A drink of water

I was so excited last spring when I saw a crew replacing our hallway water fountains at school with filling stations.

As part-camel, I consume a couple quarts of water each day while I’m in the building. I’d been lugging in a large Igloo water jug all year; this would make my daily trek in from the car so much easier.

It made sense, in the times of Covid, that we would do away with traditional water fountains, the likes of which I’d stood in line at in my growing up years. It was the only way we got drinks of water back then, by bending over a shared porcelain bowl and glug-glugging until the person behind us got impatient and we stood up, wiped our dripping mouth on our sleeve, took a big gulp of air, and moved on.

Over the past few years, we’ve seen filling stations pop up everywhere — office buildings, airports, and, of course, schools, but in my little charter school in Detroit, which is on lease from the Archdiocese and in need of myriad repairs, I was surprised to see this improvement. Certainly, it was an expense mandated by Covid — I couldn’t imagine the funds would have been found otherwise.

However it came to be, I happily began to refill my water bottle and gladly left my Igloo at home.

I pictured my students doing the same — bringing a water bottle to school and carrying it with them all day, independently managing their thirst as countless students across the country do without thinking. No such thing happened. The students came, but they brought no bottles. They wanted drinks, but they had nothing to put them in.

“Mrs. Rathje, do you have a cup?”

“A cup?”

“Yeah, so I can go get a drink of water.”

“Oh, right. I guess you can’t get a drink of water unless you have something to put it in.”

The school could hardly let the students go thirsty, but what were we to do? The traditional fountains were gone. We certainly didn’t have a supply of water bottles lying around. Instead, as students became thirsty, they went to the office, asked for a paper cup, filled it at the filling station, and carried it back to class. Day after day after day.

It was a disruption to class and to the office staff, but even more, this paper cup carrying seemed like a step backward. Weren’t the filling stations supposed to be an improvement?

This whole situation really started to bug me, but in a world full of planning, teaching, grading, and managing the movements of hundreds of bodies of teenagers in a building, the water problem was not top priority, never mind Maslow.

We were about four weeks into the school year, four weeks in to the era of the paper cup, when a friend from our St. Louis days reached out to me. He said he’d read my blog and would like to support my students. How could he help? My first response was to say that although I had had a great deal of initial support that had allowed me to purchase snacks and prizes for my students, my supply would certainly need to be replenished in time. My reward system was working, and students were claiming prizes for their hard work, and the word was out — Mrs. Rathje has snacks — and the kids were making a bee-line for my classroom.

However, I had no sooner sent him that message when the water situation popped into my mind. I sent a follow-up: “Another project I’m thinking about starting soon is purchasing re-usable water bottles. We have those refillable water stations, but nobody has a bottle. Right now we are using paper cups. I’ve got 80+ seniors. I’d at least like to get each of them a bottle.”

Before too long, he replied that he’d like to support the water bottle effort and asked how he could get me some cash. As it turns out, he is the pastor of a church called Jacob’s Well. Do you remember Jacob’s well? The place where the Samaritan woman gave Jesus a drink, and He told her that He had water that would forever quench her thirst? (I really can’t make this stuff up.) It seems that Jacob’s Well wanted to make sure my students could get some drinks of water.

Within a day or two he had sent me enough money to purchase water bottles for the whole school. My mind was blown. I wanted to act as quickly as possible to put water bottles in my students hands, and since I was still preoccupied with planning, teaching, grading, and the like, I reached out to a few people who quickly got to work on ordering some pretty sweet water bottles — complete with the school logo — that would arrive within a week! I was telling a friend about this purchase, and she said she wondered if there would be confusion with 300 identical bottles all in the same building. Could she create and fund some custom name labels for the bottles? Before she could change her mind, I supplied her with the names of all of my seniors, and, guys, before I could blink twice, these were in the works.

Front side
Back side

Last week, we had just returned from two weeks of virtual learning due to a high number of Covid cases in our school, and I had brought in some new items to put in the prize bins. I was organizing these prizes Tuesday before I left for the day when one of our custodians said that UPS had just brought me a large delivery — the water bottles!

In my class, each time a student completes an assignment, he earns what I call a Rathje ticket (more on this here); on Wednesdays, students can use their tickets to purchase items in the Rathje Store. I have three bins of prizes that are worth 1, 3, or 5 tickets (almost all of this donated by friends). Additionally, each Wednesday, I hold a drawing; students can put a ticket in a cup, and I draw out the name of one person who can win a prize from the 5-ticket bin.

When my students walked in on Wednesday, tickets in hand, I couldn’t wait to show them that they could get a personalized water bottle for just 3 tickets.

“They have our names on them?”

“Yes!”

“I want one!”

“Me, too!”

It’s not a small thing to have a water bottle of your own, is it? It’s not nothing to be able to fill up your water bottle on the way into the building or in between classes — to take care of a vital need, to do it yourself, to not have to ask someone for a cup for your water every single time you want a drink, to know that this is something that belongs to you.

When people ask me what I mean by educational inequity, I cite examples like this. How can a student focus in class when he has to problem-solve to get a drink of water? And, let me be clear, this issue is not due to an uncaring or irresponsible school administration. I’m working with a very committed team of educators who are working hard each day to provide for our students. If lack of water bottles were the only inequity, it would’ve been handled already, but we’re also trying to ensure that all of our classes have teachers, that every student has a ride to school, that every student has a mask, that students have access to mental health care, winter coats, and all the other things that teenagers need.

Getting a drink of water is so basic, so ordinary, we might overlook the need. Having a water bottle is standard, isn’t it? Don’t we all have several in our homes? Don’t we assume that everyone does?

The fact is that everyone doesn’t. Everyone doesn’t have everything that they need — a water bottle, a warm meal every day, transportation to school, a home with electricity, or access to a quality education. But those of us who do can do something, We can turn the dial on societal inequities — one water bottle, one warm meal, one winter coat, one helping hand at a time. So thank you to my friend who asked how he could help, and thank you, Jacob’s Well, for quenching the thirst of my students.

I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,”

Matthew 25:35

Rose-colored Glasses and Reality

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Since I re-entered the classroom last fall, I think I have been annoying some folks on my staff a bit. At least that’s the vibe I’m starting to pick up. Perhaps I’m a little too positive, a little too gung-hung, a little too happy-clappy.

I’ve not always been this way. I haven’t always interrupted staff meetings to say, “I really appreciate the thoughtfulness the leadership put into this decision,” or “Wow! Thank you so much for this meaningful professional development,” but after being away from the high school classroom for six years, thinking I’d never be back, I came to my little charter school in Detroit carrying an unbridled enthusiasm and wearing a lovely pair of rose-colored glasses.

You can almost hear the other teachers, most of whom have been trudging away in understaffed, under-resourced environments for most of their careers and who had recently closed out a school year that ended in an unanticipated three months of virtual instruction, saying, “Who is this woman? And why is she so happy?”

They didn’t ever say that out loud. In fact, I didn’t have any idea anyone was feeling that way until this fall when one teacher I’m growing closer to subtly implied that perhaps my positivity wasn’t firmly grounded in reality.

How could it be? I had been given a second chance at my career during a world-wide moment when everything was virtual. Reality was hard to get a grip on.

All last school year, I sat in my classroom alone, meeting with students who chose to log in to my Zoom room.Those who didn’t want to be there didn’t show up at all. I didn’t have to navigate noisy crowded hallways; I didn’t have to interact up close with the sometimes volatile emotions of high school students. I didn’t have to clean up messes, make copies on machines that sometimes get jammed, stand in line to use the faculty restroom, or cover a class when another teacher was out sick.

My first year back was a challenge, don’t get me wrong, but it wasn’t the typical Sisyphean grind that most teachers experience day after day, year after year. I was able to prepare, teach, and grade within the hours of the school day with very few exceptions. The classes I taught were similar to those I had taught in the past, and I was able to use my own materials that I had been developing for years. Other staff who had chosen to work from the building became my friends, joining me for walks on our lunch breaks. Every part of my position seemed tailor-made for me, and I was thrilled to be back!

