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

Changing the World

In July 2020, having been offered a freshman English position at Detroit Leadership Academy, I emailed my enthusiastic acceptance. Within hours, the hiring agent reached back out to see if I would be willing to instead teach senior English. The school had a new initiative called Cougars to College, wherein this senior English course would serve as the vehicle by which all seniors could secure entrance to college. The course had never been taught before, so the person who agreed to teach it would be writing the curriculum, and because the pandemic had interrupted the students’ junior year right at the time that they would’ve been preparing for and then taking the SAT, the first unit would be a crash course in SAT prep. The rest of the first semester, the teacher would be working with the college counselor to help students navigate the college application process.

Just a couple of months earlier, my husband and I had made the decision that I would apply for high school English positions, especially those in schools where race and poverty had historically led to educational disparity. In the wake of racial unrest following the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbury, and Breonna Taylor, I felt newly called to this work because I believe that Black lives matter and I wanted to do more than just say that with my mouth.

My interior idealistic 25 year old self wanted to change the world.

I applied widely to schools in Detroit, Ypsilanti, and Ann Arbor and landed with Equity Education, an agency committed to intentionally tearing down racial inequities — they want to change the world, too!

They were asking me to teach seniors about the college application process, even though they didn’t know that in my last high school teaching position I had worked with the counseling department to walk with high school juniors and seniors through researching colleges, writing college essays, doing SAT prep, and writing resumes. They couldn’t have known I was uniquely qualified to design and teach this course — they couldn’t have known this was more than all I had dared to hope for.

But God knew. He knew that I’d been preparing for this position for most of my career. I’d not only taught college writing and AP courses for nine years in St. Louis, I’d also taught freshman writing and developmental composition at the college level. I’d designed curriculum for rigorous dual-credit courses and for more foundational courses for emerging writers, so when they asked, “Would I be willing?” my response was, “Are you kidding? It would be my pleasure.”

Almost immediately, I started planning, preparing, and amassing materials. My coworkers at my previous job had showered me with a library full of adolescent and classic literature. A friend purchased boxes full of highlighters so that I could provide each student with a blue, a yellow, and a pink for analyzing sentences, paragraphs, and essays. Other friends (and my mom, of course) collected school supplies to stock my shelves, and one couple funded my purchase of 100 composition books. My son and I lugged all this stuff to my classroom, and there it sat for an entire semester.

Covid made it impossible for me to distribute these materials before school started. My students were on their side of the Zoom screen in their bedrooms and kitchens; I was on my side teaching from my desk. For the entire first semester, we did everything through Google classroom — every single document was electronic.

And can we just say, thank God for Zoom and Google Classroom which have allowed us to stay connected with our students! For many students, teachers are the only interaction they have outside of their homes — the only change of scenery from an otherwise endless quarantine.

We started the first semester by learning how to use Zoom, Google classroom, Gmail, and the Internet. Many of my students had never had a computer at home before, so the whole first quarter was spent on digital literacy and SAT prep. After the seniors had taken the SAT, we moved onto researching colleges and writing first a college essay and then a resume. By the end of the first semester, many students had been accepted into college, some with substantial scholarships.

Now, full transparency, we also have chronic absenteeism (30-40% of all students) even though an attendance team (and our teachers) are working diligently to get kids in class. Nevertheless, I feel good about the progress we made first semester — virtually and during a pandemic. We have students who are on track to go to college who might not have been without our concerted efforts.

Now, knowing that they are going to college and what they will find there, I feel compelled to spend the second semester preparing them, so a couple of weeks ago, when our seniors came to school to get their senior pictures taken, I was ready for them. Each student received a copy of Trevor Noah’s memoir Born a Crime, a set of highlighters, and a composition book. We are going to read the memoir, not only to learn about Noah’s experience, but also to practice reading, build stamina, and develop critical literacy skills. We are going to use the highlighters to analyze text and to build grammar skills — highlighting topic sentences or prepositional phrases as the situation demands. The composition books — they have the most transformative potential.

Last week we kicked off the second semester, which we started with a syllabus — the first one many of them had seen. I can’t hardly send a group of first-generation college students off to class without working knowledge of how to decode a syllabus.

The second day of class, I prompted my students to take out their composition books. These, I said, would be used every week. We would fill up the pages with writing. They would not be graded on spelling, grammar, or punctuation, but they would receive full credit for simply filling up pages. Any writing, I told them, improves writing, and the more you write, the more your writing will improve. It’s just that simple

I put a few prompts on the screen:

  • This pandemic…
  • Thinking about college…
  • Any topic of your choice.

