An Open Letter to the Beleaguered

Teaching in 2020 is nothing less than surreal. Consider seven imperatives to prevent yourself from being swallowed up by this school year.

by Adrin Fisher

Dear Teacher-Friend,

I’ve been thinking a lot about my situation, teaching high school English in a plague year. I’ve polished up a little sentence to describe it.

My boss made a promise that I can’t keep.

I’m fond of that sentence. It feels to me like a short, pithy Sherman Alexie sentence in the story I read to my College English classes last week. Zinger, I called it. A gut punch, I said. A sentence that perfectly encapsulates a situation.

Teachers have been told to get on with it. Assess students—both blended and distance learners simultaneously—meet them in the gap, and then work your miracle-worker magic.

But, that’s not what we had planned for. Or, more accurately, that’s not what was planned for us. The promised technology has not yet arrived. Our provided training was “a lick and a promise”—the lick part being the shock of being exposed to a dozen new programs in nine hours in September. Broadband is spotty and rain interrupts satellite internet and kids are sharing devices, so also send home packets and books. And also benchmark…and also do this test training…and also create videos…and also receive meaningful contact…and also join these Teams meetings…and also…

Before you internalize the chorus of armchair experts singing, “Teachers always rise to the challenge!” and “Mr. Rogers taught virtually!” let me pause to address those claims. As anyone with any longevity in a field that chews up and spits out 50% of new teachers within the first five years can tell you: what we’re being asked to do now? It’s not the same.

Magical thinking only works magic in the realm of thought.

Mr. Rogers didn’t assess anyone, didn’t teach more than one thirty-minute lesson per day, didn’t manage IEPs or 504s, didn’t field parent calls, didn’t connect with more than one hundred separate personalities with one hundred separate (sometimes fluid) identities, backstories, and sets of conflicts, issues, and emotions. And that’s what teachers do in a regular school year. Mr. Rogers didn’t have to spend precious lunch minutes to discern whether the person really has never grasped the concept of “downloading” or whether the student (and/or parent/grandparent) considers distance learning in the fall of 2020 a Get-Out-of-School-Free card. Mr. Rogers didn’t have to teach himself a learning management platform in public or thoughtfully respond to electronic messages on four different platforms. Hourly.

Mr. Rogers was a saint, to be sure.

But try to explain to me that this has all been done before? Tell me that if I can’t do it, it’s a personal failing? Spare me.

To stop myself—and possibly you—from spiraling into the recitation of woes—none of which we caused and none of which we can eliminate—I will share with you my second sentence, my second zinger.

This could be the year that school swallows me up.

I know that doesn’t sound particularly cheerful. But stay with me.

Every year of my career I have sacrificed many, many hours outside my contract. I work hard. I feel weird saying that out loud, but it’s true. I correct essays, design lessons, prepare, make photocopies, read, write recommendations—I do all things we all do. In fact, I’ll do it again this weekend. Sometimes I feel really guilty, choosing between time with my family and time with my job. Sometimes I wonder what ELSE I am if my life is consumed by my job.

But now, I pour my energy into this monumental task: to be all things to all students in both 84 minutes per week and no minutes per week, on three different schedules and with precious little time or training. I’ve taught myself to be proficient in a program I’d only heard of before July. I’m planning and creating content on Sunday afternoon for Monday morning. I haven’t found time to grade much yet—even though a stack of essays and summer work and paragraphs and mission statements are traveling back and forth to school with me every day while their brothers and cousins quietly wait in virtual classrooms.

However, guilt and misery make no kind of life.

Therefore, I am choosing to adjust my expectations for myself. I’m deciding what I own and what I don’t.

So, because I can’t offer you time or money, teacher-friend, I offer you seven imperatives.

Be intentional.  

In these fluid times with these unrealistic demands, the only way forward is with intention.  When my sons were younger and stopped by the dining room table to tell me about a Pokémon evolution or a YouTube video while my pink pen hovered over an essay, I had to train myself to listen. I clasped my hands and looked into their eyes and forced myself to stop. I still do it, actually. That’s my model. I will intentionally not get swallowed up. I choose to stop, fold my hands, and listen.

