Teaching in a Pandemic: Week 1

This is my attempt to document and process my return to the classroom during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic.

This week was surreal. I felt more like a warden than a teacher. Most of my day was spent disinfecting desks and directing kids to wash their hands, keep their masks on their faces, and distance themselves from each other. It felt like one of the longest work weeks of my career.

Here are my reflections from each day of the week.

Monday

I wrote about the first day of school in a separate post here.

Tuesday

I found a note on the floor at the end of the day. It crushed me.

It never feels good to have a student complain about your class. Maybe you were off or your lesson didn’t have the impact you hoped for, but finding this note on the floor just left me feeling gutted. Maybe it’s because I hate school right now, too. Today, we spent a lot of time doing get-to-know you activities; lots of icebreaker and social-emotional stuff. Most of the students went through the motions, but I could tell that they really didn’t care one way or the other. The prescribed lessons the district provided, although well-intentioned to anticipate the uncertain needs of students, fell very flat with my audience. I think that the harsh reality of the “new normal” hit them after a couple of hours sitting in their desks. This is what school is going to look and feel like for the foreseeable future.

I decided to scrap my plans for the end of the day and I had students explore our online library so that they could at least check out some digital books. I saw a couple of students watching Sesame Street instead of reading a book. Some even preferred to color a worksheet or do the Back to School packet I passed out over silently reading. Now, I love Sesame Street, but to choose a packet over a reading a book? Man! I really have a lot of work to do to help these students see themselves as readers.

I am having the principal come into my classroom tomorrow to talk to the class about physical distancing and keeping their hands to themselves. It was a problem both yesterday and today. I need my administration to explain to my students what will happen if they cannot keep their masks on their faces or their hands to themselves.

So, what will happen? If a student continuously or willfully refuses to wear a mask, I need to send them to the principal’s office. The principal will phone home and this will serve as Strike #1. After three strikes, that student will no longer be allowed to participate in face-to-face learning and will be reassigned to a remote learning environment online. I’m worried that many of my students are not taking COVID-19 as seriously as they should. Maybe they have heard that it is just like the flu. Maybe they don’t believe that it is as deadly as scientists claim. Who knows? I’d prefer intrinsic student engagement over extrinsic compliance, but in this case, I need absolute compliant behavior so that we are all safe in my classroom. Zero tolerance.

A few students asked me to move their desks. Honestly, I was going to move some anyway, but I’m surprised that a few students asked to be moved. One of the more compliant students asked to be moved further away from the front of the room. I’m starting to get the impression that the students are cursing the fact that they landed me as their teacher!

Our class had more downtime today than many the neighboring classrooms. Although I am committed to building a community this week over academic work, if I am being honest, I just don’t want to teach any content yet. I think that some of my students aren’t excited to begin learning yet. It feels like a mutual agreement to not do any real work. We are all trying to figure out this radically different COVID-classroom experience. The kids hate having to practice lining up fifty times while I repeat over and over and over again to keep physically distant from the person in front.

We did spend quite a bit of time online today. The kids really need practice logging in and finding my online homeroom on our district’s LMS. I introduced my theme song narrative project this morning. I think they are excited, but I am having a difficult time reading the room.

I have a team meeting directly after school so this is about all of the processing time I get.

Wednesday

I had a terrible morning with my students. I wanted them to do an aspirational writing activity based on creating awesome learning experiences for this school year. The principal interrupted to remind them about wearing their masks (I asked her to come in yesterday). This doesn’t seem to have deterred one of my boys much; he is still taking off his mask and constantly wearing it below his nose.

I had students brainstorm things that they could remember about amazing learning experiences from their previous grade levels. If they couldn’t think of any, I wanted them to think about horrible learning experiences they have had over the years. The brainstorming went well. The sharing did not. It was like pulling teeth; especially for my one boy who struggles to keep his mask on his face. He wrote down something about a video game project, but refused to talk about it at all. He just shrugged his shoulders and said, I don’t know. I’m going to have to work really hard to earn his trust and respect this year.

