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

Slice of Life: Still Living In An Email World

In some ways, I am built just right for this shift to Distance Learning. I write that somewhat tongue-in-cheek since I miss my students so much and know this (points to computer) will never replace that (points in general direction of school).

But technology is something I have long explored and utilized, and feel quite comfortable with, for myself and with my students, so the shift in the respect of how we do things online isn’t so bad.

Except for the emails.

Even with full use of Google Classroom, which contains discussions pretty nicely enough, the sheer load of emails coming in, from administrators, from colleagues on my team, from parents and family members, from students (from technology companies, somehow temporary avoiding the spam filter to pitch me the next best thing for my students) … it’s all overwhelming at times. I am just as bad on my end of the email chain, sending out regular emails to students as a complement to our video chats, to remind of this and to urge them to do that.

If I am looking at my school email bin and taking a deep breath of near despair before diving in to follow the threads, I wonder how my students are doing with their school email (which is something new for them, activated once we left school for Distance Learning, although they have had other Google Apps for Ed platforms for use all year).

I know for a fact that email is NOT their first choice of communication and for many of my sixth graders, this may be the first time they either have any kind of email of their own or have needed to rely on it for information and connection. Some barely glance at their email. Others are finding it another way to connect with classmates.

I have a colleague who has resisted Google Classroom for assignments during this time and instead, assigns content and asks students to write responses in Google Docs (sometimes more than one each week) they create in their accounts, and share it with him. Just thinking of the avalanche of email notifications they must be getting from our 75 students each week makes me groan under the weight of it all.

We’re still living in an email world. Take that, Tik Tok.

Peace (the bin is nearly full),
Kevin

Slice of Life: Objects in the Woods

We’ve been spending a lot of time in our local wooded paths and bike trails, staying close to home but also getting a deeper look at our sense of place. I suspect we’re all doing versions of this.

Yesterday, I was noticing how people are putting more and more little found trinkets and objects along our paths — which others in our neighborhood (one person, in particular) have long transformed into a natural art museum, using downed trees and natural things for temporary sculptures.

It may be that some families are doing scavenger hunts with kids during these times, or artwork at home is being shared with our local community through placement in the forest trails. In addition, the nearby river always spits up objects from the past, and it’s not uncommon to see folks leaving those unearthed treasures for others to observe. (This is all very different from the trash and mess that people — outside of our neighborhood — will begin to leave behind as they use the river for cooling off from the heat).

I could not resist using my camera to look more closely at the objects

Peace (found),
Kevin

Slice of Life/SmallPoems Day 31 (not one but many)

(I am participating in the March Slice of Life challenge via the Two Writing Teachers site.  Slice of Life is the idea of noticing the small moments. I have been a participant for many years and each year, I wonder if I will have the energy to write every day. This year, I am going to try to coincide it with my daily poetry writing, and intend to compose small poems on small moments. We’ll see how it goes …)

Day Thirty One

Not one wasted
word, but many
Not one wasted
rhyme, but many
Not one jaded
thought, but many
Not one poem
worth such love
but many
Not just one small
story unfolding
inside this insanity
but many
Not merely one of us
unaffected, unmoved,
unmoored, unafraid,
unbound, misunderstood,
but maybe all

Note: I was intending to write a poem, reflecting on the poems I’ve written this  month for Slice of Life, which started off in one relatively normal place on March 1 and veered unpredictably and out of control into a whole new reality. Which is where I find myself now, on March 31, writing a poem that didn’t want to play by my intentions. The lines just kept building, like a building about to collapse on itself, and I just went with the flow. For maybe it did what I intended, brought some closure to a month of writing poems of observation, that we are affected by the pandemic in the world. Not just one. But maybe all. Maybe all of us.

Peace (sending it your way),
Kevin

Slice of Life/SmallPoems Day 30 (little library)

(I am participating in the March Slice of Life challenge via the Two Writing Teachers site.  Slice of Life is the idea of noticing the small moments. I have been a participant for many years and each year, I wonder if I will have the energy to write every day. This year, I am going to try to coincide it with my daily poetry writing, and intend to compose small poems on small moments. We’ll see how it goes …)

Day Thirty

Sometime, we wonder
what the small house
on a stick at the edge
of the road says about
the people around us –

Who discarded the college
application guide? the
peanut-free cookbook?
the Learn Hebrew Now,
scribbled with blue note
marks? the spy novel?
the beach read? the picture
book gone grey with age?

