Coronavirus Diary 17: Of Zoom Rooms, and Cameras, and the SAT

For six weeks, I’ve been driving 35 miles from my house to the school where I teach.

Each of the 28 instructional days we’ve had has been broken into 3 blocks of 87 minutes. I sit alone in my classroom, peering into a computer screen. I take attendance, provide instruction, assign some classwork, insist on a screen break, then return for questions and one-on-one assistance.

Then I do it again.

I have 126 students. Not all come every day. Some have jobs. Some are sick. Some are helping the family. At least one has lost her mother since school started. At least one is expecting to become a mother before Christmas. Several have insufficient wifi or are experiencing other technical difficulties. Some join the Zoom room while they are still under the covers of their bed, then fall back asleep before I’ve even finished attendance. I’m supposed to insist that they put their cameras on, and I try. “I know this is hard,” I say, “doing school from home, but it’s what we’ve got, and it will be much easier for you to opt in and get what you need if you turn on your camera, sit up, put your face on the screen, unmute to ask questions, and do your best.”

But they chat me privately, “I’m not at home,” or “Other people are here with me,” or “I’m sick today,” and even, “I’m at the hospital right now, but I’m hoping to home by tomorrow,” and their cameras stay off.

“When you turn your cameras on,” I explain, “I’ll get familiar with your face. When you come to school, I’ll call you by name. I will know who you are.”

A couple cameras come on. A few put their face in the screen, give me a flash — a few seconds to see that they are there — and then they turn off their cameras again.

But last week, we had a day with no cameras.

Wednesday, October 14, was the mandatory SAT test for students in the state of Michigan. And, since the SAT must be completed in-person and because it’s a requirement for a Michigan-endorsed diploma, our students made their way to school by 7:45 am where they received a rather unimpressive state-funded breakfast and then filed into socially distanced classrooms, clad in masks.

Eleven of them entered my room. Eleven whole living breathing humans. They spoke. They smiled. They complained about the food, the temperature of the room, the length of the test, and the fact that they have to learn from home.

I couldn’t stop looking at them, beaming.

At 8:30, I started reading the scripted instructions, and they started bubbling in the circles to indicate their name, address, date of birth, and such. I walked up and down rows, checking to see that their answers were in the correct spot, answering their questions, sharing their space.

They were in my classroom!

At 9:30 they began the first section of the test. I wrote the time on the board and let them know they had 65 minutes to read the passages and answer the questions. Then I announced when they had 30 minutes left. Five minutes left.

They were allowed a 10-minute break which they used to walk down the hall to see their friends, to stand in a clump, to “be at school”.

And then we were back in my room. They sat in their desks from 8:30 until 2:00 taking test after test after test.

They were stressed, of course. They’d been away from this building since March, these seniors, and they know that their performance on this test — the one that they should have taken last Spring — will help determine where they go next year, if they go anywhere at all. Although I have dragged them through Khan Academy’s SAT prep, insisting they do practice sets, discussing test strategies, and reminding them of rules, they feel ill-prepared. The reading passages are difficult, especially when you are reading with your head on a pillow trying to drown out the noises of the other family members in your house. The Writing and Language passages are tricky — why should they care about the most effective placement of sentence 5? Who even knows where the comma should go?

They didn’t get to finish Algebra II last spring, and they can’t really remember how to use the functions on the graphing calculator, so during the 55 allocated minutes for calculator math, many closed their books, put their heads down, and fell asleep.

I’m talking deep-breathing REM sleep. My room, with all its fluorescent lighting, sounded like the cabin of an international flight.

I woke them, of course, when they had 5 minutes remaining in the math portion of the test. Then, I collected their test booklets and told them to get up and stretch because we would start the essay, according to SAT directions, “in two minutes” after they’d already been testing for four straight hours.

And, they sat up, asked for sharpened pencils, and did what they could. They wrote and wrote, read their writing, and wrote some more.

And then their heads went down again.

And they slept until I told them they had 5 minutes remaining.

When I had gathered their materials, they began to chat with one another and my room started sounding like a classroom. I stood in the front of the room, overlooking minor expletives, simply glad to hear the voices.

They had to stay in the desks until all the test booklets and answer booklets, every last College Board printed material, was taken from my room, and then they were dismissed to the cafeteria to get their state-funded bologna sandwiches.

Suddenly my room was silent, so after a quick dash to the bathroom, I followed them. They couldn’t leave so soon! I had to see their faces, to hear their voices, to discover that this one was taller than I imagined, that one shorter.

“Hi! It’s so good to see you!”

