The Rodeo: Online Schooling in the Time of Covid-19

COVID-comic-featured-image
Malaka Gharib of the NPR blog Goats and Soda has created a comic that explains COVID-19 in simple terms for children. Gharib is the creator of I Was Their American Dream, a graphic memoir about her upbringing as an immigrant with parents from Egypt and the Philippines; the book was chosen as one of SLJ’s Best Graphic Novels of 2019.

The day came. Quietly, unlooked for, relatively unannounced—at least not preemptively announced at my High School. I left school on a Friday afternoon in March, set to pick up sick-work for my own elementary school student at his school. (No, he didn’t have SARS Co-V2. He had strep throat.) As I pulled into Midway elementary, my husband called, “Did you see the text from the school district?” he asked. “Nope,” was my brief reply.

“They’ve instructed elementary students to take their devices home this weekend,” he explained. “Ah, good to know. I’m here at the school now, and I can pick up both devices for the boys,” I returned. “I’ll call you back in 15 minutes, okay?” And that was the beginning of the new reality which most of us face.

Thirty minutes later our Governor announced a “soft-closure” of school. Two weeks later, a May 1st extension, and after two more weeks, it was announced that our schools will be closed for the rest of the school year.

We—the community, the parents, the teachers, the students, the administrators, the staff, individual states, the nation—let each new wave of distance sink in. (While some were desperately unable to gain distance because of their circumstances, and I’ll address this harsh reality later.) But sometimes the tide has risen so quickly, as each new day dawns on our brave new world of online schooling, we’re still caught off-guard, brought to turmoil, left (some) in tears.

For those of you who are struggling—and, yes, I’m pretty sure I’m speaking to a universal WE—TAKE HEART! I know that this road has been constantly changing, ever updating, inundated with crashing breaker upon crashing breaker of the new, the not-normal, the unknown. Yes, it has felt like a dystopian reality has been thrust upon many of us; and yes, I understand that holding the education of your own children in your own purview has got to be scary.

I spent the entire first weekend after the school closure working. When I say working, I mean that I put in two solid twelve-hour days. Scouring my lesson plans, shifting my expectations, creating a video welcome, expeditiously scanning text into PDF, drafting a parent email, assuring my students that their current assignments were still due, grading my current assignment load, and scrupulously re-designing my instructional rubric to fit our new reality—online schooling.

I’m a teacher. I share this not because you didn’t read the last paragraph where I explained all of the hard work and effort that went into shifting my classes to online models, but because I want you to understand that I feel you, parents, when you describe the hardship of schooling all of your people at home. Wednesday of the following week I entered upon an educational arena that I will hence forth and forever refer to as “The Rodeo.” We’re god-fearing cow and sheep folk here where I live, and I can only describe that those first few days of EVERYONE online, everyone collapsed into one space, one classroom, one life was a POOP-SHOW to behold.

My husband on a conference call with the East-coast. Myself on a Zoom meeting with my teaching team. My sons on a host of platforms, apps, and technological learning tools that left my head spinning, and my heart overflowing with passwords that I hopelessly cast into the soft-shod muck of my working memory.

Holy cow. We were failing. We were failing, and we were going to fail. It took my breath away. This instant shift, and equally instant knowledge– that while I felt aptly, even confidently, prepared to transition (with a 24 hours-worth of weekend-work) to teach eleventh graders both the art and science of reading, writing, speaking, and thinking with the flip of a switch– my own little family, my own pride-and-joy, my own little think tank was going to fall flat on its face in the mutton-busting, teeth brown with animal crap and tears, and there was nothing I could do about it!

Then Thursday dawned, and we were all okay. The kinks were there. You better believe there were kinks, and still are some. But we began to piece together our new reality. My second grader, who is bright, and silly, and a handful to be around for eight hours at a stretch, was completely overwhelmed just to see the “to-do” list his teachers posted. “Thirteen pages of math, MOM!” he yelled. As I tried to explain that those 13 pages were really just slides– on a Power Point, or a Nearpod, or a … you fill in blank with the app your student is using to ingest and then submit work—which meant that there were only THIRTEEN PROBLEMS. In total. Much less than he had done for his homework the week before.

So it has gone in our home. Sometimes we are able to re-visualize, re-imagine, re-calibrate our thinking about school. We’re riding high and feeling the adrenaline of success for every one of those eight seconds. My oldest son has quietly gone about his work, day-in and day-out, nary a hiccup. But we had some good old-fashioned ride-the-bull sessions when he couldn’t explain to me why his work was left “unsubmitted” on some of his assignments. We’re working it out. Sometimes we still get bucked off the bull.

