Coronavirus Diary #21: Tales told in School

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Last Monday morning, I logged into my Zoom room around 8:25am — my senior English class starts at 8:30. I was checking my online grade book for attendance, cuing up my Google slideshow, and verifying that all my other visual aids were loaded and ready to go when my ‘doorbell’ rang and I noticed that Kelvin* was waiting to come in. I clicked the ‘admit’ button and watched my screen to see his window open.

“Good morning, Kelvin, how are you?” I said.

“I’m good,” he answered.

“Nice to see you.”

“Nice to see you, too.”

“Did you have a good weekend?” I asked, hoping that he would engage in conversation with me, trying to build relationship in this virtual space.

“Yeah, it was good. Do you have Ciara* in your class, too?”

“Yes — next hour.”

“She won’t be here today,” he said.

“Oh?” I answered, looking into the screen.

“Yeah, we had our baby this weekend, so she won’t be able to come to class.”

“You did? Congratulations!” I had known that Ciara was expecting, but I had not been aware that Kelvin was, too.

He held up his phone to his Chromebook camera so that I could barely make out a photo of a baby.

“Aw! So sweet! Are Ciara and the baby doing well?”

“Yeah, they’re doing good.”

“That’s great.” I said, and then the doorbell rang, I allowed the next student in, and we were on with the class — one young man, sitting in his bedroom, looking at a photo on his phone and me teaching the group how to present their research by creating a Google slide. Despite the fact that one student’s life changed forever over the weekend, we still have to move forward with the rest of the class.

If we were in a physical space, I’d have probably hunted down Kelvin later in the day — invited him to come have lunch in my room, given him one of the many gifts I have stockpiled for such an occasion, or just patted him on the back and encouraged him to take care of that baby. But we aren’t in a physical space — all I have are the moments that students choose to log in to my Zoom room. That’s it.

Me in my Zoom Room.

Ciara emailed me on Wednesday afternoon.

“I am sorry I have not been in class this week. I had my baby over the weekend, but I want to know what I missed so that I can get caught up.”

“Congratulations, Ciara! I hope you and the baby are doing well. If you are up to coming to class tomorrow morning, I can help you get caught up. Or, you could come to my office hours on Friday afternoon — whichever works better for you. Take care of yourself.”

“Thank you, I will do that.”

And the next morning, at 10:00am, she joined my class.

I’ve been watching Ciara all fall, ever since I called her mom during the first week of class to introduce myself, to let her know what our class would be focusing on, and to make note of the fact that Ciara wasn’t always turning her camera on when she joined the Zoom room. Her mom told me that Ciara was expecting and that she was working long hours at McDonald’s after school, so she often just woke up in the morning, turned on her laptop, and joined the Zoom room from bed. She didn’t want to take the time to get cleaned up, do her hair, and present herself for inspection.

I was stunned, of course. It was September, and although we weren’t yet in the third wave of the pandemic like we are now, the risk was still very real. And yet this young woman was going to work at a McDonald’s every day, seven months pregnant, so that she could earn some money to manage her very real impending responsibilities.

I’ve continued to watch Ciara, as she’s shown up to class, completed her assignments, and joined our virtual college visits every Wednesday. Not only does she join these visits, but she routinely asks college representatives if they offer family housing on their campuses because she is planning to bring her baby with her when she comes to college. This girl has a plan, and she impresses me.

And she’s not the only student who impresses me. My students live in Detroit, are surviving a pandemic, and are facing unprecedented stress and uncertainty, yet they keep showing up.

Some show up intermittently. I talked to a parent of one of my students last week. She’s concerned about her son. He has “changed ever since the pandemic started.” He wants to stay in his room. He doesn’t want to talk. He’s failing his classes.

He’s not alone. Many students — and, let’s be honest, adults — are struggling with depression. Many feel isolated — they are struggling financially, they have struggled with their health, they have lost loved ones, and nothing feels right. Why would they care about school at a time like this?

I asked the parent if she would mind if the school social worker reached out to her, and she answered, “I’m looking for any help I can get.” At my suggestion and her insistence, her son joined my office hours the next day. He and I worked through some assignments, restored his grade to passing, and got to know each other a little. Before he logged off, he said, “Thank you. I appreciate it.”

