled out of the Central Valley in over a year a half. I have had the blessing of getting vaccinated and so has my partner, as well as many other friends and colleagues. I plan on starting to travel more soon. It is time to try to enjoy traveling again, while adhering to protocols of wearing a mask and social distancing. My district, Hanford Jt. Union High School District had teachers who taught special education and Emerging Bilinguals come back in person, at the end of September, once a week for small cohorts. By November 8, 2020 all teachers in our district were to come back to the classroom teaching Hybrid. Our work schedule is that we have Cohort A, Cohort B, and Cohort C. Cohort A comes to school Monday and Tuesday, while Cohort B stays home online, synchronized learning. Wednesday is distance learning for all students, except for when our ELD Cohorts come that day in person for extra help, but all teachers must be in their school classrooms. Cohort B would come in person Thursday and Friday, while Cohort A is at home. Cohort C is at home, all week long.
Mental Health Concerns
Social emotional education made a huge appearance at the beginning of school shutdowns. Teachers, administrators, parents and the general public began worrying about how students would deal with mental health issues that a pandemic brings. Soon teachers were creating lesson plans that would address how to deal with depression, anxiety, agoraphobia, suicides etc. Some educators had attempted S.E.L. re-pandemic with mixed success. Now many saw how essential it was to focus on how to get our students’ mental health, as well as our own, in a better place. Some students responded to it well, while other students felt bombarded by it. It was a challenging time for teachers. We wanted to support our students’ mental well being, but some students were not wanting S.E.L. They felt like that was all they were being exposed to when they already felt overwhelmed living this new reality. Always talking about their emotions made some students feel weird. I found myself pushing my students to feel their feelings and that did not work for all students. I had to find a balance in how I taught S.E.L. and I also had to be conscious of what students needed it more than others. I constantly communicated with my students and I always let them know I was open to talking to them if they needed it, while I referred more severe needs to the school social worker or psychologist.
Social Emotional Learning is not going anywhere, any time soon. Students are still being impacted by the pandemic and getting back to a social normal is going to take time and care. I’m glad that so many of us tried our best to connect with our students not only academically but also socially to make sure that their mental health was a priority. I know I did my best to be there for students and I will continue to be there for them in the months to come. Mental health has always been important to me and now it makes sense to continue to put mental health at the forefront of my lesson plans and my teacher pedagogy.
Living Through Social Dilemmas
Many stayed home at all cost, ordering groceries and other essential items through apps. Some chose to go out to the world and complete shopping for basic necessities. The anxiety that was in the air of stores felt like a wall of bricks that was waiting to fall on everyone. I started wearing a mask right away when outside, but I still saw many who were not. Suddenly many of us saw the beginning of a silent war of pro-maskers and anti-maskers. The world turned upside down since so many were questioning science and common sense logic. It was infuriating and made me question my friendships and loyalties to many people in my life.
Anxieties about the pandemic are lowering and I can finally see a light at the end of the tunnel. How far it is to the end of that tunnel, I am not fully sure yet. There are still anti-maskers and individuals who feel it is their right to go anywhere, any time, without needing to adhere to COVID protocols. But it feels like I see less and less of this in general as restrictions are being lifted from business and restaurants. Those of us who were constantly at war with individuals who question science are slowly learning to let people live in their own choices and mindsets.
Many now found themselves at home for a longer time than they had ever expected. Rumors were that this virus would be gone in a month or so, but no one was certain. Suddenly everyone was posting on social media about things to do at home to endure this time of uncertainty. Home improvement projects, growing plants, reading books, catching up on shows, learning a new skill, creating a home gym to stay fit, were some of the several tasks that millions chose to attempt. For some of us, we felt pressure to do many different projects because it felt like we had so much time on our hands. Maybe this really would be the moment to change our lives and learn a new language, publish a book, or become an online celebrity?!
Society at large is ready to move away from isolation. Many are going to restaurants and other outdoor events because they have been in quarantine and isolation for a whole year. I understand people wanting to be social, but I am frustrated that many are not being more careful when they are out in public. Some have been attending bars and clubs for the last month or longer, not being mindful that the pandemic is not completely over. I don’t feel that it is time to get complacent because many are being vaccinated. I would like to enjoy my summer and with so many being too careless about following COVID protocols, I am afraid that my summer may still not be “normal.
