Tag Archives: distance learning

A Journal of the Plague Year: #24

My classroom now has a blue refrigerator, a recording studio, a vertical turntable, a small personal library of classics and contemporaries, childhood art by the resident teenager, and two dogs.

September 15, 2020

Yesterday was the first official day of school for students in my district, the first time in my 32 year career that the school year would open with distance learning on account of a viral pandemic, and, as it turns out, the first time in my 32 year career that school would be canceled on the first day of classes for inclement weather, in this case, hazardous air, the result of the wildfires in Oregon. It was maybe the first time Oregonians have ever prayed for rain. The weather folks told us we would get some yesterday, but they began hedging, and, again, as it turns out, they were wrong about the rain. The air in Portland and in Milwaukie is still hazardous, but our district is open for business today, encouraged us all to work from home–as most of us would have done anyway.

So, today, we had the first day of school, each teacher meeting with one group of kids as part of a home-room-type situation, showing them the ropes of the google meets, laying down some technology expectations, and showing them some tips around navigating some new features of the google classroom. It’s a google world now, I tell you. I met with my 25 students, talked my way through a presentation, had exchanges with three or four kids who were brave enough to show video and unmute their mics–but for the most part, it was quiet, and I felt a little bit like I was talking to myself. But none of the things that freaked me out last night at one in the morning and kept me awake for three hours–you know, being interrupted, constantly chatted around, distracted by inappropriate things in the video feed or the instant message bar, students refusing to leave the meeting, me having to kick them out–NONE of that stuff happened. On the one hand, I was super pleased, but on the other hand, with so little feedback, the stuff teachers usually get, a sense of their style and personality, an opportunity to hear every kid’s voice at least a little, watching them interact and respond to each other, watching them smile or laugh at our attempts to put them at ease–I had no idea really about how any of it went! I meet with this same group tomorrow for round two of practicing The Google Meet. At least, today, my fears that this would be a train wreck were assuaged and I will go back at it tomorrow with far less trepidation. On Thursday and Friday of this week, academic classes begin in earnest. For me, two groups of 9th grade English and one group of seniors in IB Literature.

The prediction or the assessment or the outlook on the move to distance learning is that we will proceed in this manner at least until November, or for a full quarter of the school year. No one is expressing confidence that at this magical moment everything will have shifted. I think many of us are psyching ourselves up for the long haul. And many of us are pondering and musing about the way this shift away from traditional brick and mortar schools, out of necessity, will change the nature of schooling and education in irrevocable ways, forever, or at least, for the foreseeable future.

Necessity is the mother of invention, says Plato. It feels true that we are reinventing our schools. What’s unclear, unnervingly so, are the ultimate outcomes, either good or ill. I don’t know that anyone will ever be able to argue against the effectiveness of students and teachers physically in a room with each other, but I worry nonetheless about this particular trajectory. In my half glass full sort of orientation, I believe that there might be aspects of the brick and mortar model we could happily lose, and their loss would be, as Elizabeth Bishop writes, no great matter. Others we lose at our own risk and peril. The optimist in me believes we may at some not so distant day strike just the right balance. Meanwhile we soldier on. I’m happily, gratefully, doing the best I can with what I’ve got, chanting my new favorite mantra: better than nothing. It’s better than nothing. WAY better than nothing.

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Journal of the Plague Year: #20

As a high school English teacher, I believe that on Friday, June 12, 2020, I experienced the strangest last day of school in the history of last school days. I mean, on the surface, it was somewhat unremarkable. I got out of bed at 8:30 a.m., took a shower, didn’t shave, moseyed on downstairs in a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, took my meds with a glass of orange juice, boiled some water for tea, and made myself a cheesey egg sandwich. By about 9:30 I was ready to read a bit of news, mostly bad, check the Facebook, and open up my work email. I checked in with my intern to see when she might be ready to input her grades, and she said 3:00 pm. I had some time to kill, during which I walked the dogs, did some writing, some household chores, listened to some music, and I made a goodbye video for a colleague who is leaving. My intern wasn’t actually ready until about 4:30, and it took us about a half an hour to finish that task. After 5:00 I started but did not finish the check out process in a google form, you know: what’s your summer contact info, are you holding on to your keys and your computer, is anything broken inside your “classroom,” have you turned in all of your shit, grades, fee reports, your professional development log, and a pdf of your semester grade book? And then I filled out Incomplete forms for the five (yes, only five) kids who hadn’t done any work before schools closed or afterwards.

