Our relationship began 6 years ago, when I wanted a way to celebrate my 20th year of teaching. Like most relationships, we started out strong and consistent. I wrote you every day for a month! Hard to believe that, looking back. Gradually, as my kids got older and responsibilities piled on, my posts went weekly, then biweekly, then, sadly, monthly. Now, I have abandoned you since October 2020! We're in a new year, and I haven't even given you a glance. But, let me explain myself.
Maestrateacher, a lot has happened! You already know about this distance teaching thing because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Well, guess what? We are STILL in a raging pandemic, we've had at least 2 big surges since Thanksgiving, and daily cases are at an all-time high. Most of the world is experiencing a similar situation (except maybe New Zealand, and parts of the African continent). Thankfully, there are now 2 vaccines that have been approved, and the first group of people is getting it (my sister, as a healthcare worker, was immunized yesterday). But in the meantime, people keep doing dumb ass things and spreading the coronavirus.
A new year started since we spoke last, and boy did it start with a bang. Yesterday, January 6, 2021, thousands of Trump supporters stormed and attacked the Capitol building in DC, infiltrating it, breaking windows, occupying offices, and taking selfies with statues of Reagan and Nixon. I'm being completely serious. This HAPPENED. We were at home, because for the first time in my teaching career, I had the day officially off for Three Kings Day. Unfortunately, after getting an urgent text from a friend in a group chat - Turn on the news! - we did not feel like celebrating anymore. Today, my students stepped up with great questions, concerns, and thoughts about what had happened. One brought up the fact that in last summer's BLM protests, the police reacted VERY differently, with rubber bullets and tear gas, and yesterday, we observed police officers politely escorting the infiltrators down the Capitol steps. No one can try to claim this was a calm protest, as many of the BLM protests were. People in this crowd were scaling walls! With weapons! They brought the Confederate flag INTO the building! As my daughter said, that is actually very un-American.
So, Maestrateacher, how do we keep our heads up in these crazy times? Like I've told you before, my students are resilient and amazing, I love them, and they inspire me every day. They have been doing great despite all the challenges. They keep me going. My own kids also keep me going, I see them, heads down, doing their work, trying their hardest, and they make me want to do better for my students. Family is everything. My parents are also a constant source of inspiration and motivation; you never stop wanting to make them proud, even at 51. And, my dogs. I am sure that thousands of other dogs, like mine, have begrudgingly become therapy dogs.
Maestrateacher - this is NOT a breakup letter. I want to come back to you and make this work. I did consider leaving you, I'm not going to lie; you were becoming a burden. Our yearly subscription payment was due in October and I seriously thought about making that a clean break from you. Then, I realized that I still love you. You make me continue writing, which helps me process everything happening. Maybe I just needed a break. I can't promise to write every week, but I can be here more often. Will you take me back?
"This is going so great!" said one of my ELL students last week. Surprised by her comment, I responded, "That's awesome! I'm so happy to hear this. Can you tell me why?" The student, who arrived almost 2 years ago after having grown up on a refugee camp, told me that at first, distance learning was hard because of all the technology, but then, she got used to it, and it was going great. A few other students nodded in agreement with her, and said "yeah, me too."
ELL students tend to be a more vulnerable group, and as students at the beginning stages of learning English, my students have a myriad of challenges and traumatic events in their lives. Thus, in my town, the decision was made to bring beginner ELLs back in Phase 1 of our plan (along with some special education groups). Originally starting at the beginning of October, phase 1 had to be postponed because of a surge of Coronavirus cases; now, the cases have stabilized, and phase 1 will begin later this week.
My students' comments are not reflective of the typical narrative we have been seeing and hearing on the news. Yet, here they were, a month into distance learning, with unlikely sunny dispositions. The particular student who told me it was going great lives in an apartment with one parent, 2 baby nephews, and 7 or 8 siblings who are in school too. Another student is in class with me in the same room as her sibling, a high school student, and I can hear everything my high school ELL colleagues say as they teach. As my students smiled through their cameras, I felt lucky and relieved that it seemed to be going well for them. I wondered how much of the success we were having together was due to the fact that I had some of the students last year, and only a few were new to me. I had been able to be in the physical classroom with some of them for a good 7 months, and we had built our small community. They were showing up every day, on time, participating via the chat or by commenting, and doing and turning in their work.