I made my way through the clumps of students, asking again and again, “What is your name? Have I seen you in my Zoom room?” I had no judgment for anyone, just sheer joy at finally, six weeks after the first day of school, getting to meet my students. I then went to grab the lunch provided for me — corn ships, guacamole, seasoned chicken, lettuce, and tomatoes. I filled a plate and walked to my room.

The teacher from across the hall stood at my door, plate in hand. Would I mind if he joined me for lunch? Neither of us were ready to go back to our solitary confinement. “Please, come in, let’s chat.” And as we chatted, students trickled in. Two or three would walk past my room, peeking in, looking for permission to enter. I practically begged them to come in, to hover over my desk as I ate, to tell me who they were, how they were doing, how they felt about the test.

One young man came in and stood near my desk, “Hi, Mrs. Rathje!” I looked him over head to toe, trying to fill in the facial details that had been covered by the mask.

“Hello! Now help me out, what is your name?”

“You know who I am.”

“I do? Have I seen your face on the screen?”

“Yes, you have.”

“Hmmm….I am thinking that you are LaRon Davis*…but let me think…”

“I always have a background on.”

“You do? Then, that’s my answer — you are LaRon Davis*.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Hooray! Thank you for coming to my classroom! Would you like to pick one of the prizes that I’ve been collecting for today?” I showed him a table covered in lanyards, bottles of hand sanitizer, pens, face masks, wrist bands, and the like. He moved forward and made his selection.


“I can have this?”

“Yes! That’s your reward for taking the time to come see me.”

And my reward, I thought to myself, is having you in my classroom.

These are not small things. Before Covid-19, when I taught in the classroom, students often stopped by to get help with an assignment, to borrow a pen, to ask for a snack, to find a safe space. I was always glad they felt like they could, but I also often hoped they wouldn’t stay long — I had papers to grade, lessons to plan — I needed time to work.

But now? I can’t imagine a time when I will be ready for students to leave.

Our leadership announced last week that we will be continuing 100% virtually through the rest of the semester — through mid-January. And I do believe it’s best. But I sure will be happy when my classroom is full and loud again.

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.

Ephesians 1:16

*not the student’s real name, of course

Trying to be Kind

Always try to be kind to each other.

I Thessalonians 5:15

It’s really not hard — being kind.

It’s not.

For some of you, this is not a revelation. You’ve been being kind to others since your kindergarten teacher expected you to share and take turns: “First Johny gets to use the swing, then when he’s done, Susie can have a turn.”

Some of you said, “Oh, I get it!” and you went on to patiently stand in line at the drinking fountain, to raise your hand and speak only when the teacher called on you, to say “Please, may I borrow the stapler,” and “thank you for holding the door,” from that time forward.

You invited people to play kickball at recess, you put your arm around a friend who skinned her knee, you loaned a pencil to the boy who sat next to you, and brought an extra cookie in your lunch bag for a friend.

But some of us — some of us — lost our way.

Sure, we could wait for the swing, but when we got our turn, we stayed swinging a little too long. We didn’t care about those in line behind us and perhaps even found pleasure in making them wait. We blurted out our answers in class, talked over others, and pushed our way to the front of all the lines.

We had the answers, after all. We were strong, and we were right. We knew where we were going and what we were doing; why shouldn’t we lead? Why wouldn’t we speak? Why couldn’t we take charge?

It’s not that we were trying to be mean; we were just not trying to be kind.

We were doing what we knew how to do: answer the questions, get what we needed, take control of the situation.

But we weren’t always kind.

I, for one, confess to sometimes being downright mean. I’ve laughed at the expense of others and taken more than my fair share — of popcorn, of opportunity, of oxygen. I’ve been sarcastic, vindictive, and careless. I’ve shot off my mouth, sent daggers with my eyes, and literally shoved and swatted to get my own way.

When I could’ve — should’ve — been kind.

And when, after years of pushing through, overpowering, and taking more than my fair share, I was knocked down, benched, and sidelined, I sat there stunned, hurting, and unable to continue.

And what did I find? People who were kind. They showed up, called, sent flowers and food, listened, and cried with me.

And do you know what happened? I softened. I slowed. I began to discover myself being kind — finding space and time for others, sliding over, sharing my popcorn, shutting up, and listening.

It’s really not hard.

I find it quite interesting that the last two professional positions I’ve held have been with organizations that prioritize (even demand) kindness.

When I was hired by Lindamood-Bell, I was stunned by the celebratory and kind culture that I found myself working in. (I wrote about it here.) After having spent several months on the bench, luxuriating in the kindness of newly found friends, I found myself working in an environment where I was expected to practice kindness, positivity, and praise.

I’d lost my way through years of soldiering on, fighting my way through, doing what I knew how to do to make myself heard, get what I needed, and take control of the situation, and I was being given an opportunity to find my way back.

