Friday, April 2, 2021

Waiting in Line at the DMV on Good Friday in a Pandemic


When I arrive, 30 minutes before opening,

the line, everyone six feet separate,

stretches past an ice cream shop and a donut shop

through an empty lot of lifeless weeds.

By 7:30 a.m., the line extends

down a side street, and people have brought lawn chairs.

The sun has risen, but the air is 22 degrees, 

and my toes hurt. One must suffer, 

one way or another, at the DMV.


We pilgrims are silent.

The man two people behind me tries three times

to get the man between us to admit his humanity

to chuckle, to confess, to agree,

but the man only grunts. He knows the rules: 

it may be a sunny morning, 

and Christ might have died for us,

but we are in line at the DMV.


As I planned my mission,

my husband asked me, “Can you imagine

working every day for forty years

at the DMV? Wouldn’t you hate people too?”

But a woman in a Carhartt coat 

and warm, sturdy boots works the line.

She holds the book I brought about the Little Rock Nine

but am too frozen-fingered to open

as I check that I have the right paperwork.

She calls me honey, like I’m her beloved

niece and not some 46-year-old woman shivering

in the bright morning sun in an empty lot

on the morning of Good Friday.

I AM the Beloved 

she serves at the DMV.

 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Danger of Partial Data

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

 “a writer is someone who forces what's living in their head to pay rent” (@patricknathan on Twitter)


The following was in our staff newsletter last week:


D/F Data Updates - [Numbers of D's and F's broken down by grade--removed to protect any privacy issues that might exist.]


If you have a student earning a D or F, they should be invited to your Extended Learning Session every opportunity that exists for your class. 


Beyond the statement that “they should be invited to your Extended Learning Session every opportunity,” no commentary was included. And yet somehow this news item feels judgey. As a student of language and communication, I want to think about why that is. 


  1. Statistics about D’s and F’s have not previously been communicated to us--at least not that I can remember. Their inclusion in the letter implies...something. The assumption I leap to is that these numbers are (a) high and (b) unacceptable. They seem high and unacceptable to me, at least. 

  2. This information was not accompanied by any promise that teachers have been, are, or will be engaged in discussion about why these numbers are what they are.

  3. The only commentary, although couched in passive voice, was still about what teachers should do about this. 

  4. There’s a lot of data left out.  For example, it might be informative to include the following data:

    1. Attendance: is there overlap between who attends class in any form and those passing classes? (Shouldn’t there be? If kids can pass high school without showing up to class, is high school even worth it?)

    2. Attendance: of the students who *can* attend in person, how many actually ARE showing up in person? For those that have selected to be in-person but are attending remotely, what are their reasons?

    3. Attendance: when we invite students to extended learning periods, how many show up? (Note: I invited 12 students to my 1st extended learning period today, and one kid showed up. That one kid was NOT one of the 12 I invited but one who showed up to class earlier in the day and wanted some extra help on an assignment.) What “should” happen when we invite and they do not attend?

    4. Attendance: of the students who are marked “present” how many of them show evidence of actually being intellectually present? How many log in and walk away from their computers? How many would respond if called on in class, and how many would be not there and leave a big, gaping, awkward hole in the conversation?

    5. Attendance: How many of the students who are marked present arrived partway through class and/or left early?

    6. Effort: How many of those F’s were earned on work done in class during class hours when the student was doing nothing? How many of those were non-responsive when a teacher tried to assist?

    7. Non-school-related issues: How many of those F’s are associated with students who have lost a parent or loved one to COVID? How many are working to help out their families?

    8. Habits: How many of those students have not turned in any work for the last six weeks but fully intend to complete 18 weeks worth of work in the 18th week and expect teachers to grade 18 weeks of work in a matter of hours? How many did that last semester, last year, for the last six years? Have we created this problem? In trying to solve the problems of differentiation and standards based grading vs. traditional grades have we accidentally caused students to develop habits that will ultimately not serve them very well? 

    9. Trends: How different are these numbers from past years? How many students are represented by these numbers? Is one student failing five classes counted five times?

    10. Ownership: Can we have a conversation about how often in past years I would stand very close to a student and stare at him/her until he/she reluctantly started to write? Would I do that again if my student were coming to school? Of course. Should I? That’s another conversation altogether.