Stop comparing.  

Even though we try to educate our students about how fake social media is, sometimes it’s hard for us to remember: not everything praiseworthy is Pinterest-worthy. Value function over form.

Less is good. 

Let’s move toward sustainability. This is not a normal year, not for curriculum, not for the SATs, not for special education referrals, not for anyone or anything. You are not a continuous miner or a perpetual motion machine. Choose the essential. Save the rest.

Be organized.  

Although I am not yet to the point where I can anticipate unit time-tables or plan for more than the following week, I have made it a priority to plan those five days. On Monday (or Thursday, depending on the cohort), I release the plans in the form of a slide, which I project at the beginning of each class, every day. I set it up as Day 1, Day 2, rather than Monday, Tuesday, so that I can use one slide for all schedules. I learned from a social media page how to “publish to the web” which allows me to make changes on the original and have those changes pushed out to all locations. I allow myself to correct typos, clarify, or add resources, but NOT to add assignments after that initial rollout—I realized last Monday afternoon that I’d forgotten to leave time to talk about a story I’d assigned in AP Lit last Day 3. That discussion will still be valid next week.

In a webinar in July, I learned a visual trick to help students organize. I have a different emoji for each topic (my utilitarian topics are Week 1, Week 2, etc.) and each assignment or resource for that week has the matching emoji. Students thank me for these two tricks.

Practice empathy. 

Students are stressed. They’re oddly quiet underneath their masks, but their eyes reveal a constant low-grade panic. Good students who’ve succeeded in past years are being tested—because as it turns out, they’ve relied on memory instead of a planner. But now? That won’t work. They’ve mostly never had to manage their unsupervised time at home. They must choose to close Tik-Tok and pick up school. We have to have lines, late points, rules, assignments—of course, teacher-friend.  But we should also have empathy.

Take refuge. 

Take refuge in nature. It’s beautiful out there.

Take refuge from social media. News flash: the “us” against “them” fighting is going to continue, whether you observe it or not.

Take refuge in texts. Billy Collins, one of my favorites, has done a Poetry Broadcast every weekday night since April. Maybe you have sacred texts. Maybe you will carry around a poem in your pocket through these long days (here’s what I’m asking my AP kids to do next week). Maybe you have an old standby, some delightful novel or biography that you loved once. Pull it out again.

Finally, remember who you are.

You are a teacher. But that’s not all. You win, not this school year. Don’t let yourself be swallowed up. Courage, dear heart.

Sincerely,
A Multi-Faceted Person Doing Her Best to Teach Through a Pandemic

WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. What imperative would you add to the list? Leave us a question or comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook.

 Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you light. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher, an Arch Coal Teacher Achievement Award Winner, and a finalist for WV State Teacher of the Year. She is currently teaching College English, AP Lit & Comp, and English 12. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

Classroom Discussions, Tech Platforms, G.O.A.T. Moments, and Other 2020 Mayhem

By: Liz Jorgensen

If you are like me, you are taking things one day at a time this school year, trying to keep your head above water as you redesign basically every lesson you have ever taught, and could use all the tech help and suggestions that anyone has to offer.

This past week, I wanted to hold an anticipatory agree-disagree discussion about big ideas for the first book that my students will read this school year. Normally, I have students write down whether they agree or disagree with several statements that relate to the text, and then I do a Philosophical Chairs discussion in which I have different sides of the room represent Agree or Disagree, and the middle represents Neutral. For each question we discuss, I have students move to a side of the room which represents what they chose for that question.

But of course, we can’t be moving around the room and bunching together like sardines around ideological flags on hills because as I told all my students, that spreads The Rona.

Instead of physically moving, I told them that they would digitally move and that we would still discuss the statements.

Padlet

One way to sort of achieve a digital version of Philosophical Chairs is to create a Padlet for the discussion. Choose a Canvas set up for the Padlet so that the posts can be moved anywhere on the open space of the Padlet. I had an Agree note posted on one side, a Disagree note posted on the other, and a Neutral note posted in the middle. I instructed students to create a note with just their name on it and to move it to whichever side they stood on for each question as we discussed it.

