Distance Learning, Day One

Yesterday—March 23, 2020—was my, and my wife Liz’s, first official day of working from home. We are both teachers, and Friday before last, shortly after arriving home and while helping our kids climb a tree in the front yard, we each learned via Robo-call that our school, like most others in California, would be closed for the next three weeks, the first of those three being Spring Break, which ended this past Sunday.

So our days of social isolation/at-home sheltering consist of a balancing of our own two children’s educational needs, their schools, of course, being closed as well, with the needs of our 150ish apiece students who are suddenly stuck at home.

Thankfully, Liz got a jumpstart on homeschooling our Pre-K’er and 1st-grader early into our Spring Break, filling a jeep with school supplies from the Dollar Store and repurposing our dining room as a Kindergarten classroom, where we spent 8:30 to 10:30am of each Spring Break day reading, writing, adding, subtracting, coloring, gluing, circle-timing, and singing and dancing.

For Liz, Spring Break was no break at all. Besides planning the modified instruction of our students, she also teaches night classes at a local community college—not on Spring Break last week and where, as of last week, all classes, including Liz’s, are now online classes.

So, in the course of a week, Liz has had to transition from classroom high school + junior college teacher to preschool/first-grade homeschool teacher + online instructor, the latter, as of yesterday, when Spring Break at our “day jobs” ended and “work from home” began, extending into her high school teaching.

Plus she’s co-writing a book (with me, manuscript due a little over 3 months from now). And plus she has a parent who falls into each and every COVID-19 “at risk” category and starts chemo next week.

I’d say she’s handling it well. But then she’s a remarkable person.

Back to yesterday: Liz and I both teach in the IB (International Baccalaureate) program. We teach Year 1 (Liz) and Year 2 (me) of Higher Level English Literature (juniors [Liz] and seniors [me]), a two-year course that culminates with a couple of quite rigorous, quite high stakes standardized exams, taken in May of each year.

And on day one of this period of distance learning, having no idea how long said period will last but with the intention of remotely preparing my students for the abovementioned exams, IB, in the wee hours of the morning, announced the cancellation of all exams.

Some of my seniors have been in the IB program since the sixth grade. At minimum, they’ve been in it for the past four years. It’s a grueling program, and, at some point along the line, they’ve each and every one wanted to quit. But we told them that, in the end, it would be worth it. That nothing worthwhile is easy.

This class, though, got to the end, but the end is canceled.

All of that might seem less troubling if, say, you are imaging these students as privileged, private school students, as many IB students worldwide are.

But these students are not that. These students, if we’re labeling, have these labels: socioeconomically disadvantaged, minority, first-generation college-going. They worked really hard for this, with a lot stacked against them.

They’re going to be okay. They’re all still going to college. They’ve all still beaten the odds, but the news, yesterday, that their exams were canceled, amidst the larger context of a global pandemic, must have been…deflating.

It was deflating for me, anyway. For most of the day, I was distracted by responding to the sea of what-are-we-going-to-do-now emails (I counted 105, just over one each from one-third of my total number of students), but around the afternoon, those emails volleyed, I began to sink down an existential drain: we had been preparing for those exams for so long, and I had prepared students for those same exams for so many years, at this time of year, but with those exams cancelled, what on Earth was I going to/expected to teach, remotely or not? What was the point? From which I somehow jumped to And who am I? What is the point of me?

All of which opened to my eyes to my own guilt in perpetuating something I hate about education: putting the assessment of the content before the content. Teaching to the test. As if our teaching is only justified by a subsequent quantitative result.

My plan had been to teach students to read a poem critically—to interact with it and question it and break it apart and put it back together. And then write about it. Why was I going to teach all of that? Because they would need to do that on a standardized test.

So as I circled the drain, I wondered why, with no such standardized test, I would teach them any of that.

Until I remembered that I’m an English teacher. Teaching a higher level capital-L Literature course. And, so, teaching all of that is my job.

And we (English teachers, plural now) teach it because of the transferable skills: thinking critically, reading critically, writing clearly and persuasively.

And we also teach it because it’s poetry. It’s art, and we learn about life (and all its nooks and crannies) by experiencing art, which holds a mirror up to life (and all its nooks and crannies).

Anyway, I felt better. On to Day Two.