And I did find my way back. While working at Lindamood-Bell, my world crumbled apart. My family was in tatters, and I was lying amid the wreckage, wounded and weeping. I would drag myself out of bed, shower and dress, and autopilot my way into work, to find my colleagues cheering and supporting, offering gifts of tea and chocolate, extending a tissue for my tears, and rallying behind me as I healed. They modeled kindness for me and provided the space — and the expectation — for me to share that kindness to my students and coworkers. They helped me find my way back.

And now — now! — I find myself with Equity Education whose entire mission is to extend kindness to those who have been overlooked and marginalized. They do that by using a model called the No-nonsense Nurturer (NNN), which “empowers teachers to establish a positive classroom culture in which all students are set up to succeed.” Before I even entered the classroom, I received hours and hours of training in this framework which was then modeled throughout two solid weeks of collaborative professional development.

The NNN framework sets clear expectations and provides supports for students (and their teachers) to meet those expectations. It provides reinforcement for those who meet the expectations and firm but kind redirection for those who don’t. NNN is not focused on a few students getting what they need and rising to the top; no — its aim is to get 100% of students in every class meeting expectations that will lead to their academic — and later professional — success. It’s not for the few who would talk over the others and push and claw their way to the top. No, it’s for all. And any strategy that is focused on the achievement, the success, the well-being of all, is going to require kindness, patience, and encouragement.

Those who struggle won’t “step up their game” if they are brow-beaten and humiliated, but they will get off the bench and get back in the game when they are shown kindness — when others come beside them, encourage them, provide them tea and chocolate, tissue for their tears, and the practical and emotional support they need to take another swing.

When I was knocked down, no one shook their finger at me and told me that if I’d just tried harder I wouldn’t have ended up in that difficult situation. No one told me it was my own fault or judged me for landing on the couch, doubled over and in distress.

No, they extended kindness.

On Friday, I was in a Zoom Room with two freshmen. One shows up on time every single day with her work done and her questions ready. The other is late every time, has a young cousin raucously playing in the same room, has adults yelling in the background, and often needs me to repeat directions, support his work, and allow him extra time. I could take a hard line approach — I could say, “You’re late! Why isn’t your assignment done? Can’t you find a quieter room to work in? Come on, you need to catch up!” But wouldn’t it be just as easy to say, “I’m so glad you are here. Show me what you have. What do you need? How can I support you?”

Which way do you picture will yield the best results?

See? It’s not hard.

This lesson doesn’t need to stay in the classroom, does it? All around us are people waiting in line, crying on couches, and struggling to find the space to learn and to grow. It’s pretty easy to step aside, to let someone in, to offer a hand, to lend an ear, to encourage, to cheer… to be kind.

Doing Better than This

It happened again this week — that thing that feels like I’ve just walked out of the theater with a friend, we start to discuss what happened in the movie, and it’s like we were watching two different films.

Has this happened to you?

On Tuesday night, I stayed up to watch the presidential debate. As I watched, I came to conclusions about the two candidates and what I perceived to be happening.

The next day, as I scrolled through social media, it appeared that some of my Facebook friends had watched an entirely different debate. The conclusions they came to didn’t match the ones I came to.

How can we be all participants in the same story and interpret it in such different ways?

We talk about this in literature. When we read a text, we always have to consider 1) the actual text — the words on the paper, 2) what the author intended, and 3) the experiences that the reader brings to the text.

In this case, the actual text — the first 2020 Biden/Trump debate — was pretty hard to track. If you watched it live, you might have had a hard time hearing questions and answers because of all the interruptions. You might have honed in on a few words of one participant and either applauded or vilified that candidate. During the actual broadcast, because the participants talked over one another, it would’ve been difficult to weigh each comment and determine if it was an answer to the question, an intentional or unintentional disruption, or a failure to answer the question fully and completely.

Making sense of what happened in the debate isn’t much easier when you read an official transcript, because words in print don’t carry tone, they don’t convey timing, they don’t show facial expressions or eye contact. It would again be easy to isolate one quote from this transcript and hold it up as evidence of a win or a loss, of civility or disrespect.

Weighing and judging each speaker’s intent is also difficult. We can’t peer inside the hearts and minds of Donald Trump or Joe Biden to see whether they actually were trying to discredit their opponent, to avoid answering questions, or to genuinely answer questions. We have clues — word choice, tone, and body language — and we come to our own conclusions about those clues based on the lens we are looking through.