  5. Finally, the real knife buried in this data is the unvoiced implication that somehow teachers should solve this problem. But HOW? We’ve been solving problems five ways from Tuesday (is that the phrase?) for a year now. We’ve learned how to teach remotely and THEN how to teach when five kids are in the room and the rest are (supposedly) remote but with their cameras and microphones off. I’ve tried SO many new things. I’ve implemented every bit of teaching wisdom I know: nurturing low-pressure conversations and interactions, connecting to prior knowledge, linking everything six times so you can’t MISS getting to it, planning every lesson down to the tiniest detail so that it’s all ready to present in multiple modalities, reading the books out loud, providing graphic organizers for thinking, small group, large group, individual instruction, Edpuzzles, Padlets, Jamboards, social annotation, Kami, Peardeck, Poll Everywhere, collaborative slides, accepting late work, offering individual help…. I’m saying that if I knew what else to do, I would have already done it, but I’m already working harder with less feedback and less reward, and I just don’t know what else I can possibly do. You can show me evidence that I’m doing it wrong, but without helping me see how to do “it” right, without offering some sort of assistance, the judgement feels un helpful and frustrating at best.

  6. Is the same level of innovation, effort, support, grace, and trust that I’m daily extending towards my students, including the ones who log in and walk away, being shown to me? It doesn’t feel like it.



Thursday, February 25, 2021--More Data


In December, the week before Christmas, while we were fully remote and ending the semester, the district mandated that I give my students a survey about student engagement. “Well,” I thought, “this is bad timing! Still, I really do want to know what motivates my students and why they are and are not involved.” My colleagues were upset about the survey, but I thought, “Meh. I do want to know what kids are really doing behind their dark screens and when they don’t respond when I ask them questions out loud or in the chat.” Then I opened the survey. It wasn’t about the students, really. It wasn’t about how much sleep they get. It wasn’t about how often they have open other tabs and are doing other things. It wasn’t about if they have their phones in front of them during class. It wasn’t about if they are listening to music with lyrics while they try to read difficult texts. It wasn’t about if they have a quiet place to study, much less “attend” school. It wasn’t about if they are “going to school” from bed with the lights off (side note: I have since had several students tell me this is what they do.) It wasn’t about whether they complete work independently or even accept that responsibility as their own. It wasn’t about if they do work during class time when class time and support are provided. Nope. The survey asked questions like “When you feel like giving up on a difficult task, how likely is it that this teacher will make you keep trying?” (For the record every single one of my students who actually took the quiz said I would probably “make” them keep trying.) It turned out that this survey about student engagement was less about students and more about teachers. I saw why my colleagues were angry.


As I said, this was given mid-December, and today, more than two months later, we were given the results. We were told we weren’t required to look at them this time, but of course I knew I would. At first glance, they are pretty demoralizing. The survey opens up to a home page with a summary of results. My summary said that more than half of my students responded “positively” to questions about me having high expectations, my pedagogical effectiveness, and my student-teacher relationships. A dismal (to me) number responded “positively” to valuing the subject I teach and class engagement. Ugh. That smarts. But then you can dig in a little further. My results said I was below the school and district average in almost every category. (Also, I could see how I compared to social studies teachers which seems like an odd piece of data to offer me.) So...that’s depressing.


But here’s the thing: that data doesn’t include a lot of potentially telling information. Should I use this information to make my students see my subject as relevant and valuable? Of course! But what that data does not show is that I teach students who chose NOT to take the AP courses and, for the most part, the honors courses offered. This survey is taking a group of students who, before they arrived in my class, decided that English was not really where they wanted to spend their time and energy. Then they surveyed them the week before Christmas and while fully remote during a pandemic and asked how important English is to them and then, in February, sent me data saying that my students don’t value my class. Oh. So that stings. But...it’s also sort of...to be expected? Kids who chose not to take the challenging English classes don’t value English? Got it. Other teachers scored a lot higher than I did, but some of them who teach electives and AP start on second or maybe even third base. That’s not reflected in the data. 