I administered no finals. I looked at no student work. I didn’t even enter the schoolhouse. I saw or spoke to zero students. There were zero cheers of excitement from teenagers as the bell closed out their last final exam. There were no bells. No students were visibly stressing about their grades. I gave no grades. I said zero goodbyes. I gave beloved colleagues zero hugs. I attended zero end of the year staff parties. My final year-end conference with my supervising administrator didn’t happen. I submitted no student growth goal data. I didn’t clean up my classroom. I didn’t pack up my stuff. Almost nothing happened that would normally happen on a typical last day of the school year.

And today, Monday, in turn, was the strangest teacher work day at the end of the year in the history of end of the year teacher work days. We held a virtual staff meeting at 9:00 am, the purpose of which was primarily to say goodbye to four members of the staff who were leaving this year. So folks took turns saying nice things about them and it was lovely and moving, despite the sterility of the Google equivalent of Zoom. We couldn’t hug anyone or shake anybody’s hands, but in every case the sincerity of good feeling was palpable in the words of every individual who spoke about their beloved colleagues. After we said goodbye to our friends, distantly, our principal somewhat unceremoniously concluded the meeting, hanging around for a bit to answer any lingering checkout questions. I had a handful of things to do before I could officially wrap up the school year, you know: submit my summer contact info, let the head secretary know if I am holding on to my keys and my computer, if anything is broken inside my “classroom,” and whether or not I had turned in all of my shit, grades, fee reports, my professional development log, and a pdf of my semester grade book. Check, check, check.

I did not run around the building like a headless chicken. I did not spend most of my last days talking to good people that I wouldn’t see for two and a half months. I didn’t work my way through the last pile of final exams. I wasn’t the last one out of the door. I never even had to go through a door–at least, not that one, that big iron double door at the end of the hall by the parking lot. I didn’t stand there for a few minutes after those doors shut behind me wondering if I had forgotten anything. I did not, once I remembered that I had indeed forgotten something, have to put my stuff in the car and walk all the way around to the front of the building, walking all the way through the school again to pick up what I had forgotten, a thing, it goes without saying, that was likely not very important to begin with. One more time through the school–that’s probably what it was really about (but not this year), because really, as much as I love summer break, I love my schoolhouse, and truly, during the summer months, I miss it. I hope to return in September.

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#372: Day 28 Hummingbird Haiku

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My sophomores, under the gentle tutelage of a wonderfully gifted student teacher, are distance learning about imagery, beyond the sort of rudimentary understanding that imagery is language that appeals to the senses, into a deeper knowledge that imagery plays on both the intellect and the emotions, that it is associative, that it often works best in juxtaposition to other images. So she’s having them write haiku. In my earlier experiences as a poet, a had a tendency to poo-poo the haiku, but in recent years I’ve come to a new appreciation, in part, because of a late, very late understanding of what we’re introducing to these 15 and 16 years olds now.  So, ignoring the Napowrimo prompt for today, and ignoring, as Robert Hass gives us permission to do, the traditional 5-7-5 syllable count, I give you: haiku.

I

Hummingbird makes a nest
in the tree above my hammock.
Ignores the feeder.

II

Hummingbird makes a
loud clicking sound;
wakes me from napping.

III

Birds chirp, warble, coo
in the back yard.
The Hummer has no song
but buzz and click.

IV

At my brother’s house,
a red-headed hummingbird
accompanies our reunion.

V

Hummingbird knows
nothing nor cares about
our troubles with Covid-19.

VI

I saw this mother bird
fight off a finch;
the nest, safekeeping.

