Slice of Life/Audio Postcard: Week Five

DSC01722 (2) -01 DSC01722 (2) -01 flickr photo by suzyhazelwood shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC) license

We’re now entering our fifth week of the school year, and I am still taking part in a research project documenting educators’ first six weeks of school through audio postcards. Here, I address how things are going, as we start our fifth week; what’s working so far; and maybe what’s not.

Here is:

Peace (finding our footing),
Kevin

Slice of Life: It’s All So Dang Quiet

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

The first thing I noticed as we began our first day back in the school building since March with students (half of them, anyway) was the quietness of the building. The hallways, shining from cleaning and new lighting; the cafeteria, set up for one student per table for lunches; our classrooms, with desks spaced apart; everywhere.

So quiet.

And the students, on their first day back to our school but not their first day of school, were subdued. Maybe it was the masks. Maybe it was learning the protocols of how to move through the building and how to clean desks and when we can go outside to get fresh air. Maybe it was all just very overwhelming. Just as important is the class sizes, of no more than 10 students per classroom at this point (the other half of the classes are home, doing independent learning and come to school on Thursday and Friday).

I asked people about the quiet, which was so noticeable in a building often filled with loud students and raucous energy. They all noticed but whether they liked it or not was rather mixed. Same with my students, as some said they like the quietness of the classrooms, and hope to get more schoolwork done. Others admitted they missed the noise of friends, even as they were happy to be back.

Outside, under a tent, for a mask break, the students could chat with each other, although a few pairs of friends had to be reminded about social distancing more times than once.

“How long will we have to do this?” one boy asked, exasperated, after being told to move a few more feet away from a friend he had not seen in person since March.

“For as long as we need to stay safe,” I replied, sympathetically.

Another student chimed in, “Until the virus is gone.”

A fourth noted, rather sadly, “And who knows when that will be.”

We all went quiet at that.

Peace (back in the building),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Accentuating The Positives

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

So, this is not ideal, this learning situation many of us are in right now. I am remote until next week, when we move into a hybrid model. It’s taxing on us all — educators, students, families, administrators. So today, I am trying to make note of the positives of my situation after ten days with my sixth graders on Zoom and Google Classroom.

  • We’ve had near 100 percent attendance across our three sixth grade classes since the first day of school. I find this pretty amazing, given the remote nature of things. Each morning, before I start things up, I always wonder: Are they going to show up? And they do, day after day, ready for school. I celebrate my students repeatedly throughout the day.
  • With only a few minor glitches here and there, our access to Zoom for virtual classrooms, to Google Classroom and Apps for other activities, and other technology has mostly been seamless. Some students have spotty Internet at times, but we’ve been able to work through that. I credit our school district technology staff for the summer planning around Mac laptop distribution to our sixth graders — every student has their own Macbook right now. This makes a world of difference from the Spring, when a hodgepodge of devices made it difficult to troubleshoot with families.
  • We’ve done eight writing prompts in ten days, and my young writers have been enjoying the range of creative activities done both in their Writing Notebooks and in Classroom. We’ve done some story writing, some listening activities, and some reflection pieces. And our use of Breakout Rooms has been beneficial, pulling together small clusters for sharing ideas and stories.
  • Speaking of Breakout Rooms, I’ve been impressed by how respectful and collaborative my students have been in those rooms in Zoom. I can only pop around, joining one room at a time, but every time I do, I am so heartened by the positive energy of the discussions and sharing in the Breakout Room, as some students become leaders of the group and others recognize and encourage each other as writers.
  • One example of this is a four-day Fractured Fairy Tale Read-Aloud Play unit that we just wrapped up yesterday, with performances in Zoom in all the classes. I had three plays and three groups in each of my three classes, and Breakout Rooms allowed each group to practice and talk through their play and parts. It wasn’t ideal, but since Read-Aloud Plays are like radio shows, it worked fine. And it gave every student an opportunity to read out loud (for me to hear) with fun stories, as well as collaborate and then present to the full group.
  • I’ve been hesitant to get too deep into our reading/literature curriculum, which focuses in on novels, in this remote setting. We did send home class novels in the summer, along with textbooks, asking them to hold on to them until we needed them. At this point, I may wait until we are back in school and use the outside tents and grassy areas for reading. But we have been doing some short story reading and analysis, and some small non-fiction texts, so I feel as if I am honing in on some skills that will be important this year. Plus, there has been the read-aloud plays.
  • We’ve done a lot of reaching out to students to gauge their emotional well-being, through Zoom sessions and emails (including families) and end-of-week surveys, and I think that effort is paying off in the positive start many students are reporting experiencing. They feel connected, and supported, and heard. That’s so important after the Spring shut-down.

