By Andy Schoenborn
March 13th, 2020 was the last time I saw my students face-to-face.
We gathered our books, pens, papers and docked our Chromebooks in the charging station. We cleaned out our lockers and classrooms. We joked a bit about the COVID-19 “apocalypse” and I said, “See you in three weeks!” On a whim, before I left, I looked at my classroom library and tucked Mary Oliver’s Devotions, Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, and John Warner’s The Writer’s Practice under my arm, turned off the lights, and closed my classroom door.
I didn’t say goodbye. I didn’t think I had to say goodbye.
As of April 13th, 2020 – a full month removed – I missed my students and longed to reconnect with them through beautiful words. Words we lift with our voices and words that are drawn to the page when we write.
With a new distance learning situation and all the stresses that come with it, I kept the heart of my pedagogy: learning opportunities that are personal, relevant, and authentic. In my view these are the big three lenses that encourage literacy and create confident writers.
And, though I wasn’t officially required to begin learning with students, the desire was strong, and I invited students to join me in forty-five minutes virtual classes using Zoom. The virtual classes were optional and nothing would be graded or be counted for credit or no credit either. The intent was learning for the sake of learning. It was a good place to be.
During our first Zoom session I shared my pedagogy and stance on grading with those in attendance. In the awkwardness of that first meeting, my students didn’t say much but they did smile. The joy evident on their faces was enough to help me realize that thinking of students first, inviting literacy experiences they care about, and giving them a (virtual) space to come together as writers was needed during our time apart.
In lieu of the typical assignments we would be doing at this time of the year including a multimodal project for seniors and a presentation for juniors, I recognized the need for students to have a personal outlet. Writing from the heart can be that release and I chose to lean on NPR’s This I Believe, to encourage my seniors to think, write, and share about how COVID-19 has shaped their beliefs. Understanding the often therapeutic nature of writing poetry, I reached out to Dr. Sarah Donovan. Her #verselove prompts on ethicalela.com have been a respite for thoughtful and authentic writing experiences. Additionally, my students and I have found Brett Vogelsinger’s Go Poems as creative, reflective, and authentic literacy outlets.
For my juniors, The Quarantine Journal Project is sparking thinking, writing, and conversation that we share every other day. We are exploring ethical dilemmas using the TED Talk playlist “New Tech, New Ethics” and collaboratively sharing what resonates, what worries, and what revolutionizes. Eventually we will explore our thinking around ethical dilemmas using John Warner’s ethical dilemma writing experience from his work The Writer’s Practice.
All of these experiences are delivered at a comfortable pace, without expectations of homework, and offered, most importantly, with grace in mind. It is true that only a small percentage of my students regularly join me in these virtual spaces – and that is okay.
As educators we find ourselves in the challenging space of wanting to give our students the best of ourselves and finding it a struggle at times. It is easy to be frustrated – I’ve been there too. I often compare what I am doing to reach my students with the brilliant ideas I see from educators on my social media feeds. Sometimes I am encouraged and sometimes I feel I am not enough. In the moments when I feel I am lacking, I dip into the grace I share with my students and give some to myself. It can be difficult, but a sip from the well of grace is refreshing and rejuvenating. Like water, grace (for ourselves and for our students), is what will help sustain us on our journey.
In isolation, each of us has a desire for our voices to be seen and heard in ways that bring us together as a community. I am choosing to learn and grow together with my students, one day at a time, until we meet again in celebration and acknowledgement that we made it through a global crisis. For now, we meet on Zoom, and raise our voices online.
Andy Schoenborn is an award-winning author and high school English teacher in Michigan at Mt. Pleasant Public Schools. He focuses his work on progressive literacy methods including student-centered critical thinking, digital collaboration, and professional development. He is a co-facilitator of the monthly #TeachWrite Twitter chat, past-president of the Michigan Council of Teachers of English, and teacher consultant for the Chippewa River Writing Project, as well as MRA’s Region 10 Representative. His first book, co-authored with Dr. Troy Hicks, Creating Confident Writers will be published June 2, 2020. Follow him on Twitter @aschoenborn.
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