My other classes have been a mixed bag: some very successful days, some mediocre days, some days where I just want to cry after class. But, the resilience in my beginner ELL group has shown me that we can indeed be successful at distance learning. Even when the WIFI goes down or is overloaded, even when I ask for volunteers and the wait time silence is deafening, my spirits are kept up because I know my students are there to keep me going. I learn to interact with them onscreen a little better each day. They make me laugh and smile, and they bring me joy.
Sometimes, when I feel frustrated and find myself staring at a screen of avatars, photos, or names instead of faces, I think of one of my Zumba teachers (I have many! They are amazing! They helped me through the pandemic in the spring!). Stephanie, also a public school teacher, started doing Zumba online soon after everything closed down. Stephanie doesn't worry if she doesn't see our faces onscreen, and frankly, not many people in the class want to have their video on while doing crazy Zumba moves. Stephanie cheers us on from her side, pointing at us and giving thumbs-up signs, encouraging us to enjoy ourselves. She always begins and ends class with a positive message, which lets us know that she is excited to be there and appreciates us. She is consistently smiley and super-energetic, and her positivity is catchy. By the end of class, I always feel happier and am smiling, too. I try to channel Stephanie and bring my best to class, too.
Certainly, remote teaching is not the same as being in the same physical room together, but it is going much better than I anticipated. How's it going for you?
In my years of teaching, I never thought I would start a school year in this way - teaching remote classes, attending meeting by video only, planning with colleagues without being in the same room as them. I'm sure that most teachers feel as bewildered as I do right now - as well as anxious, terrified, stressed, and totally exhausted even before classes have actually begun.
Today, the eve of the start of classes in my district, I am feeling all of the above, as well as feeling totally unprepared. We were so lucky in my district to have 2 weeks to prepare before classes. Some of that time was taken up by taking an teaching online "boot camp". We also had many meetings the first week. The second week, we finally had more time to prepare our own classes. I revised the course maps of some classes, set up a Google site and my Google Classrooms. Finished with all of that, I tried to sit down and actually plan lessons for at least the first two weeks of class. Every time I tried to work on this, I felt totally stuck. I'm usually able to crank out lessons easily (I would hope, with so many years of teaching behind me), but not this time.
I realized the issue was not only me, but the fact that there are so many unknowns still, holding me back from being able to prepare. So on the day before I start teaching, here I am blogging instead.
A lot of blogs and articles have been published over the summer describing teachers' anxieties and stress, and worried about COVID-19 and going back to school. Of course, there are many many sad aspects of not seeing our students in person, for those of us who are teaching remotely. Teaching in person gives you a different energy than teaching online. Body language and facial expressions, especially in teaching ELL, are everything. There is no comparison to working with colleagues in person rather than on video. And, of course, what is a middle school without its building, hallways, cafeteria, and screaming, running, twitching middle school students?
There are a few advantages to teaching from home. The obvious one is not having to travel anywhere, though I really can't complain about my normal 8 minute commute. I enjoyed seeing our yearly convocation on YouTube this morning, rather than seeing it in person in a humid, airless auditorium. And, instead of sitting for 2 hours to watch the death-by-PowerPoint mandatory slides every year, this year we were able to view them on our own and sign off that we completed them - this should always be done like this! What a waste of time it usually is. Our secondary schools' classes have been cut in half in quantity and will be taught in blocks so that kids don't have too many transitions. Finally, rethinking how we are addressing racism in our district has led to many teachers attending workshops, forming book groups, and entirely revamping their curriculum to include more voices of color. Challenges made us think carefully about how we have always done things - just because they have been always done this way doesn't mean it's right or good for kids or teachers. Hopefully some of these positive changes will stick after COVID-19 is a distant threat.
As I come to the end of this blog, I wish all teachers everywhere strength and endurance, and most of all, good health, this year. One consolation for me has been that teachers all over the world are facing the same challenges and hardships this year.
I guess I can't avoid it anymore - it really is time to go prepare now!
I used to joke with people about teachers working from home: "I wish I could work from home", I would say, laughing at what a ridiculous notion that was - a teacher, working from home? Ha!
Then COVID-19 happened.
Who knew that teachers would be trying out all kinds of engaging new tricks, expanding their knowledge of tech tools and attending online PD about distance teaching?