But it is also very obvious to me that my children’s teachers got the news about school closures, went out to their own virtual rodeo arenas, got on the saddle bronc assigned to them, and WENT. TO. TOWN! (Go Wranglers!) We came back, to online school, to a system that was ready to deliver learning– targeted, essential learning– to each of my children in practically the eight seconds it takes to ride a saddle bronc. The execution, the preparedness, the effort, the instructional stability, the stamina, and the standards were astounding. Their style, their grace, their precise timing was everything. My children weren’t going to sit out this pandemic twiddling their thumbs. They were going to be learning. Truly gaining in knowledge, education, and standards-based instruction for their grade-level. It was and IS remarkable.

I also want parents, students, community members, and administrators to know that MY STUDENTS ARE SHOWING UP! My students are here. They are in their classrooms. Some of them in record displays of participation. It is so easy to give High School students a bad rap. To label them with some derogatory generational disparagement. But I want you to know that my students have been there for me as much as I have been there for them. They are writing, they are reading, they are thinking, they are responding to online discussions, and submitting FlipGrids full of poems, and rocking this brave new world in a way that I could not possibly have imagined.

This online learning platform IS accessible, IS relevant, IS possible, IS working. And, no, in my opinion, it is not the best there is to offer. I am an eternal advocate for the face-to-face classroom. I love the people. There will always be outliers. There will be those whose situations, livelihoods, family environments, and living situations have been thrown into such chaos by this change that they will not be able to either succeed or survive in this online learning platform. We should begin to plan for their recovery now. How will we offer make-up credit, re-teaching, re-assessment, and re-vitalization of those whose educational opportunities really did go down the tube when social distancing became a reality.

But above all, I want us to remember, and I believe that this moment in education has re-taught us, the incredible resiliency of the human spirit. We are all experiencing this rodeo together and yet separately. Almost all lived human experiences are like that—individual and collective. My hope is that we’ll continue to reach out with that human spirit of support and core care. I hope we will ban together in care and community-interest not just blast our latest emotion into the social media echo chamber. But take up the banner of education because it is one that we all must bear. Here’s to that next great ride of Old Glory around the rodeo arena in real-time. As the horse picks up speed, and the wind takes that banner of freedom into endless ripples of hard work, good will, and committed effort, may we remember learning and pedagogy are built upon the backs of those educational bronc riders—past, present, and future. You’re one of them now. We are all in this together.

COVID-comic-wash-hands

My Turn: Student Safety and Gun Safety

unnamed

Image: Ginger Williams Cook

I want to take you all with me on my journey last week. It is a road that I should have foreseen when I took a job as a teacher, when I turned my education into educating. But I have to be frank, and tell you that I did not clearly see that I would one day be communicating a classroom plan to each and every one of my students as to how we would “Run, Hide, Fight”– the mantra of school shooting safety.

I want you as fellow parents, and grandparents, and citizens, and teachers, and administrators, and police officers, and lobbyists, and politicians to know what it felt like to stand in front of a classroom of students and tell them that what I want most for them when they come to school is their safety and their continued ability to earn an education that will carry them into the world as thoughtful, hard-working, problem-solving, critical reasoning, readers, writers, thinkers, and speakers who are career and college ready.

I want you to know that I saw both depth of understanding and depth of fear, both depth of care and depth of concern, both the need to be loved and the need to show love, both the desire to be safe and the desire to ensure the safety of others in my students’ eyes as we spoke. If you were standing next to me in my classroom this week, your faith in humanity would have grown three sizes those days.

I hope it won’t surprise you that not one of my students rolled their eyes when we talked about our classroom safety plan. Not one of them asked why we had to engage in such a boring assignment, or if they could take a nap, or if we could talk about something else. None of the usual millennial stereotypes we place on this generation of youth. Yes, I get all of these non-plused reactions to the daily English concepts, learning assignments, creative activities, and formative assessments I give in my classroom. I’m not offended by this in the least. I teach high school English. It’s not everyone’s favorite subject, and six hours in a school desk could put anyone on the verge of a needing a nap. But not one mention of an out, an alternative, an apathetic reply shows you how important this topic is to our youth.

My students were keenly listening, hyper aware, compellingly conversational, profoundly questioning, solution creating, statistic gathering. I know one thing for sure– after this week-and-a-half spent discussing the ways we could best hide in silence, with cell-phones off, not a word uttered, backpacks filled with computers and books placed over our hearts as a best defense against bullets– my students want to live.

But listening to the rhetoric and the maligning of the essential questions about gun control, mental health, and school safety in our country I really have had to ask myself, “Do we want the same thing for them? Do we want my students to live?” Your faith in humanity may have shrunk a bit too at the apathetic responses from representatives, politicians, and spokespersons who upheld the status quo so unmoved by the honest expressions and questions of grief from our youth and their parents.

