Just about a year ago, on the half day preceding spring break, my students came together, chalk in hand, to celebrate it all: spring, break, and – yes – poetry.
Okay, that last one was a lot more important to me than to my students, but the majority of them had at least spent some time skimming through a number of poems, selecting a few to focus on, and picking out some favorite lines. It’s an Academy of American Poets activity called Poem in Your Pocket that a colleague and I began working with several years ago, and it became a perennial favorite. As it happens, even fledgling teenagers love to play with sidewalk chalk.
I’m reminded of this in April of 2020, during the present coronavirus pandemic,.as I pass sidewalk scenes in my neighborhood on walks and through photographs I’ve viewed on social media Whether the chalk has been used to create drawings of rainbows or tic tac toe boards, sensory walks, or messages of hope, the children and teens holding those pastel colors in their hands are finding a way to put their mark on the ground, no matter how much it seems to have shifted at our feet.
Here in New Jersey, it is once more spring break. Educators and students alike are able to unwind from the stresses of online learning and disconnect from each other. In so many ways, of course, technology has given us wondrous abilities; just think how much we have all been able to accomplish with it in ways that never could have been done even 10 years ago. Virtual Seders and Easter egg hunts, cocktail hours, and dinners are joyous events, along with singing and dancing and memes that make us happy, for at least a short while, through the disaster that is unfolding. Still, what I’ve heard through my educator relatives and friends is that online teaching isn’t working quite so well.
Here’s the thing: Our students need us. They need us to see them shake their heads, or disengage, or glaze over. They need us to stop them with a word outside the class, letting them know we see a problem. They need us to give them pep talks, often. And — because the law requires it, and their parents and guardians (for the most part) know they must – they need to actually be in school where we can see them – all of them – not just the ones who are showing up in virtual classrooms.
I’m hearing about all the things educators are doing to try to make it work, including private daily check ins for several students a day. I’m watching as they realize how they must change their own mindsets about what can get done, at least for the majority of elementary and middle school students, because virtual meetings are no substitute for a classroom rich with jokes and laughter, a shared world with its own set of rules. As I said often in my classroom: “Remember: What happens in Vegas – as in, Room 374 – stays in Vegas.” Even when it didn’t.
There have been lots of memes these last few weeks about the shock parents and guardians are facing as they try to help their children navigate this new world. Among my favorites: “We had a parent text us today to say that she needs a substitute,” and “Many parents are just about to discover the teacher wasn’t the problem.” We laugh because it’s truth.
Of course, there’s also been a slight, somewhat grudging surge of respect for said educators, though it’s hard to know whether this will stand up when the buses are once again rolling.
It’s been a long month. For those students who haven’t done much (or any) work: You might want to get started. For the rest of you, and for those educators who have been working to support you, I’m hoping that you find the time this week to do whatever makes you happy – which might be as simple as picking up a piece of sidewalk chalk.