Then I set a timer for 8 minutes, turned on some instrumental music, and told them to write until I said stop or until they filled a page. And then, my students and I wrote.

As the clock ticked, I checked in: “You should be filling up one page of your composition book…” then, “we are halfway through our time…” and “keep writing, even if you just write the names of the people in your family…” then, “Time’s up. Stop writing.”

I asked a few students to share how that felt. In this virtual space, I honestly didn’t know if anyone would want to share, but they did.

“I loved that; I love writing,” said one.

“To be honest, I didn’t write anything; I just sat here. I couldn’t come up with anything,” said another.

“It was alright,” offered another.

I had them take a picture of the journal with the camera on their phones. (Yes, almost everyone has a cell phone, even though some don’t have reliable wifi.) Then I had them upload their photos to Google classroom.

Later in the day, after my classes, I had time to read…about their disappointment of losing their senior year to the pandemic, of their fears about college, of the conflict they are having with their parents, of the trauma that happened to them as a child, of the chronic illness they are living with.

After a semester of listening to my voice and seeing my face on a screen, some of them trusted me enough to share a piece of themselves through their writing. I wrote back to each and every one — thanking them for sharing, commiserating with their grief, and encouraging their bravery.

Look, I realize I’m not going to close the educational gaps that exist for students of color any time soon. I am not in one virtual school year going to get all my seniors to college or give them all the tools they need to be successful there. In fact, all of my seniors won’t likely graduate on time.

But here’s the thing, if I can get a classroom full of students writing in composition books, sharing their feelings and telling their stories, I might just change the world.

That’s all I really want to do — just change the world.

But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Romans 8:25

**If you would like to help me change the world, I will always and forever be accepting composition books, highlighters, and other school supplies.

I

Teacher Tales: A Voice from the Past

Last week, a piece came on the local news during the sports segment: Steve Yzerman, general manager of the Detroit Red Wings had named Dylan Larkin the new team captain. As I sat on the couch watching, my brain transported me back to my first classroom, near 7 Mile and Van Dyke in Detroit. It was 1989. I saw a smiling seventh grade boy sitting in the front row, center seat, wearing an oversized Yzerman jersey.

“What’s the name on the back of your jersey?” I asked.

“Yzerman, Miss Kolb,” he answered, “you don’t know who Steve Yzerman is?”

“I’m not much of a hockey fan.”

“You gotta watch the Red Wings, Miss Kolb! You’ll love it!”

This happens sometimes. My brain, crammed with thirty some years of parenting and teaching, transports me back in time and I remember a moment. I think of a student and wonder where he is or how she is doing.

In fact, being back in Detroit, thirty years after that hockey conversation and just sixteen miles southwest of that classroom, has made me think of the students in that first class more than once. It was a self-contained classroom of ten students with specific learning needs — some had learning disabilities, some had attention deficit disorder, and some, now that I think about it, were likely just behind their peers due to systemic inequities which were and have been prevalent in urban public schools.

I was fresh out of college with the degree and credentials to teach high school English, but I’d always been drawn to special ed, had always been a champion of the underdog.

Plus, I needed a job.

After graduating in December, I’d found my first gig on the afternoon shift at a group home for teenaged girls who had been court-ordered away from their families. My role was to help with homework, supervise chores and personal hygiene, and chaperone our girls on social outings. I’d had to learn physical management — how to protect myself and others in the event of a physical conflict — how to use a behavior modification system wherein our girls got rewarded for doing the right thing and penalized for missteps. They could use any points they earned for rewards and privileges.

That position taught me a lot, and I loved it, but it wasn’t teaching. So, when, by some miracle of the extensive network that is the Lutheran community, I had a conversation with a principal who was looking for a teacher for his special education seventh grade classroom, I agreed to start grad school and to try to teach these students.

Twenty-three year old me, piled all my stuff into my Dodge Colt and headed for Detroit. With a paper map unfolded on the seat next to me, I followed street by street until I got to the school where I would not only teach, but where I would live, in a small apartment in a large facility that once housed a residential school for the deaf.

Detroit Day School for the Deaf - Wikipedia

Each morning, I donned running clothes and ran the perimeter of the campus grounds that were secured by an eight-foot tall chain-link fence. After a shower and breakfast, I would walk down a network of hallways and up a couple flights of stairs to my classroom.

I taught reading, spelling, math, social studies, science, and physical education, writing lesson plans in pencil in an old school lesson plan book and doing my best to follow along in the textbooks that I’d been given.

Did I know what I was doing? No. This was definitely a fake-it-til-you-make-it situation.