I got excited every time a student logged into my classroom. The few rare times that we actually had students in the building, I gushed with enthusiasm, handing out gifts and prizes to anyone who crossed my path. I looked forward to faculty meetings and gladly answered the phone when anyone related to school — principal, coworker, parent, or even student — happened to call. I volunteered for opportunities such as a curriculum audit and mindfulness sessions, and I agreed to participate in a program for graduates over the summer.

I have been a cheerleader, literally clapping my hands, shouting “hooray”, and doing celebration dances for students and staff. I know, I know — perhaps it’s been a bit much.

But my colleagues can relax, because lately the rose-colored glasses haven’t been doing the trick. We started this school year in the flesh, and shit has been decidedly real.

I think we were “fully staffed” for four whole days, and that was before school even started. We lost one staff member before the students arrived and another within the second week. Not only did we have two fewer staff than we had planned on for the year, but we had a sudden need for an additional staff member when our freshmen class ended up being one and a half times as large as we thought it would be. Our HR department had just replaced the first two staff members that we lost early in the year and was still trying to find the additional teacher when another staff member resigned on the spot last week.

Why so much turnover? Because most teachers don’t experience what I had the privilege of experiencing last year. Most teachers work hard — very hard — with few, if any, breaks, and they do it for insubstantial pay. Teachers are leaving the profession in droves, and few young people are interested in entering the field. Our nation is experiencing a teacher shortage, which is especially felt in districts like mine where teaching can be even more challenging due to systemic inequities.

So, we’re still down two teachers, and Covid starts picking off first students and then staff. By the middle of last Monday, three key staff members had tested positive. Out of concern for student and staff safety, the decision was made to move to virtual instruction for two weeks. This news was to be communicated to students during the day on Tuesday.

When I walked into the building at 7:30 that morning, I felt wobbly. I think all of us did. We were extra short-staffed, and we all knew we’d be covering an extra class or two. The students, it seemed, were feeling it, too. The halls seemed louder, the classes a little more electric than usual.

About midday, as students got notification of the pending move to online instruction, the questions started coming. Why are we going to virtual? What about Homecoming — the dance is supposed to be this weekend?! The anxiety started building. I know it’s going to last longer than two weeks. I ‘m not coming to virtual class. I can’t do it again.

During the last period of the day, I was subbing for a class in which most of the seniors in the room were already disengaging. I tried, in futility, to get them to complete some of their work, to “get done what you can now before you are at home and don’t have the support.” Another teacher, whose room we were in, brought in a small group of underclassmen who were involved in “some trouble” in another room and needed to be removed. Since the vice principal was already backed up with other behavioral issues, we would have to house them until he had time. The two of us talked with students, answered questions, and tried to keep the atmosphere light until the final bell.

When it finally rang, and the students were dismissed, a handful of us teachers gathered in the hallway for a collective sigh. We hadn’t stood there long when we heard the yell of a staff member saying there was a fight in the parking lot and all of us were needed.

We ran out of the building to find chaos — a small cell of students involved in the actual fight and dozens of students moving about the parking lot instead of getting on their busses. What we had hoped would be a smooth transition to virtual instruction was anything but.

It made sense to me. The whole day had felt tenuous — not enough staff, impending change, and uncertainty about the future. I, a grown adult with years of therapy under my belt, had felt wobbly. How were teenagers, most of whom had experienced trauma after trauma after trauma, supposed to find any ground beneath their feet? How were they supposed to think logically, get on their busses, and go home trusting that we would indeed be back together in a couple short weeks?

The fight was soon dispersed, but not without injury, not without drama, not without the adrenaline and cortisol rush that witnessing chaos produces. Students who had missed their busses were picked up by parents or brought inside to wait for their rides, and staff wandered back to their rooms to hop on a Zoom meeting to discuss the details of Count Day which would coincide with our move to virtual instruction.

When the meeting was over, the same staff member who had gently chided me for my rose-colored glasses stopped by my room and pulled up a chair. We processed what had happened, shared our dismay, and acknowledged the reality within which we function, within which we have chosen to teach, within which we both believe we can make a difference — the messy, unpredictable, and sometimes volatile reality. Then, we loaded our computers into our cars and headed home.

The next day I sat in our home office, logged into my zoom room, and greeted each student who showed up with my overenthusiastic grin. I applauded the students who turned on their cameras, and I literally happy danced when a student told me that she had decided that she was going to go away to college after having resolved some personal issues that she had thought might keep her at home.

I think my happy-clappy self showed up not because I am wearing rose-colored glasses, but because I have fully acknowledged the reality within which my students live and move and have their being. Despite the fact that the challenges are many and varied, I am still a glass-three-quarters-full kind of gal. I think I have to be in order to see a path toward educational equity in spite of what I know to be true, to think that I can make a difference in the lives of my students and their families, and to believe that my experiences have brought me to this place for such a time as this.

The joy of the Lord is your strength.”

Nehemiah 8:10

Road Trip

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My principal called me and my partner, the college access counselor, into her office. We’d received an invitation from Central Michigan University, our charter school’s authorizer, for our seniors to attend a college visit on Wednesday, September 29.

The event was free for our students, but it was only a few weeks away, and we’d have to hustle to pull it together — communicate with students and parents, get permission slips, and coordinate chaperones and transportation.

“What do you guys think? Do you want to take them?”

Almost simultaneously, my colleague and I said, “Absolutely!”

Last year we provided virtual college visits for our students. Each Wednesday, students would log into a zoom room and an admissions rep from a university would pop in and share a presentation, often with slides or a video. We provided incentives for students to show up, turn on their cameras, and ask questions. It was the best we could do, and for some of our students it was enough.

For most, though, it was hard to imagine what college life might be like by merely watching a slide show on the screen of their chromebooks while lying in bed in their pajamas. To be honest, it was very hard a year ago to imagine life beyond the isolation of Covid period.

Last year, virtual visits were the only choice we had. Now that we were being offered an opportunity to actually put our seniors’ feet on a college campus, we couldn’t pass it up. We had to give them a clearer vision of college.

My colleague got busy on a flyer and a permission slip, and our vice principal/athletic director quickly secured us a bus. A few days later, I started meeting with seniors one-on-one.

“You’ve been invited,” I said, “to go on a field trip to Central Michigan University next Wednesday. We’ll leave at 6:45 am and return at 6:45 pm.” I paused after this information each time I said it to allow students a moment to process. Each of the students looked me in the eyes and nodded before I continued. “Here is the agenda. You’ll tour the campus, attend a class, and get a T-shirt. There is no cost for you, but you need to return this permission slip by Monday.”

Each of my students — students who sometimes grumble and complain about school, who often want to sleep or eat in my class, who struggle to stay engaged from time to time — each of these students responded with a measured excitement.

“Ok. Thank you. I’ll bring in the permission slip.”

Over the next couple of days, I heard doubt surface.

“Mrs. Rathje, are we going to have to ride on a yellow school bus?”

“No,” I replied, “we’ll be on a charter bus.”

“What about the lunch? What are they gonna give us — some bologna sandwich and chips?”

“I imagine it will be a regular college dining room meal. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.”

“Why do we have to leave so early?”

“CMU is a couple hours away. The event starts at 10am. We don’t want to miss anything.”

We started with a list of 48 students we were willing to invite — those who, despite Covid, are on track for graduation, have consistent attendance, and are mostly engaged in the journey toward college. Several opted out for various reasons, and we ended up with 31 students and four chaperones on a plain vanilla charter bus.

The students were excited and, I think, a little anxious. The questions kept coming.

Mrs. Rathje, are we all going to stick together all day today?”