Students’ lack of participation in class and not completing work became a huge issue. Getting students to show up to their classes online became a constant battle. Even if they showed up, students didn’t always participate or do any work, leaving teachers feeling alone and frustrated. Teachers found themselves staring at their computer screens, hoping that students were listening and learning. Teachers across the globe had participated in online training and workshops on how to engage our students remotely. Yet students were not participating and many students performed poorly, drastically falling behind academically.
The problem of student apathy is still an issue. At the high school I work at counselors are having hundreds of SSTs to re-engage students. After school tutoring for students is being provided. Summer school will be large and the expectation is that more students will attend this summer than in previous summers. Students who chose to be on Cohort C, are being encouraged to attend school in person. After Spring Break my district will combine Cohort A and B, so students will be coming to in-person classes four or five times a week! Struggling students who are failing more than one class are the ones being targeted. Only time will tell if all these strategies are going to help students who have struggled to pass their classes all year long. Thus teachers continue to fight the good fight, hoping for a future that will soon find us living a “New Normal” that we can thrive in as the impending 2021-2022 school year gets nearer.
Jesus Renteria currently teaches ELD at Hanford West High School and serves as the English Intervention PLC Lead. He has been involved with the SJVWP since 2017 and currently serves as the Associate Director for Work With Emergent Bilingual Students.
Are You Feeling Safe?
During the past year the school’s focus has changed from the seen physical forces (weather, intruders, etc) to the unseen, silent danger of COVID 19.
Schools have prepared for many years now to keep students (and staff) physically safe on school campuses. Teachers have been trained on the correct procedures to use in case of natural disaster (earthquake, weather, etc) , man made disaster (gas leaks, fire) or the occurrence of intruders on campus. Throughout the year, time is spent in staff meetings visiting scenarios to help teachers think through even the worst possible event happening on their campuses.
The focus on physical safety is certainly supported. Going back to our basic needs as indicated by Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, physiological and safety needs are the two largest and most important to be met. (See diagram below.) These needs must be met to allow an individual to learn, to achieve and to reach self-actualization.
Schools across the nation have worked hard to develop safety guidelines to provide physical safety so staff and students can return safely to school in person amidst the current pandemic. Now the question is: what has been done to insure felt (emotional) safety for not only students but teachers and staff?
Social Emotional Health
During the last 5 -10 years, the social emotional health of students has become a focus in many schools. ACES, trauma informed, trauma sensitive and SEL have become common vocabulary on most school sites. 83% of states report that Social Emotional Learning has increased in priority since the pandemic began.
Social Emotional Learning is defined as the modeling and teaching of an interrelated set of cognitive, affective and behavioral competencies that underscore our capacity to learn, develop, and maintain mutually supportive relationships and be both physically and psychologically healthy. (CASEL)
Implementation of Social Emotional Learning in our classrooms results in the physical and psychological safety of our students. Social Emotional Learning addresses the two tiers of Maslow’s Hierarchy that are needed for individuals to work towards self actualization and to be available for learning.
BUT have teachers received adequate training to model and teach the competencies that are required?
Let’s focus on the word model in this definition. Are teachers fully equipped to model the affective and behavioral competencies required? Can they truly model without first having the opportunity to focus and reflect on their own social emotional health? Are they equipped with coping strategies that will allow them to take care of their own health so can fully care for the social emotional health of their students? Can they create an environment of “felt safety” or emotional safety if they do not feel safe?
Felt Safety (or Emotional Safety)
Felt or emotional safety is defined as an experience “in which one feels safe to express emotions, security, and confidence to take risks and feel challenged and excited to try something new.” (National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments)
Teachers (as well as students) have experienced much trauma throughout this pandemic:
- Teaching from home through technology platforms with family members often all in the same room All while helping their children to maneuver their own distance learning.
- Fears of or actually becoming ill with the virus or a family member contracting the illness.
- Receiving negative feedback from parents and the community sometimes on a daily basis (directly or indirectly through news and social media).
- Putting every ounce of energy available into creating engaging lessons while learning to navigate the technology that had not been used in the classroom setting.
This trauma has and will continue to affect our teaching. It has increased the number of teachers experiencing burnout and compassion fatigue leading to a lack of felt safety among our teachers.