For most of my classes, this worked great. It achieved the same purpose of Philosophical Chairs in that it allowed students to see who they were “standing” with, it gave structure to the discussion, and it allowed me to encourage a comment or two from a quieter student if I could see that they had taken a particular stand on an issue.

In my last class, however, the inevitable happened, and a mysterious extra post appeared on the Padlet. At first, it only contained the letter “G,” but that was slowly followed by an “O” and then an “A” and a “T.” I laughed it off that a “GOAT” had magically joined our class, and I told them that in my book, they were certainly all the “Greatest of All Time,” so the title could belong to any one of them. For the rest of class, “GOAT” joined our discussion and moved to different sides of the Padlet as we discussed the ethics of lying, gender equality, race in America, euthanasia, wealth and poverty. I never found out who the guest GOAT was, and I still don’t know because there is no way on Padlet to see who is posting what if they choose a name other than their real name. So for the rest of class, I prayed real hard that either class would end real soon or Jesus would come back so that no words worse than “GOAT” would magically appear on the Padlet. My prayer was answered, and class ended without any extra posts. Hallelujah.

I have seen lots of teachers talk about doing something similar with Google Docs or Google Slides and having students drag boxes with their names to particular sides of the document. However, since all of these venues are a completely open forum, there is no way for teachers to limit how many posts are created by students, what they call their posts, whether students delete posts of themselves or other students, and there would also be no way to tell which student posted something inappropriate if that were to happen. It’s probably fine to use these venues with a really mature or trustworthy class, but that is not the case with every class. Luckily, the extra post that was added to my Padlet was not offensive and was just funny, but I wouldn’t want to get to the point where students felt that they had the power to post truly graphic or inappropriate words or images simply because I had no way of tracing it back to who posted it. Therefore, after my last class ended, I brainstormed what I could possibly do differently, and here is what I think I will use instead next time.

Office Forms

Our school has access to the online Microsoft Office suite. This means that we also have access to Microsoft Forms. Forms has a function in which you can create a form that anyone can answer with a link, but it also has a setting that allows you to automatically collect email addresses of participants with their submissions.

I think that next time, I will create a simple Form that asks, “For the current statement under discussion, how much do you agree or disagree with the statement?” Then I will have as options Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree, Strongly Disagree. I will also ask for the name of the student. I will have students resubmit the form every time we change topic to a new question. After students submit, I can very quickly pull an excel doc of the responses and put that up on the board, which would be very similar to having a running Padlet of responses up on the board, except… Their school email address would be attached to it, which I think would highly discourage any student who contemplated trying to derail class by submitting a less than savory “name” for their response.

*****

It’s easy to get overwhelmed or discouraged this year with all the new demands placed upon us. However, I love that there are still venues like the WVCTE blog which allow us to help each other think of new ways to both engage students in learning and also keep them socially distanced and safe. Hopefully this article helped you think through some ways to engage students in authentic discussion in your classroom using technology that is appropriate for your students.

If you have tried something new and had a “GOAT” experience (or worse!), don’t give up! Hang in there, search for a different technological platform which will better fit the needs of your classroom and your students, and try something new the next time.

And remember that, no matter what, you are working hard to deliver quality instruction to the next generation during an international health crisis. Therefore, you are the real G.O.A.T.

Liz Jorgensen (formerly Keiper) is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. When she’s not dressing up in togas or running around her classroom with foam swords reenacting Shakespeare, she can be found enjoying the great outdoors, playing guitar, or adding to her rather out-of-control rubber duck collection. You can follow her on Twitter @LizJorgenTeach.

WVCTE is wondering…

  1. What are other ways that you have digitally helped raise engagement of your students during discussions?
  2. What are other tech platforms that could work well for assignments like this?

Leave us a comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook!

Teaching in 2020: Some Reminders for Myself and Others

BY: LIZ JORGENSEN

“And I knew exactly what to do. But in a much more real sense, I had no idea what to do.”