In reflecting and debriefing as a class, I discovered that 90% of my students have hated school for at least 3 or more years and don’t feel welcome. They think school is boring. They feel that teachers are mean. It was shocking when I called out this inference and then see almost the entire class agree by raising their hands. I asked one student who said that they were bored a lot in school what made school so boring. From behind me, my anti-mask kiddo muttered under his breath, “This conversation.” Ouch! That was quite a burn. I guess I am grateful that no one else in the class heard it.

I transitioned our debrief to a Stormboard Math activity where students put their names on a digital sticky note and place it on a matrix (grades versus passion on one axis, positive persistence versus negative persistence on the other axis). A lot of my students played around with their cursors instead of intentionally placing a sticky note in a quadrant. I forced everyone to close their laptops to get them to pay attention! When we restarted, students kept moving other kids’ sticky notes. One girl started crying out of sheer frustration because her sticky note wouldn’t stay where she put it. I ended the lesson early and had students march in line around the building until PE. I just couldn’t keep them in their seats any longer.

I was shocked today when I learned how many of my students have had really negative school experiences. So many of them hate school! And now it is up to me to try and change that narrative. It feels like a lot of pressure to try and undo five years worth of lowered expectations, boring lessons, and mean teachers.

Thursday

I have now counted 11 teachers who have approached me in the past 2 weeks to inform me that I received a “stacked class.” For those readers who are unfamiliar with that term, a “stacked class” is code for “we gave you the most challenging kids in the school.” Today, a teacher talked to me about “those kids” and told me that I have all of the students who have been challenging teachers since Kindergarten. Apparently, this group of students throughout the years have wreaked havoc on teachers’ nerves in classrooms throughout the building since they were 5 years old.

Being a male Elementary-school teacher has always come with a few caveats. Since I am usually one of the only males in the building, I’m called in frequently to address discipline with certain students who “need a good male role model.” In most cases, I listen and empathize with the student and then advise him to handle his frustration at the school system in a different way.

At the end of every school year, teachers always make class lists for the next grade-level teacher. Sometimes, students who have severe learning needs are spread out so as to ease the teaching load. In some cases, however, these students are clustered together so that the SPED teachers can focus on one classroom. For students who struggle behaviorally (meaning they refuse to be compliant), they are definitely spread out so as not to burden teachers with classroom management. On more than one occasion, I have looked at my class list and seen not one or two, but three or four students who have spent quite a bit of time in the principal’s office. This year, I received all of them. Throughout this week, I have heard sympathetic comments from various teachers in the building about having a “stacked class.” I usually just smile, but since no one can see my face, I find myself nodding my head and saying okay. I think that a few teachers are actually worried about me and my mental health because I have so many of “those kids.”

This morning, we worked on our WHY statement. I spent the morning telling my students a rather long story about a project I had when I was in 5th grade. I felt like I had everyone’s attention for about 5 minutes. It was awesome! Then, we transitioned to taking our stories and turning them into purpose statements. That is where I lost the class. I have a feeling that I’m going to need to really simplify my directions and repeat myself over and over and over again. On the other hand, I refuse to dumb down anything just because I have “those kids.” We need to keep moving forward together.

Today, I did feel like I made some progress with the class, but it’s more like one half-step forward, three steps backward. We had fun doing a quick design challenge so that I could introduce design thinking. I rewarded their sustained focus and took them outside for a “mask break” and possibly a game. As soon as we got outdoors, it was like I had just released the hounds for the hunt! They all dispersed, masks hanging off of one ear, screaming like they hadn’t stepped foot outdoors in months. Maybe my morning activities felt like months of time? We all took a mask break with large physical distancing. I tried to organize a game, but half of the students loitered and wanted to “hang out.” A quarter of the class wanted to play a game and the other group just wanted to run around aimlessly. It was a complete disaster! When we came back inside, the topic my lecture before lunch was “What the hell just happened?” With a sub-topic of “Do you want to shut down school and go to remote learning?”

We meditated again after lunch, but a large portion of the class wanted to sit on the floor. I obliged, but immediately regretted that decision. The ones who were on the floor tried to splay out and take a nap instead of focus on their breath. Tomorrow, I will require students to be hands free, in seats, and eyes closed. Thank God tomorrow is Friday!