“No. We’ll be together for parts of it, but you will each go to the class you signed up for. We’ll be separated for that.”

“What if I don’t like my class? Can I just leave?

“No. You are going to give it a chance. You’re going to stay with your group. You’re going to survive. I promise.”

“Mrs. Rathje, you better be right about the food.”

“Trust me.”

After we left the Detroit metro area, Lansing was virtually the only sign of “city” life amid miles and miles of farm land. The students, on their phones or sleeping, were mostly oblivious, but as we neared Mt. Pleasant, which is not far from my childhood home, I woke them and called their attention to the surroundings.

“If you look out your windows, you’ll see mostly farmland, but in the next few minutes, on your left, you will see the CMU Chippewas’ football stadium.”

They looked out the windows as I continued to narrate.

“On the right you see everything you need within walking distance — restaurants, groceries, a pharmacy. As we turn left here, you are officially on campus.”

The phones were mostly down as students looked out the windows.

We pulled up in front of the Student Activities Center where someone in a maroon and gold shirt was waving us in. Inside, more people in maroon and gold were calling the names of our students, handing out backpacks and T-shirts, and encouraging us to change into them to designate that we were part of the group.

I heard just a little grumbling, “Mrs. Rathje, do I have to wear the shirt?”

“Yes.”

Then compliance. They quickly changed, grabbed a donut or a juice that had been set out for them, and then walked en masse into the basketball arena where the opening session was in progress.

The stands on one side of the gym were filled with students — I’d say about 300 or so — from charter schools across the state. Perhaps 80% or more of those students were Black, and most were from Detroit.

In this opening session, the students learned about the culture of CMU — “Fire up, Chips!” — and some of the programs. Next, we were broken into groups for a campus tour and lunch.

I was proud of our students as they followed our tour guides, asking questions, and checking out the campus, and I was probably as excited as they were when they got to lunch and realized they could pick what they wanted and eat as much as they liked. I got my own lunch and sat down at a table with some young men from our school. They weren’t embarrassed or trying to avoid me as some teenaged boys might do. They spoke to me. They asked me questions. In fact, other students sought me out during that lunch time. They, too, had questions and just wanted to check in. They were relishing a full hour of lunch and the freedom to move about among actual college students.

When I saw some of the students who’d expressed concern about lunch, I asked “How was your food?”

“It was great! You were right, Mrs. Rathje!”

After lunch, we moved into class sessions. We were separated into even smaller groups, and students attended sessions based on their interests. It was fun later to hear students report on their experiences.

“I learned about exercise science. It was about how the muscles work,” one said as he massaged his own bicep.

“We were in the TV station learning about how films are made,” said another.

But my favorite was the one that I read on a reflection assignment completed after the event: “We had to do an egg experiment where we dropped it from a certain height to see if it cracks or not. My egg was the only one that did not crack, and I got a mug for it.” He hadn’t said a word the whole trip home. He had held that little victory to himself.

As we wrapped up at the event, I questioned our students. “Well, what did you think? How was your day? What did you learn?”

I got all kinds of responses.

The understated: “It was alright.

The tired: “It was a lot of walking.”

And the excited: “This is my dream school. I’m applying this month.”

As we walked to our bus, we met up with one of our grads from last year who is currently attending CMU. He shook the hands of some of our seniors who, in the fog of Covid, hadn’t known he had chosen to go to college at all. My colleague and I asked if he would come speak to our students when he is home; we’d like him to share his experience with our seniors. He said he would and added, “going to college has changed the way I think about everything.”

The bus ride home was hot. The air conditioning on our bus quit working as though to remind us that our fantastical day of hope was over. We were headed back to our school in Detroit where we wouldn’t go on tours, have hour-long all-you-can-eat lunches, or be bathed in images of possibility.

However, the next day in class, my students wanted to share with those who had not gone. They didn’t mention the hot ride home, but they wanted to share what they’d seen, what they’d done, and most importantly, what they had eaten.

“Mrs. Rathje, are we going to visit more colleges like that? “

“If it’s up to me, we sure will, but right now let’s get back to our college research. Who is adding CMU to their college comparison chart?”

A few hands in the room went up into the air.

“Excellent. Let’s find out even more than we learned yesterday.”

Perhaps I imagined it, but it seemed to me that my seniors were a little more engaged, a little more motivated, a little more interested in the possibilities of college.

Bring on the next road trip.

For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.

Jeremiah 29: 11

The Rewards of Learning

I arrived at school Tuesday morning early — well before my 7:50am required arrival time — and the parking lot was already full. Like me, the rest of the staff wanted a jump on the day. They were scurrying around their rooms putting on finishing touches, in the teachers’ lounge making copies, and stationed in the gym to receive any new students planning to register on the first day of school.

Our rosters had been set since the previous week, and teachers had been charged with creating seating charts that would allow for easy Covid tracking should a positive case be identified. I was in my room numbering my desks to correspond with my chart.

The halls were quiet. Unlike other schools where I have taught, this school holds all students in the gym until a bell releases them to their classrooms. Then, students start walking down the hallways, searching for their rooms, while teachers stand positioned at their doorways, greeting students one by one, and allowing them to enter.

It’s all intentional — a way to bring order. A way to establish rhythms. People who have experienced trauma do better when they know what to expect. Routine is very important to the way we do everything in our school.

Once the second bell rings, and all students are in my classroom. I give them a direction to follow — grab a pencil and follow the directions on the screen, for example — while I take attendance. As I begin to mark attendance, I look up and note those who are following my directions, “Jamar is writing his name on his paper. Devon is reading the directions on the screen.” This affirms those who are following through and reminds those who are unclear on the directions of what they are supposed to be doing. When I have finished taking attendance, I walk around the room, confirming that all students are completed, and I give them a class point saying, “One hundred percent of you grabbed a pencil and followed the directions on the screen — that’s a class point.”

On the first day of class, one senior said, “Why are we still getting class points? We are seniors! This is stupid.”

“I’m glad you asked,” I said. “For some of you, the class points may seem stupid. I get it. However, I just want to acknowledge that we have all just been through a lot. For the past 18 months, we’ve been at home, sitting in our beds, logging in to Zoom rooms, or not,”

Some chuckles can be heard around the room.

“…some of you may feel a little uncomfortable being here today,” I continued, “because Covid is still real, and we are sitting fairly close to each other, and there are going to be, when everyone is here, twenty-eight bodies in this class,”

Groans and grumblings replace the chuckles.

“…so even though the points seem dumb, I want to in some way acknowledge that you are here — that you showed up — that you are choosing to opt in to this school year. So, I’m going to give class points. Roll your eyes if you must, but the class with the most points each week will get some kind of prize on Wednesday. It might be a piece of candy, some small prize, listening to music while you work on your assignment, or something else that you all choose. It might be stupid, but that’s what we’re going to do.”

I looked around the room and saw a few blank stares and a few heads nodding. I hadn’t planned it, but I ended up giving the same speech almost every block that day. Before the end of the week, students were watching the tally on the board, telling me, “Shouldn’t we have gotten a class point for that?” and finally, the last hour on Friday, “Hey, don’t give our point to first block! We’re sixth block!”

I think they are on board with the stupid class points.

In fact, they seem to be on board with most everything we are doing. We have had 100% engagement in every activity, every go-around, every assignment. When I told them to write on a sticky note a way in which they committed to respecting others in the class and to stand up and stick it somewhere on the walls of our classroom, they did. When I said to write for five minutes in their journal about the communities they belong to, they did. When I had them complete an online grammar and writing diagnostic which took them close to half an hour, they did it, and, rather than grumbling about how stupid it was, they confessed their feelings of inadequacy and their need to develop their skills.

When I heard their insecurities, I felt compassion.

“Guys, let’s not be too hard on ourselves here. This is just a diagnostic — a tool to tell us where we are. Remember, we have been away from each other for a year and a half! We have not been focusing on grammar and writing. This diagnostic is going to tell us where we need to start so that we can build these skills.”

