Coronavirus, a collage in words

What have I even been doing every day?

Today makes a week since we were told to stop going to school. I can remember the week ramping up to the announcement; we were anxious, worried, disinfecting our classrooms every morning, hoping to get the call so we could focus on the social distancing that experts were calling for.

But ever since, I’ve felt unmoored.

***

Today is the Friday before spring break. Usually it’s a day mixed with exhaustion and excitement. Everyone is just trying to make it through the day to launch a week of whatever they have planned to do before the last mad dash to the end of the school year. But instead of being at school with my antsy ready-for-spring-break students and exasperated ready-for-spring-break colleagues, I woke to a quiet house, had a slow breakfast, walked up to school (for the hour window my department had to pick up what we needed from our offices and classrooms to start online instruction after spring break), had a few short conversations with a handful of colleagues across the at least 6 foot chasm required of us right now, and spent the afternoon dealing with email and what feels like a thousand other little work-related things. But looking back, I’m not sure what exactly I accomplished.

***

I’ve had a few successful Zoom experiences this week (a department meeting and interviews for the editor-in-chief positions for yearbook and newspaper for next year). I watched a very helpful Zoom tutorial. I figured out what to do about a newspaper class fundraiser we do each year in the spring since it won’t work per usual this year. I have gotten some things accomplished. But still, by the time dinner time rolls around each day, I’m looking at the books I didn’t read and the online curriculum plans I didn’t do that I thought would be done by now.

***

Here’s what I’m thinking about for online APLit:

  1. Read Beloved together and have some deep conversation about it. This is the most important book we read each year, and all the work we’ve done up until now has prepared them for it. I can’t wait to get started.
  2. Keep working on their major literary arguments that they started writing in January. This task is all about making meaning out of complexity, and if that is not life prep, I’m not sure what is.
  3. Prepare for the AP Lit exam. From what the College Board folks put out today, it appears the exam will be quite different this year. I’m anxious to see what info we get about what kinds of questions to expect on the exam.
  4. Stay connected. We’re isolated. We need to remember we are in each other’s lives.

***

There’s a stack of AP timed essays sitting on my kitchen island. Three classes’ worth of two essays per student. The last block period before we were told to go home and stay there, my students and I wrote two timed essays. One poetry analysis essay and one literary argument essay. Writing two essays in 85 minutes is excellent practice for the AP Exam where they write three essays in 120 minutes. I wrote with them to remember how difficult it is, what it feels like, how my hand hurts, how you have to just push through it even if you’re not totally happy about what you’re writing about. We all survived it. The next day in class, they were going to read their essays and work with the new AP essay rubrics and think about what score they might get, just like we’ve done with every other timed essay in class this year. But that next day in class didn’t happen.

And now that the AP exam’s format is changing for this year, do we still need to work on that exact writing task? What do I do with the huge stack of essays? I have to be honest–I don’t think I have it in me right now to read and score them all by myself. There are 170 of them or so. I won’t take the time to scan them and figure out how to structure an online peer evaluation session with them unless it’s clear that doing that work would help my students for the exam.

Still, the stack of essays is staring me down from across the room as I type.

***

Here’s what I’m thinking for my online Senior Literature, Composition, and Communication class:

  1. Write. They have papers we were finishing up from our last shared text, Jordan Peele’s Get Out. We also read some of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and used that to help contextualize Peele’s film. The chose some meaningful writing to do inspired by our conversation about both texts. Task one will be finalizing those pieces of writing. Task two, writing another piece to close out the year.
  2. Read. I want them to continue the choice books they have and also read widely about what’s going on in our world right now. I want to emphasize reading skills that they will use every day for the rest of their lives. I want the writing they do to capture the thinking they’re doing as they read.
  3. Reflect. I will invite them to look over what we’ve done all year and make some sense of it. What have they learned together as a group? What have they learned as individuals? What will they take forward with them?
  4. Connect. Again, we’re isolated, but we still have some shared space to do some meaningful work together. This is the time of year with seniors that I start to feel nostalgic and sad. I’m excited for my impending graduates and all the adventures ahead for them, but I’m sad that my time with them is waning. Spending that time looking at my students through a computer screen rather than actually being in a classroom with them is going to be strange.

***

One of my first thoughts when school was called, and I knew that we wouldn’t have to start online instruction quite yet, was that I could get some books read. Instead I’ve been scrolling scrolling scrolling through Twitter. Reading the news. Scrolling some more. Seeking connections beyond my house, I guess. But it isn’t helping my mental state as much as reading books would. And yet I can’t seem to focus on anything deeply right now.