There’s probably more I could add here, but I like that this Slice has forced me to find a positive frame to see my teaching days, and to realize, there’s a lot of good things happening. Next week may be a different story, as we start moving our students back into the building in cohorts. I’ll keep looking for what’s going good instead of what’s not.

Peace (to us all),
Kevin

 

Slice of Life: Not Enough Standing

(This is for the Slice of Life challenge, hosted by Two Writing Teachers. We write on Tuesdays about the small moments in the larger perspective … or is that the larger perspective in the smaller moments? You write, too.)

I’ve never been a sitter in the classroom. My chair at my desk rarely gets used when school is in full and regular session. I am always on the move, working with students on their writing or cruising the room to answer questions or to check on how things are going. When I write, I sit in a student desk in the midst of the kids and write along with them.

Or I’m standing, talking, dancing, jumping. Whatever it takes.

So this start to the year, at home for two weeks of Distance Learning to begin, at my kitchen table, it feels so sedentary and stuck, like I am glued to the wooden chair. Every sensory break in our Distance Learning schedule that we have, I am outside, playing with the dogs in the yard or walking at a brisk pace through the neighborhood. Anything to get moving. I wish I had a standing desk here at home, so I could get up and be on my feet.

And of course, I urge my students to do the same at every break we’ve built into the day — get away from the screen, get some fresh air, go run and jump and play, be active.

I don’t know how computer programmers or other office workers do it, sitting all day with a screen as companion. It will do for now, this situation, because of the Pandemic we are in, but this kind of teaching from a chair is just not good for the body.

Peace (on the go),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Puzzles, Poems and Songs

Puzzled during Pandemic

Today’s Slice of Life is a gathering of smaller slices.

First, after starting this 1000 piece puzzle in the days after we left school in mid-March (the first puzzle I have done since childhood), my wife finally put the last piece into the dang thing the other day and finished the scene (Falling Water). The four pieces our puppy chewed made completing the puzzle even more difficult. I started strong in March and April, and even May, and then lost patience at the end in June, but my wife was dead set on finishing and not giving up on it. We finished because of her perseverance.

Second, I received word that a poem I had submitted a few weeks ago to a regional writing guild — the Straw Dogs Writing Guild — had been accepted as part of its Pandemic Poetry collection, and will be a featured poem with the guild in mid-August. The poem is something I wrote for/about my students right near the end of the school year. I’m happy that it will be part of the collection at the guild because it will keep the spirit of that class alive in different places, including my heart.

Third, I wrapped up the collection of songs – Notes from a Quiet Corner — that I have written during this time, and was sharing it out with family and friends yesterday, sending songs and beats out to everyone in my own little celebration of being creative and sane in one way I know best: writing songs and recording music.

 

Now I am gearing up for my summer break from blogging and most, but not all, other social media connections, starting tomorrow with the beginning of July.

This morning’s poem captures that, I think:

June’s
rain blooms
lilies

We’re
here, smoothing
petals

soft
but temporary
reminders

how
present time
wanes

Peace (sharing it),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Crossed Paths

My wife, son, puppy and I were on a hike in a state forest quite a distance from our house, as we decided to get away from our familiar terrain into some place new.

There was a long, winding path that led to a waterfall, not too impressive with our lack of rain, and we were on our way down the trail, towards the car, sort of both acknowledging and ignoring any other hikers, as we walked.

Suddenly:

“Mr. H? Mr. H. Mr. H!”