“It’s my pleasure,” I replied. He has no idea how pleased I am to bear witness to his journey and the journeys of all of my students.

Early this week, one of my students, Kyla*, asked if she could come to my office hours. She didn’t need help, she just wanted to be “in” my Zoom room while she did her work. She asked only a couple quick questions as she sat in my Zoom room for 90 minutes, working on her assignment and chatting with another student she convinced to join her.

On Thursday, Kyla logged into class and said, “Mrs. Rathje, I just want to let you know that we are having a family emergency, so if I need to leave, I will let you know in the chat.”

“Ok, thank you for letting me know. Are you ok?”

“Yes. I’m ok.”

“Alright, just keep me posted.”

“Ok, thank you.”

Near the end of the hour, she private chatted me that she had to go to the hospital to see her mother who sounded like she was in critical condition. I told her thank you for letting me know and that she could reach out if she needed to.

Then on Friday, the last day of school before a week-long break, she joined my office hours again, just to get some work done, like she did before. I chatted with her a bit, to see how she was doing, you know, making small talk.

And that is when I found out that since early in the week, this seventeen year old has been home alone with her two dogs. Her mom has been in intensive care, and she hasn’t been allowed to visit because she’s only 17 and we’re in the middle of a pandemic. She said she’s been taking care of the house and the dogs and that she put up the Christmas tree because Christmas means a lot to her mom and she wanted to do something nice for her.

These are my students — the kind of students who become parents on Saturday and then show up for school on Monday, the kind of kids who go out in the middle of a pandemic to make fast food because they need to earn money, the kind of kids who show up for help when it’s the last thing they want to do, the kind of kids who, while staying home alone because their only parent is in the hospital, find a way to have an adult in the room while they do their homework.

They are the future — these kids. They are building muscle and resiliency that will serve them for years to come, and they need us. They need us to show up five minutes early in a Zoom room, to hold after school office hours, to call their parents when things don’t seem right, and to respond to their emails and give them options for how to manage their responsibilities.

And that’s what I get to do every day — show up and do what I can to encourage these amazing students.

It is truly my pleasure to do so.

Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due when it is in your power to do it.

Proverbs 3:27

*All student names have been changed, of course.

What World Are We Living In?

Each morning at 7am, I lug my lunch and laptop-crammed tote bag to my car, leave our home on a beautiful college campus in affluent Ann Arbor, and begin my journey to a different world thirty-five miles due east. I travel through a few small bedroom communities thick with half-million dollar homes and thriving school districts and take my exit into a community populated by run-down rental properties and struggling schools.

Each day on my commute I view the reality of disparity in our country.

In the community where I live, people regularly drop over $100 for dinner without batting an eye. Filling a grocery cart aisle by aisle, paying little attention to price tags and discounts, is just another Saturday morning.

In the community where I work, families count on the fact that they can pick up free food two times a week at the school — without it, they won’t make ends meet.

In the community where I live and others like it across the country, kids get their first Smart Phone around age 10, grow up playing games and watching movies on an iPad, and have access to one or more computers in the home. They are digital natives, able to easily navigate the internet, digital platforms, the Google suite, and spaces that I am sure I know nothing about. Some are social media pros — they have their own YouTube channels, have a thousand followers on Instagram, and are regularly exploring and even creating new media. They have a strong Internet connection, and if that should happen to fail, no problem — they have a personal HotSpot on their phone,

In the community where I work, most teenagers have some kind of cell phone. (Although one did admit to me this week that his flip phone would not be able to download the app I had displayed on the shared Zoom screen.) However, of the over 100 students I have met in the last two weeks, very few have had little more than limited access to computers. How do I know? Because they have difficulty copying and pasting a URL, they struggle to navigate their way to the six different Zoom rooms in which they find their teachers and their classmates. Google Classroom, Google Drive, Chat Box, and navigation bar are new vocabulary words. Their Internet service is spotty, and they get kicked off sometimes in the middle of class. HotSpot? What’s a HotSpot?

The kids in the community where I live have their own bedroom where they have set up a virtual learning space with the support of their parents. They have a desk, a MacBook and Airpods, an iPhone, a comfortable chair, and possibly even a printer. They can close the door to shut out distractions and then open the door to walk out to a fully-stocked kitchen complete with convenient snacks.