 

 

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#367: For Its Own Sake

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Here’s a question.
What motivates a person to do a thing,
especially a thing that is purported to be
good for a person–let’s say, eat right,
exercise, learn an instrument, learn
an instrument well, dance, sing, paint,
or act well, and while we’re at it, add into the mix
all the academic endeavors:
write well, read well, understand
history, compute effectively, think
scientifically, abstractly, metaphorically,
not to mention the soft skills (a phrase
I hate), of building and fostering
strong and healthy relationships
to self and others?
Why would anyone do these,
all, admittedly, difficult things?
Our system of education is
designed to reward individuals for
doing these things with gold stars,
praise, and grades. We have conditioned
generations of students to do
purportedly good things for themselves
so that they can achieve a carrot
or avoid a stick. But we all know,
there are healthy people, musicians,
dancers, singers, painters, actors,
writers, historians, mathematicians,
scientists and philosophers who did
not get where they are because
they were afraid of the dunce cap
or the chair in the corner or the
C minus. They got good at their craft,
whatever that craft may have been,
because they wanted to, for its own
sake, because they knew it to be good
without anyone ever telling them
it was good. And here we are,
in Oregon, about to embark on
the grand experiment: learning
for the sake of learning. And we’re
doing it now, not because we have
had some grand epiphany about
the supremacy of intrinsic motivation,
but because we have no other
choice if we are to make the end
of the pandemic school year as
equitable and as fair as we can make it,
so as not to make a terrible situation
more heinous than it already is.
Some people will be helped
more than others or will grow
more than others, but no one will be
punished or hurt by frowny faces
and failures, and maybe, without
the kind of risk or peril they typically
experience in schools, they may plug in,
not because they have to,
but because they choose to,
because they see the value of the thing,
in this case learning, for its own sake.

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#365: Staff Meeting in a Google Hangout

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Our principal postponed
the official and virtual staff meeting
until Thursday, expecting new
information about distance
learning to come in after our
regularly scheduled Tuesday
morning Hangout. He held the
Tuesday meeting open, though,
made it voluntary, invited us
to attend for mostly social reasons.
I’m guessing about 30 of us
showed up at that virtual meeting.
We talked about grocery shopping,
the best place, the best time,
gardening, home projects, children,
dogs, better lighting for video posts,
how to view everyone in a grid,
Jack’s mustache, my disco hoodie,
and the virtual cornhole competition.
My friend Drew said the other day,
or maybe he posted it, that he
held a little bit at arm’s length
the sentimentality with which we
sometimes view our teaching
community–until now. 30 of
us sat together this morning,
looking at tiny little moving pictures
of each other scattered across
a slightly less tiny computer screen,
and we talked about nothing,
we talked about everything,
and sometimes, we all sat there
for a moment or two in silence,
which is fine by me, just looking
at one another, smiling, laughing,
almost as if we were in the same
room at the same time.
This poem would like to avoid
a sloppy ending; I feel it, under
my fingers as I type this, resisting
that sentimental slide. But there’s really no
other way to say that I love the
people I work with, and while I’d
much rather see them up close,
this odd, awkward, cold way
of being with them is way better
than nothing, and I am grateful
for every minute of it.

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#357: First Day of School, April 13, 2020

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I had no students.
As are all seniors in Oregon,
my seniors are done,
but I read a few lovely,
comforting notes of gratitude
from a few of them, and
some requests for letters
of recommendation.
My sophomores, cared
for now by an extremely
competent, caring intern,
earning her Masters in
Teaching, remotely,
at a distance, are continuing
their learning with her,
which puts me,
more remote, more distant
than the longest line
between teacher and
student ever imagined
by an online educator.
I still managed to put in
a six hour day, including
an hour I put in over the
weekend, which, I guess,
is still a thing: practice
with new remote techno,
an I.E.P. meeting, a conference
with the intern, reading
exit surveys (intended initially
to be entrance surveys)
from my seniors, more
practice with remote techno,
updating of grades pre-pandemic,
and finally, a conference
with a friend about writing
poetry, which, as long as
it feeds the teacher, feeds
the teacher’s students,
if the teacher had any.
Then I fired up the BBQ
and the work day was done.
On the one hand,
I feel like I’m getting away
with something; on the
other hand, I feel
I’ve been robbed by
the state of my purpose,
my raison d’être.
To be of use–that’s the hope,
that’s the desire, and
I comfort myself that I
was today of some use,
that I have been, and will
be again, even as, on a Monday
night, as the sun begins its setting,
I open up my third
can of cider.