You know what else is not reflected in the data? How many books the kids had in their homes growing up, a data point that’s been shown to be statistically significant. Also not reflected: are you a native English speaker? Some of my students are not. Is this true for AP teachers? Also not reflected: how many books have you read in the last five years? A student today told me he hasn’t read a whole book in many years. (For the record, this student also told me a couple of weeks ago that my class is his favorite--not because it’s rigorous, mind you.) Also not reflected in the data: how did my non-AP students rank their other classes? If the point I should take from this is that I should work to make my subject matter feel relevant to my students, then yes, I agree. But comparing my ratings to teachers who teach students who self-selected to take AP courses feels, well, really unfair.


Then I dug a little deeper into the questions. When a student said they were “somewhat interested” or “somewhat excited to go to class” or “somewhat eager to participate,” that was counted as a negative response. So if many of my students who self-selected to not take AP or honors classes said they were “somewhat” excited about my class, that was counted against me. What in the actual [bleep] are we doing to teachers here?


Finally, it appears to me that only 50 of my students actually took the survey. For the record, I teach more than 50 students.


I know for certain that the results of this survey demoralized more than just me. If I’m assuming positive intent, I can see that it was intended to help us reflect on what we are doing well and what we need to work on. Acknowledge. But here again, this information is being shared with us in a way that instead of spurring me to greatness makes me feel like I am, again, a miserable failure. I am less than my peers--who teach more motivated and confident students. My students feel negatively about the value of my class (except that I will “make” them keep trying and I will “make” them explain their answers. Oh, and 97% think I’m extremely knowledgeable about my subject, so there’s that) in comparison to my peers whose students selected to take a higher-level course or maybe even a non-required course. 


This summer, a friend posted on social media a scientific study and in their (staying gender neutral) summary commented that masks are only minimally effective in protecting you from the coronavirus. “Is this true?” I wondered. If it is true, what are we to do? So I waded through the whole study, which was filled with A LOT of numbers and terminology that I don’t encounter much. At the end of the study, the scientists commented that the study focused ONLY on the effect for the person wearing the mask and the fact that the protection level was small did NOT mean that masks are not effective at reducing community spread of the virus if everyone wears one, that other studies had shown that the way the masks are effective is not for the wearer but for the people around the wearer. If everyone wore a mask, everyone would be safer. I feel like teachers--at least at my school-- are being given only the misleading summaries. We are being shown only part of the data and, because we care an awful lot about what we do, we’re taking it personally. Indeed, if we were not meant to take it personally, what are we meant to do with it? You can show me where I need to improve, but if you show me where I fail to measure up to other teachers teaching different students, what can I do with that information but feel sad and ineffective and ponder what else I should maybe do with my life?


If teachers were to tell students that they were getting a failing grade because we were only “somewhat” excited to grade their essays and then told them how they compared unfavorably to all of their peers, even though we knew full well those peers were taking totally different classes, what would we expect to happen? Are teachers not also human? 


Data is good and useful, but partial data can be dangerous, insulting, and counterproductive.


Wednesday, January 20, 2021

46

 


Today, last day of my 46th year,

I noticed, walking down a hallway, that

I seemed to have grown. Maybe my head was

tilted at a new angle, or my spine sent


energy flowing upward. Maybe it was

the shoes I wore to go with

the pearls I wore to go with

my new vice president.


What a pleasure it will be to awake,

to be 46 and just a few hours,

to feel myself in the warm middle but

celebrating a body that feels new.


Friday, December 4, 2020

When Your Life is On Fire

My work is hard to the point of being objectively impossible. It's my job to keep trying even though I am totally powerless to do what I'm trying to do. For example, in one class today, 45% of the students never showed. 45%. Of those there, I could only tell that ONE (ONE!) student even started the reading. I do not not know if anyone else read a single word. And since this class almost never responds to questions and doesn’t reliably turn in assignments, I won't know the next time we meet either. And yet I work all day and into the night just in case that one student might learn something. Just in case. Today I was feeling exhausted and defeated. My day was so full (there isn't even a pause between classes) that I didn't get to eat lunch. That's not totally true. I had a little over 45 minutes at 1pm, and then I had meetings again until 3:15, and then my daughter had an orthodontist appointment, so it was my only 45 minutes of daylight to run, and I chose a run and a protein bar over lunch. I quickly changed, mentally planned my route, and left.