My memories of that year come in flashes — students with high top fades and baggy jeans joking around in the back of my classroom, me writing math problems on a chalk board, our whole group sneaking out for impromptu recess on warm days in the Spring.

The biggest adventure of the year resulted from a reading competition sponsored by Pizza Hut. Each of my students had earned a personal pan pizza, so in all my first-year teacher ambition, I decided to pack them all up in a fifteen passenger van and take them on a field trip. It probably would’ve been adequate to take them to a local Pizza Hut, but instead, I drove them from Detroit to Ann Arbor so that they could attend chapel at Concordia University, my alma mater, and then go to the Ann Arbor Hands On Museum. We ended our day at Pizza Hut, eating our free lunch before heading back to school.

Can’t you just picture 23 year old me, toting ten kids around Ann Arbor? Where in the world did I park? I don’t remember being stressed or ruffled though, not until we got stuck in a traffic jam and returned to school long past pickup time. I figured the parents would be irate, but in my memory, they were unfazed. They gathered their children, thanked me for the field trip, and headed on their way.

There’s something about the students in your first ever class — you love them with a kind of love reserved especially for them. I’ve often thought about those students, but because I moved to a different school in the northern suburbs the next year, long before social media and email, I lost touch.

Several years later, I ran into a former colleague who told me that one of my students from that first class had been shot and killed, and my chest hurt as though I’d lost one of my own. He’d been so bright, so full of personality, so full of promise.

I’ve lost others, too. One of the girls from the group home was struck in the head during a fight after she’d returned home. The brain injury left her in a coma, and she died a few months later. Another student who I met when I worked at a residential treatment facility took her own life — long before she turned twenty. A couple of weeks ago, I got a text from my former principal in St. Louis, one of our grads had been shot and killed between Christmas and New Year’s. He was 32 and a father.

I don’t like to hear these stories, but they are the ones that usually make their way to me.

Because I’ve taught in many different locations, I don’t get former students showing up in my classroom after five or ten years to say, “I was in the area, so I thought I’d drop by.” I did, of course, while I was still in St. Louis. It’s one of the sweetest experiences ever — to see that your students have grown up, achieved some goals, and they want to tell you about it. I follow many of my St. Louis students on social media. I love to see what they are doing — running their own businesses, getting their PhDs, going into teaching, and raising their families.

But the students I had before the rise of the social media — the ones from my first few classrooms — I often wonder where they are, what they are doing, and even if they are still alive.

So when I got to work Friday morning, and saw that I had a message request on Facebook messenger, I was stunned to see that it was from the young man in the Yzerman jersey, the one I had just been wondering about!

“I was reaching out…you used to be my teacher,” he started.

“Oh my goodness! I was just thinking of you the other night when I saw Izerman select his new captain!” I couldn’t type my response quickly enough. I couldn’t believe I was actually hearing from this student!

Guys, he’s a grown man — of course — with a wife and kids. He’s a police officer, and he’s stayed in touch with many of the students who shared that classroom with me all those years ago!

We messaged back and forth for a little bit, and now we’re Facebook friends. I feel like he just dropped by my classroom saying, “I was in the neighborhood.” One of my first-year kiddos, letting me know that he’s ok.

We need this kind of touch right now, don’t we, friends. We need person to person connection — remembering a teacher from a zillion years ago and sending a note just to say hi. We’re spending so much time at home on our couches, isolated from one another and watching our nation split in two on an international stage; we need to remember that we love each other one at a time.

We can decide to hate huge masses of people who seem to stand for things we disagree with, but it’s pretty hard to hate someone you shared a classroom with or someone who remembers you from way back when you ate pizza and laughed together.

It may be a challenging week with the inauguration, more demonstrations, an apparent vaccine shortage, and the ongoing pandemic. I wonder if we might all reach out and say hey to someone we haven’t seen in a while — an old friend, a former teacher, or the neighbor lady who always used to wave when you got home in the afternoon.

It just might make their whole day/week/month. It just might help turn the dial.

Much love to you, KH. Thanks for looking me up.

Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.

I Thessalonians 5:11

Coronavirus Day #23 Gathering

Every day when I start my class, I ask my students a question and they respond by answering through an app on their phones called Mentimeter. After they’ve responded, I project the question and the answers on the screen. It sometimes looks like this:

This practice, called the gathering, is an expectation of all teachers in the educational network within which I teach. It’s a practice that sets the climate for collaboration, builds community, and allows every voice to heard, which is especially tricky in this virtual environment we find ourselves in. Our network feels so strongly about this practice, that we begin every staff meeting with a gathering, too.

