“School Was Never Just Work"
By Elizabeth Colen / May 07, 2020
It has been 34 school days since I’ve stood in front of my students. We had just finished a 3 week-long unit on The Reconstruction, trying to answer the question “Was the Era of Reconstruction steps towards democracy and freedom or continued oppression and punishment?” We had read 20+ primary sources, watched documentary clips, and read analyses of the period by historians Eric Foner and WEB Du Bois. And Friday, March 13, we were finally going to lay it all out there and debate the answer to the question.
It has become one of my favorite lessons of the school year, and one that I have had students debate with Stanford history professors when we visited the university’s campus. I have to admit those professors are always impressed when my 8th graders come in spouting Du Bois and arguing the holes they find in the Lost Cause Theory. But this year on March 13th, we closed school due to the pandemic, and our debate was canceled. And since then, it's been 34 school days since I have said good morning in person, and instead saying good morning over Google Classroom.
So how do we do it? How do I get 51 students engaged in online learning at the end of their 8th grade year when normally I am trying to keep them from falling into “eighth-grade-itis” (similar to “senioritis”)? In a normal school year, the end of the year would be projects and debates and anything to keep students engaged; we read Fahrenheit 451, we write our own dystopian short stories, and we answer the question “How do you create social change?” But this isn’t a normal school year -- and yet we are still reading dystopian stories, writing pieces of our own stories based on the pandemic, and creating our own research projects comparing previous pandemics to today.
While our school year has shifted, it isn’t totally gone, and so we continue to move forward. “Eighth-grade-itis,” along with being at home due to the pandemic is a challenge, and it's been hard to engage all students -- but I’m giving it all I’ve got. Each morning the students log into Google Classroom to find a morning message. This week I’ve started with Good Morning in different languages to mix it up a bit. This morning was "Mholo" - good morning in Xhosa, one of the 11 official languages of South Africa (we had been hosting a teacher from Pretoria just before school was moved to distance learning). The morning message then reminds them of the day's tasks and links them to our daily Zoom meeting.
Students then move into their classwork on Google Classroom where they find the day’s PowerPoint task embedded with videos of me walking them through the task and explaining the lesson – as well as Bitmoji images because why not? But it isn’t just a PowerPoint and worksheets. It is daily Zoom meetings with students where we chat about what is happening, share what is going on in our world, check in on one another, ask questions about school work and sometimes, where we have left over time, play Kahoot games. Because, in the end, school was never just work: there was laughter and fun, silly stories and serious debates, and lots of human connection. So to get students engaged, we have to keep the personal and relational – which in a time when there can be no face to face contact is hard. But students are resilient, and in the face of a challenge all we can do is support them, learn tools to help them engage and and try our best to keep them coming back for more.