Small Victories: Moments in the Pandemic

May 28th, 2021 | By | Category: BLTN Teachers, Featured, Spring 2021

As BLTN members entered one of four Zoom meetings this year, they exchanged what Bread Loaf professor Ken Macrorie might have called “fabulous realities” about their recent teaching days. (An excerpt from that chat, might bring you a smile.) As the night’s discussion grew, we realized that “small victories” were some of the best antidotes to the pandemic we had on hand. We hope you enjoy a few sample of BLTNers’ small victories during this academic year.

Anna Russell Thornton
YES Prep Public School
Houston, TX

When we returned to school in person a few months into the school year, it was like starting the year over anew. Suddenly I had faces to go with the initials on the screen, and my impressions of many students changed substantially. One student in particular had been exceptionally active in the virtual space, a class clown kind of character. In person, however, he kept his head down and his walls up. Shortly after we returned, on the first standardized test of the year, this student wrote a paragraph that blew me away with its powerful authorial voice. I sent him a quick Teams chat, “Your paragraph was one of the best ones I read from the Common Assessment. I especially loved the line, ‘We all have a little TJ in us.’ So true!” The student thanked me, and the next day in class, he was bright-eyed and chatty, just as I had expected from his virtual presence. His infectious energy set a whole new tone for that class period.

Seeing his shift that day was a profound reminder that a moment of individual recognition and connection is sometimes all a student needs to feel seen and safe; and that, ultimately, is the most important work we do as teachers.

Shaleisa Brewer
Booker T. Washington High School
Atlanta, GA

This past year raised my consciousness in ways unimaginable. Every day, I learned of people who were (and still are) greatly impacted by the effects of COVID-19.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I was immediately made aware of the healthcare workers, food-service workers, small business owners, elders in nursing homes, elders in general, high school and college graduates, family members who could not visit loved ones in the hospital, and the homeless population with no home to quarantine.

As the pandemic worsened and forced me to stay at home with my own thoughts (and the news), I thought of the sex-trafficking victims in Atlanta who were getting so much attention UNTIL the pandemic. Not only were their lives even more at risk, they were also, yet again, silenced. I thought of the inmates who could not socially distance and have gone over a year without seeing their parents, their siblings, their children.

I began to recognize a downward spiral of thoughts occurring simultaneously with my raised consciousness and actively began to acknowledge my small victories: Moving into a new home; finding alone time, and observing others’ struggles instead of absorbing them (a not-so-small victory).

The celebration of my small victories was going well until the school year began. Immediately, I was burdened with the feeling of guilt and shame for having celebrated anything at all. I learned that while I was moving into a new home, many of our students were being displaced from their own because, unfortunately, the pandemic stopped many things, but not gentrification. While I relished my quiet, alone time, I learned that many of my own students had to stay on mute as they were living in multi-family households, making virtual learning even more difficult.

I began to absorb again. This time, my absorption did not only affect me; it also affected my students. I was drained and that energy was being transferred onto my students.

Immediately, I began to fill my jar (literal and metaphorical) with small accomplishments: Following a complete morning routine; eating a healthy breakfast; working out; lesson planning for the whole week; finding time to call and check in on elders.

Acknowledgment of these small wins soon led to bigger wins: developing solid relationships with my students in a virtual environment; making students feel special through virtual birthday celebrations; raising money to host virtual games in which students won monetary prizes; hosting events for parents to listen to their child’s creative writing, and; having students celebrate themselves both in the pandemic and in life.

Every once in a while, the absorption and guilt try to resurface. I am a teacher who is connected to and responsible for her students. Is that not normal? However, I have to overcome my empathetic inclinations to be the version of myself for myself and my students. 