I wasn't surprised when we closed, and I soon realized that it would probably be for the rest of the school year. Recently, I went into school (as many teachers are doing) at a pre-designated 2.5 hour slot to clean up my room for the summer. Being in a quiet, dark middle school with no signs of life was a surreal experience. And, packing up my room for the summer in late May was, as well. My teacher brain got mixed signals from this - only May and my room is ready for summer, yet we still have a month of distance teaching left? I didn't know what to leave and what to take home, since we don't even know what the fall will look like yet.
There is nothing quite like distance teaching ELLs to make one feel like a failure at teaching. Beginner English Learners are often timid about speaking English already; put them in from of a camera and microphone for a Google Meet and they revert to the shy kids on they were on the first day of school. Often, they don't want to show their faces on camera, some preferring to write in the chat instead. Using Spanish and Portuguese to communicate with some of them doesn't really work while they are all in a Meet together. If they show up, that is. Many kids are, naturally, sleeping really late (12, 1, 2 PM) and miss the Google Meets. I can't reach them or engage them in the same way, even with multiple emails and texts and phone calls home, please for help to their interpreters, and messages on Google Classroom or via email directly to them. It is definitely frustrating.
I have had luck with one class - my class of 7th grade academic language students, which is tiny. 3 out of 4 have been showing up weekly to check in and share their writing from a writing prompt slide show I made for them based on prompts from the New York Times Learning section. Each week's prompt has a model prompt by me. Then they respond to the prompts in writing and we share when we meet.
One prompt was to recount your life, currently, in numbers. One of my students gave me permission to share her answer, which I thought was profound:
"Your life in numbers. What does your life right now look like if you used numbers to describe it?"
12 - the number of hours I’m bored each day.
6 - the number of hours of sleep I’m getting each day.
4 - the number of hours I spend on homework each day.
3 - the number of Netflix shows I am currently bingeing.
2- the number of days I’ve been outside in the past week.
1- the number of hours I spend on my phone each day.
0 - the amount of times I’ve seen and talked to my friends outside a screen.
(by Ivanilse Varela Vaz, with her permission)
I miss my students every day. It feels wrong that I cannot be with them to break down the events of the last 2 weeks, the savage murder of George Floyd and the worldwide protests, as I would be doing if we were face to face, physically in the same room. I imagine we would have watched videos to help their understanding, and read articles or slide shows to explain the contest of Black people in the United states. We could have taken small actions to create awareness. Maybe our school would have had a sit in or a walk out.
Now, we are talking about possibilities for the fall, and frankly it is not looking great. School will not look the same. All I can hope is that my students and I can make the best of it, build our relationship in new and creative ways, and help each other get through these dark times. And, I hope that the last sentence in my student's writing: "0- the amount of times I've seen and talked to my friends outside a screen", is less true.
And I REALLY hope that 2020 gets better from here on out.
At the beginning of the pandemic, teachers received hundreds of emails with online resources. We were overwhelmed with PDs, free online platforms, tips, and more. We soon realized it was more challenging than any of us thought it would be.
Distance teaching is not ideal for many students, and is frustrating for many teachers. Some teachers (like me) are finding it hard to engage their students, and it is difficult to gauge how much students are involved and doing some school work. Nevertheless, some creative projects are happening - teachers are adaptive and resilient. When I saw this collaborative poem by students on one of the 7th grade teams at my school, I was impressed by what I read. The teachers, Heather Sullivan-Flynn and Patrick Hunter, gave me permission to publish it here.
I asked the teachers about their process in guiding students during this unit. The teachers explained that students read Kwame Alexander's crowd-sourced poem "Social Distance" so they could see how it worked. Previously, they had responded to a prompt for individual poems where they had to look in nature or their homes for something that stood out or seemed like it didn't belong, hence the theme "belonging" for their final poem. The teachers created a slide show of images to show belonging, such as multicolored, clasped hands, and a photo of the team of 130 students. Then, the students were asked to write 1-2 lines about belonging. They were encouraged to use poetic language, such as metaphors, to express their feelings of belonging. The final result, after some editing by the teachers, is this awesome collaborative poem! Read below:
Belonging: a collaborative poem written by Team Midnight students
a feeling of togetherness,
being a part in this world,
where you talk and feel heard
but it doesn't matter because we are all the same
A herd of mustangs
a mob of black, tan, brown, white
galloping in a sense of togetherness
A collection of ocean rocks
refusing the ocean’s force
never have to hide
secrets kept frozen under goosebumps
and stale smiles.