That lens is shaped by our own experience. Someone who votes Republican may see Donald Trump’s performance as strong — Trump didn’t let Biden fully answer many questions at all; he called out Biden’s track record; and he questioned his integrity. A person who votes Democrat might see Biden’s performance as strong — he spoke to the camera, answered the questions, and provided details, although few, about his plans. An expert debater would likely find fault with Trump — he didn’t follow the agreed upon rules, he didn’t wait his turn, he didn’t fully respond to questions, he interrupted his opponent and the moderator. However, the same expert might not have high praise for Biden either — Biden sometimes stumbled over words, had to search for a name, and responded to Trump’s jabs in frustration. Anyone who’s ever been bullied, was likely triggered by Trump’s assault on Biden’s son Hunter, his reference to Elizabeth Warren as Pocahontas, and his continuous interrupting (over 70 times throughout the debate). However, folks who were hoping that someone might take the high road, would have also been disappointed with Biden telling Trump to “shut up” and referring to him as a clown. Certainly many were horrified by Trump’s refusal to denounce white supremacy, but I think some (and not just white supremacists) might have found him strong in that moment — giving his answer boldly and without apology.

Because our country (even more so our world) is made up of people from so many different backgrounds, with myriad life experiences, it makes sense that people would walk away from the debate with varying opinions about what just happened, just like people have varying opinions about American politics in general and specific policies regarding health care, education, law enforcement, or the pandemic. This is America — where we value the freedom to have an opinion and to speak our minds, where we work hard to secure our right to disagree.

In the literature classroom, when I teach literary analysis, in addition to discussing the three texts as above, we ask the question, what is the author doing here? How or why is he or she doing it? Because my students see each piece through their own lens, we don’t have to all come to the same conclusion, but we do have to support our opinion with evidence from the text. I tell my students, “You don’t have to agree with me, but you have to make me believe in the validity of your opinion — you have to make your case.” Maybe Harper Lee is exposing the racism of the South, maybe she’s promoting a system that would put an innocent black man in jail — you can make either point if you back it up with evidence.

What I’ve seen too often lately is a failure to make a case. I see too many people saying what they believe in general terms — “My candidate is the best, yours is the worst!” “My candidate clearly won the debate; yours lost!” — without building a substantial argument based on evidence. I hear sound bytes — “He’ll make America great again!” or “He’ll build back better!” but I don’t see the depth and detail of support that I would require in a high school essay.

More often, I see a devolving into name-calling — “Those left-wing liberals!” or “Those Trumpsters!” — where even long-time friends get down in the mud to fight dirty.

And what does that get us? Dirty clothes, scratched faces, bruised egos, and broken relationships.

I wonder what would happen if we took a different approach. Could we do better than those who spent 90 minutes sparring on stage the other night? Could we step away from our social medial accounts, call each other on the phone, and try a different way?

Could we greet one another? Hi, friend that I usually only interact with on social media? What does your life look like these days? What is important to you? How is your family?

Could we raise questions? How do you feel about health care? Why do you feel that way? What data supports that opinion? How do you imagine we could improve the safety of our communities? Have you seen any research on that? What might we have to sacrifice for that cause?

Could we listen? That’s interesting. I never considered that stance before. Your statistics are convicting. That seems reasonable.

Could we push back respectfully? I can see what you mean about the failures of the Affordable Care Act, how would your suggestions play out in the long-run? I understand your reasons for wanting to ensure Second Amendment rights, how could we keep them while also decreasing incidences of gun violence?

Could we be open to change? How could you and I work together on this? Who else might find these ideas interesting? How can we make our ideas known to governmental leaders?How can we get involved?

Am I too idealistic? Perhaps.

But here’s what I know — it’s very easy to sit on my couch at home slinging one-liners on social media. I can put you in a box pretty quickly, label you according to what I interpret your posts to mean, and dismiss you as being out of your mind. Such behavior keeps me in my lane and keeps you in yours. We continue going our own way, convinced that we are right and the other is wrong. And it’s an angry, lonely existence.

We can do better. We are all capable of examining a text — a debate, a news show, an article, a press conference. We are all able to consider the author’s intent, and to interrogate the lenses through which we view the world. We are all able to research complex issues — educational disparity, income tax law, military funding — and to find evidence that will help us develop an informed opinion. We are all able to pick up a phone and engage in a two-way conversation with other humans. We are able to consider other points of view, to compare them with our own, and to think critically about which views hold the most merit.

Folks, we’ve got to begin doing this hard work. Too much is at stake for us to continue to voice our opinions only on social media. If we really care about the issues we are spouting off about, we need to take action.

Many are right now calling us to vote, and that is of critical importance. And, before we vote — before we check those boxes — let’s spend a little time asking questions, searching for answers, having conversations, and thinking critically.

Let’s not blindly follow a party because we always have or because others say we should. Let’s not be careless with the freedoms and the privileges we’ve been given; let’s do our part to secure them for those who will come behind us.

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.

James 1:5