A voice called out and caught my attention, and there, on the path, was one of my former students, one of those kids from the class that I only saw regularly on a video screen for three months, on the trail with his family.

His face lit up. Mine did, too.

There was real joy in seeing one of my (favorite) students out in the world, on a trail, nowhere near either of our homes. From a six foot distance, we chatted and laughed, before he headed up and we headed down. It was just one of those small lovely human encounters that can unexpectedly make your day.

Peace (crossed paths),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Nearly Done Writing (for now)

A week from today, the school year for kids will be over (we teachers will still be doing a day of PD on remote learning to get ready for what’s likely coming next year). With wrap-up events happening this week as our students transition from our elementary school to the middle school, yesterday was our last day to meet with all of our sixth grade classes in Google Meet, for one final classroom session on the small screen.

I went over different things — a few scattered assignments still out and about to complete, where to bring borrowed novels and assigned textbooks to school, our upcoming Step Up Day ceremony, etc. — but I made sure I spoke of my deep and heartfelt appreciation for the writing they have done since we left school in mid-March, and how so many of them were able to persevere through hard work, and how they remained connected to us and to each other.

I encouraged them to find books they want to read this summer, and to take their eyeballs away from the screens. I reminded them of my regular urging as their writing teacher that they keep a writer’s journal of these times, for their own sake (to look back and remember) and for future generations, too. I talked of writing poems, of making games, of imagining stories, of organizing essays. I tried to cram a year’s worth of what writing was for us into a short video chat, and it was impossible.

I hope I left them with love.

When I asked how many were happy the year was finally ending, most raised their hands. When I asked how many were sad the year was ending, most raised their hands. Same here. Same here.

Peace (in transitions),
Kevin

Slice of Life: I Can’t Read This Room

I took a breath before starting up my Monday series of video chats with my sixth graders. These are short sessions, with two offerings per week, for students to choose from. I’ve done some mini-lessons in the weeks at home with these video meets but mostly, I’ve used it as a check-in, pep talk, address questions kind-of-thing.

“If we were in the classroom, together, we would be talking about current events,” I tell my students, trying to read faces and body postures and feeling frustrated about how the video delays, spotty Internet connections, and small screens and faces-only visuals, not to mention the reluctance many still have of even engaging in conversation on the video, all stymied my approach.

I could have chosen to avoid this topic altogether. I could have but really, I could not. How can we?

“And there are events going on that you may have been following from Minneapolis and other cities,” I continue, noticing some nodding heads. One student quickly wrote “George Floyd” in the chat for everyone to see.  Another shared a sad emoji face. I pause, and acknowledge George Floyd’s name and then give an overview of what has been happening in cities across the country as a result, including nearby Boston (and later, I find, right in my small city, too, where the police station was the scene of a rally/protest and target of graffiti).

I connect what is happening now to our work earlier in the year in discussing race, civil rights, and systemic violence of the black community — particularly young black men — from our work with The Watsons Go to Birmingham 1963, and try to balance the news headlines of looting stores with the tenets of peaceful protest marches, as civic action against injustice being the heart and soul of our country. I avoid the president, despite the voice in my head, altogether, trying to keep the politics neutral.

Repeatedly, I open the floor up in the video for questions, and pose questions of inquiry. I receive some response, but mostly, not much. Just silence. Either they are reluctant to discuss difficult questions or engage in difficult dialogue via video, or they have not really been paying much attention to the news, or something else. (I refuse to believe it’s because they didn’t care). I could have (maybe should have) done some writing with them, but I wasn’t sure if they had enough context for that.

I could not read the room, despite my many years as a teacher, and this happened four different times with four different classes. I could not … read the room.

Yesterday, I disliked (hated, really, to be honest) this Distance Learning situation more than ever for the barriers it puts in front of me helping my students see the world through a larger lens, with context and compassion.

Seeing them there in little images, stuck inside my computer screen, isolated and maybe only seeing news through their social media applications, or if lucky, in discussions with parents, and here I was, a teacher they would often rely on to talk about these issues, feeling as inadequate as I have ever felt, trying to engage them in critically important issues, and seemingly failing in my efforts to do so.

Maybe they were thinking as they were listening, at least. Maybe that.