The kids in the community where I work often share a bedroom with a sibling, often one (or more) who they are charged with helping to connect to their virtual learning. As far as I can tell, the bed is the only piece of furniture in the room, and I often see two people sitting or lying in that bed, still in pajamas, sometimes looking at the screen, sometimes not.

When I say, “The expectation is that your camera will be on and I will be able to see your face,” I am asking a lot. Many have not had their hair cut in quite some time, and it’s a personal — even a cultural — matter of pride to look fresh if you’re gonna be seen. But in the times of Covid, when people may not have had work or a paycheck in six months, haircuts aren’t really a priority.

When I say, “I recommend that you find a space where you can sit up, minimize distractions, and fully engage in your learning,” I see students look back at me as if to say, “What world are you living in, lady?”

Indeed, what world am I living in?

What world am I living in where the richest most well-resourced country allows this kind of disparity? Where affluent — mostly white — folks in suits sit in a chamber and determine to send just ONE relief check in six months knowing that for most families that money was spent long before it was received? Where, with an election less than 50 days away — 50 days that families who are struggling beyond what we have ever experienced will have to find food for their families, gas for their vehicles (if they have them), and money to keep the power on — the suits refuse to come to an agreement over how to help our citizens who don’t have don’t have two homes, three cars, a time share in Florida, and a 401K.

What world am I living in where this story — the story of inequity that impacts not only education but health and lifespan and civil liberties — isn’t the number one headline, the number one problem, we are trying to solve every. damn. day.

Instead, in the midst of a global pandemic, where almost 200,000 Americans have died, many from communities like the one I work in every day, some people are still debating whether this pandemic is serious — or even real! Our president, who could be signing executive action to help the most vulnerable among us, spends his time and energy gathering large groups of supporters, flouting local laws prohibiting such gatherings, refusing to mandate that attendees wear masks, and spreading misinformation about the danger of Covid-19 and the timeline for a vaccine. And — and!– he stands on national television belittling those who would challenge his approach — calling them names and mocking them.

Is this real life?

What world am I living in where the nation’s leaders, instead of rushing to find solutions that will help those most in need, sit in climate-controlled rooms, six feet apart, freshly coiffed and smartly dressed, debating the political impact of an aid package? where in the moments following the death of one of our most loved Supreme Court Justices, a politically-charged debate about when and how to select her replacement reestablishes the political divide between us?

What kind of world am I living in?

I’m living in a world where I can do something, and so are you.

So what are we going to do? Are we going to stay in our comfortable communities sipping $5 coffees, debating the efficacy of masks, and throwing shade at the ‘other side’ from the safety of our Facebook and Instagram pages? Are we going to reduce our agency to a meme-fest bent on self-gratification and self-aggrandizement? Or are we going to take a long critical look at the world we are living in and decide if this is the best that we can do?

Is the best that we have a position where we consider our own lives to the exclusion of the lives of others?

I believe we are better than this.

The kids in the community where I live and those in the community where I work are counting on us. They need us to be better than this.

And we can be; we can change course at any time.

We can re-shape this world that we live in.

We can open our hearts, our minds, our hands. We can stop clinging so fiercely to our own ideals, our own ‘sides’, our own resources. We can love our neighbor — even the one we don’t agree with — as ourselves and determine to do all that we can for the least of these. Then we might be pleased with the world we find ourselves living in.

I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me a drink, I was homeless and you gave me a room, I was shivering and you gave me clothes, I was sick and you stopped to visit, I was in prison and you came to me.’

Matthew 25:36

Zooming in Detroit: Week One

One of the school-wide practices at my new school is that every student, every period, completes a ‘Do Now’ at the beginning of each class. A ‘Do Now’ is a quick in-the-moment assessment of whether or not the student has already mastered or partially mastered the intended goal for the day.

For example, on Monday, each of my students will use their new school-issued laptops to learn how to navigate to Google Classroom — that is my goal for the day. Monday, before we get started with our lesson, each of my classes will start with a Do Now that will be completed in a Google form. It will look something like this

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-1.png

The form actually has about three questions: one that will review the lesson from last week, the one above, and a question that requires students to enter their first and last names. The students complete the form and submit it, and then I show them their results on my shared screen in the Zoom room.

Together, we will see if the students are familiar with Google Classroom or not, and how specific my instruction needs to be for them to be able to navigate to Google classroom, find an assignment, complete it, and submit it.