And what does it say
about me, a reader
picking through the bones
of abandoned tomes
in this small home,
eyeing titles through
the glass door, wondering,
do I really need just
one book?

I do

Peace (in words and pages),
Kevin

PS — earlier this month, I shared a demo of a song: Beneath the Ruins (There Lives the Sun). Yesterday, I worked in a more polished and produced version of the song and then recruited my lovely wife to sing harmony vocals with me, all as a gift of hope for ourselves, for the world, for you.

 

Slice of Life/SmallPoems Day 29 (seasonal surrender)

(I am participating in the March Slice of Life challenge via the Two Writing Teachers site.  Slice of Life is the idea of noticing the small moments. I have been a participant for many years and each year, I wonder if I will have the energy to write every day. This year, I am going to try to coincide it with my daily poetry writing, and intend to compose small poems on small moments. We’ll see how it goes …)

Day Twenty Nine

Unexpected winds of winter
may be best remembered
by broken sticks and branches
and pinecone piles, long buried
since late December –
now debris, freed from snow:
a seasonal backyard surrender

Peace (picking it up),
Kevin

Slice of Life/SmallPoems Day 28 (generation pandemic)

(I am participating in the March Slice of Life challenge via the Two Writing Teachers site.  Slice of Life is the idea of noticing the small moments. I have been a participant for many years and each year, I wonder if I will have the energy to write every day. This year, I am going to try to coincide it with my daily poetry writing, and intend to compose small poems on small moments. We’ll see how it goes …)

Day Twenty Eight

Forever
changed is
what they’ll be:
these Children
of the Pandemic

Whether shaped
by panic or fear or
the greater good –
no child today
escapes where
the world once stood
and now, stands
at a fragile start

the hope for all
rests with open heart,
nurtured by together
and not by distance
dividing us apart

Note: I was listening yesterday morning to The Daily (New York Times) podcast, which had very young children sending in questions about the COVID-19 virus to the NYT science reporter. At the end, the host wrapped up some related news and then played part of a news conference from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo that really struck a nerve with me. I listened to the section three times. I wrote down his words. Then I made the comic below. Then, I composed the poem. He’s right, of course. An entire generation of children are forever now impacted by this event.

Thinking of the Children comic

Peace (on us all),
Kevin

Slice of Life/SmallPoems Day 27 (teacher parade)

(I am participating in the March Slice of Life challenge via the Two Writing Teachers site.  Slice of Life is the idea of noticing the small moments. I have been a participant for many years and each year, I wonder if I will have the energy to write every day. This year, I am going to try to coincide it with my daily poetry writing, and intend to compose small poems on small moments. We’ll see how it goes …)

Day Twenty Seven

It’s just smile after smile;
just mile after mile –
streets and sidewalks
and lawns lined
with faces not seen
in weeks – you wave
and wave and wave –
you find yourself smiling
with hardly strength
to speak, just motion
of mobile movement,
settling in with disbelief;
your front seat sadness
colliding with this madness,
even in temporary relief

Note: You may have seen school communities organizing these Car Parades, where the school staff keeps the social distancing by driving (each in own cars) through the community, to see students again, if only briefly. We did that yesterday, thanks to the organization prowess of a colleague. We had more than 50 cars driving for two hours throughout our town, following bus routes across the entire community. So many kids were ready for us (a message had gone out) and it was heartening, uplifting to see families together, waving and shouting and holding up signs of support for the school, and teachers, and for each other. It was the first time seeing many of my students since our abrupt closure on Friday the 13th (yeah, that day). What joy, mixed with sadness, too, that we find ourselves in this situation. I think we teachers needed it as much as families needed it — that connection reminder. We do the best we can do. (more)

Peace (traveling the distance),
Kevin