On Friday, I started my day with the Cougars to College team meeting. This team’s goal is that all seniors would be accepted to a college or trade school. Most of our students will be first generation college students, so it is imperative that we provide a high level of support as they navigate the journey. As this meeting started, the facilitator, my principal, asked the question for our gathering, “What was the greatest barrier you faced in obtaining your college education?”

One member of the team said it was transitioning from small high school classes to the large lecture halls of the university. Another said it was moving from a Detroit high school to a university in Texas and realizing that though she was an honors student in high school, she was poorly equipped for the rigor of college. The youngest member of the team said he lost his grandmother during college, the person who had been his strongest cheerleader throughout his education. Each member of the team weighed in and was heard by all the other members who listened attentively. We all got to know each other a little better, and we all grew in our commitment to the cause of supporting our students on their quest for an education.

From that meeting, I quickly transitioned to a class of students who are spending their senior year in their bedrooms, at their kitchen tables, or on their couches, logging into a zoom room on a chrome book that the school provided the week before the start of school. They are in various stages of disillusionment, diligence, depression, determination, and disengagement, and I’m teaching them how to write a college essay — in December of their senior year.

This is an activity that I have, in the past, taught during the junior year — long before my students start applying to colleges. I tell them, “I know you are not applying until next fall, but trust me, you’ll be glad to have this essay in your back pocket when you get there.” This year’s students had nothing in their back pockets when I met them — no SAT score (the tests were all cancelled during the pandemic), no essay draft, no real idea where they wanted to go to college, and not much drive to get started. Let’s be honest, I met them in month six of a global pandemic. They had been sent home in March, and many had done little schooling since then.

And here I come, little Miss Energetic, “Good morning! How are you today? It’s great to see you?” And I know that many of them are rolling over in bed, glancing at the screen, saying, “Seriously? Who is this lady?”

Nevertheless, I forge on, starting with a gathering, sharing the objectives for the day, moving to a formative assessment, providing the highest quality instruction I know how to provide in this virtual space, and encouraging them to engage, to ask questions, to complete the assignment, and to come to my office hours.

Three months later, they may still be asking themselves “Who is this lady?” but they are coming to class. Most of them, I should say. We continue to have a problem with chronic absenteeism, as most Detroit schools do. Some students are not coming because of internet connectivity issues, and my school has been working tirelessly to troubleshoot and provide hotspots. Some are not coming because they’ve been going to work, helping to support their families who have been hard hit by the pandemic. Some are not coming because they are providing child care for younger siblings. One of my students missed the whole first quarter because she was caring for her niece during my class period.

But most are coming to class. Most. And that’s something.

So, at the end of last week, when I started our second lesson on college essay writing, the question in the Mentimeter app was this: When was a time you were really proud of yourself? My goal was to cultivate material for the essay, but as typically happens, I discovered something unexpected about my students as I read their responses out loud.

One was proud of his first touch down; another was proud of being accepted into a college, and a third remembered the feeling of getting one of the highest test scores in the school. These are the kinds of responses I was expecting.

The next two responses surprised me, but I found them equally valid. One student was proud just to have shown up in class. The other was proud to have turned work in on time. You might be tempted to think these students were joking around — that they weren’t taking my prompt seriously. Certainly showing up and completing assignments are merely expectations — what all students should be doing every day.

And I might’ve thought that once, too.

In fact, I used to give students all kinds of crap for showing up late, for missing a day, or for failing to turn in assignments. “What’s the problem?” I might ask. “You know what time class starts.” Or, “You need to get these assignments turned in. Each day your grade will go down by 10%, so you’d better turn it in soon.” I pressured, and I persisted. I shamed, and, I’m afraid, sometimes humiliated.

I don’t do that any more.

Students show up to my Zoom room 5 minutes early or 55 minutes late. They turn in assignments on time, three weeks late, and not at all. They miss nine whole weeks of school and then email me that since their sister got a new job, they will finally be able to join class next week.

And am I mad? Am I put out? Not one bit.

I can honestly say, that I am thrilled when students join my class — whenever they join. I am not angry at the large number of students who are absent, who have turned in nothing, or who are failing my class.

I am simply ecstatic at the ones who have found the wherewithal in the middle of a pandemic, when God only knows what their family is struggling through — if they’ve lost their income, if they’ve had to stand in a food line that day, if they are expecting to be evicted at the end of the month, if family members have died, if everyone is at their wits end and snapping at one another — that they’ve managed to roll over in bed or sit up at a table, to log in to the Zoom room, put their face on the screen, and attend this class.