Knowing this is the place for you
like knowing the answer on a test
we are worthy of kindness
it is working together
that makes us feel like we belong
A warmth like bat’s wings
wrap around to feel comfort and peace-
Belonging feels like connecting, heart to heart
We all should be treated equally
even though we may disperse,
we won’t cascade apart
our hands are locked
holding you up, and keeping you safe
we are in this together
Hands, reaching out to hold one another,
the colors of fluffy pillows,
and deep warm browns-
Like the stalks of a new plant-
Like birds chirping in the summer-
as the dandelions sway
holding each other’s hands to create one family.
Separate we are just people,
but together we are a family-
we come together and our community grows
searching warm gazes
your heart beats with the knowledge
that you are loved-
that you belong here:
a loving community where you can be you
As humans we want to be in the circle
to stay in the circle
to live in the circle
being human and having fun-
we are all in this together
we will all have each other's back
and we will each be there for someone
You're not alone-
we are all here in this circle
It’s a good feeling to know that you fit in
to feel that you belong.
Everyone in our community belongs-
no matter our differences we get along
Everyone has different backgrounds,
but everyone has feelings.
Though sometimes things are rough
and looking very tough
the strength and love of a community
holds us together-
you can be different but still belong
where one becomes many
and many make a difference
It feels like sunlit gold
Like a sweet smelling flower
Always together with bees
Together is always better
Similarities are only found with differences
Peace is a miracle,
working together is another
But finding a place to belong
is full of mixed emotions
I belong when the people around me accept who I am
Belonging feels like a piece of an image fitting with the other pieces
another piece to a greater puzzle
that soft, warm, delicate feeling
of knowing you are loved.
We are all together drifting through the current
all wanting to get to the same place
all doing it together
and though we don’t know
We will all drift past each other
not even noticing that
we all were once in the same boat
rowing in unison
to the beat of the waves.
It’s easy to think of belonging
when you already have help
Everyone plays a role in society to help everyone belong
everyone is different
and deserves to be included
Belonging isn’t always easy
Belonging is warmth
Belonging is comfort and relief
but most importantly
Belonging is safe
Together we all stand, included-
you are meant to be here-
To know belonging is to know there is a place for you
like a petal on a flower, you belong-
You are meant
Heather Sullivan-Flynn has been teaching middle school English for 22 years, the last 18 of them at Amherst Regional Middle School. She lives in western Massachusetts with her family where she writes fiction and drinks tea.
Patrick Hunter teaches English and Social Studies at Amherst Middle School.
Dr.Keisha Green is Assistant Professor in the College of Education at UMass, Amherst, whose scholarly work revolves around English Education, critical literacy, critical pedagogy, and youth literacies. In Dr.Green's class, African-American Literacies and Education, students are asked to write a "dialectical rewrite" of an issue that "keeps them up at night."
Emma Canales, one of Dr.Green's students, decided to write about To Kill a Mockingbird. She explained her rationale for writing about this book: "I teach 8th grade ELA in [a local city with schools that have a high population of African-American and Latino students]. My students are predominantly of color and I realized after taking Dr. Green's class that education is vastly out of touch with the lives of these students. I was teaching To Kill a Mockingbird and happened across the scene that I examined in my writing. It was really disheartening to hear my students agree that Calpurnia shouldn't be code switching and that if she "knows how to talk right then she needs to talk right" implying that Black English is "wrong." The rich and historical heritage of Black English is being ripped away from our students and I realized that the curriculum needs to be recentered around them."
Below, I share her dialectical rewrite with you. I'm interested to hear thoughts from people who also teach TKM, or have taught it in the past!
My urban English Language Arts class is currently delving into the high school classic To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. This is my third year teaching the novel and my first year realizing that, as a white teacher in a predominantly Latinx and Black classroom environment, I need to recenter the curriculum around my students and what is relevant to their lives and away from has always been a white supremacist agenda. Harper Lee was a white Southern woman, and although she certainly did encounter brutal racism and violence, she did so from the safety of her own whiteness, and was merely a spectator. To Kill a Mockingbird is often used as either a launching pad in the classroom to discuss race and equity, in most likely a watered down context so that it can be discussed “safely”, because many teachers and school administrators fear such heavily charged discourses.