When I got one mile into my run, I turned a corner and saw that most of the rest of my route was ON FIRE. Literally on fire. 10-foot flames, and dark, opaque billows of smoke. Not something you can run through. So I rerouted. I did, on my modified route, get to see the workers starting the fires--it was a burn of the prairie. That was really cool to see, and I don’t regret that experience. I'm always so tired by Thursday that those runs are always mere-survival-slogs, and this one was too, but I did it--on an unexpected out-and-back route. I got back for my meeting eight minutes before it started and was sweaty but wearing real clothes again. 

So there's a metaphor. My plans of every sort--vacations, holidays, teaching, shopping, eating, family, sports--are ON FIRE. Burning to the ground. 10-foot flames and dark, opaque smoke obscuring the path ahead. So...reroute. I might feel like crap, but it'll be...enough. I'll be ugly at the end but still here. Of course, partway through my on-line department meeting later in the afternoon, the wind must have shifted because my house filled with smoke and we couldn't see the houses across the street. My daughter went outside to see whose house was on fire. Opening the door was...not a great idea. Our house smells like a campfire, but there are worse fates.

But back to my job. Tuesday, I tried to warm up that same group of seniors that doesn't fully arrive or speak much. I always start class with a non-academic sort of personal question just to get them used to interacting. Tuesday, I asked, "What was your biggest kitchen fail?" No one talked for a LONG time. I told them about the time I sliced into my finger, pulled the knife out, and had to ask the guy fixing my roof to drive me to the ER. No one responded. In a real classroom, I would never give up on something I knew they could do. I'd stand there in awkward silence until someone cracked and spoke. I can endure awkward silence better than your average person. In a pandemic, however, I think kids just walk away from their computers when it gets uncomfortable, so I was about to reroute and move on to the lesson when one person talked. Then a second person told me that when she was seven, she and her cousin put a mitten in the toaster and burned her house down. "Like, all the way?" I asked, mouth agape. All the way. They had to find a new house, which is how she came to live here. Oh.

I guess sometimes your life, well, burns to the ground. And then you reroute. And it's ugly. But here we are. Alive. Sweaty. Tired. Together, sort of. Smelling oddly like smoke. And HERE.


Thursday, October 29, 2020

A Little More of the Story: Teaching Concurrent in a Pandemic Part Two

 After the last piece I shared, so many people offered me words of care and support and gratitude. I’m truly grateful to be on the receiving end of such positive relationships. For those of you interested, I thought I’d offer up another glimpse into what a day looks like for a teacher. This, too, is just a glimpse. In a piece about the importance of diversity in text selection, Rudine Sims Bishop wrote that a text can be a window, a door, or a mirror, and I humbly offer to you a window into my classroom--and for some of you, a mirror. Welcome back to English 12.


Once upon a time, months and months ago, back in the year 2019, we used to have to keep our doors closed and locked at all times just in case someone wanders the halls with a gun, which, unfortunately, used to happen somewhat regularly in the United States. As a result, every few months, schools are required to perform “lockdown” drills. Although kids are no longer allowed to leave their desks, we still need to do these drills. We knew in advance that the drill would be happening early in the period. After I logged into the Zoom and connected my laptop to the projector and tried to get students talking about the question of the day, we had an announcement that it was time to start the drill. We blocked the windows and turned off the lights and became silent. The drill lasted longer than I thought it would. I texted the situation to the kids at home, since I wasn’t supposed to talk, and told them to just keep writing. 


As a side note, I am curious why students who originally elected to attend school are now logging in remotely. Is it because it’s easier to stay home? Because 7:20 is a ridiculous time to start school and they slept in? Because they aren’t feeling well and don’t want to risk exposing others? Because of some other reason? It’s odd how hard certain members of the community are campaigning for in-person school while the students are simultaneously choosing not to come to school. The group in my room yesterday, however, was full strength, so I had almost half of the students in person.