-Michael Scott

Dear West Virginia teachers,

This may very well be the most unique Back-to-School Eve of our careers. I have spent the past few months watching the news as politicians capitalize on a global health crisis for political gains and use teachers and students as their pawns in the game. Then, once the Powers That Be finally settled on some plans for the school year, I have spent the past few weeks trying to rethink every single procedure and teaching method I employ to make my classroom less of a COVID petri dish. And I know that most of you have been doing the same thing.

The past few weeks have felt like trying to climb up a greased waterslide and continually slipping back down. Or building a plane while flying it. Or living through one of those teacher nightmares when you show up to school with no lesson plans, no copies made, and no pants on. (No, I have not shown up for teacher planning days pants-less. But it’s a pretty apt analogy when it feels like your pedagogical world is turned upside down.)

When you’re caught in a whirlwind of uncertainty, it can be hard to get grounded. I know that I will need to remind myself of some fundamental truths daily, if not minute-ly, tomorrow and in the days that follow. So, here’s me talking to you, and also talking to me in the process.

Pushing Forward through the Year of Fear

As we know, 2020 has been the Year of Fear. Let’s move beyond the fear to knowledge, and beyond the knowledge to wisdom. Join me in setting goals for the summer that will impact yourself, your students and your society.

Adrin Fisher

It occurs to me that in 2020, our society has moved from one fear to another, each seeming to outpace and eclipse the previous one. 

The US was on course for war with Iran in January. By the end of February, we were nervously watching the DOW slide and wondering when this flu running through Asia and Seattle would make it to West Virginia. In March, COVID-19 arrived in full force and the country effectively shut down. People lost jobs and security and all sense of normalcy. April consoled with handwashing and mask-making. In May we learned of a vicious February murder in Georgia, a woman who weaponized a bird-watcher’s skin color in Central Park, an innocent Louisville woman shot in her own bed, and then we watched as a Minnesota man died slowly on the street under the knee of a police officer. Peaceful protests were hijacked by anarchists and troublemakers, and soldiers in riot gear were mobilized.

So, to sum up, fear follows fear follows fear follows fear.

And it’s only June. When people post memes about the thunderstorm actually being Godzilla or the murder hornets carrying machetes, they’re not really joking. Fear is the currency of the day.

As I looked forward into summer three months ago, I planned to work on how grade writing more effectively and more efficiently. 

Two months ago, I found out that I will be teaching AP Literature next year, so I planned to wrap my head around that intimidating yet exciting prep.

And now, finally finished with the official school year, I recognize that I need to take more action in my own self and my own classroom. Although I don’t tolerate racism in the halls or in the room, although I host a Black History Month Read-In every spring, although I work very hard to build and maintain a positive rapport with all my students, although, although, although…it’s not enough. 

It seems to me that all of my goals are worthy, and all of them are necessary. I firmly believe that the way to push through fear is to learn. Once you have knowledge, you can gain wisdom. And for me, wisdom is the ultimate goal.

A partial reading list for the summer of 2020…fight fear with knowledge!

So, in the interest of developing wisdom and pushing through the Year of Fear, I’ll share some quick, powerful ideas and tools.

I would first encourage you to take a look at your implicit biases. Here’s a link to an ongoing project at Harvard for you peek at what’s underneath your assumptions. 

Here’s a short YouTube video that may shine a light on privilege.

Next, I would ask around (the internet or colleagues) for ideas about books to read.  Try any or all of these on Twitter: @ProjectLITComm @NCTE #antiracism #blm

Here’s a reading list about anti-racism.

This article, “Educators Must Realize That There Is No Neutral Position on Issues of Racial Justice,” lists some actionable steps and is part of a larger series. 

Finally, I would encourage you to consider crafting your own mission statement for your classroom.  I use a mission statement as a way for seniors to begin their final year of high school, but it need not be relegated to a student-only activity. As an example, I will point to the powerful words of a former student of mine, who I’m proud to say is now a colleague in my English department.  Marissa Pulice writes, in part:

1. I don’t want to avoid the hard talks about race anymore. I shy from conflict and that is not productive at best and its own sort of mental brutality towards my students at worst. Racism will not end if we do not give our kids a space to talk about it and work through faulty or fallacious thinking.…

2. I will diversify what I teach. My kids deserve to read works by and about people from a variety of backgrounds, and I need to do a better job of seeking those things out. If you read something you wish you’d read in high school because it broadens your perspective, send it to me…

3. This is not a moment or a one-time thing. It’s not a unit plan. It’s something that needs repeatedly revisited with historical context about how power can and has corrupted in so many arenas of American history…

Does this fix everything? Absolutely not. Does it do something? Hopefully. Will I strive to be better for my students and my own eventual children? Always.