Educators need to step away from their safety net, which may be their pre-designed curriculum or the curriculum that they’ve been following unwaveringly for years, and ask themselves: who are they centering? What books are they reading and discussing in the classroom? Who wrote the books and under what circumstances? Finally, if teachers cannot deviate away from what books they are being required to teach, they need to examine their practice to ensure that their methods are not only inclusive of Black and Brown students, but that these students are able to participate fully and in a way where their voice is valued.
Why is there such a reluctance to include literature written by authors that students can actually identify with which demonstrates topics and ideas that students can passionately discuss? H. Samy Alim and John Baugh (2007) phrase it perfectly when they state, in Talkin Black Talk: Language, Education, and Social Change, “...the American public education system [is out] of touch with both contemporary reality and the historical reality of Black Americans” (p. 19). The majority of teachers are white and it would make sense that the public education system is “out of touch” because white teachers are designing and creating curriculum centered around the white experience. This is their comfort zone and their default approach. There needs to be a push, and it may prove to be difficult and feel uncomfortable, for teachers to get in touch with what can be relevant in the lives of students that may not look like them.
For example, To Kill a Mockingbird is written from the perspective of Scout, a white child. It is easy to teach from this character’s perspective, but in doing that the teacher is once again furthering and valuing the white perspective. More attention and character examination must be paid to the Black characters in the novel, but this must be done carefully. A teacher may choose to focus on the character of Calpurnia, but if this focus is done around the fact that she has literally lived to serve the white Finch family, then once again this furthers the notion that the Black experience is only worth mentioning when it is tied to white lives. An educator should try recentering this character around key questions such as: even though Calpurnia is “employed” by the Finch family, given the historical context, did she have much of a choice? What were Calpurnia’s options in the 1930’s in Alabama? These questions could be discussed in a larger lesson around the political, cultural, and economic context of the South in the era of the Great Depression and what impact these factors would have had on Calpurnia.
There is a scene in To Kill a Mockingbird that shows the slow and insidious creep of oppression working its way into the curriculum and mind of the youth in urban schools in particular. In this scene, Calpurnia takes the Finch kids to her church which serves the African American population of their town. When they arrive, Scout and Jem observe Calpurnia speaking differently to “her people” (code switching) than how she speaks to the children at home. Near the end of this scene the following exchange takes place:
“Why yes sir, Mister Jem.” Calpurnia timidly put her fingers to her mouth. “They were the only books I had. Your grandaddy said Mr. Blackstone wrote fine English—”
“That’s why you don’t talk like the rest of ‘em,” said Jem.
“The rest of who?”
“Rest of the colored folks. Cal, but you talked like they did in church…”
That Calpurnia led a modest double life never dawned on me. The idea that she had a separate existence outside our household was a novel one, to say nothing of her having command of two languages.
“Cal,” I asked, “why do you talk n-talk to the—to your folks when you know it’s not right?”
“Well, in the first place I’m black—”
“That doesn’t mean you hafta talk that way when you know better,” said Jem.
Calpurnia tilted her hat and scratched her head, then pressed her hat down carefully over her ears. “It’s right hard to say,” she said. “Suppose you and Scout talked colored-folks’ talk at home it’d be out of place, wouldn’t it? Now what if I talked white-folks’ talk at church, and with my neighbors? They’d think I was puttin‘ on airs to beat Moses.”
“But Cal, you know better,” I said.
“It’s not necessary to tell all you know. It’s not ladylike—in the second place, folks don’t like to have somebody around knowin‘ more than they do. It aggravates ’em. You’re not gonna change any of them by talkin‘ right, they’ve got to want to learn themselves, and when they don’t want to learn there’s nothing you can do but keep your mouth shut or talk their language.”
This scene has so much to unpack for educators. It has the potential to be a great discussion topic and learning experience for all. It also has the potential to further the implications that speakers of Black Speech are unable to speak Standard English and instead have to speak in a way that, as Scout put it, is “not right.” Calpurnia doesn’t correct Scout, but instead perpetuates this oppressive narrative by agreeing that she has to speak their language despite its apparent incorrectness. Remember, Calpurnia is a Black character being written by a white woman. Of course she doesn’t correct Scout...the author is showing that Scout is correct in her thinking that the English Calpurnia speaks is incorrect.