And if they’ve shown up, I want to give them a chance to say something — anything! That they once made a touchdown, that they got accepted to college, that they got the highest score on a test, or that they are simply doing their best to come to class and turn in their work.

We have no idea what these kids are going through.

And, sometimes, I think they don’t either.

During my lesson last week, I read aloud a sample college essay written by a young woman who had shadowed a doctor at a hospital. I wanted to give my students an example of what a “good” essay looked like. When I finished reading, I asked my typical questions, “What did you see?” and “What did that essay tell you about its writer?”

My students answered my questions, and then one said, “But what are we going to write about? What if we don’t have an experience like that — shadowing a doctor? I don’t have anything happening in my life that I can write about.”

“Are you kidding me?” I said. “All of you right now are living through a freaking pandemic. No one has done this is over 100 years. Each day is something that you can write about. You are demonstrating resiliency each time you show up to class.”

She looked into the camera, straight into my eyes.

“You can do this,” I said.

Tomorrow, when my students show up to class, I will send them to Mentimeter. I will post the question: What is one thing you’ve always dreamed of doing?

My hope is that in gathering around this question, we will be able to share some dreams and perhaps some hope. We’ve got a long way to go, and we’re going to need to encourage one another until we get there.

therefore encourage one another and build one another up

I Thes. 5: 11

Coronavirus Diary #21: Tales told in School

Click the arrow to listen, or read on.

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.

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

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

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

Then I do it again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I couldn’t stop looking at them, beaming.

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

They were in my classroom!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then their heads went down again.

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

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

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

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

“Hi! It’s so good to see you!”

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

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

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

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

“You know who I am.”

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

“Yes, you have.”

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

“I always have a background on.”

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

“Yes, I am.”

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


“I can have this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ephesians 1:16

*not the student’s real name, of course

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

Giving less than 100%

The first day of school is tomorrow! I’m excited — so excited! — but I am also grounding myself with intention. For the first time in my life, I am planning to give less than 100%.

Don’t get me wrong — I’ve written lesson plans and have had them reviewed. I’ve organized my classroom — putting up posters and alphabetizing my classroom library. I’ve prepared Google slides and have read through them aloud. I’ve planned my scope and sequence for the first quarter and have already analyzed the interim assessment. However, when it comes to the day to day interaction with students — my output is going to look much different this year. I’ll be giving less than 100%.

The last time I was a classroom teacher, I gave so much of myself to my classroom and my students, that I forgot to take care of myself and I failed to fully take care of my family. My classroom got the best hours of my day, and my family got the scraps that were left.

It’s got to look different this time.

In my previous chapter, I launched out of bed at 5:30, hit the shower, dressed, and was in the kitchen prepping dinner and nudging teens to breakfast by 6:00. I’m sure my eyes scanned what my kids were wearing and what they were carrying as they piled into my car so that I could drop one at another school and drag the other two with me. I’m sure we talked through check-lists and after school activities in the car as I simultaneously scanned my mind for any lingering tasks I needed to complete before my students started trickling into my room.

Once I pulled into my parking space, my mind, fueled by the first cup of coffee I had sipped greedily on the drive, was fully engaged in the day’s instruction. What did I need to pull up on my screen? Did anything need to be printed? Was there a student I needed to speak to? Was a parent already waiting to meet with me?

I launched out of the car, grabbing bags full of papers, lunch, and a change of clothes, climbed two flights of stairs, unlocked my classroom door, and began the perpetual motion of the day — straightening desks, erasing and writing messages on the white board, wiping down surfaces, checking displays, and moving stacks of paper — so many stacks of paper.

In my classroom, students entered knowing that I would expect their engagement, their participation, and at least feigned interest in whatever essay we were writing, poem we were analyzing, or story we were reading. I loved the content I was teaching — composition, poetry, literature — and I operated under the assumption that if I threw all my passion into my teaching, that love I have for the content would spill over onto my students.

However, along with all my passion, I threw all my energy, all my resources, all my emotions, all of my self into the hours of the school day, and then when the bell rang at the end of the day, I didn’t sit down and take a rest. No — I found another gear and kept going. In the early days, I accompanied two of my children to cross country practice, ran their drills with them — all of their drills — and then drove them home. I finished preparing dinner for the family, washed dishes, showered, did laundry, responded to needs and demands, and sometimes even did more school work.

I don’t think there was ever a day that I didn’t make sure everyone had their physical needs met for the next day, but I am quite sure that I routinely missed checking in with their emotional needs — seeing the hurts they experienced throughout the day, stopping in my tracks to give them a hug, or taking the time to just sit in their presence and be. I know I missed doing all of that.