Teacher Social Emotional Health-Where to Begin?
Good intentioned directives from others (admin, family, friends) have been given reminding teachers to engage in self-care. Many schools have even provided workshops on the topic. As a teacher, I was awful at self-care in the best of times. If self-care was hard to achieve in “normal” times it became even more difficult in the midst of the endless “pivoting” being asked of teachers and staff. And as we approach returning to the classroom more change is imminent.
Teachers must “own” their own social emotional health. Social emotional health is one thing that individuals can control during the crises we encounter. The challenge is to find ways to include meeting our social emotional needs without feeling like one more thing has been added to our already overflowing day.
Is it possible to find ways to incorporate small moments throughout the day that will provide time to focus on personal emotional health as well as provide the opportunity to model the strategies to the students in our classrooms?
Below are a few ideas that might be helpful to at least allow teachers to begin the journey of caring for their own social emotional health. Most teachers are including the following SEL strategies within their daily classroom routines. Teachers can simultaneously address their own social emotional health while modeling these strategies by completing them with their students. A few suggestions for implementation of each strategy are listed below.
|Daily Emotion Check-In||Take time to complete your own emotional check-in as your students complete theirs.|
|Reflective Journal Writing||Reflect on your emotion. Teachers can write along with students about what they are feeling to start and end the day.|
|Grounding Strategies||Practice throughout the day:-Breathingexercises-Meditation -Calming Music: play during independent work times and transitions-Drink water! Make sure you are taking water breaks throughout the day.|
|Take a Break||JInclude physical activity when possible -During mask breaks/lunch breaks take a walk. Even if you are on duty you can move around maintaining social distancing.-Spend a few minutes completing a quiet calming or meditation exercise.|
|Create a Mantra||Practice positive self talk. With your students create a positive message to yourself. Read it to begin each day.|
|Practice Gratitude||Take time at the end of each day to reflect on the positive in the day in a journal and/or in a share out with the class.|
What can you do to ensure felt (emotional) safety for you and your students as you return to your classroom this spring?
Marci Haas retired in June 2020 from Clovis Unified where she taught preschool through sixth graders for over 30 years. Her last 4 years were spent as an administrator overseeing behavior and academic intervention, EL and ASES programs, SEL development. and working with teachers doing coaching and professional development. Marci is currently Associate Director of Elementary for the SJVWP.
Dear ambiguous definer of teaching,
Homeschool Teacher Teacher…? Educator Adjacent
My backspacing became increasingly more aggressive until I finally froze. I just stared at my computer screen, the cursor of my Google Doc blinking at me as if to punctuate its mocking laughter as I slowly sank deeper deeper deeper into existential crisis. Who knew signing a letter could blindside you like that.
In recent years I switched schools, left the classroom altogether, and started a job as a homeschool teacher which predominantly involves supporting homeschooling parents. My decreasing work with students made me feel like an imposter and the space between my fingertips and my keyboard swelled with one big question:
What on earth does it mean to be a teacher?
According to Merriam-Webster a teacher is “one that teaches.” Thanks, Merriam. Real informative. At least she follows with “especially : one whose occupation is to instruct.” But, following a year of teachers separated from students, a smorgasbord of virtual and hybrid instruction models, and parents hastily deciding to take on homeschooling, I have to question Merriam’s overly simplified perspective on teaching. The direct act of instructing is just one piece of the puzzle—but like a corner piece: yeah, you need it, but it’s the easiest piece to put into place.
Sometimes, us teachers run into non-educators who only see the entire picture and don’t understand that the puzzle of teaching is actually composed of a thousand tiny pieces that must all work in conjunction with one another to see results. Because of this, I find myself perpetually navigating encounters not unlike these:
“That’s a lot of work.”
I was on the phone with a brand new homeschool parent. She was feeling overwhelmed organizing curriculum for four different grade levels, understandably. In an effort to help streamline some of the responsibilities, I suggested leaning into one of the benefits of homeschooling: family-style learning. I offered an ELA example, the whole family reading the same book together so the majority of the lesson is shared, then differentiating expectations with the elements that are student generated. For instance, I may expect a 5th grader to give more detail in their analytical reasoning than a 3rd grader, but they can both still work on the same core assignment. “What are your thoughts?” I closed my example. Ambient static filled my ear, then, “That’s a lot of work.”