I’m currently teaching my seniors about narrative voice, a nebulous and complicated topic. Even for a total nerd with a couple of degrees in English, it’s so often one of those “I know it when I see it” skills. As part of the mini-unit on syntax, we’re working on sentence structure. Yesterday’s focus was on combining sentences, and to break things up, I showed “Conjunction Junction.” After the video finished, and the kids were smiling (Ok, I can’t see their mouths, and I can't see the kids not in the room at all, so I pretended they were all smiling,) I started to explain how I wanted them to continue to learn about and practice using conjunctions. I was mid-demonstration when suddenly the projector disconnected and my computer screen started flashing black, blue, white and what I think was a frame of “Conjunction Junction.” I tried to click on something, anything. I tried to use “escape”--a word that always amuses me when I’m trying to use it in such technology-hostage situations--and asked my in-person kids if they had any other ideas. I showed them the screen and they all gasped and were sufficiently impressed with the situation. This particular group, as you will see, is a very satisfying audience. Meanwhile, though, I had no idea if I was still connected to the Zoom. I had been narrating the situation into my computer, a habit that’s starting to feel a little less awkward. (If I’m ever talking to you and start narrating my every moment--right now I’m stirring this pot of spaghetti sauce and then I’ll take a quick sip of water before putting the potatoes in the oven--you know why.) However, since I could not see them and they were either not saying anything or I could not hear them, I had no idea if they could hear me. Just in case, I shouted into my laptop, “I think I’m going to have to shut down my computer, but since I am the owner of the Zoom room, I think you’re all going to be kicked out! Give me two minutes and then try to rejoin! Hang on!” I hit the power button and my screen went dark. The students in the room were silent behind their masks. We stared at each other for a beat.


There were still fifteen minutes left of class at this point, and my lesson was already behind schedule, and since the next day was going to be asynchronous due to yet another standardized test, I needed to quickly adjust what was going to get done that hour and what would be shifted to the next day and what would get moved to next week. I did some mental replanning and tried to turn my computer back on. The power button lit up and then went dark. 


I should maybe mention at this point that my schedule on “odd” days involves five hours in a row, but my computer battery only lasts about two and a half. It was possibly nearing the end of its charge although I still had more than half of the day to go. I have figured out that, lacking the technology that would make concurrent teaching work, I can almost jury-rig together a functional classroom if I just walk around with my laptop open and in front of me. I can sometimes move near someone who is going to speak, which is probably a nice change of pace for the students from me just repeating what everyone says for those at home, but I cannot do this if I am plugged into the wall with a charger. This, however, was an emergency. I went to get out my charger and...it wasn’t in my bag. I looked at my students, still wide-eyed and focused on me. I looked at the clock--only ten minutes left. I thought about the kids at home, some of whom were probably off microwaving pizza and some of whom were probably obediently trying to log back in. “This isn’t going to happen, is it?” I asked the kids in the room. They all shook their heads no. I had a choice. I couldn’t do anything about the kids at home. I could try to keep teaching the kids in the room about conjunctions, or I could teach them something potentially more valuable. I shut my laptop and said, “I can make and email you a video of what I was going to show you just now and have you do today’s assignment tomorrow. Do you want to just have a conversation?” They all exhaled, slammed their chromebooks and nodded. If I could have seen the bottom half of their faces, I think they would have been smiling. I imagined they were.


A kid in the front row said, “So what do you think is going to happen?”


“What do you mean?” I asked. “Happen with what?”


“Oh, you know...everything!” he said. “Do you think things are about to get really bad?”


I suspected I knew what he was talking about, but I also do not know the political persuasions of all of my students and I do not want to alienate any by being too political myself. “What things are you asking about?” I hedged.


“You know, all the things. Like, do you think when there’s a new president... or the same president... things will just...get better?”


I paused. “No,” I said. There were gasps in the room not unlike the gasps that occurred when, earlier in the class I had said the word “sh**.” Seriously, these are some innocent seniors. I asked if anyone was 18 and able to vote. No one was. “Take a deep breath now,” I said. “You’re up next. I think that regardless of who wins, everything won’t be magically better. I’m sort of bracing for that to be the case. I have scenarios in my head that it’s not really my place to talk about here, but I do think we have some serious moral differences in this country, and I don’t think one election is going to change that. We have some hard work to do as a country. I think things might get worse before they get better. The next few months are going to be...rough.”


The same kid pressed, “But do you think they’ll ever get better?”


“Yes,” I told him. I didn’t pause on that one.


“Why?” he asked.


“Because I’m a teacher,” I told him. “For a career I meet and get to know a LOT of people. And I know a lot of people just from living this long. Leaving out the people in power who I’ve never met, I’ve actually MET very few people who were just...bad. I believe that we’ll turn things around because I believe that most people have some good in them. Most people, when you meet them face-to-face, don’t want to hurt you. I wouldn’t do this job if I didn’t think that most people have some spark of goodness in them. So I think that in the end, we WILL make things better. It might get worse before it gets better, but I think it will be OK in the end. I believe there are enough people who want to do the right thing.”