I was impressed with their ability to honestly look at their scores and to identify the areas where they were proficient and the areas where they were struggling. They verbalized it, too. “I need to work on verb tenses.” or “I need to practice building compound sentences.”

As they finished the diagnostic, I walked around the room, handing out little white raffle tickets I picked up at Office Depot. Every time they complete an assignment, they receive a “Rathje Ticket”. Once a week, I will open the Rathje Store and they can use their tickets to purchase items that I have been stockpiling. One ticket will get them a pen, a lanyard, a trial-sized bottle of hand sanitizer, or a travel pack of tissue. Three tickets can get them a fabric mask, a small bottle of lotion, a snack bar, or a box of tic tacs. Five tickets might get them a collapsible water bottle, a college t-shirt, a pair of sunglasses, or a flash drive. The prizes will vary because most of this loot has been donated or scavenged from somewhere. I don’t have an unlimited budget for such inventory, but I do have a lot of great friends.

The students have been stacking up tickets all week — they’ve gotten tickets for completing assignments, for downloading apps, for logging into websites — and they are trying to find ways of keeping them until the store opens.

“Mrs. Rathje, do you have something for me to keep my tickets in? I don’t want to lose them.”

And they are looking forward to the store opening.

“Mrs. Rathje, I have five tickets. Can I buy something from the store?”

You might be wondering if this is a waste of time, money, and resources. Shouldn’t high school seniors just be able to do whatever you tell them to do? Isn’t the learning reward enough for the hard work they put in?

Your experience might lead you to think so. You might’ve been able to show up to school every day, follow directions, do all your assignments, and be successful without really thinking about it. Your experience, however, may not be the same as the experience my students are having.

I don’t know all of their stories yet, but I do know that during this first week of school, the highest attendance I had in any class was 65%. I know that many students don’t have the resources for school supplies, lunch, or clothing that they want to be seen in. I know that all of these kids have just been made to learn from home for a year and a half. I know they are unfamiliar with being at the school by 8am, with following a bell schedule, with sitting at a desk, with putting a pencil to paper. I know that just showing up each day is, right now, a very heavy lift.

So until it’s not, every kid who does the work of showing up is going to get something tangible — a point on the board, a ticket in her hand — for doing so. I am going to do my best to stay stocked on prizes that are appealing and to stay prepared with activities that are meaningful, relevant, and engaging.

“Everything we do in this classroom,” I tell my students every day, “is to prepare you for whatever you have planned next. I will do my best to prepare and show up for you. I am expecting you to show up and get all that you can so that you will be ready.”

This is not going to be an easy year. We’ve got a lot of work to do under difficult circumstances — making up for missed instructional time, wearing masks, avoiding Covid infections, and having limited resources. My students and I are going to need to celebrate each tiny step along the way.

I don’t know, maybe they will learn enough this year that the learning itself will be a reward, but until we get there, we’re going to need some cheering along the way.

So, wherever you are, start cheering, because we’re making a comeback, baby. Just watch us and see!

Encourage one another and build one another up.

1 Thessalonians 5:11

Coronavirus Diary #31: Back to School Edition

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My phone rang while I was watching TV last Sunday night. It was the director of HR from my school. I’d been in back-to-school professional development meetings the previous week, and she was informing me that I had had close contact with someone who had tested positive for Covid-19. I’d need to get a negative test before I reported for more meetings the next morning.

The students weren’t even back yet. Certainly this didn’t bode well.

Monday morning I got up and drove to a nearby CVS where I purchased two self-administered tests. I climbed back in my vehicle, cracked open a swab, and did what we’ve all learned to do over the last many months. I prepped my sample, set a timer on my phone, and started driving in the general direction of my school. If it was positive, I’d return home; if it was negative, I’d continue on to school.

I was slightly worried, because although I’m vaccinated, so was the person who tested positive. If I had Covid-19, I’d have to stay home for 10 days, and I would miss the first day of school. I didn’t even want to entertain that possibility.

Our students haven’t been in school since March of 2020. The last thing I want them to find on the first day of school is a substitute teacher because I’m out due to Covid.

As I waited for the fifteen minutes to tick away, I consoled myself. Kristin, you weren’t within 3 feet of anyone for over 15 minutes, but then I remembered that I had been in a coaching meeting with my mentor where we had sat desk-to-desk, masked of course, for thirty minutes. It was possible, if she was the positive case, that I had truly been exposed.

But surely since we were both wearing masks and both of us are vaccinated, our risk is very low. And that is what I held onto until the timer went off and I saw that I was indeed negative.

Phew! Thank you, God!

I have a feeling this won’t be the last time this year that I will have to swab and sit. My classroom is set up with 27 desks, and for most of the day, every desk will be full. Each 100 minute period, around 27 seniors will roll into my room, find their assigned seats, and hopefully engage in learning until the dismissal bell rings.

Typically during such a long class (we’re on a block schedule), I would move students into groups, have them working at the board or somehow getting out of their seats to break up that long time period and move around the room.

My classroom

Things have to look a little different in the times of Covid. Each room must have assigned seats and a seating chart printed out and kept in a plastic pocket near the door. If a student or a teacher tests positive for Covid, all students who have been within 3 feet of that student for fifteen minutes or longer will be considered ‘close contacts’. If those within close contact are not vaccinated, they will then quarantine for 10 days, receiving their lessons asynchronously via Google classroom. For this reason, we want to limit the number of close contacts each student has.

Can my students move around the room? Yes, but I need to keep that movement to a minimum. Can they work in small groups? Yes, if I keep those small groups within their already-established close contacts or if the small groups last less than 15 minutes. Can I rearrange my seating chart? Yes, but only at the start of the week because for Covid we trace close contacts two days prior to the onset of symptoms or the positive test, so re-sets need to happen over the weekend.

Are you confused yet? Exactly.

And we’re only, so far, talking about the seating chart!

All students and teachers must wear masks at all times inside the building, except for when they are eating. Breakfast will be served in first hour classrooms, fifteen minutes before class starts. Lunch is served in the lunch room, half of the 300-member student body at a time.

Windows will be open as much as possible, and rooms will be equipped with air filtration systems. All rooms are well-stocked with hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes and will be treated each night with a Clorox Total 360 electrostatic sprayer. Custodians will routinely and endlessly disinfect doorknobs, bathrooms, and other high-traffic areas.

But guys, Covid or not, we are going back to school!

Thursday, all staff started work a little later than usual because we were hosting our Back to School night from 3:30-6:30. As I was driving in to work, I wondered how many of our students would show up to get their schedules, to pick up their school-issued Chromebooks, and to sign up for their bus routes. After 18 months at home, how many would opt in to an in-person learning experience? We had no way of knowing.

However, when I arrived at school at 10am, the place was already buzzing with activity. Teachers were arriving to participate in active shooter training, the trainers were setting up in a classroom, a couple of new teachers were being oriented to their new surroundings, and….and we had parents and students touring the building, filling out registration forms, and preparing to be at school!

After a very weird year — arriving to a silent building each morning, walking to my classroom, and signing into my zoom room — this felt very back-to-school normal. Could it be?

I dared not hope that this buzz could sustain itself throughout the day and into the Back-to-School night. So, I leaned in to our training — active shooter, fire drill, and round three of Covid protocols. I put finishing touches on my classroom, and I printed and copied day one paperwork for my students — boldly making enough copies for everyone on my roster. If I print them, they will come.

As it got closer to 3:00, I ate the lunch I packed, cracked open a can of green tea to re-caffeinate, and started heading to the gym with my colleague to get our assigned roles before the students started showing up. We peeked in the principal’s office on our way. She said, “Please get all the teachers to the gym right now; parents are already arriving!” What? It was only 3:00. We weren’t supposed to start until 3:30!