Friday

This morning’s lesson did not go as expected. I conducted a more formal Math lesson, which kept everyone compliant, but as soon as I transitioned to a less structured Writing activity, I lost control again. Unfortunately, I struggled to have students turn in their WHY slideshows from earlier in the week. I had some technology issues and while I was troubleshooting, I lost the class’ attention and what little engagement I had. I quickly pivoted to an art activity: designing classroom badges (e.g.: microcredentials), which helped, but I needed to end it early because I had students freely walking around the classroom and taking their off their masks.

I chatted with another teacher in the building and she gave me some insight into one of my most challenging students. She told me that she spoke with him earlier in the day and plans to continue to check on him in class. I hope she is able to get through to him while I’m still working to gain his trust and respect. He is definitely pushing me every single day. She told me that in her experience, he needs a ton of structure (as do most of my students), so I am grateful we are moving into academic instruction next week. I think we all need more structure. I just hope that I can still engage the students with fun projects instead of resorting to workbooks and worksheets.

I showed students a Dreamer documentary this afternoon. We didn’t finish it, but it was a good way to kill an hour of time while giving students something inspiring to watch. I have never showed a movie during the first week of school, but I felt this one was a good idea. I plan to use the documentary as an introduction to an upcoming Dream Builder project. Each student had to write down anything from the movie that resonated with them or inspired them. I will have students combine these with their WHY statements and use Giovanni Marsico’s Dream Builder formula to build a Dream Biography and Action Plan.

We organized our desks and got ready for academic work next week. I decided to end the day with a Friday Discussion.

Friday discussions are a weekly class meeting where we use a Plus Delta evaluation to provide feedback on our learning experiences during the week. I am looking for ideas for future classroom improvements. I believe in using improvement language instead of language that might be experienced negatively. The plus identifies what went well. The delta identifies what might be changed or improved for our upcoming week.

The suggestions for our first Friday Discussion were predictable. No one really asked for a classroom management system. I mentioned using ClassDojo and a few students liked the idea. I think everyone is tired of having their behavior managed. ClassDojo may work, but it’s just one more thing I need to organize and implement and keep up with. I’m not sure it’s worth the effort. I hate how inauthentic most classroom management systems are. Some kids love them; in fact, I loved using ClassDojo when I was in the classroom. Now that I am older (and perhaps a bit more cynical), I feel like kids need to manage their own behavior and not worry about earning imaginary stickers or points in order to trade them in for some prizes at the end of the week. I can’t even pass out prizes anymore during this pandemic, so what’s the point? I do recognize that most management systems are not the problem. The system is just a system, and that in order for it to be authentic, the teacher needs to make it authentic. ClassDojo will be successful if I can connect it to creating meaningful learning experiences in the classroom through bonding as a classroom community.

The Friday discussion devolved into me yelling at the kids about COVID and all of the things they struggled with this week. I told them that I plan to email all parents and inform them about how much harder we all need to work to make our classroom safer.

This weekend, I need to tweak a ton in order to get ready for next week’s academic work. In some ways, it will be nice to have some structure so that I’m not improvising random activities. With a content structure, I can integrate design thinking and other fun activities that will be connected to what students are learning.

After a crazy first week of school, I learned that this will be the most challenging educational experience of my life. I am convinced that even though teaching in a pandemic is terrifying, I will come out on the other end of this a much better teacher.

Here are my key learnings from the week.

No one could have predicted what teaching and learning during a global pandemic would look and feel like. It sucks!

Compliant COVID-19 behavior is non-negotiable. Whereas I disagree with what many teachers require for a “well-behaved” class (e.g.: quiet students with their heads down), COVID-19 has forced me to take a zero-tolerance stance on many behaviors I would normally allow in my classroom (e.g.: free movement, flexible seating, collaborating). It sucks!

I believe in the importance of building strong student relationships; however, I have never struggled this much to connect with my class. I don’t want to blame COVID, but it is definitely creating an obstacle (an actual physical mask-barrier) between me and my students connecting. I believe that if I can build authentic, culturally-responsive relationships with my students, we will be able to learn in spite of COVID-19.

I am a learning experience designer. I’m an intellectual thinker. I push the boundaries of what’s possible. I have lots stories to tell and change to make.

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