I stopped talking and looked around. I met the eyes of the teenagers looking back at me over their masks. A few of them nodded. “Yeah,” said a kid in the back. “Ok,” said the kid in the front who had started the conversation. We looked at each other for another beat. We nodded again.


I looked up at the clock. Time to go. I told the class I’d send them and the kids at home an email about what to do, and I apologized for the lockdown and chaos and technological difficulties. As they left, they told me goodbye. They looked me in the eyes, and their eyes smiled. I apologized more and told them to have a good day. As he walked past me, the student from the back said, “Hey, it’s all good. Really.” A couple of weeks ago, during an office hours meeting with this young man, I had complimented him on a stand-out detail he had included in his personal statement. “You know it!” he had responded. “I’m learning from the best!” Maybe it’s idealistic of me, but when he said, “It’s all good,” I believed he truly meant it. We are part of that good.


I ended my previous post by saying that this situation is eating me alive. That wasn’t a lie. After this class, I still had two more classes to teach, each only half in front of me, and I still had a dead computer. I was so tired afterward that I could hardly sit up to eat lunch and seriously contemplated lying down instead. I only stayed upright because I thought I might not have the energy to save myself if I started to choke. But what I thought about later that evening was not the list of frustrations from the day but the sound of the kid’s voice as he met my eyes and said, “It’s all good. Really.” I thought of the feeling in my chest when he said that. I thought of him telling me he was learning from the best. Yes, this job eats me alive, but sometimes it also feeds my soul. It is frustration and hope in alternating and sometimes bewildering flashes, like a dying laptop screen that can’t settle on one view and doesn’t respond to a repeated pounding on the “escape” key. I suspect we’re making some poor educational choices as a society, but I’m also pretty sure we’re doing some good as individuals. It’s hard to tell where the lines are sometimes. These days, when I’m speaking into a silent laptop and flipping through blank assignments, it’s easy to despair. As cases of COVID and hospitalizations and death counts rise in our country and our county but local restaurants sue the governor when he tries to keep the pandemic on the level, it seems likely things might get worse before they get better. That said, the other moment I replayed in my head that evening was the moment when I told my class that I believed it would be OK in the end, the moment when I looked in my students’ eyes and believed that we’ll be OK. These are hard times. They might get worse. But there are reasons why we’re still trying to stumble through an impossible task. Sometimes those reasons speak up and promise that it’s all good. Really. And sometimes I believe them.


Sunday, October 25, 2020

Teaching Concurrent Hybrid in a Pandemic

A week and a half ago, at the turn-around point of our group run, someone asked me to describe the new model the school district in which I teach had just adopted. I explained that while the “A” students (generally the first half of the alphabet) are in my classroom, the “B” students and students who had chosen to stay fully remote would be connected to my laptop via Zoom and would, in theory, hear/see what was happening in class. Later in the week, the “B” students (second half of the alphabet) would be in the classroom, and the “A” and remote students would be at home listening in. When this was proposed, all of the illustrations of how this would work depended on some technology that makes it possible for students not in the room to see/hear what is happening in the room. We do not yet have that technology, but here we are, trying to make this work without it. 

As we started running, one of my friends asked, “So what do you think about this plan?” Frankly, at that point I was pretty numb. I told my friend that I would get back to him after I saw how/if it worked. 

To be truthful, remote teaching was difficult. I am not a teacher who relies on fun gimmicks or who is good at “gamifying” my 11th and 12th grade English and writing curriculum. I have reason to believe that my students love me and learn from me in ordinary time, but my teaching style relies heavily on my own passion for both the material and for the education of my students. My formative assessment relies heavily on looking at facial expressions, body language, and peering over kids’ shoulders to see what/how they are doing. My classroom management relies heavily on placing my physical presence where students feel awkward being off task and using my face and tone of voice to make them understand that I care. It works surprisingly well. But none of those things work as well in remote learning. I’m pretty sure my passion is diluted through a screen. I try to love my students through a screen, but several weeks into the school year, I had only SEEN a handful of them that would turn on their screens. Most do not. None of them turn on their microphones, which is often a necessity to cut down background noise. I’m pretty sure some students log into my class and then walk away from their computers. What am I going to do about it? They don’t respond to questions I ask. They don’t even log off when I tell them class is over. They don’t work on assignments during class--I can see no progress made on their shared Google documents. In short, during remote, I cannot see or hear my students. They can see and hear me if they try to, but I don’t think my particular students are rare animals who realize they can pretend to go to class but then never actually go. 