While Harper Lee does use the word “language” multiple times to describe Calpurnia speaking Black English, she also includes the n-word to describe it, thus delegitimizing it. Harper Lee also has Calpurnia admiring the “fine English” of Blackstone’s Commentaries, which suggests that she appreciates Standard English more than she does her own English and that she only speaks Black English because nobody in her Black community wants to ‘learn” how to speak correctly...in other words, she chooses to only speak Black English to stoop to their assumed lower level of intelligence.
I can’t imagine how students reading this scene in an urban classroom feel. By the time my students arrive in my 8th grade classroom, I can guarantee they’ve already felt the unrelenting oppression of educators trying to force Standard English upon them because public education has deemed that Standard English is correct and what students of colors speak isn’t. To make things worse, we open up a book that has been a classroom staple for decades, only to have a white author try to speak as Calpurnia, a Black character, and read that Black English is the language spoken by those who don’t want to learn how to speak “right.”
While I was checking for understanding around this scene, an African-American student raised their hand and told me that Scout and Jem were surprised because they thought that Calpurnia was “smarter than that.” I asked what the student meant and they responded with something along the lines of, if Calpurnia were smarter she would speak “properly” all of the time and not just when she chooses, and that she is “fake” for switching how she talks depending on who she is talking to. My student’s response also shows that code switching or having, as Harper Lee put it, a “command of two languages” isn’t valued as an extremely useful ability, or even acknowledged as a necessity in the lives of many students. An educator that doesn’t have a goal of recentering curriculum around Black students may very easily accept the scene at face value and lead a discussion around the improperness of Calpurnia’s speech. This projects the message to the Black students in the room that the way they speak is wrong. The way their family speaks is wrong. When everything about you is made out to be wrong and harshly criticized, then what is the use of participating in class? In speaking up? Black students begin to internalize this racism, lose faith in the educational system, and eventually lose confidence in themselves (Baker-Bell, 2019).
It is our responsibility as educators to inform ourselves in ways that classroom cultures and curriculum continue to oppress Black students and their voices while furthering white supremacist agendas. It is then our responsibility to put the hard work in by taking a critical look at our curriculum and our methodologies and pushing through the discomfort of discovering our missteps. We need to correct these missteps. We need to sit with the discomfort and push back against the oppression that we are being asked to replicate. We need to reframe curriculum, reframe novels, and reframe discussions to make space for Black voices to be heard and valued, not squashed and dismissed for being “improper” and thus invalid.
April Baker-Bell (2019): Dismantling anti-black linguistic racism in English
language arts classrooms: Toward an anti-racist black language pedagogy, Theory Into Practice,
Alim, H. S., & Baugh, J. (2007). Talkin black talk: Language, education, and social change. New York: Teachers College Press.
Emma Canales has always called Massachusetts her home and obtained her Bachelor's of Arts degree at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and is attending UMASS for her Master's of Education as well. She is an 8th grade English Language Arts teacher in Springfield, Massachusetts and loves hanging out with and listening to her lively middle school students' thoughts about the world.
For this blog post, I would like to welcome a friend and colleague, Sara Barber-Just. Since my first interactions with her I could see why her students love her so much. Then, my son and one of my daughters were lucky enough to have her as a teacher, and I really understood. Sara does not only practice what she preaches. Love for teaching and for her students infuse everything she does. In my daughter's words, "she radiates this extremely positive energy to everyone around her." My daughter had her for an A period English class - the time when many high school students are still half asleep. She managed to engage the class, all the while projecting understanding for their sleepiness.
I recently read something Sara wrote about teaching during COVID-19, and it resonated with me more than many posts I have read about this profession right now. I think I liked it so much because I feel the same as her. Love is at the center of what we do, which is why so many teachers are devastated right now. All the teachers I know are doing their best to push through, to contact all of their families, to engage their students. Yet, we end up feeling frustrated because we can't reach our kids in the same way. In her post, Sara describes one way she has been successful with her students during "distance learning." Her bio can be read right after the post. Thank you for your words, Sara!
I breathe books and language, but I became a high school teacher because I wanted to live in a world where relationships were just as important as curriculum or ideas—sometimes more. Validating, loving and listening to my students always seemed to open them to new ideas, sometimes to even set them free.