My colleague and I split up and went down separate hallways to round up teachers, and when we got to the gym, we found clusters of people moving about, trying to get what they needed. We scrambled to each take a station and begin assisting parents.

Our principal directed families to please step back outside the gym, form a line, and wait their turn — we would get to everyone. And for the next three hours, families stood in lines, shuffled forward, got what they came for, and chatted with teachers and administrators.

Yes, everyone wore a mask. Yes, it was difficult to hear one another. Yes, it was a struggle to identify students who claimed they had been in my class last year, but guys, that gym stayed buzzing until after 6pm.

Is it going to be a challenging year? Of course! Are we going to have students and teachers who test positive for Covid or have to quarantine due to exposure? Undoubtedly! Will we be exhausted by protocols on top of instruction on top of adapting to ever-changing circumstances? Without question.

However, the activity in that crowded gym told me that we — teachers, students, and parents — are ready to give in-person instruction a try. So take that, Covid. We are going back to school!

Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Joshua 1:9

Informed Instruction

Across the country and around the world, countless teachers and students are beginning to return to the classroom. After eighteen months of pandemic, some will be together in the flesh for the first time.

If you listen closely, you can hear the hum of anxiety.

In addition to the usual back-to-school jitters, teachers and students alike are also shouldering Covid 19 fears — do we have to wear a mask? will I get sick? will we return to remote learning? what will it be like to be in the building again? how can I be sure I will be safe?

The seniors who will walk into my classroom in just a few weeks have not been in a classroom since March of 2020 — their sophomore year. They have been zooming into class (or not) from their homes, their cars, and their workplaces for the last eighteen months. Many have rolled over in bed, still wearing pajamas, and logged into class; others haven’t joined online class at all.

So what will I do in the next few weeks to prepare for them — to create a space where they feel comfortable re-entering, where they feel safe, seen, and loved? How will I create a culture inside my classroom where students can trust, engage, and learn?

It’s gonna be a little trickier than usual, to be sure. All of my students live in Detroit, which has been ravaged by Covid. They have all experienced loss — loved ones, friends, a beloved teacher — and most have suffered economically, physically, socially, and emotionally because of Covid. I have to take this into consideration as I prepare for them. Also, 99% of my students are Black, Latino, or Middle Eastern. While the pandemic has changed life for all of us, the impact on communities of color has been disproportionately worse. I have to acknowledge that as I think about how I will create space for grief, for transition, and for learning.

I also have to acknowledge that the impact of racism is an every day reality for my students — their lived experiences are the result of systemic racism. I have to see and admit that my students have had less access to fresh foods, health care, high quality education, and safety. I have to believe that they have been pulled over by the police, followed in a store, or turned down for a job because of their skin color. I have to understand that because of their lived experience, they may not show up in my classroom “ready to learn”.

It’s not because they are less intelligent, or because they are “bad kids”; it’s because many have experienced poverty and most have experienced trauma. In fact, we recognize at our school that all of our students have likely experienced trauma — even before Covid — in the form of homelessness, neglect, abuse, or violence. Knowing this, our whole educational framework revolves around a model of trauma-informed instruction. And, since we know that much of this trauma is rooted in racism or the impact of systemic racism on our community, we also hold as a core value that we are anti-racist. We cannot fully care for our students who have been traumatized by racism if we do not actively work to dismantle racist systems that perpetuate this harm.

Our director of instruction says we need to ask ourselves in each moment, “am I replicating oppression or am I tearing it down?”

All of this, my friends, fits inside the framework of Critical Race Theory. The fact that I believe that my students have experienced loss at a higher rate than white kids, that they are more likely to experience poverty and trauma, that they are more likely to have an incarcerated family member, that they need a different educational approach because of their lived experience, all fits inside the CRT framework.

And how does this paradigm impact my instruction? Immeasurably.

First, the design of my classroom and the structure of our time together is based on the assumption that my students need to feel safe and supported. Our school uses a model called The No-Nonsense Nurturer so that in every classroom, students experience the same expectations, the same language, the same reinforcement as they learn how to be learners. My students can expect when they walk in my classroom, or any classroom in the building, that they will be given clear directions and held to high expectations. The model provides acknowledgement, praise, and rewards for those who are on track and redirection, one-on-one remediation, and further support for those who need it to get on track. Our teachers believe it is critically important that our students opt in to learning, that they earn a high school education, and that they go on to post-secondary education, the military, or work after high school. We believe it is literally a matter of life and death. We already know the trajectory for students of color who do not complete high school, get a job, or go to college — we already know that it doesn’t end well.

We can either replicate the experiences they have had in the past or we can try a different, research-informed practice.

I expect that most of my first week or two will be spent building culture and systems. After eighteen months outside of the classroom, our students (and our teachers) are going to need some time to re-acclimate to the ways of being in the classroom. How do we manage sitting next to each other? How do we function without watching our phones for notifications? How do we contribute to classroom conversations? How do we collaborate? How do we celebrate one another?

And, as we learn those ways of being together, I will slowly begin to integrate content — common core curriculum — using strategies that have high impact for my students. With this group of students, I will start almost immediately with journal writing which is useful not only for building writing muscle but also for developing student voice. Throughout the year, we will incorporate grammar instruction, reading, discussion, and more writing. As I get to know my students and their strengths and weaknesses, I will tailor instruction to best prepare them for what’s next — college, trade school, military, or a career.

I will be supported by a team — our college access counselor and other counseling staff — who will help our students identify their long term goals and explore ways of achieving those goals. Most of our learners, if they so choose, will be first-generation college students, so they need extra supports, and we provide them.

We meet our students where they are, support them as they envision where they might go, and then provide them with the tools they need to take steps toward that goal.

Why?

How can we do otherwise? If we can see with our two eyes that our students need love, support, and a path forward, how can we do anything else than use all the tools we have at our disposal to provide these things? If we know — and friends, we do know — that inequity is a fact in our experience as Americans, that people of color have long been feared, subjugated, controlled, and misrepresented, than it is unconscionable to do anything less than our very best to change this course.

We have replicated oppression in the past — knowingly or unknowingly — we must refuse to do so moving forward.

Our students are counting us. Their very lives depend on those who will stand up and insist on a new way.

The Lord God has told us what is right and what He demands: “See that justice is done, let mercy be your first concern, and humbly obey your God.”

Micah 6:8, Contemporary English Version

*If you would like to partner with me in this work, please request my wish list.

**If you’d like to read more about educational disparity, check out a post I wrote last year: “What World Are We Living In?”

***To learn more about my school, check out this video.

A time to embrace

It was a weird year to join a school staff. With Covid, all of our back-to-school meetings were virtual. We could see one another’s faces and occasionally hear one another’s voices, but we did not share physical space for those two weeks. Instead, each of us was safely distant from the others, working from our homes.

I wasn’t the only new hire, but I couldn’t be sure, just from looking at my Zoom screen, which staff members were veterans and which ones were rookies. The situation was complicated by the fact that two school staffs had come together for the 2020-2021 school year after one had closed, so even the teachers who had been on staff for three or five or ten years, might have been looking at new faces and wondering where they fit in.

And maybe that dynamic, the fact that none of us felt terribly grounded, created a situation in which no one felt superior; no one felt “new”. Or perhaps we all felt “new” in a way, since we were all learning how to do school online — learning how to use digital platforms for instruction, for behavioral incentives, for managing student work. I can’t know how everyone else was feeling, but from the beginning, I had a sense that we were all in this together. We were all uniting to meet the needs of our students during a pandemic — one that had decimated the community of Detroit in which our school is situated and where all of our students live.

From the beginning of the school year, our focus was to provide high quality instruction in a manner that was safe for our students and for our staff. We took every measure — providing our students with chromebooks and hot spots so that they could safely learn from home, upping the requirements for our all-star custodial staff who sanitized bathrooms and doorknobs on the hour, and allowing staff with health concerns to work from home. If a positive case of Covid was detected, everyone was sent home for two weeks while the building went through a deep clean and while everyone who had even remotely close exposure could get tested and watch for symptoms.