This work will be hard. 

But you’re used to that.  You just taught through a global pandemic.

This work will take effort.

But you’re used to that, too.  You’ve worked and studied to get where you are today.

This work will be valuable.

You’re used to that, too.  You have (in my opinion) one of the most important jobs in the world.  Yes, #BlackLivesMatter  And, more so, they are valued and beloved.

So, teacher friend, I implore you to fill your cup this summer. Take some time and rest every week. Do life with family and friends. Shake off your school-end malaise and get to work. Clean out your cabinets. Donate. Live more simply and more intentionally.
And study. Read. Discuss. Make investments in yourself, your students, in your school climate, and in your society. 
Courage, dear heart.

WVCTE wants you to contribute to the conversation. What texts or ideas do you have for combating social injustice? What can you offer about teaching AP Lit?  Or assessing writing?  I want to hear it all! Leave us a question or comment, Tweet us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connect with us on Facebook.

Adrin Fisher is a contributing blogger for WVCTE. She wishes you light and courage. She’s a National Board Certified Teacher who just finished the weirdest school-year on record and is starting to prep for the new year already. When she’s not planning her next career as a YouTuber, you can find her calling “Hello!” to strangers, tree bathing in the woods with her kids, or writing in drips and drabs. You can follow her on Twitter @fisheradrin

To Sing a Song of When I Loved The Prettiest Star

By Jessica Salfia

A few weeks in our COVID-19 isolation, I got a message from my friend Natalie Sypolt who wanted to know if I would review a book for the online literary magazine, Change Seven. (side note: Check out this magazine. It’s a treasure trove of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry.)

I immediately agreed, anxious to lay eyes on a not yet released novel, and excited because I had heard so many good things about Sickels’ writing. My “assignment” was to read and write a Kirkus-style review.

(Confession: I have never written a Kirkus style book review before. I had no clue what I was doing, but I knew a good starting point would be to read the book and take good notes.)

So I made a cup of tea, grabbed a notebook and a good pen (pen-people, you know what I’m talking about), curled up in the corner of my couch, opened my laptop, and clicked open the digital copy of the book I had been sent.

And within minutes, all good intentions of thorough note-taking evaporated—I was gripped. The next day, my pen and paper lay forgotten on the floor, there were no notes. My tea sat cold and untouched still in the cup. And I was scrolling to the last page of the novel, curled around my laptop, a human puddle of tears. (My thirteen-year old came out of her room to ask me if I was ok, but I could only manage hiccup at her, “This. Book. So. Beautiful. So. Sad.” (She rolled her eyes, called me weird, but then asked me to let her read the book.)

I somehow managed to write my review for Change Seven. You can read that review here. (Though, I was in such as state, I very nearly sent them a word doc that only said “This book wrecked me. Everyone go read it right now.)

But I also wanted to give a lengthier reflection here on the blog because this is a novel that I think will make its way onto reading lists and into curriculums very quickly.

And it should. It’s a powerful and important book.

The Prettiest Star is the haunting and beautiful story of a homecoming set in 1986. Twenty four-year-old Brian had fled his small town in rural Appalachian Ohio because like so many other rural LGBTQ kids, his family rejected him. He made his way to New York where he found love, acceptance, and a chosen family, only to have this all wrenched from him by the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. His community ravaged, his lover dead, and nothing left for him in New York but grief, Brian dying of the disease himself returns to the home he fled.

This story of LGBTQ youth rejection and displacement in Appalachia is not a story of the past. Just this week NPR published this article: Home But Not Safe, Some LGBTQ Young People Face Rejection From Families in Lockdown. The article cites this terrifying statistic: “Suicide and crisis hotline calls are now on a rapid rise at The Trevor Project, a large suicide prevention and crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ young people. CEO Amit Paley says that since the onset of COVID-19 the volume of youth reaching out to The Trevor Project’s crisis services program has increased dramatically at times spiking to more than double the volumes from earlier in 2020.”