So Distance Learning has been hard for me. I have tried my best. I started meeting with students online the week we closed, not to jump start “education,” but to throw out a lifeline to those who wanted it, saying “I’m still here!” “I care about you.” I’ve tried to make the course content I’m offering during closure really interesting—from reading books about sexual identity or depression and recovery, to combatting white nationalism/hate with education and love. And also offering up ways to talk and think about life during coronavirus/quarantine—everything from the chaos and grief it causes to the creativity it fosters.
I have sent letters, YouTube videos, and surveys to students, and when that didn’t work, personal emails to ask how they are. When I’m all business, the silence grows. They may comply and turn in some work but it feels forced and sad. They report feeling overwhelmed by schoolwork.
The miracle has been that when I lead with love and kindness rather than with grades or credit, the conversations flow. I sent out 30 personal emails to all my MIA students yesterday. It took time, but not even half the time of a regular work week. And I heard back from so many today. About their work landscaping or working at supermarkets or doing scholarship applications. Their tears about lost graduation and cancelled sports seasons. Their challenging family situations. Their virtual guitar lessons and puppies they’re adopting.
I’ve sat in this uncomfortable chair by my foldout card table in my bedroom trying to replicate school however I can. It’s so imperfect. But it’s what I can do. Virtual school is not like real school. I can’t hand out tissues and snacks and write comments on papers in my hot pink pen. I can’t make eye contact or tell jokes the way I did before. But every chance I get, to “teach” the only way I think matters—with compassion, flexibility, and kindness, I do. It took me a while to realize I can’t do this old thing I used to do one way the same—not at all. But I can remember why I started doing it. And hold on to that with all my might.
Bio: Sara Barber-Just is the English Department Head and school newspaper advisor at Amherst Regional High School, where she has been teaching for 22 years. She created the nation’s first LGBTQ Literature class in a public high school in 2002; she still teaches that course, as well as Journalistic Writing and Tenth Grade Literature, Writing, and Public Speaking. She and her wife live in Leverett, MA with their twin sons, rising ninth graders.
Michelle Gonzalez Torruella's death was the first death from COVID-19 that hit very close to home for me. She passed a few days ago after being in the hospital, sedated and on a respirator for a few weeks, and then finally breathing on her own, until things took a bad turn again. I still can’t even believe this happened, yet I know so many other people are experiencing loss of this magnitude and more all over the world. Today, I can finally stop crying for a bit, breathe, and sit down to write a small tribute to her.
Michelle was the kind of person who, if you hadn’t seen her for years, you would give each other a huge hug and seamlessly pick up where you left off all those years ago. She was my adopted prima; we called each other cousins in the absence of another word that would explain the relationship between her, her sister Lisa, and me. Maybe now, people would call it “sister friends”, but it was deeper even than that.
When we met as 7 or 8 year olds, it was as if we always knew each other, like primas would. We got close during our teenage years. They spent time at my house in the summer and I spent time with them in Queens. I distinctly remember the two of them doing my hair, fascinated by its straightness like I was by the curls on their heads. We became even closer in our twenties as the 3 of us navigated living in or close to the city, new jobs, careers, fiances, weddings, babies, and first houses.
I remember in particular when I got back from living in France and was living with my titi in NY. They came over, so we could joyfully reunite over wine and loaves of bread (we could eat loaves of bread without issues back then). We listened to merengue and danced together, drank, ate and laughed until our bellies hurt. Michelle had a laugh like no one else - huge, belly laugh, loud, and made you want to laugh with her. I remember us swaying to los Hermanos Rosario’s “Morena Ven” - it was a hot and sticky day but we had such a great time together.
Michelle was a teacher - she taught English in an “inner city” school, and I was so proud of her.I never saw her teach but I could imagine her bringing her passion and pride to her students. I could also imagine how they probably related to her, happy to see a brown face in front of them, teaching them and touching their lives.
Michelle was truly special. She was one of those people who so rarely was in a bad mood; she was optimistic, glass half full. I don’t ever remember seeing her angry for a long time - even through tears she would find something to laugh hysterically at. She was confident, generous with her love and with compliments for you. She was quick with a hug or any kind of affection. She always wanted to make herself better by educating herself and reading more.