Sure, I got up early on Saturdays, went for run, drove to the outdoor market to buy fresh produce, picked up enough groceries to feed a small army of teenagers, and made sure the house was picked up, vacuumed, and wiped down, but did I, on those packed Saturdays, parent my children? come beside them in their own personal struggles? help them access their emotions? or did I merely model how to power through?

I’ve had to come to terms with the harsh reality that what my children ultimately saw from watching their mom power through for 10 years in a high school classroom was that she couldn’t sustain it. She was a tough old bird, and she kept that pace going strong for about 9 of those years, but that last year? Whew! That last year’s performance was strictly mediocre. Very average. Just so-so.

The body can only take so much powering through. And when it has had enough, it will shut right down on you. My most important students, the ones who lived in my house with me, learned that lesson right along with me. They learned that when you power through and fail to attend to your emotional and spiritual health, when you try by the force of your own will to do all the things for all the people, you miss some of the most precious parts of life — the face to face, nose-to-nose, cheek-to-cheek moments that give life meaning.

For the past six years, I have been sitting with that reality and tending to my body and to my emotions — intentional every day tending in the form of yoga, writing, therapy, massage, walking, talking, and sitting with all of the joy, hurt, pain, love, anger, sadness, and happiness that life has brought because of and in spite of my actions.

I have experienced so. much. healing.

And so, though my children all now live in their own homes and I have lost my in-person chance to model a better way for them, I am going into the classroom this time with re-set expectations for myself and for my students. I will be doing things differently.

I’ve been practicing a phrase that describes my new approach: giving my best without giving my all. I’m not sure exactly what it will look like, because this mindset is new to me, but I am picturing a me that is more present, that walks a little more slowly, who leaves her stack of papers on her desk when she walks away at the end of a long day, who decides in the moment that we aren’t going to finish the lesson as planned.

Will my students still know that I am passionate about writing, about reading, about poetry, about literature? I hope so, but more importantly, I hope that they see me demonstrate compassion, balance, flexibility, integrity, and kindness. I hope that I am able, in the moment, to say, “It seems we are all a little overwhelmed right now, how about we just pause for a minute and breathe?”

I never allowed myself that space in the last chapter. I never gave myself a moment to recognize that I was overwhelmed. I never took the opportunity to take a long calming breath. I kept on pushing, giving my best and giving my all.

And it showed — maybe not always to my coworkers or the students in my classroom, but it was definitely evident to my family. I was overtaxed and in denial, so I was often detached, preoccupied, reactive, and short-tempered with the people I care about most.

I’m planning to do it differently this time. Even in the season of Covid-19 where all of my students will be online, where I have to create a Google slide show for every class I teach, where I will be training my students to move from Zoom to Google classroom, to a short story, to Khan Academy, to a physical book right in front of them. Now, more than ever, it’s important that we take a breath, check in with one another, and allow ourselves to be mediocre, average, and downright so-so — even on our journey to excellence.

Because true excellence is recognizing your strengths AND your weaknesses; it’s knowing when to work hard AND when to walk away; it’s knowing when to push through AND when to sit down.

It’s knowing that it’s probably best to give less than 100%.

He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

2 Cor 12:9

Coronavirus Diary 16: Back to School Edition

Can you hear that? Can you hear the subtle hum? It’s the thrum of collective anxiety coursing through the nervous systems of every teacher, parent, and student who has already or who is about to start the school year either in person, online, or in some kind of hybrid format. The theme of the song? Uncertainty.

Never before have we approached a school year in such a “wait and see” posture. Schools and districts that have chosen to open in person have plans in place “just in case” a student or many students, a teacher or many teachers, a school or many schools get infected with Covid-19 mandating a move to partially or fully remote instruction. Schools that have chosen to open virtually have committed to several weeks or months of online instruction with plans in place to move to partial or full in-person models as soon as possible.

Teachers, students, and parents are facing the uncertainty about where they will do instruction this year.

Some schools have provided their teachers with training on using Zoom rooms, Google classroom, and myriad online instructional tools. Some have done this well and thoroughly, some have taken a more haphazard approach, and others have told their teachers to “figure it out”. Some teachers are very proficient with Internet technology, some manage just fine, and some have avoided using technology for as long as possible and have no idea what a URL is. While most students in middle- and upper-class communities have been raised with a device in their hands, many in lower-income communities are learning to access technology for academic purposes for the very first time. Whether they are technological novices or pros, they’ll be “doing school” much differently than ever before.