A small win for me has been the direct benefits I’ve seen for my students from the sharing I’ve done with the BLTN community. I started my year using a unit I appropriated from fellow BLTN’er Kurt Ostrow called “Another World is Possible.” It took the pressure off of my planning and was perfect for my students. Each student took it a step further and published their pieces in digital Zines, whose theme was “Manifesting a Better Future.” Students assembled and ran a digital publication gala that they invited our principal and fifteen other school adults to enjoy. 

Cole Moran
Charlestown High School
Charlestown, MA

We are yet again the beneficiaries of BLTN sharing in our current unit. After listening to April Baker-Bell’s talk this summer, I started assembling an informational writing unit called “Language, Race, and Power.” Students will have a choice to write letters to Boston Public Schools district leaders and/or politicians informing them of the importance of Black Language or bilingual education. Per Professor Baker-Bell’s example, we are using her academic papers as the primary texts that students will synthesize in their own explanatory letters.

Students are reflecting on, discussing, and writing about their own linguistic experiences in profound ways. 

Teacher collaboration and adult learning through BLTN have had a direct positive impact on student learning in our classroom. Virtual unit and lesson planning are challenging. These two examples of sharing have anchored the arc of my year. I am very grateful to this community!

Collin Lajoie
Wyandotte High School
Kansas City, Kansas

After the assault on the U.S. Capitol Jan. 6, I was prepared to take the rest of the week off to process and care for myself, but I knew that many of my students trust me to help them through times like this. I didn’t go so far as to create a lesson plan around it, partly because I assumed the students would talk about it in all of their classes, but I did want to devote as much time at the beginning of my classes as necessary, so I simply began with “How are you feeling?” and “What questions do you have?” In my AP Literature & Composition class at my minority-white, urban school, I’ve made the conscious decision to focus solely on BIPOC authors and examine American identity through a non-white lens. Unsurprisingly, then, the conversation in our class focused heavily on the difference between the federal response to this riot and the Black Lives Matter protests. The conversation went on much longer than I intended as I tried to address concerns and misinformation. My students were scared, frustrated, angry, and just so hurt. It all felt so heavy that by the end of the conversation, I wondered if I had made a mistake opening up this space.

But as we finished up, a majority of the students told me that they had not talked about it at all in any of their classes that day, and one student spoke up and said, “I’m just so grateful for this class and you and how in this class you encourage us to talk about stuff like this that’s important and that matters to us. So, thank you.”

John Hall
Presentation Academy
Louisville, Kentucky

Initially when my principal told the faculty the plan for the 2020-2021 school year, I was less than thrilled.  We planned to offer in-person instruction five days a week for all students.  If students weren’t able to attend in person, then they could choose an online option and Zoom into school.  On the first day of school, I was convinced we would all be in quarantine and back online in two weeks.  However, this was not the case.  Our faculty and staff and students bought into social distancing, mask wearing, and sanitization protocols in order to keep us in person.  I was especially proud of our students for their attention to detail and willingness to follow strict covid procedures.  From August until early November, we only had four confirmed cases, and these cases were from community spread, not from within the school.  My school has a smaller student population than most, and I know that the same covid protocols we used would not be feasible in other, larger schools.

I am appreciative of, and truly grateful for the opportunity to meet with my students and colleagues mask to mask. 

Liz Farrow
Oak Park and River Forest High School
Oak Park, Illinois

In my freshman English classes, our curriculum is centered on developing literacy skills for students who struggle with executive functioning and reading skills. In this pandemic, some of our pre-existing curriculum just doesn’t serve the moment, so my co-teachers and I worked together to create a short unit called “The Pandemic Playlist.” To continue building on foundational reading skills, we read a number of non-fiction texts: we explored how music is connected to emotions, we read interviews with songwriters who believe musicians are “essential workers” who have the power to provide healing in these difficult times. The culminating project is a class “Pandemic Playlist” for which each student submits a song that is perfect for this moment and how we are feeling. We brainstormed “how we’re feeling right now” and it tore my heart out to hear students sharing their anxiety and depression, their “over it” frustration, their loneliness and disappointment.  The music project has been a powerful opportunity to center our social and emotional positions, students and teachers. 