 

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #15

Famous people are sick and dying. Yesterday we learned of the passing of Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne. I love that band. He was 52 years old. That makes me sad and anxious. So, among the new coronavirus developments is this understanding that you don’t have to be old to be especially vulnerable. The CDC is asking us to wear masks in public while there is, as far as I know, still a shortage of these things for medical professionals. We’re seeing some more blatantly reckless behavior from politicians, like the governor from Georgia who apparently just learned yesterday that the virus can be carried and spread by people who are asymptomatic, causing him to shut down his state three or four weeks after almost everyone else did it. There ought to be a law against that. How many people did that stupid man endanger? According to my research, about 10 million people.

As we reach the end of the fourth teacher work day in this new reality, it’s still National Poetry Month. My workday ends by trying to write a poem. It’s interesting to me that the NaPoWriMo website has said in the first three days nothing about the pandemic. Maybe that’s intentional. Writing creatively might be a way for us to take our minds off our troubling current situation. I really did try to write a poem with today’s suggestion of using a rhyme generator for inspiration. I drafted a funny little thing after collecting about 40 different rhymes for the word “butter.” But I found myself returning to A Journal of the Plague Year and writing more poetry for the pandemic. My strategy, perhaps, is to go through rather than around. Here’s my 347th blog poem, my third offering for National Poetry Month, 2020:

#347: Distance Learning

Don’t stand so close to me.
Everything we used to do with
people we should now do with
computers. We’ve had some
practice with this. Soon we’ll
be old pros, but for now,
we’re going the distance.
It’s going to be a long road
and nobody I know has a map.
Distance makes the heart
something-something but
I’m not sure I buy it.
No exertion of the legs,
Thoreau said, could bring
two minds closer together.
He may have been wrong
about that. Maybe not.
How far could you throw
a bouquet so that your lover
could catch it? I know now
one friend who is sick.
It’s not a severe case, but
she has to stay away
from her husband and they
must communicate through
a hole in the wall like
Pyramus and Thisbe
from the play Pyramus
and Thisbe
, or A Midsummer
Night’s Dream
, if you like it.
There’s a forest in that story
so deep, the distance seems
impossible. We’re in that boat.
I know there are new metaphors
right around the corner, hiding,
the little bastards. We’ll dig
them out, learning about distance,
distance learning, and in some
distant day, I am almost certain,
we’ll be able to touch each other again.

id-distance-learning

 

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A Journal of the Plague Year: #14

Today, was the third day “back to work” as a Distance Learning Public School English Teacher and the second day of National Poetry Month, April, 2020. My contact with students thus far, remotely, has been minimal. Our district has given us three days to prepare the rollout of some supplemental learning resources for our students, and then (while the tech department is delivering laptop computers to families without the technology), about ten calendar days after that to roll out Distance Learning officially, where students are not just offered optional opportunities, but are expected to proceed with their high school education via the powers of the internet, lessons, assignments, and grades all delivered remotely. Today, I offered up the first enrichment, supplemental assignment (what I like to call “extra soul credit”) to my IB Seniors: visit the NaPoWriMo website, learn some stuff about poetry, write some poems, if you want to or are able, one a day for a month! I don’t know how many takers I’ll have, but I assured them that I was doing the assignment as well, so that might motivate a couple of them. It is my general philosophy to never assign my students a task that I would not be willing to do myself. And the extra soul credit is always the best kind.

So, without further ado, today’s offering:

#346: Pandemic Shopping

I’ve taken out the Honda Fit
maybe three times in as
many weeks. I did some
curbside record store
retail therapy, and I’ve done
the pandemic shopping.
A few days ago, when there
was a break in the rain,
I walked this time
up Concord Road, crossed
McLoughlin Blvd., trudged
across the Harbor Freight
and Tools parking lot into our
neighborhood Grocery Outlet,
the bargain market, the store
a friend of ours likes to call
The Used Food Place.
That’s not fair, but
I find it really funny.
They have marked
the floors of the checkout lines
with duct tape in six-foot intervals
so that customers don’t get
too close to each other.
Everywhere else in the store:
it’s a free-for all.
They make you bag your own
stuff and that’s fine.
The clerks mostly act like
it’s just another day and
that is also fine. I bought
milk, half and half, hot dogs,
buns, and a six pack of beer.
Buoy, IPA.
Walking back home, I kept
switching the hand that carried
the heavy bag so I wouldn’t
end up with arms of uneven
lengths. And maybe while
I knew that was not a likely
consequence of favoring one
arm over the other, it felt
real, and that’s good, when
you’re pandemic shopping
and nothing else does.

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