Teachers, students, and parents are facing uncertainty about how they will do instruction this year.

Some schools started the year early, to get in as much instruction as possible before another potential stay-at-home order. Some schools have students coming to school on alternate days to space out the number of bodies in classrooms. Some schools are having shorter instructional days to allow for added cleaning in buildings or to allow for time away from computer screens if students are learning from home.

Teachers, students, and parents are facing uncertainly about when they will do instruction this year.

Teachers are wondering about how we will build relationships, how we will have enough time together to get to know one another, when we will find time to share stories and tell all the corny teacher jokes that are critical to every classroom. We’re wondering where to pick up in the curriculum, knowing that our students’ learning was disrupted way back in March and that individual students managed that disruption and the virtual learning that followed much differently from one another. We’re wondering how to allow students the time and space to process trauma — the trauma of leaving school in the middle of the year, the trauma of losing a friend or loved one, the trauma of being continuously at home with a family that may or may not have fared well in the face of a global pandemic, the resulting economic crisis, and the concurring racial unrest.

We’re wondering how we’ll manage to reach students who we may only see in the gallery view of our Zoom rooms, how well we’ll adapt to distributing and collecting assignments via Google classroom, and how efficient we’ll be at transitioning from task to task, student to student, class to class, from in-person to online learning, or vice-versa.

Parents are wondering how safe their kids will be at school, how long they will stay there, and how they will manage to juggle all their responsibilities — again! — if their students are moved home. They are wondering if they’ll be able to keep their jobs — or find a job, if they’ll be allowed to work at home, if they’ll be able to find child care, and if they’ll have enough money to pay for it. They’re trying to explain the unexplainable and answer the unanswerable for their children who are also feeling the stress of the uncertain.

These children wonder who their teacher will be, when they will talk to their friends, if they’ll be able to have recess, and how they will eat their lunch. They are worried that they’ll have to keep learning at home, that they won’t understand the assignments, and that they’ll have have to sit in front of the computer for all of their lessons. They are asking when they’ll get to go to practice, will they have to wear their masks, and why they can only go to school on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Where? When? How? Why?

All of the answers are, “Well, let’s wait and see.”

It’s so uncomfortable to live amid so much uncertainty when we’ve been following the same rhythms and patterns for so long. We just want to go back to ‘normal’ — to do things “the way we’ve always done them” — and to be beyond all this Covid-19 nonsense.

But we’re not there yet. We’re here, in the midst of a global pandemic, where we do things differently than we’ve ever done them before.

We wash our hands more, we wear masks, we stay home, we do family Zoom meetings, we send packages in the mail to loved ones we wish we could see in person. We stand further apart, we ask more questions, we decline more invitations. We become accustomed to the phrase, “we’ll have to wait and see.”

So dear friends, dear teachers, dear parents, dear students, I’m sorry that this is where we find ourselves, but alas, here we are. So, since we’re all in this together, can we find inside ourselves, under the hum of uncertainty, a way to extend a virtual hand of support — a cheering on, a forgiving smile, a gracious response? Can we find a way to see one another’s uncertainty with understanding and compassion? Can we hear one another’s worries, share our frustrations, and commit to being kind to one another in the midst of uncertainty?

Can we, as teachers, be patient with one another as we learn all the things, even if the fog of our Covid brains requires us to hear the instructions multiple times? Can we be gentle with our students who may not know how to submit an assignment online, answer an email, or right click on a hyperlink?

Can we, as parents, be supportive of our teachers and administrators who are trying very hard to meet the educational, social, and safety needs of our children and their teachers? Can we be respectful with our questions, offer our assistance, and send a note of encouragement? Can we remember that our kids are managing uncertainty, too, and that they may not always regulate their anxiety, their fears, their frustration, their anger? Can we give them an extra measure of grace as they navigate the “wait and see”?

Can we, as students, show up and do our best to attend to our teachers and let them know when we are getting lost or don’t know what to do next? Can we be patient when the technology doesn’t work right, when our teachers seem flustered, and when our parents are at their wits’ end? Can we try to communicate when we ourselves are at our wits’ end?

It’s gonna take all of us doing our best, assuming the best, and overlooking the less-than-best. We’re doing a lot here — trying to focus on the tasks in front of us while trying to drown out that insufferable hum of uncertainty. If we have any hope of success, it’s gonna be because we all leaned in to the uncertainty, saw it for what it is, and accepted the fact that we’ll have to do what we can and wait and see.

We can do this — together — we can do this.

Be kind to one another, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.