We were so careful, in fact — wearing masks in the building, staying six feet apart, sanitizing surfaces, and holding all meetings via Zoom — that even when a positive case occurred within the building, it was not spread. We were even offered weekly Covid testing every Monday, so when asymptomatic cases were diagnosed, the whole building could go home before any spread could take place.

Our leadership took every precaution to make sure our students and staff remained safe and healthy.

So what a shock it was, as we were all enjoying our summer break, knowing that we finished the year with minimal Covid impact, to receive a message from our principal that one of our coworkers, a well-loved teacher, just forty-four years old, had died very shortly after a cancer diagnosis.

It felt like a punch to the gut. I was stunned. How could this woman, who had volunteered to plan all the senior events (during a pandemic!) so that “our babies” would have a senior pinning, a prom, and an in-person graduation, have died? I had just been on zoom with her a few weeks earlier, discussing teaching strategies and sharing resources. She’d asked early in the year if I would mind talking with her from time to time as she was striving to be the best she could be for our students.

In the group chat where the news of her death had been shared, my colleagues instantly began sharing with one another how they were shocked and devastated. None of us could believe that just as we were planning to be physically with one another in the fall, this woman who leaned into every Zoom room, face fully on the screen, smiling and attentive, would not be with us.

Shortly after we learned of her passing, our principal sent out another note. We would have a candlelight vigil and balloon launch the following week to allow students and staff to grieve. I had heard of this practice just earlier in the year. Two of my former students from St. Louis and one of this year’s seniors all were killed by gun violence within weeks of one another between Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Each of them had been remembered in this way.

Our principal’s note said to bring pink balloons (our colleague’s favorite color) and to come to the school. On that evening, my husband and I cut a family trip short so that we could be there. We pulled up to the building and found the principal and one of the custodians setting up. As we got closer, both of them moved toward us. After a whole school year of giving one another a wide berth, my principal and I instinctively hugged. I turned to the custodian, and we held one another.

It was no longer safe to remain distant.

As each staff member arrived, the hugging continued. Friends who had stepped around one another all year long, were offering comfort in the only way that would do — touch.

And tears.

Tears dripped from our eyes as forty-four candles were lit and balloons were shared. Markers were passed so that we could write tributes on the balloons. One teacher, who also happens to be a police chaplain, offered Scripture, emotional support, a space for sharing memories, and prayer. He told the dozen or more students who had gathered on a weeknight in the middle of summer that whatever they were feeling was ok, that the staff was grieving, too, that we were all shocked. None of us had known she was sick, he said; she hadn’t known long herself. He offered support through our social worker, our counseling resources, and himself. “We are a family,” he said, “and family supports one another through difficult times such as this.”

Our colleague’s mother moved to the middle of our circled bodies and shared that her daughter had loved our students, had talked about them all the time. Even from her hospital bed, she regretted that she was missing prom. We all nodded, knowing this was true, knowing that her heart had been fully with our kids.

As one, we counted to three and released our balloons into the sky. The cluster of bodies on the ground gazed upward, silently, for many long moments, watching the pink balloons lift into the clouds.

And then we lingered. Staff and students spoke to one another, shared memories, and stood closely in the silence. Gradually we began to chat: how is your summer? what have you been up to?

A baby was passed from his mother to students to staff. As though he knew our hearts were hurting, he lay his head our shoulders then lifted his gaze to smile us, instinctively bringing joy to the mourning.

One by one, the gathered began to dissipate, moving to cars, waving goodbyes, holding eye contact a little longer than we might’ve before, promising to see each other soon, knowing that we were connected a little more now than we had been a few hours earlier.

I don’t know how next year will play out. It holds promise for more proximity, more gathering, more sharing, and I hope we get that. It was appropriate to keep our distance for a while to protect one another, but it seems the best way to care for one another now is to come back together.

[There is] a time to refrain from embracing, and a time to embrace.

Ecclesiastes 3: 5 (Order reversed by me.)

Coronavirus Diary #30: Emerging

It’s starting to happen. We’re opening our doors, stepping outside, and actually talking to people — sans mask.

At first it felt a little weird.

We were in the backyard of our new nest (still trying to settle on a name: the garden ranch? the house by the highway?) working in the dirt, plunking seeds in the ground, when first one neighbor then another walked toward the fence, introduced themselves, and stood to talk for a bit.

We were outside of course, where no masks have been required for quite a while, but we weren’t keeping six feet distance. We moved in close — close enough to see eye color. It felt good, but then my husband did something audacious: he breached the fence line, extending his hand to Bob, our backyard neighbor, and Bob, equally audacious, grabbed his hand and shook.

Emboldened by such recklessness, our son, too, walked forth and shook the hand of a man who we had never met. We didn’t know if he was vaccinated, Republican, Democrat, a masker, an anti-masker, or what! Yet, they each grabbed his hand, swapping epitheliels and such. I felt a rush of anxiety, and then I internally shrugged.

The mask mandate had been lifted, after all, for those who had been vaccinated, whether outdoor or indoor, and we had been vaccinated, so I guess hand shaking was the next step.

A few days later, we were walking into Lowe’s when we saw a sign that said, “masks are now optional for guests and employees of Lowe’s,” so we unstrapped our faces, walked in and began to hunt down the items on our list. Several minutes into our quest, my observant husband said, “Hey, I’m noticing that most everyone still has a mask on. Maybe we should, too.” So, with a sense of courtesy and care for others, we strapped them back on.

It’s no big deal, after all. We’ve been wearing masks for over a year. We have dozens in our home, in our car, and at work. It seems almost second nature now to cover our droplet-spewing exhales for the sake of others, but we’re seeing more spaces where we feel free not to.

Weddings, for example. Last weekend, we went to two weddings in one day. At the first, we sat in our car, watching others walk into the church without masks, so we decided to do the same tucking a mask for each of us in a pocket just in case. At the door to the church we saw a sign similar to the one at Lowe’s announcing that masks were not required for the vaccinated, so we dared to walk into the sanctuary naked-faced.

Inside, about 30% of the the guests wore masks. The ceremony commenced with the whole wedding party processing barefaced. Yes, the priest donned a mask before serving communion, but many remained unmasked for the service, even while singing. And the singing! After over a year of virtual church, the rich voices in the extravagant sanctuary felt celestial — a foretaste of things to come.

After the ceremony, as the guests rose to exit, most conservatively covered their faces, and we did, too. We’d tasted the freedom, but we hadn’t lost our minds. That would happen at the next wedding.

We’d received an email the night before that fully-vaccinated folk would not be required to mask at the second wedding. Still, we kept a mask in our pockets as we walked into the large, airy sanctuary. We found our seats and scanned the room. This was the wedding of someone we’ve known for decades, and several of the guests were dear to us. Not one mask was visible to me.

We slid over to let a couple join us. My husband shook a hand and gave a hug. I simply smiled and gushed, “It’s so good to see you!” I looked around and spotted a long-time friend I hadn’t seen in the last few years, then a couple who we love dearly. I wanted to cross the room to greet them, but I committed to the more socially-appropriate action of staying put for the duration of the ceremony.

The wedding was joyous — the joining of two fractured families who had found healing and hope in each other was filled with smiles, tears, and much rejoicing. The people gathered were reminded that God makes all things new — that He takes our brokenness aside and makes it beautiful.

