Sari Beth Rosenberg (left) and her social studies colleagues, Erika Brooks and Lindsay D’Amato (left to right in the back) and Jeremy Mellema (front center), hamming it up with a couple of former presidents for their students last year. Courtesy: Sari Beth Rosenberg
Spring Break & COVID-19: Making Up for Lost Time
This week was supposed to be spring break. Instead, we were instructed to continue teaching. As I discussed last week, the cancellation of a school vacation just added to the list of student disappointment. My school’s principal has been proactive about addressing our students’ psychological well-being so we decided to turn the week into a time for students to make up missing work.
I scheduled one check-in with my students on Google Meet (we are no longer able to use Zoom due to privacy issues) and assigned an essay. (A DBQ essay using the new format for the 2020 AP U.S. History exam on May 15th.) Throughout the week, I sent emails to students who had been lagging behind in homework and tried to stay in touch with students whose families had been affected by COVID-19.
The week was a bit of a reset. When I was not communicating with students and grading the make-up work, I spent the time strategizing the AP U.S. Exam review lessons. However, with a little more time alone with my thoughts, I was forced to deeply reflect on all the changes we had endured over the past month.
For the past few weeks, like every other teacher in America, I have been on autopilot. With this “spring break,” I had some time to truly reflect on what we had lost with the quarantine and corresponding school shutdown. In turn, these realizations inspired me to find ways to reframe my thinking and propel myself forward in a supportive way for the rest of the (online) school year.
In my nearly 18 years of teaching, I always anxiously await spring vacation. It is usually a welcome respite right before we start drilling down on test preparation (AP exams and the New York State Regents exams) and all the exciting end of school year activities. Instead, the week made me miss my classroom even more. With time to reflect, the reality of all the abrupt changes began to set in for me.
"Like every other teacher in America, I have been on autopilot. With this “spring break,” I had some time to truly reflect on what we had lost with the quarantine and corresponding school shutdown."
Like many educators, I am a creature of habit. I often joke that when I find a “to do” list tucked into an old notebook from three years ago to the day, I could still use it that day. Teaching is a bit like Groundhog’s Day, especially if you teach the same curriculum every year like I do. After teaching for so long, I do not even have to look at a calendar from the previous year to know that in mid-March I should be finishing up the AP U.S. History curriculum. By the beginning of April, students come to school on Saturday to take an AP U.S. Diagnostic Test. I always buy them Dunkin’ Donuts to give them a delicious sugar high so they can endure the hours-long practice exam.
By Memorial Day weekend, it is time to start reviewing for the U.S. History and Government Regents exam.
However, for the first time in my nearly two decades of teaching, I do not even have my classroom as my touchstone. Instead, my classroom is a virtual world made up of Google Classroom, Google Docs, Google Sheets and Google Meet. I am lucky that my school and New York City did such a good job in making sure that all students were able to get the hardware and internet connection to log into our respective virtual classrooms. But as I stated in a previous post, nothing will ever replicate the magic of a physical space where you can interact with students IRL.
Upon reflection in Week 4 of virtual school, I realized that building up my online classroom curriculum has forced me to deconstruct my pedagogy as well as my students’ learning process. I am going to take these lessons back with me next year and change certain aspects of my curriculum, lessons and ways that I connect with my students:
1. Transparency Works! More than ever, I include students in the process of how I am setting up our classroom structure, classwork, homework and even how many times a day I update them. Without being in a physical space, it has been essential to be more transparent with the process in order for students to feel invested and included. For example, when students shared that having classwork and homework every day felt redundant, I listened to them. The following week, I was more thoughtful about the daily assignments, so it would not feel like busy work and actually help them learn and analyze the content.
"More than ever, I include students in the process of how I am setting up our classroom structure, classwork, homework and even how many times a day I update them."
In one Google Meet, multiple students shared that they really appreciated that I was including them in “my process” in setting up the lessons and curriculum. That felt satisfying. In fact, why don’t we include kids in teacher professional developments more often? I think we need more student feedback when designing curriculum in general.
2. Shy Kids Actually Want To Share! Students who rarely chimed in when we had class discussions in the physical classroom have been more communicative in online class. They use the chat feature in Google Meet and Zoom to share their thoughts. A lot of times, I mistakenly assumed that the quiet students were just not interested in participating. This online learning experience has made me realize that some students prefer to write down their thoughts and might be too shy or uncomfortable to say them out loud in class. Sometimes they even email me after class or throughout the day with questions about the work.
"Students who rarely chimed in when we had class discussions in the physical classroom have been more communicative in online class. They use the chat feature in Google Meet and Zoom to share their thoughts."
Next year, I am going to use a post-it method where I will tell students to chime in on a note. I will have another student read their comments, so more voices can be included in the conversation. Maybe I’ll even have a Google Doc opened up on my SMARTBOARD in class where students can share their thoughts if they do not want to speak out loud. Of course, eventually I hope to get those kids more comfortable speaking up in class.
3. Music Brings Us Together. From my very first year of teaching in 2002, I always connected with students about music. I can still vividly remember my U.S. History Period 2’s shock (and delight) when I told them that I not only heard of the rapper Cam’ron, I could even name a few of his songs (“Hey Ma” and “Welcome to New York City” were the songs, in case you were wondering). My knowledge of this music made me more relatable to my students, even though they were “shook” that I listened to their songs.
I have found that connecting with my students about music has helped us bond, beyond the screen. We make weekly playlists and vote on the themes. I’ve learned a lot more about my students from their music taste. I also make sure to include a “song of the day” in the daily class agenda that I send to my students. I usually base the song selection on my mood.
Some of the featured songs last week included “Sinnerman” by Nina Simone (I wanted to expose them to her music), “Higher Love” by Kygo/Whitney Houston (an upbeat song that I thought they would need that day based on some conversations I had with a few students) and “Loud Places” by Jamie XX (that song had relaxed and uplifted me that morning, so I wanted to share that vibe with my students).
"My knowledge of this music made me more relatable to my students, even though they were “shook” that I listened to their songs."
Despite my attempts to find the silver lining in this disruptive process, the Online Classroom will never replace an Actual Classroom. I think that realization is the most important takeaway from this whole quarantine learning experience. I am sure there are already corporations and investors looking to find ways to profit off of remote learning. However, the only reason why online learning is working at all is because of the preexisting human connections built between students and their teachers.
These bonds were formed in a physical space with face-to-face learning activities, conversations and jokes. We are all grateful for the technology that allows us to continue the learning process and connections with our classes through the global pandemic. But nothing will replace offline learning. Here’s an image of one of my first years of teaching:
As you can see here, I am teaching without ANY technology. In this class, my students and I sat together in a deep discussion. (Based on the images on the wall, I think we were learning about Jacob Riis.) This was a candid shot and everyone seems pretty engaged in the moment.
I look at this old photo a lot lately to remind me of why I love my job: amazing moments with students talking about our ideas and making connections between past and present.
We will return from our “spring break” for Week 5 and start preparing for the AP U.S. History exam scheduled for May 15th. We will do our best to connect and learn across the world wide web, students are digital natives after all. But nothing replaces the power of in-person human interaction, unencumbered by devices and screens. I have faith that one day we will find our way back and we will appreciate it more than ever.