I responded, sans sugar coating, “Yes. It is.” It meant combing through and modifying existing curriculum, or tossing it completely and rebuilding from the ground up. Both daunting, time-consuming undertakings. The groundwork needed to be completed upfront before any benefits could be garnered, and learning couldn’t stop in the meantime. Indeed, a lot of work, but not futile. It is the work we do so our students can grow. We give up our evenings, weekends, vacations so our students can grow. Insanity or selflessness, whatever you call it, it’s teaching. I’m watching this new homeschool parent thrive, because she saw how much work it was and kept trudging forward for the sake of her children. She is a teacher.
“Just give them all A’s.”
A group of us sat in a restaurant for lunch. Our meal long finished, the conversation raucously carried on. The waiter eyed the table with that “you better tip me well if you’re going to be my only table this entire shift” look. Someone suggested we move our party over to a nearby coffee house, met by a course of agreements and mumbles that people had nowhere else to be. Except me. I chimed in, “I have to head home. I still have 2 classes of essays to grade,” the resident party-pooper. A flippant hand dismissed my claim with, “Just give them all A’s.”
Um, thanks but no thanks, Marie Antoinette. As a teacher, I ask my students to do real work. I expect them to navigate both the familiar and unfamiliar. I encourage them to persevere when they encounter roadblocks. I do not disrespect them by doing any less than giving the products they have worked tirelessly to produce my full attention. Every student deserves real eyes on their work to provide real feedback that recognizes their strengths and guides them to where they may want to focus their attention for future improvement. Providing authentic, purposeful feedback to students, is important. Essential. It is teaching.
“They should be embarrassed to get an F.”
I learned a nifty growth mindset snippet that I wanted to share with another teacher: X amount of cake is a lot of cake. So there I was, launching into an example of a student feeling unaccomplished because they only scored 40% on a quiz, but instead spinning it. “If you told me you ate 40% of a cake, that’s a lot of cake!” I exclaimed to my fictional student, forgetting that I was getting a little too pedagogically heavy amongst mixed company. A non-educator sort of gave me a confused look and said, “But, they should be embarrassed to get an F.”
I get it. I do. I mean, I am precisely the type of individual who when presented failure immediately launches into cyclical reattempts until I find success. I am embarrassed by low scores because I know I can do better, so I do better. I failed math facts in sixth grade, asked my teacher for a fat stack of extra copies, went home, and drilled myself until I could finally beat that timer. Heck, I replay levels of Candy Crush until I get all three of those little golden stars before I move to the next level. It’s my innate wiring. But what if it wasn’t? What if I didn’t have the objective ability to perceive failure as an opportunity to improve? What if failure crushed me and made me give up?
As teachers, we can not allow students to halt at the first, second, third-hundredth brush with failure. We do not simply dole out assessment results as if they are the final say on someone’s academic worth. When our students don’t have the skills to utilize failure to their advantage we are tasked with teaching them how. At the very least, we must use our reverse-psychology prowess to jump start them on the idea.
And this is what Merriam’s definition of teaching doesn’t take into account. The job of teaching is more than simply assigning work. Teachers build the bridges between students and the content they are learning. Not a one-size fits all bridge, but one specifically designed bridge for every learner sitting before us. We cross those bridges back and forth with them a hundred and eighty times, each trip showing them one more new thing, until the day they are ready to cross that bridge on their own. Until the day they realize, “Hey! I can build my own bridge.”
This work, the work of a teacher, has never been contained by the four walls of a classroom.
I may no longer directly instruct 150+ students each day, but that doesn’t make me any less a teacher in the work I do. And just because some of my colleagues have been leading their classes from a computer while rocking fuzzy bunny slippers doesn’t mean they aren’t the same powerhouse teachers they are face-to-face.
Life Coach, Comedian, Therapist, Personal Assistant, Nurse, Cheerleader, Housekeeper, Bodyguard, Project Manager, Psychic, Tech Support, Copy Editor, Engineer, Gatekeeper of the Good Stapler … Teacher
In addition to the above roles, Caitlin Racine is a homeschool teacher with Yosemite Valley Charter School supporting TK-12 students on their individual educational journeys. She has been an SJVWP teacher leader since 2016 and currently serves as Associate Director of Secondary.
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