Buoyed by restored hope, the wedding guests excitedly exited the sanctuary, nary a mask in the crowd, and continued to greet one another and comment on the just-witnessed miracle. Among them, my husband and I were chatting with another couple when I spotted, once again, that dear friend I hadn’t seen in years. My feet propelled me to her, and before I knew it, without first asking for permission, I wrapped her in a hug. I was suddenly emotional. Other than my husband, our son who lives locally, and my mother, I had hugged very few people in the last year. Very few indeed. And this friend, who I’ve known for over thirty years of highs and lows and another friend who I would track down moments later and enthusiastically embrace — again without thinking to pause for permission — were dear, dear friends who I might have at one time taken for granted, might have given a quick hug at a wedding reception and then moved on to the drinks, the food, and the dancing. but not now.

I’ve been changed — at least temporarily. As we emerge from almost fifteen months of separation from one another, isolation in our homes, and the alienation of wearing a mask — all for the sake of protecting one another out of love — I have a new perspective.

At times during the pandemic I have felt anxious, not wanting to be around people, feeling wary of moving through crowds, and venturing out only out of necessity to get groceries, see the doctor, or go to work. Even several weeks ago, when we went to church on Easter, after the worship services were over, after most of the people had cleared, I still felt uneasy walking up to the building to receive communion because a dozen or more people were standing outside the building without their masks.

It’s been strange, hasn’t it? To be afraid of getting close, of sharing air? Haven’t we been suspicious of those who came too near, who didn’t mask up, who didn’t seem to take the virus seriously? Or maybe you felt differently. Maybe you thought we’d all gone overboard what with the masks, and the quarantines, and the sanitizer, and such. Maybe you’ve not been isolating and distancing as much as we have. Maybe you don’t feel, like I do, that you are emerging from a bunker where you’ve been hunkered down, missing your people for over a year, but that’s how I feel.

Is the sun shining brighter? Have my friend Pat’s eyes always been that attentive and loving? Has Chris DuPont’s voice always sounded so angelic in a spacious cathedral? Have the hugs of friends like Heidi always been so life-giving and heart-swelling?

I don’t remember, but suddenly I am overwhelmed with emotion just just to see you — all of you.

I know the virus is still here and that it’s going to be here for a while, but right now, in the light of the sun, on these beautiful spring days, I feel free as I emerge from a long, long, hibernation that lasted much, much longer than a winter.

I missed you, my friends. I pray I get to see your face and hug you soon.

Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.

Psalm 31:24

Coronavirus Diary #29: Flip the Funk

I haven’t written a new blog post in over a month now. It’s not that I haven’t been writing; I have. Each morning, I scrawl three pages in a spiral notebook before I do anything else. I dump the raw ramblings of my mind uncensored on the page in an attempt to clear my mind, see what I’m thinking about, and discover any insights.

Many blog posts have grown out of my morning pages. My chaotic run-on sentences give birth to ideas that I carry to my laptop, explore freely, then rearrange, revise, edit, and publish. I love the process, and I’ve learned so much about myself through writing this way over the last several years. As I’ve written through my health challenges, my grief, my healing, and my celebrations, I have learned to articulate what matters, what hurts, what I love, and what I’d love to change. For almost seven years, I’ve found something to say almost every week. In the beginning, I found something to say almost every single day.

But lately I haven’t had anything I’ve wanted to commit to a public page — nothing I’ve wanted to share, even though I’ve had plenty of thoughts about the pandemic, the almost daily tragic gun violence, the Derek Chauvin trial, education, standardized testing, the beauty of spring, and the joy of Easter. I’ve had plenty of thoughts, but I haven’t been able or willing to pull them into any cohesive package. I haven’t been able to find a theme among the fragments, and I’ve been struggling a little to hold on to hope.

It’s still in my grasp — hope, that is — but I’m having to put a lot of energy into swatting away distractive thoughts while still keeping my fingers wrapped around it.

I started my therapy session last week saying, “I’m struggling, and I don’t exactly know why. I’ve got an undercurrent of negativity — a mixture of worry, regret, and old business– I know it’s there, trying to harass me, but I haven’t wanted to give it my attention. I’m so tired of processing all the time.”

I really want to be happy and hopeful, I explained, and I have every reason to be. Winter has flown away, making way for warmer weather and the breaking forth of new life. Despite Covid-19 and the ever-changing restrictions, I have made it three quarters of the way through my first school year back “in” the classroom after several years away. I have a loving marriage in which both of us continue to heal, grow, and remain committed to each other. We’ve come back from so much hurt and devastation, and we find ourselves enjoying time together, even as we start the second year of Covid restrictions.

I know all of this, and I am thankful, but the harassing thoughts persist — throwing up past failures, parading worries, and waving banners of self-doubt. They’ve quieted a bit in the last few days since I called them out in therapy; they’ve gone back to their corners to sulk, making space for me to see the green buds emerging on the trees in the yard, last year’s lettuce sprouting from the soil, and the rhubarb doubling in size inside of a week.

My therapist asked, “Can you think of what has triggered these thoughts?” and I started by listing the obvious — months and months in front of a computer screen — an introvert surprisingly starving for meaningful physical human contact, the current surge of Covid cases in Michigan specifically focused in the regions where I live and work, and continuing social distance and mask wearing for who knows how long.

I mean, we’ve made progress. Along with 20% of the general population of the United States, I’m fully vaccinated. My husband will be, too, probably by the time you read this. Our parents are all vaccinated and so are several of our kids. I recently returned from a couple of days with my mother after a long time away, and we have plans to see our granddaughters and their parents in just a couple of weeks. Our (vaccinated) son joins us for dinner every few weeks in our home, and we are hopeful to visit our daughters this summer. These things give me hope — and I hold them in my hand, caressing them, willing them to grow into reality.

But last Sunday, we spent our second Easter on our couches, watching the livestream of our church’s worship service. We put on new T-shirts to mark the occasion. After the service was over, we chatted with another couple in a Zoom room then climbed into the car to go to church for in-person communion. When we arrived, several people were standing outside the building, dressed in their Easter finest, having attended the service in-person. Since they were outside, many of them were not wearing masks, and perhaps feeling the joy of doing something resembling ‘normal’, they weren’t keeping six feet of distance from each other either. They were smiling and laughing, chatting like it was just another Sunday. We walked up in our new T-shirts and masks, and as everyone greeted us, I felt myself retreat into my interior, step to the perimeter of the cluster of bodies, and quickly make my way past them. It was overwhelming to be so close to so many bodies, even though we were outside, even though I had on a mask, even though these are people who I know and love.

Will we ever feel normal again?

My therapist assures me I’m not the only one feeling this way. She says that everyone she sees has been struggling a bit more since the one year mark — one year since we had the first case in the US, one year since we started social distancing, one year since we marked our first 10,000 fatalities, one year since we last saw someone we loved.

So I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m joining in the communal grieving, and that grieving has caused remnants of my own grieving to bubble up, and since I have not wanted to give it my attention, I have just been feeling the funk, like I was when I wrote Coronavirus Diary #3 near the beginning of the pandemic when I already felt like we’d been “sheltering at home for a million days”. Who could’ve imagined that we’d still be living restricted lives one year later.

I’m over it. You’re probably over it, too. And, if you’ve read this far, you may be hoping that I’ve got some profound thing to say that will flip your funk. Maybe you’re waiting for me to tell you what I did to make it all better.

Near the end of my session, my therapist said, as I was dabbing at my eyes, “We’ve got to turn this around.” I looked at her face on my laptop screen, doubting her ability to magically wave a wand and make me feel better. And what she said surprised me. She didn’t suggest I take a deep dive to examine all the feelings that were bubbling up. She didn’t tell me to dump out my backpack and examine my hurts and losses one by one. Instead, she said, “I’m not one whose ever going to suggest we deny our feelings, but sometimes we need to give ourselves a break from them. Sometimes we need to give ourselves something positive to think about. Get outside, go for a walk, do something you enjoy.”

Seriously? That’s how I was going to shake this funk? Go for a walk? Shoot, I’ve been going for a walk every day of this pandemic — rain, shine, or even snow. That’s all I needed to do, was to not wallow, not succumb to the negativity that my harassing thoughts were throwing at me, but get outside, dig in the dirt, go for a walk, read a book?