So, although I was frustrated that the school board committed to a hybrid concurrent model for which they had not previously acquired the equipment and at a time when it seemed maximally dangerous to do so and without time to really prepare for it, the push to get some kids into the building and into my physical presence wasn’t entirely wrong. 

But here’s the problem: I see each student (except those who chose to stay full remote) in person once a week for 70 minutes. Once a week, each student who chose the hybrid model will be sitting at home watching me teach in-person kids. Remote kids only get the full me on the “full remote” days which will only happen twice between the middle of October and Thanksgiving. I am painfully aware that I can EITHER make eye contact with my in-person students OR my remote students. (Eye contact for remote students meaning I look at the camera and do not see them in return.) If I move around in my classroom, my remote students can no longer see or hear me. It is not possible to teach all of the students at once with any kind of equity. If I was going to try to be as fair as possible to the remote students, I would focus my attention on the students at home, as I have been during remote teaching, and ignore the kids in front of me. That said, I have no idea if the remote kids are really “there,” and my in-person kids are. It feels terribly wrong to never look at them or move among them and just talk always to a laptop. 

Add in to all of this that the technology we need has not arrived and the technology we have is unreliable and clunky. I can share my screen with kids at home and then project my Zoom screen for the kids in the class, but then I cannot “see” the students at home, even if they have their cameras on. I have to hide or look away from the chat box to see the lesson on the board, and the kids at home are disconnected from the kids in the room. I feel like I am failing ½-⅔ of the people, or maybe everyone, all of the time. 

I cried in class on the first day of concurrent teaching. 

Here’s what the schedule of a concurrent in-the-building teacher looks like. On “odd A” days, I start in the room of a remote teacher. I welcome her students, remind them where they sit and to sanitize their desks and to log into the Zoom meeting with their actual teacher. I’m really only there to keep order, be a responsible adult, and write bathroom passes. The class is a small one and an elective, so the students are very easy to manage. For that, I am grateful. Partway through that first period, though, another teacher arrives to take over, and I walk halfway across the school--probably a good quarter mile, although I haven’t measured it yet--to supervise another classroom for another remote teacher. When that class ends, I log off the computer projecting to that class and walk back to my room, which is back near the first classroom. I have five minutes to get there, log into my Zoom, admit all of my remote students as they enter, greet my in-coming in-person students, reminding them where to sit and to sanitize their desks, connect my computer to the classroom projector, open up the lesson slides for the day (they must all be electronic for the kids at home), and, at some point, take attendance for the students who are present AND the ones at home whose Zoom tiles are black boxes. In case that sentence feels long and confusing, let me assure you that the lived experience is far more stressful than the reading experience. By the time all of that is done, I’m flustered and frantic, and I have yet to really teach anything or even connect with the humans I’m supposed to be nurturing. 70 minutes later, I log off that Zoom and log off that projector, pack up my stuff, walk to another room and go through the logging-in, greeting, setting-up and attendance process again. The next class starts five minutes after the previous one ends. The pace is such that from 7:15-12:15 I cannot eat or go to the bathroom. I can only sip some coffee if I surreptitiously move aside my mask for a few seconds, which I probably shouldn’t be doing, but one must survive somehow, and I choose one cup of coffee over the course of five hours. 

On the first day of concurrent teaching, the technology just wasn’t working well during my last period class, which happened to be a small group of seniors. The class period just before had been stressful, with kids at home complaining loudly over the class speakers that they could not hear me and that the whole situation was ridiculous and infuriating. My co-teacher, who is remote, confirmed this was true, although in kinder tones. The only way I could be heard was if I stood in one place in front of my laptop and didn’t interact with the in-person students, but the kids in the room looked bored and unengaged whenever I stood behind my laptop. Their masks drooped off their faces repeatedly. During this last-period class, though, I had trouble getting everyone logged into Zoom on time, my laptop refused to connect to the speakers and screen in the room, and I felt like I was failing all students on day one. A really sweet student kept saying in response to my repeated apologies, “It’s really OK! You’ve never done this before!” She said this over and over, and finally switched to, “Oh my God, Mrs. Drexler, this isn’t your fault!” And that’s when I started to cry. If any of my remote students were actually on Zoom, I cried in front of them too. My tears soaked my mask, and I, against all health advice, wiped my face with my hands as best I could. My in person students, one of whom I had last year, looked like they wanted to hug me, but of course, they cannot. 