Peace (in frustration),
Kevin

Slice of Life: A Three Memorial Day (No One Else Was There)

Field of Honor: Florence, Northampton

We’ve been keeping an active eye during the pandemic social distancing on our elderly neighbor, whose husband (a veteran of the Korean War and a long-time military man) died a year or so ago. We bring her newspaper to her door each morning and mail, too, on rainy days. We check in with her regularly, seeing if she needs anything from the store and reminding her that we’re right here, if she needs us.

The other day, she told us how her husband’s military service was now being represented in the Field of Honor at the Elks Lodge field, where this is the second year in a row the club in the next village over has hosted an entire field of American flags to honor veterans on Memorial Day. We told her we would go there and find his flag, and we did, reading his short biography on a tag on the flag post. We also wandered around with the kids for a bit through the flags, reading about other local veterans and remembering.

No one else was there.

Leeds Memorial Day

Earlier, I had ventured to our village memorial to veterans, which is often the scene of a community gathering to honor fallen soldiers with roots in our village.  I walked by, stopped for a bit in the shade of the trees, and heard the ghost sounds of the trumpet playing Taps in my imagination.

No one else was there.

Finally, our neighbor had wondered if the larger stone memorials in our city downtown now had her husband’s name carved into the stone for the Korean War. She hadn’t been out to check. We decided to investigate yesterday, and while his name is not there (My wife: Who do we call to make it happen?), we again spent some time reading through the names of soldiers of war, now gone.

No one else was there.

It’s strange to find commemoration in the city so quiet, but I’m not surprised, of course. Coming home from the trip to Memorial Hall, I noticed a hand-painted sign that said: Memorial Day Parade This Way, with an arrow pointing down the street. My wife said the city’s mayor (a National Guard veteran, like me) and a few elderly veterans did a car parade through this village of our city, in order to keep intact its record as the oldest consecutive running Memorial Day parade in the entire country. I wish I had known. I would I have watched and clapped, and honored the memories of those soldiers.

I hope others were there.

Peace (remembering it),
Kevin

Slice of Life: The End of Days

The title of this post is a little click bait-y. Sorry.

The other day, I received in the mail a copy of a new book by my writing project colleague, Michael Silverstone and his writing partner, Debbie Zacarian. It’s entitled Teaching to Empower.

Michael sent me a copy of the book because I was one of many teachers Debbie and Michael reached out for vignettes from the classroom, around the theme of student or teacher empowerment, and I had forgotten most of what I had written.

So, I thumbed through the book and found my piece. In it, I had focused on our video game design unit, and how I entered into the world of game design, as a way to help students engage with technology and writing, after overhearing so many discussions about gaming, at the end of the school days, while waiting for the bus.

In fact, I’ve written many small pieces over the years about that particular period of the school day, of just waiting around, of boredom being interrupted by some interesting question or thought, of aimless chatter, or of how a line of discussion that starts one place and ends in another — all as we waited for the dismissal announcements over the loudspeaker.

Of all the things I’m missing now in the Social Distancing era, this end-of-days bus-waiting time (See? I told you the phrase would makes sense) doesn’t quite rank at the top of my worries, yet it’s emblematic of a periodic realization: I don’t quite know my students anymore. We’re in our tenth week of learning and teaching from home.

Honesty, I don’t really know how they are doing, other than how they look for a stretch of time on the screen. I try to read eyes, and gestures, and smiles, but the screens interfere with those moments. The technology masks the humanity. I don’t really know what’s shaking up their lives or what’s the newest, best, most exciting thing happening to them.

I’m in touch, but I’ve lost touch.

My piece in Michael and Debbie’s book reminded of this because it was such a celebratory moment of how eavesdropping in on student conversations helped me rethink the way I was teaching, and then guided me into some curriculum changes that made a huge difference for so many students (particularly my struggling writers).

I end the vignette with the idea of standing there, in the classroom, waiting, listening back in, with the reminder that you never know what you’ll hear if you don’t take the chance to listen. That seems quaint now, and so out of touch with the times. So it goes.

Peace (what we hear),
Kevin