I can do that.

Turns out that my therapist’s ability to offer me grace — a break, some space, an out — was just what I needed to flip out of the funk and into a more functional state. I don’t need to force myself to look at the stuff that I’ve looked at, examined, and analyzed ad nauseam — not all the time and not right now. Instead, I can offer myself some grace, to step outside, examine my rhubarb, search for the peonies that are poking their fingers through the soil and getting ready to burst forth with bouquets of hope.

And hope does not put us to shame.”

Romans 5:5

Coronavirus Diary #28: Because They Care

They’re coming! It’s March 1, and today students are coming to the building!

On Friday, as I wrapped up my lesson plans, our support staff were putting up decorations and readying the building to receive students — not all of our students will be here but more than we’ve had in the building in almost a full year.

It’s looked different all over the country, but most American students left school sometime last March and have been experiencing learning in one of several online, socially-distanced, or hybrid learning models since then. My school, which is a charter school in Wayne County, Michigan, the county with the ninth highest number of casualties by Covid, has thus far opted for a fully virtual learning platform with the exception of a handful of special education students who come into the building two days a week.

When, in January, Governor Whitmer announced the goal of offering in-person learning to all Michigan students by March 1, our leadership, having surveyed our parents and staff and considering how best to meet the needs of our over 700 students in grades K-12, decided to offer in-person learning to a limited number of students on both of our campuses (K-8 and high school). At the high school, priority was given to students who have had extreme difficulty engaging with the online platform, particularly seniors who are in danger of not obtaining the needed credits to graduate this June. Starting today, forty-four of our three hundred high school students will be coming to the building; the rest will continue to learn from home.

This is the next in many transitions that school leaders across the country have made, each transition requiring its own set of logistical orchestration. When students moved home, school leadership had to quickly assemble systems for communicating with students and families, to provide structure and guidance for teachers to teach virtually, and to meet state compliance requirements. When fall rolled around and the new school year started, leaders acquired laptops and tablets, hired staff after historic turnovers, and prepared for learning scenarios that they’ve never before imagined. As the school year has rolled on, these leaders have had to respond in the moment, closing buildings due to positive cases, acquiring truckloads of cleaning supplies and PPE, navigating state vaccine roll-outs, and continuing to adapt to changing governmental orders and CDC guidance.

For this transition, my principal has spent the last several weeks working with the leadership team to prioritize who will be in the building, to prepare space that is safe and conducive to learning for the students, to quell the concerns of teachers and support staff, and, in the midst of it all, to oversee the mandatory state count of all students ‘attending’ classes — that all-important process that determines how many state dollars the school will receive to make the magic happen. Not only that, but she took time during our weekly staff meeting to make sure we had fun (yes, we played a Kahoot game in the virtual format), that we were encouraged (yes, we were offered on-the-clock mental health support last week), and that we were celebrated (our principal never fails to give a shout out to staff who are working hard to “take care of [her] babies”).

It’s quite phenomenal what these leaders have managed to accomplish in the midst of a pandemic, many of them having lost loved ones or having been infected by Covid-19 themselves. While many of us have spent longer hours on the couch, watched more Netflix than we’d ever known existed, and tried new recipes, our school leaders, much like our health care workers, have been working around the clock to make sure their “babies” get what they need.

Why? Because they care. They care about students’ education, their physical health, and their emotional health. They have spent their careers — their lives — learning theory and implementing best practices to give their students the best education their budgets can buy (not all budgets being equal, but that’s a topic for a different day).

If they care so much, you ask, why isn’t your school bringing back all 300 kids? Good question. The reason our school is not bringing back all three hundred students is because the leadership team cares so much — for the students, their parents, and the teachers.

Many of our students and their families are not interested in a return to school just yet for a variety of reasons. Many of our families have lost multiple family members during the pandemic — they are afraid of this virus. Many don’t leave home much at all, and if they do, it’s to go to a medical appointment or to work. Many of our students are working one or two jobs. They sometimes log into the Zoom room on their phone while on the clock. Most of our students are low income. They were struggling before the pandemic; now many are in crisis. For many families it’s an all hands on deck type of situation. Giving these families the flexibility of remaining online for the sake of their health and financial concerns is a way of caring.

And the care of the leadership extends to the staff as well. More than once I have heard my principal say that she is concerned for the safety of the children but also of her teachers. While many of us have been vaccinated, some have not, and the risk of spreading the coronavirus and its variants still exists, especially among a population whose families mostly work in front line positions like health care and the service industry. However, it seems that teachers’ mental health has also played a factor in these myriad decisions. While many schools have asked their teachers to both manage online learning and seated instruction (faces on the screen AND bodies in the classroom), trusting that educators, who also care about students and have committed their lives to finding a way to give them what they need and deserve, taxing their physical and mental health with a burden they have not been trained or prepared for, our leadership has not. For the sake of the teachers’ physical, mental, and emotional health, all instruction in our buildings has remained virtual — students and teachers logging into zoom rooms, with all content delivered through Google classroom. While it was a heavy lift to learn how to utilize all the technology involved, teachers have not also had to simultaneously manage students and their developmentally typical behaviors in the classroom.

Even today, as a few dozen students come into the building, they will not be in our classrooms, but they will be sitting six feet apart at tables in the cafeteria, supervised by support staff, and logging into our zoom rooms just as they have been from home since September.

So why bring them in at all, you ask. Another good question.

While students won’t be in my classroom, they will be in the building. This gives them a reprieve from being at home where it could be hard to focus. They likely have other people at home who are working or studying or simply watching the television — all of which can provide a distraction from learning. At school, students will have a designated learning space where they can sit up and learn. We are seeing that many of our students don’t have such a space at home — many log in from their beds or from the floor of their bedroom, neither of which is optimal for learning. In the building, they will have consistent Internet connection. Though we’ve provided hot spots to many of our students, the load of multiple devices inside each home remains high, and many of our students experience disruptions in connection. With us, students will receive breakfast and lunch every day, which may or may not be guaranteed at home during a financial crisis in the middle of a pandemic. And, in the building, teachers and support staff, folks who have committed their lives to ensuring that kids receive an education, will be nearby — watching, listening, assisting, and encouraging. All of this adds us to an increased likelihood for student success.

It’s not safe to have 300 students in the building just yet, but because we care, we’re going to bring in the 44 who just can’t make it work at home. We’re going to give them more — support, proximity, contact — because that is what they need. And, as soon as it’s safe to do so, we’ll bring the rest back, too.

Or, perhaps we’ll bring them back only if that’s what’s best for them, their families, and their teachers. Maybe the pandemic just might teach us that we can do things that we never knew we could do before. Maybe we have the structures in place now to reimagine what school might look like. Maybe it doesn’t have to look the same for everyone.

Is it possible that some kids learn better in the classroom with lots of hands on experience? Can it also be possible that some students learn better at home with the structure and support of their families around them? Could it be that some students might do well to work mostly at home with occasional in-school sessions or that others might do best mostly at school with sporadic seasons of at-home learning?

What about our teachers? Do some thrive in on-line environments? Do others excel in the classroom with all kinds of experiential and kinesthetic practices? Are there others that would pull from both virtual and in-person practices to create an ideal learning environment for students who grow in both spaces? Might we safeguard the ever shrinking pool of teachers if we offered options and provided the supports to ensure success?

Our best leaders are asking these questions — right now, while they are navigating government mandates and guidelines, while they are advocating for their students and their staffs, while they are driving to the homes of students we haven’t seen for a while, while they are hiring — again — in preparation for next year.

They aren’t getting a lot of accolades right now, but they are doing this hard, hard work under the most difficult of circumstances, and still they dare to dream of what is coming next, how they might best adapt in the days that come next.

Why? Because they care, and thank God that they do. Our children — and we — are counting on them.

‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

Matthew 25:40