Students are in the research and analysis phase and the small victory is in how students light up at the opportunity to showcase a favorite artist, and to highlight the healing power of specific lyrics…Students have pointed out that a song has made them feel connected, not alone, understood, uplifted.

I can’t wait for our sharing lesson, when students present and discuss their entries! I know we will all learn something new about each other and how we can support one another!

Hilary Howard-Fredrick
East Jessamine High School
Nicholasville, Kentucky

The 2020-2021 school year will be one for the books, and it is the job of the school yearbook to accurately capture the ups and downs in its pages. Last year, my staff finished the yearbook virtually, using student-submitted photos to cover canceled spring sports, Prom on the Porch, and our graduation parade. This year, however, my staff started at a distinct disadvantage. How do you even begin to report on school—sports, academics, extracurriculars—when no one will be in the school building for months?

But my students came out of the gate ready to make this work. We used Jamboard to brainstorm cover and theme ideas and created Google Forms to collect quotes, pictures, and stories from students and teachers. We learned a new software together over Google Meet and did our best to problem-solve by sharing our screens and guiding one another. We attended socially-distanced sporting events to take pictures.

The moment in-person classes resumed, we photographed our new normal, including one-direction hallways, mask breaks, temperature checks, and hybrid learning. My incredible staff has done the impossible by continually finding ways to record the year as it is and show that the East Jessamine Jaguars are better Together as 1.

Veronica Foster
Biddeford High School
Biddeford, Maine

This is my ninth year in the classroom, and for eight of those nine years I have built some form of independent reading into my classes (the one year I didn’t, I regretted it!). I’ve found that providing time in class for students to read books that they choose helps them build confidence as readers, increase the amount of reading they do over the course of a year, and approach assigned class texts with less reticence. Which is to say: I’m a big fan. This year, though, independent reading has also helped me create deeper connections with my students. I require that they read at least one book each quarter, but in an effort to prevent independent reading from feeling like yet another task, the only assessment is a 5-10 minute Book Talk with me. In the past, these Book Talks have been relatively perfunctory. I open to a random page, ask the student why Betty is mad at Junior (or some other comprehension question students would only know from reading), and give them credit when it’s clear that they can answer without issue. Now, I look forward to Book Talks as a way to get one-on-one time with students in a year where that time is incredibly rare. I have a handful of students whose faces I have only seen during Book Talks; they keep their camera off during class, but will turn it on when it’s just the two of us chatting about books. I have students whose Book Talks have evolved into 30-minute discussions about Halloween or past sports accomplishments. I have a few students whose recommendations inevitably end up on my Goodreads “Want to Read” list.

This year has been hard in so many ways, but the time I spend talking to kids about books on Zoom has been a surprising silver lining. 

Kyle Smith
The Academies of Bryan Station High School
Lexington, Kentucky

One of my main goals as an educator this year is to mindfully incorporate texts that reflect the diversity of our society in my classes, especially my English 4 classes. Given my school is in virtual instruction currently and has been since the beginning of the school year, I was afraid these efforts would be difficult since our schedule was modified to allow more equity amongst students who may be acting as essential workers to help support their families during this time.

When reading texts in class, I strove to alter my curriculum to include a variety of texts written by and about those whose identities mirror my students. I did not tell students this was a goal I had for the year, but at the end of last semester, when I administered an informal survey where students could reflect upon the year so far and make suggestions for the upcoming semester,  one student (who missed most of our Zoom classes) noted they felt I was doing well in offering “More diversity in readings! I love to see that we are reading about people of color more and students are getting representation.” Another student wrote, “I really enjoyed the content, it was engaging and it much of what we discussed was based on real-time issues.”

I know that my curriculum is far from perfect, but I am happy to know that some of my selections allowed students to feel seen and apply their knowledge to issues that affect their lives every day.    

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