For years we had been saying, Michelle, Lisa, and I, that we would meet in Connecticut - right between where we each lived - for a girl’s weekend, or even night. Every year, we brought it up again, but one of us was always too busy. Last year I thought we would be able to do it, but Michelle was such a devoted mom that she wanted to be there to get her younger daughter through the last months of high school celebrations. The last time I brought it up, in the fall, I was thinking we could do something for our 50th birthdays (mine in November, hers in December), in the spring. Now spring is here, and we won’t ever be able to do it. Our lives took us away from one another, and now I regret that I never just got in my car and drove to Jersey to go see her.
Lisa - you and I have to make a promise to get together more, laugh, and remember Michelle in her dorkiness, beauty, compassion, and loving soul. If anything happens to either one of us, I won’t forgive myself for it.
Michelle was an amazing mother, friend, sister, wife, daughter, comadre, cousin - all of it. She really was a model to live by. I hope that in the coming months, Jasmine and Taty find solace in their beautiful photos and memories of their mami. I hope the whole family finds peace somehow. Lisa, I know you lost your best friend. You texted me that you were “broken”. I, and all those who love and adore you, will help put you back together, and hold you so you don’t fall apart. Count on us.
What is a teacher
Without her students?
The start of class
Each day a new chance to start over
What is a teacher
Without the daily
Ins and outs
Without the warm-ups and cool-downs
And the rhythm
Of the class
The 4 walls decorated
With the colorful work
Of her students
And posters of rainbow children
Across the world
Hand in hand
What is a teacher
Without the comments
Interrupting her every sentence
“Can I go to the bathroom/drink water/get an apple/call home/take a lap in the hallway?”
“Do you have a snack/pencil/eraser/tissues/a Band-aid/a fork/a cup/an elastic?”
The amazing questions and curiosity
The resilience and vulnerability
Reining them back in
The funny thoughts and stories
She can’t help but laugh at
What is a teacher
Without the interactions with her colleagues
In the hallways
In the staff lounge
By the mailboxes
Waiting for the bathroom to be vacant
Keying in our cards by the side door
Sneaking in a few minutes after the 7:30 bell
Avoiding human contact until necessary
What is a teacher
Without her community
Her students, colleagues, families, support workers
Without the solidarity
Pushing and holding each other
But still supporting each other
Still admiring the each other's work and talents
And loving the strength of our school
What is a teacher?
March 26, 2020
It has definitely been one of the strangest weeks I've ever lived through. I'm sure many of you are feeling the same. In a week where information was moving faster than I could keep up, I went from thinking that some time in the near future school MIGHT close to watching a video of our superintendent announce a minimum 2-week school closure, with teachers providing online work for students.
With the serious contagious nature of COVID-19, I have been reading a lot about "social distancing", a term I already hate, though I understand its necessity. Meanwhile, I can't stop thinking about all the people who must still go to work. Yesterday as I went to several supermarkets where the lines were unlike anything I've seen even at the holidays, I thought about all the custodians and cleaners who are working hard to disinfect every surface anyone has ever touched, in schools, restaurants, hotels, supermarkets and other stores. And about the school administrators, who have been keeping us informed over the last 2 weeks, and who have grappled with many hard questions and issues when contemplating closing schools. I think about people like my sister, who works as a patient coordinator in a pediatrician's office located in a hospital in a small local city; and my friend who is a pediatric nurse working hard in NYC (and was named chief officer of managing the public health crisis in her clinic!) My niece, who works as a server at a popular local restaurant (where the owner had the sense to take bar stools out to put distance between her customers knowing they would probably not stop going to the restaurant), her only current income. My friend's daughter, who works in an ER near an urban area. Personally, I would like to offer my sincere thanks to all of these people. You are all brave and strong!
I have thought about ways I can help others, too, since I have the relative luxury of staying home and getting paid (teaching through online platforms) and being with my family. It's small, but if you live near me and you are home-bound, I can bring you groceries. If you have to work and don't have childcare, I have 2 great babysitters! If you need someone to help your kid with homework, we have 2 teachers here. These are the little things we can do to help each other through these scary times and through the "social distancing".
If you are home with family, take advantage of the time with them (I plan to). In case anyone cried "boredom" I already made a long list of things we can all do around the house! Stay safe and hang in there, folks.