For many LGBTQ young people from our region, home is not, and never has been a haven.

Sickels’ novel is the story an earlier generation of young men who were forced home by a devastating illness and ostracization from society. Told from the alternating perspectives of Brian, his guilt-ridden mother: Sharon, and his teenage sister: Jess, Brian’s return home, like the homecomings so many young people in this region are experiencing now because of the COVID crisis, is fraught with anxiety and shame. But that anxiety and shame for Brian in 1986 is compounded with grief over the loss of his friends, his lover, his health, and eventually his own life. Brian does not return home to shelter in place. He returns home to die.

Brian says in the opening pages of the novel, “…I wrote my parents a letter. I didn’t know what I was going to tell them. I’ve known guys who were sick and went back to small towns all over the country—upstate New York, Kansas, Florida, Kentucky—and never said a word about what was wrong. They went back to their hometowns and died from a mysterious illness.”

Initially, Brian’s family decides to keep his condition a secret, his emotionally unavailable father acknowledging the situation by insisting that Brian use separate dishware and wash his clothes separately from the rest of the family. Brian must process his grief, his illness, and his own death alone while also navigating his family’s attempts to ignore not just his sexuality, but the fact that he’s dying from AIDS.  But as is the way of most small towns, the news of Brian’s condition gets out and spreads through his family, his community, and their conservative church, and his family is now forced to confront their own biases, homophobia, and fear. Brian’s story wends between sadness and salvation, abandonment and acceptance. It is a story told with heart breaking beauty and consideration.

Through all of this, Brian is mostly alone, confused, sad, and scared. It’s not fair—none of it. As Brian tells us of his last truly happy night out with his best friend and his boyfriend: “This night, we thought then, was just one of many. This is what life was, and this is what our lives were supposed to be. I didn’t do anything to cause this—none of us did. We were just living. We were young, happy and alive, and nothing could stop us.”

The pages of this novel burn bright with emotion. We feel the injustice, the anger, the fear, the loneliness, and the desperate desire to be loved and accepted by his family with Brian all the way to the very end.

When I finished the book, I cued up YouTube (well, I cued up Youtube after I caught my breath, stopped weeping, and changed my tear and snot soaked shirt) and I listened to David Bowie’s song of the same name several times.

Bowie sings, “Staying back in your memory/ Are the movies in the past?/ How you moved is all it takes/ To sing a song of when I loved/ “The prettiest star.”

Brian’s story is a tragic a story. But it’s also a love story. And that love shines through the pages of Sickels’ prose like twinkling lights in the night sky.

For public educators in this region, especially those teachers working with teenagers, this novel is a must read. It’s not a coming of age story or a coming out story. It doesn’t have a fairytale ending. In fact, it broke me…several times. But this book is an important book—a story that needs to be told and a story that still resonates today. Author Silas House said of The Prettiest Star, “It’s the story of all of us—the story of America, then and now, how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go.”

Our LGBTQ young people in this region still face rejection and prejudice, and according to an NBC News article by James Michael Nichols: “In November, the Campaign for Southern Equality released its 2019 Southern LGBTQ Health Survey, and Beach-Ferrara said in Appalachia — where 17 percent of residents live below the poverty line — the survey found particular challenges for LGBTQ respondents around “finding stable employment where you’ll be treated fairly, where you’ll have some basic protections and where you can show up to be who you truly are.”

It is our duty, teachers to teach all kids, and there is a population of young folks in our region, kids in the hallways of your schools who are in desperate need additional support and love. Kids who need their stories told, who need their histories told, who need to see themselves reflected in literature.  So whether you need to broaden your own understanding, or you’re looking to expand your classroom library, I would highly recommend you add The Prettiest Star to your summer reading list.

prettiest star

The Prettiest Star
Carter Sickels
Hub City Press
May 2020
ISBN: 978-1-938235-62-7
288 pages
HC: $27.00
Order now!