Friday, March 20, 2020

How a Significant Loss Prepared me for #Quaranteaching

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
It was a Sunday evening two years ago. I was getting ready to serve dinner and watch a movie with my family when my phone rang. I would have let it ring, but it was my principal. When the principal calls on Sunday night, you answer the phone. He delivered the worst news: The man I had taught next door to for over twenty years had died suddenly that day. It was totally unexpected - he was younger than I was, had lost weight that year, was working and working out at a gym. The heart attack that killed him stole a beloved teacher with one month of school left and one week until his AP test.

Because I am the Science Department Coordinator and his next-door neighbor at school, I stepped into his classes daily for the first couple of weeks. After the initial shock and sadness gave way to moving forward, his students had many questions about their grades. In the most teacher move ever, when he went to the ER with chest pain, he carried his school bag with him; it was, of course, full of papers to grade. The students wanted to know if they could turn in late work, if those papers would be graded, if they could still participate in senior project. The answer to every question, due to this terrible situation, was yes. I made one promise: no one's grades would suffer due to this horrible loss. And then I worked with my tremendous colleagues to make sure that was the case.

I have been thinking a lot about this lately because it mirrors at least a little bit what happened in our classrooms last week. At my school, I saw my students on the last day before spring break and told them to take their books home in case we were closed for some days due to illness. Hours later the governor closed all Ohio schools for three weeks. The next day my partner and I raced to plan online teaching week 1. The following week our buildings were locked. Now we are all anticipating that we will be home longer than these three weeks.

My takeaway is this: Our students are caught up in a terrible situation. They are trying to manage their worry and fear, maybe their siblings or nieces and nephews, while they help out at home and complete their schoolwork. We have worked with these students now for three-fourths of a year. We know what grade they will likely have earned. We can give them the benefit of the doubt that their grades will not decrease. We don't have to worry about assessment and points and number crunching. We can instead try to provide some normalcy, some routines. We can provide materials and assignments with a focus on helping them learn, not helping them earn a particular grade. 

One of the chief complaints I hear about education is testing. Imagine that you've gotten a "snow quarter," a reprieve from testing. Why spend time figuring out or preparing for online assessments? Instead try something you've always wanted to try. Provide lessons that highlight what you love about your discipline. Stop grading things. Ask kids to demonstrate learning in whatever way feels right to them. Maybe they will make something or do something that will become an important part of your future lessons. In the grand scheme of things, will it matter if students can't write an electron configuration or calculate an equilibrium constant or identify the shape of a molecule? If you're not a chemistry teacher and you can't do those things, then you know the answer is that it won't matter. 

We are one week into online teaching in Ohio. Ten days ago we had three COVID-19 cases; today we have 169 (up _50_ from yesterday). Remember that your students are going through this too. They need our grace and understanding now as they would during any other tragedy. Please provide that above all else. Those things are way more important than assignments and assessments.

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