Learning how to get to Google Classroom doesn’t really sound tricky to most of us, but many of my students have just in the past week opened their first Gmail account, just had their first experience with Zoom, and just learned how to open a Google doc, make a copy of it, fill it in, download it, and email it to me as an attachment.

If you find this seems heavy with tech-lingo, imagine how they feel. Up until the Covid-19 quarantine, the students at my school were completing all of their assignments with pen and paper. The school has a computer lab, yes, but it had mostly been used by students who are working on credit recovery — making up courses that they failed but still need to pass in order to graduate. Because of this and other logistical factors, other students had limited opportunities to utilize the computer lab.

So, while some of my students found it quite simple to do what I was asking them to, others had to be walked through step by step, and several needed the steps modeled multiple times. Most of these juniors and seniors have never before Covid-19 utilized online learning, the Google suite, or — quite frankly — email. This, my friends, is what we call scarcity of resources — one aspect of educational inequity.

But I digress.

These students who six months ago were completing all of their assignments in the classroom with paper and pen are now in their homes logging into Zoom rooms — three classes per day — and learning not only the course content, but also all the language that supports digital literacy. Some of my students are learning how to copy and paste a link into their navigation bar just like you and I had to learn when we first started working on the Internet. I spent the whole of last week helping students ensure that they were logged into only their school-issued Gmail account, that they understood the expectations for participation and engagement in Zoom classes, and that they were able to navigate all the pieces we will use this year — Google forms and docs, Gmail, Zoom, etc.

And all the while, some of them were also babysitting younger siblings, taking phone calls from their doctors, trying to get their family members to give them a quiet space, figuring out how they are going to get to work after class, communicating with teachers that they will be out all next week because they are getting their wisdom teeth removed, and asking anyone who will listen how long we are going to have to do school this way.

Just in order to “show up” for school this past week, my students had to pick up equipment from the building, get familiar with a new device, find space in their homes from which to work, and read and understand their schedule which is housed on another website which they have to log in to and navigate. This schedule — one that was difficult to create in the first place because the school switched from a traditional six-period-a-day format to a block schedule — was found to have errors in it such as an imbalance in classes (i.e. one of mine had 47 students in it and another had zero). So, in order to show up this week, my students (and all their teachers) will have to view and understand a new version of that schedule and adjust to the resulting changes.

For me that means that one of my classes has a completely new roster — I will lose all of the students I had in the class last week and meet a whole new group tomorrow.

And this is how it goes when not only the students are learning new structures, new formats, and new technology, but the staff is learning, too. Glitches are going to happen. Connections are going to be lost. People are going to be in the wrong virtual place at the wrong time. And it’s going to be frustrating.

Students are figuring out — in the moment — how to enable their browser to access their microphone and their camera. Teachers are learning how to eject rogue disrupters who somehow gained access to their Zoom rooms while simultaneously learning the names and faces of the students who should actually be there, some of which are — despite the school’s best efforts to get them a computer — working from a phone which won’t allow them to turn on their camera.

It’s a lot.

Nevertheless, the students I saw on Thursday and Friday showed up, worked through all the difficulties, and found a way to do everything I was asking them to do. Some of them finished quickly; some of them took more time. Before they left my Zoom room, I gave them an “Exit Ticket.” The Exit Ticket, like the Do Now, is a quick in-the-moment assessment of whether or not the student achieved the stated goal of that class period.

One question on the exit ticket asked for the student’s name, one asked if they were able to complete the task, the last question was this:

One week in, how do you imagine they responded?

Many clicked “It’s fine,” which I imagine hearing with a note of “it is what it is.” About just as many clicked, “Ugh! I wish we were at school.” But you know, only a few despite all the technological challenges we faced last week, noted frustration with technology, and a few even clicked “It’s great! I love working from home!”

I have about 130 students. I have to believe that each of their stories are different — each of them is overcoming a different set of obstacles just to show up. Because of this, I feel an obligation to be prepared, to bring my best, to demonstrate empathy, and to provide support for their learning so that each of these students who dared to show up, will leave with a plan to do it again the next day.

And when they show up the next day, I’ll put a link to the Do Now in the chat box, and we’ll get started.

Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established.

Proverbs 16:3