Why can my students see that the conversation does not logically need go to the extreme of revoking the Second Amendment, but that it would be reasonable for us to speak about universal background checks, and cooling-off periods, and training for the opportunity to buy a firearm? Why does the conversation become the fact that more people die in cars than by gun-shot wounds before we talk about banning assault weapons and making bump stocks illegal?

Why does the conversation become the idea that if guns are regulated they will no longer be available to citizens but only to criminals rather than discussing common sense methods of mental health screenings for those who want to purchase firearms? Why does the conversation become arming teachers and other militant policies that include more guns rather than examining societal support of those who struggle with conditions of mental illness? Do we worship the Second Amendment and its economic and political gains more than the principles of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Because from my vantage point this week, we do.

Because if all I have in my tool-kit is to continue to train students to duck low and move swiftly to the back of the room. That I will look out into the hall to bring passing students into our classroom the way Scott Beigel did when he was shot. That I will lock and barricade the door with a tall wooden pallet that ironically bears a peace sign. That we will break the glass in the window, hurling desks at it if need be, and exit out as swiftly as we can toward the street. That they need to run as fast as they can to the road without stopping. It feels akin to telling students to “duck and cover” in the event of an atomic bomb, with the full knowledge that all that will be left is their nuclear shadow as a reminder of their existence.

I want you to know these details because I want you to know that I want each and every child in my classroom to live. We talked in specifics. But are we as a society going to work together to ensure that safety? Now is the time that will tell. “Would you carry a gun, Mrs. Dickson?” my students asked, his hazel eyes serious, his mouth poised in a firm straight line once the question exited his mouth. He wanted to know if I would carry a weapon at school, if I would get a concealed carry permit to bring a weapon into my classroom. He didn’t ask in rancor or in pleading. He simply wanted to know what I would do to save him and his classmates in the event of a mass shooting.

What would I do? I had already asked myself this question many, many, many times from the day that the massacre happened at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida to the day that a student threatened the school I teach in on social media. What would I do to keep my students safe?

It was one of those moments where time took on an eternal quality– still, gaping, telescoping toward my need to answer him. “I didn’t take this job to be in law enforcement, or to carry a gun,” I replied. “You have asked me a deep and philosophical question. I do not believe in guns for the taking of human life. You want to know if I would carry a gun to protect you, but I want to know why [a teacher] carrying a gun would be our first line of defense on your behalf?”

Perhaps it felt like a dodging, ducking, pivot, a non-answer like the many politicians and spokespersons we’ve heard from this week.  Maybe it felt to him like I fractured that student’s trust. My students, who will have to trust in my coping mechanisms in the event that a deleterious person plans our death, deserve answers. But I do know my answer to his question. “No.” No, I will not carry a weapon on a high school campus.

The words Alfonso Calderon, survivor of Parkland’s school shooting, rang in my ears, “That’s a terrible idea… As far as I am aware, teachers are meant to be educators. They are meant to teach young minds how to work in the real world. They are not meant to know how to carry AR 15s, they are not meant to know how to put on kevlar vests for other students or for themselves. This is not what we stand for. We stand for small policy changes, and possibly big ones in the future. Because right now I am pretty sick of talking about teachers being armed. That is not even a possibility in my mind. I would never want to see that and neither do they want to do that.”

I care about each and every one of my students deeply. Yet when an administrator asks me “How are your kids?” like Rebecca Berlin Field, I immediately jump into my role as mother to two young boys at an elementary school that seems impossibly far, and feels unpredictably vulnerable and reply, “I was so grateful for the Principal and over thirty staff and faculty who welcomed each and every student to school today. They were standing on the curb in six degree weather when my husband dropped my boys off.” Then realizing my mistake, I quickly say, “Oh, you mean my students. They are scared.” Because this question reaches further than the doors of my high school onto elementary campuses where tiny humans go to learn and to be safe, too.

How will we protect those young students like those in Sandy Hook? I realized this week that it is my turn. If I believe that laws should change, or that monies should be appropriated in a different or particular way, or that students should be protected it is my turn to step up and voice these opinions.

It is my turn to stand beside these brave students from my high school who are looking for real and actionable change to come from the debates surrounding the Parkland, FL shooting. Small changes in national policy can lead to big changes in the safety that exists (or doesn’t) in our schools. It is my turn to be part of solutions that keep my children safe every day at school. The debate doesn’t need to be mutually exclusive, citizens can and do have the right to bear arms, alongside more reasonable regulation of these weapons. We can allocate funds for more sustained support of the mentally ill. We don’t have to throw our hands up in defeat simply because we’ve been asked to do something difficult. If I tell my students every day that they can do hard things, then I should be able to do hard things too. I hope as a parent, a grandparent, a teacher, an administrator or a concerned citizen you’ll consider speaking out on these matters.

static1.squarespace

001-Peace-Sign-Hand