Here’s the dilemma: this isn’t my fault, but it feels like I am failing all of the time anyway. I can’t fix the problem, but I’m still part of it. Managing two groups of teenagers in two locations is impossible, nevermind TEACHING them something complicated and nuanced. I haven’t been able to sleep much between staying up very late to try to get everything set in a way that will have a small chance of succeeding the next day and getting up early enough to eat and get to school by 7am. I won’t be able to eat at school, of course. When I do sleep, I have a different type of teacher dream. Last night, for example, I think my body needed to wake up and visit the bathroom, but my sleeping self would not let me wake fully because I was dreaming that I was teaching concurrently, and I wasn’t allowed to leave the room and if I did, I’d lose all of the kids in the Zoom, and I’d never get them back! They wouldn’t know where I went or what to do next! My sleeping self thought this was a tragic, horrible outcome. Later that night, I was half-wakened by my husband snoring, but again, I was trying to teach in my dream. The way one of my rooms is set up, I must stand with the board to my left. My extended screen that I’m projecting, though, is to my right. So I have to move my hand/cursor to the right to get it to appear on the screen to my physical left in order to advance slides or to do anything on the screen that both groups of students can see. It’s disorienting, and it’s one more little challenge. In my dream, I couldn’t figure out how to move my body to poke my husband. Did I need to move to my left to nudge the person on my right? Why is everything so hard? 

So is the concurrent model better than remote teaching? What do I think? I still don’t know. It’s not like the students in the room are having a normal experience where they get my full attention or where they can even partner up or work in groups to figure things out. They aren’t getting assemblies or even lunch periods. They can’t go to the library. But some of them seem genuinely grateful to be back in the building. The usual magic that happens because I love literature and writing and learning and my students is again showing up in a teeny flicker every now and then. Is this teeny flicker worth what is probably a far worse experience for everyone not in the classroom? Maybe? Maybe not? I don’t know. It’s possible that, from the student perspective, it is. 

I can tell you, though, that this concurrent model is eating me, the teacher, alive. If I get through the school day without crying from exhaustion, frustration, and bodily discomfort, I am utterly incapable of functioning for about six hours afterwards. I fell asleep while driving home last week. I have nothing left to give my own children or home, having poured every ounce of my concentration on two groups of teenagers in two locations constantly for five hours. I am terribly far behind on my grading, and I am getting hundreds of emails a day. I have missed multiple things on my own family’s schedule because I am just broken down beyond functioning. 

As my student reassured me, this isn’t my fault. I also have no idea how to fix it, though. I don’t have any better ideas. I also don’t know if I can find a way to survive this current plan.

Thursday, October 8, 2020

Today, I...

Today I… ...told my son he’d need to drive himself to practice. He told me my keys weren’t in my purse, so I… ...looked through my purse. No keys. So I… ...figured out that I must have locked them in the car WITH the valet key, so I… ...called my husband to ask him to leave work immediately to unlock my car so that my son could drive to practice. After my son returned, I… ...went out to retrieve my keys from the car. No keys. So I… ...dumped out my purse, and I… ...found the keys. Today my daughter asked what time her orthodontist appointment was, so I… ...looked in my calendar. No appointment. However, I… ...remembered moving her appointment to Thursday afternoon because cross country ended on Tuesday, so I… ...scrolled through my old emails and found the appointment verification: it said 4pm. But I had parent teacher conferences all day and into evening, so why would I do that? Ugh. So I… ...called my husband and asked if he could take my daughter to the orthodontist appointment I had foolishly moved and apparently not put on the calendar. He did. Then he texted me from the dark, locked orthodontist office that it was dark and locked. So I… ...scrolled through my old emails, and I… ...found that the appointment is next week. I am still trying to think of a way that I can mess up my dog’s schedule and then ask my husband to fix it unnecessarily. Ideas?