Ephesians 4:32

Reality Setting In

I drove to Detroit yesterday, walked into a building I’ve only been in twice before, went to a room to see someone I’ve never met, to check out a laptop that’s different than any I’ve ever worked on before.

And reality started to sink in — this is all gonna be new.

I was struggling to type my name on a non-Mac keyboard when the principal walked in and greeted me. She’s a six-foot tall Black woman with red-orange hair, an air of confidence, and a gentle smile. I was so happy to see her. She wondered if I’d seen my room yet, and when I said I had not, she offered to take me there.

As we walked, she shared that Detroit Public School teachers were striking over safety concerns regarding in-person instruction. She (and I) understood the teachers’ concerns and also the reality a strike might mean for students across Detroit who’ve been out of school since March, who’ve missed the stability and routine that school can bring. We shared our compassion for teachers who have not been equipped with the time to plan, the tools they will need, or the training to use those tools in order to effectively teach remotely. Our understanding of a system in need of funding, reform, and repair remained unsaid as we walked down a newly polished hall and found my room.

“My name’s on the door!” I gushed.

“Yes.”

As I walked into the room, I saw the neatly arranged desks, the fresh green wall, a box fan near the front of the room, “Do I get to keep the fan?”

“Yes.”

“Do I get to keep the books?”

“Yes.”

“How about these supplies?”

“Everything in here stays.”

“It looks great!” I practically shouted as I took in all the shelving, the Smart Board, the white board, and the tape, stapler, and other supplies behind my desk area.

I began to picture myself working in this room, knowing that it would be me, alone, at least for the first quarter. All of our students will be remote — from their homes — on tablets and laptops that the school has been acquiring through the generosity of community partners, grants, and purchases. They’ll be able to come to the school to pick up supplies and food, which the school will continue to provide, but they will learn from home. I, on the other hand, will be in this bright classroom four days a week, and working from home on Wednesdays when my students will have assignments to complete, books to read, and journals to write while I meet with my colleagues, hold office hours, grade student work, and write lesson plans.

We left the room and she showed me who would be my hall neighbors — a new math teacher, a social studies teacher, and a master English teacher right next door to me, for ease in collaboration. The computer lab and several computer carts are a few steps away. I could picture myself moving down the hallway to the lab with my students, dropping into the classroom next door to ask a couple of questions, and moving back to my room for instruction. I had to keep editing my mental movie, which kept auto-populating all of the hallways, classrooms, and desks with students. I had to keep reminding myself that this year was going to be different.

I’m going to be in my classroom, in front of my laptop, greeting my students, providing instruction, responding to questions, and — hopefully — making a difference.

When I was offered this position, I agreed to teach freshman English, but on the day I accepted the offer, I was asked if I’d at all be interested in teaching seniors (Yes!) who need to be prepared for college (Yes!) who haven’t taken the SAT and need some preparation (Yes!), even if I have to help write the course (Are you kidding me, Yes!).

Then, last week, I was told that I would also have a section of freshmen (Let me at ’em!) and a section of just SAT prep, an elective, presumably for juniors (Hooray for juniors!). When I left Lutheran North, I had one section of freshmen along with juniors and seniors. This feels like home.

So, I’ve been dabbling in curriculum and reading Common Core Standards while also taking an online course called The No-Nonsense Nurturer, which all teachers at Detroit Leadership Academy (and many other schools across the country) take. Its focus is on setting the classroom climate for high expectations and academic achievement in communities that have historically been marginalized. The training is solid — through it I’m recognizing some of my tendencies toward enabling students because of my inherent biases, and I am also being affirmed in some of the strategies I’ve used in the past to build relationships that motivate students to excel. Taking this course is helping me shift from where I’ve been to where I will be.

And in all this preparation, though I am elated and so excited, I am starting to feel the hum of anxiety — am I really ready? can I really develop this new course in time? can I actually learn to go with the flow? will I really be able to make a difference in the lives of these students?

Yesterday, when I picked up my laptop, I also got a lanyard with keys, and a staff T-shirt emblazoned with the name of the organization that houses Detroit Leadership Academy — Equity Education. It’s just a black T with one word on the front, but that one word is a reminder of why I am taking this step — back to the classroom, back to the city, back to students who might not know that they matter.

I’m ready to put that shirt on — I’m ready to suit up! I’m a little nervous, a tiny bit terrified, but I am ready. I’m stepping into this role knowing that I might not get it all perfect, but I am going to show up each day for the sake of these students, for the sake of their futures, for the sake of equity, and, as I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, for the sake of myself. I know I’ve been prepared for this moment, and I am thrilled to step into it.

Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

Joshua 1: 9