***

The most important things right now are these: keeping people safe and healthy, making sure people in my community have what they need, staying healthy myself so I can deliver groceries to my mom every week, identifying needs my students have and passing them on to the support systems in my school district so they can get the support they need, doing what I can to support local businesses that are trying to stay afloat (our pandemic dinner plan for now includes two nights of delivery/takeout per week) (we are grateful to have paychecks that will keep coming and are taking opportunities to support others who don’t have that certainty right now), planning an online learning experience for my students that is meaningful and manageable and flexible and not onerous.

It’s important to live in this uncertain disruption for as long as it takes. I’m grateful my family and friends are healthy for now.

But I’m sad about the little things, too: the newly purchased prom dress hanging in my high school junior’s closet. I’m not sure she’ll get to use it this year, and I hope she still likes it next year. The speech two of my seniors recently auditioned for graduation. I’m not sure we’ll even have a graduation ceremony where they could deliver it. The too much TV I’m watching. But honestly, it feels like survival right now. Teaching Beloved through a computer screen to humans I’d rather be sitting in class with. Not being able to hang out in my office at school with my colleagues, laughing about words and poetry and books and films in ways only English Language Arts teachers can. The long-planned dinner party with friends we’ll have to cancel this weekend. The spring break trip to California we cancelled–we were going to visit colleges with our daughter and visit my aunties. The upcoming funeral for an uncle in Grand Rapids I won’t be able to fly to. My daughter’s end-of-year choir concerts. Her track season. Getting pedicures on mother’s day with my mom and my kid. And I really need a haircut right now.

***

I struggled to find a thread to hold this piece together when I first started writing it. Over dinner this evening, I stared out across the room thinking about it, how to weave this together. My kid asked, “Mom, are you okay?” “Yes, yes,” as I turned back to my dinner. I had just figured out that maybe this post could resemble in form how life has felt for the last week–disrupted, uncertain. Not on solid ground. No clear thesis. Just muddling through, day by day, moment by moment, trying to adjust to this new reality, trying NOT to dwell in worst case scenario projections because I’m not sure I can hold it together if I do.

***

Our governor announced a few days ago that all schools are closed until April 17. I would love to believe that we’ll actually go back to school then, but I just can’t imagine it based on seeing what has happened with this virus in other countries who struggled with it before we did. Will we get to go back in May? Even for a week or two before school would be out for the summer? Will the start of next year see disruption too? What will all of this mean for my community, my students, our country, our economy, our planet? How will this change us, and what will we learn?

***

It feels like grief. I know this because every morning for the last few days, upon waking, I forget for a few moments what is going on in our world. And then the realization comes to me, crushing and heavy. The last time I had mornings like that was in the weeks after my dad died in 2016.

This entry was posted in AP Lit, balancing, community, kindness, life and death, muddling through, reflections, teaching, teaching literature, teaching reading, teaching writing. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Coronavirus, a collage in words

  1. Tracy Brennan says:

    Thanks for putting words to what we are all feeling this week, like things have ended at an awkward time, that we may not see our students again any time soon, that we will have to teach online when the joy and magic that comes from teaching only happens in a room with 30 sweaty bodies there waiting to learn together. I miss my students!
    Tracy Brennan

  2. As a fellow AP Lit teacher, I share your anxiety about the upcoming test. I was thrown for a loop yesterday after the announcement. Thursday night, I had laid out what I felt like were decent plans to prepare them for the exam as we once knew it. By Friday at lunch, those plans were out the window and I was left trying to guess what in the world College Board will throw at them for 45 minutes. We will read. We will write. We will think. We will discuss. We will stay connected. That’s all we can do.

    • Sarah M. Zerwin says:

      Indeed. And those are the most important things, anyhow. When this is all over, I’m going to challenge myself to stay focused on those things and not much more. Thanks for reading!

  3. Karen says:

    “One of my first thoughts when school was called, and I knew that we wouldn’t have to start online instruction quite yet, was that I could get some books read. Instead I’ve been scrolling scrolling scrolling through Twitter. Reading the news. Scrolling some more. Seeking connections beyond my house, I guess. But it isn’t helping my mental state as much as reading books would. And yet I can’t seem to focus on anything deeply right now.”

    YES! THIS has been my reality precisely. And, I wake up at night, my brain on the hamster-wheel of planning online instruction.

    “It feels like grief.”

    YES! The sunshine, the blue sky and the trails offer some ground, and yet, the grief for things lost remains. And, this is just beginning.

    I appreciate the glimpse into your world, as one who teaches, as one who is considering next steps with students, as a mother of daughters home-from high school and college, as one of billions on this planet simultaneously tumbling through the chaos that is now.

    p.s. I think you know my colleague, Mo. I am new to Centennial this year–and have heard of your work. Looking forward to your book.
    -karen

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