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Dispatches from Room D127, Day 19

2020 October 3
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by Mike Vial

Room D127 exhaled its anxious breathe, after the final bell rang during the 19th day of pandemic teaching.

I was unable to find that catharsis, that release of stress after work. My nerves were shot—I felt nauseated after dinner. As I read Ginny books and poems before bed, I got the tummy troubles, like a dragon who likes tacos, but hates spicy salsa. I had to stop reading to Ginny, and I got sick in the bathroom.

One would assume I would have rested after my kids were down for the night, but my mind was racing. I had been awake for 18 hours, but I couldn’t sleep. So I commented and graded on my students’ work.

That’s right. I worked for another 88 minutes Friday night.

Silly? No. I don’t want to work when my kids want to spend time with me on Saturday and Sunday.

And Natalie works from 5-6:45 every morning before trying to work and help Ginny with online kindergarten at the same time, so I’m not complaining. But I have so much work to do to prepare week five, another impossible teaching experience of online and physical class at the same time.

But I can handle the work. It’s the unknowns about health and safety that is wearing me thin.

Consider history: The virus had an invisible seat in the room in 1919, and President Wilson most likely contracted H1N1 during WWI peace negotiations in Paris. Day 19, my Greek myth class discussed the Pandora’s box myth. Even though the story reveals how pestilence came to the world, the last thing to depart from the open chest is hope.

Keep hope alive, friends and family. D127 hopes we can do this right before winter complicates things.

But this morning? I’m just breathing. (And cuddling with Ginny, as we finish that Junie B. Jones book we stopped reading last night.)

Hope, Superspreaders & Symbolic Names

2020 October 2
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by Mike Vial

I woke up from a leg cramp at 3:20 AM, and I read the news on my iPhone. I predict I won’t fall back asleep; I also predict the second debate isn’t happening on October 15.

Am I dreaming?

No, I’m pondering how, in great literature, names contain symbolism*: Mercutio from Romeo & Juliet, Mercy from The Crucible, Raskolnikov from Crime & Punishment, Pilate Dead in Song of Solomon…
Like Pandora’s Box being opened in the Greek myth, this unbelievable soap opera of 2020 has given us Hope.

I hope everyone sick recovers, and we now take testing even more seriously. I hope this is a moment where we think of students and teachers preparing for a long winter in windowless classrooms, hoping that no one gets sick when their schools can’t order HEPA filters now that they are backordered.

Hope leads to responsibility and actions.

Note, we are learning how super spreaders play an essential role in Coronavirus’s infection rates. The R0 of this day’s news will follow that trend. I hope I am wrong.

*other literary device terms pondered: charactonym, aptronym, foreshadowing, irony, and OMG.

Words Matter: Our Kids, Students & Insomnia during a Pandemic

2020 September 30
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by Mike Vial

What is one benefit to being a teacher who is struggling to sleep? I found it: I can relate to my students who share that struggle, and many of are country’s kids  can’t rest their minds at night, too.

Yesterday, I had a student tell me they have been awake for 48 hours; and they simply wanted their brain to stop tonight; and focusing on the Crucible was near impossible for them; and they just wanted me to know.

So instead of working on the Crucible study guide, I sent them a little essay and podcast about insomnia.

We really need to recognize what this continual stress is doing to our kids, our young adults, ourselves. Our country is in collapse, but it’s an opaque fall.

We are like Salem in Act one of the Crucible: The adults are in a fiery dispute, ignoring the needs of the children who got them together, conversing in the first place. They fight over theology, authority, power. Who can yell the loudest? The logical elder, Rebecca Nurse, says, “I am too old for this” (Miller 484), and she leaves the parsonage. She will be crucified by the resolution. (Covid-19 is doing that for us; 800-1000+ people die a day.)

And in another comparison to history, we have all seen black and white photographs of breadlines and disparity from the Great Depression of 1929. But can we recognize our own depression, now captured in color?

There is nothing to fear, but fear itself. Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. Tear down this wall…

Words matter, for they are the bricks laid that lead to policy, action, understanding; students yesterday, everywhere, needed WORDS from a teacher that recognized stress or pain, and then those words became policy. (Late work? Fine. Need a new independent assessment? Let’s do it!)

America—you are participating in a group project that democracy assigned you. One person can’t do the entire study guide. We are in this together.

It starts with words. It ends with our children and grandchildren bearing the outcomes of our decisions.

Back to room D127 I go, for day 17. Let’s be better, fellow citizens, who share this great, flawed nation. We really can be. We’ve done it before.

PS: A Greek Mythology class statistic: 92% work completion on first essay, turned in by the deadline. If they can do it, we can do it, too. Go find your own antecedent to “it”.


The Pandemic Has Made Us All First Year Teachers Again

2020 August 15
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by Mike Vial

Like many have said, all teachers will feel like first year teachers again soon.

In previous years, I would be buying extra supplies–with my own money –o make my classroom operate: pencils, Kleenex, art materials, used novels etc…This year, I had to buy my own air purifier for my windowless classroom.

I’m really finding it difficult to accept that, but we live with the world as it is, not how it should be.

My first meeting is in eight days, my students’ first day is Aug 31. I still don’t know what classes I’m teaching.

I don’t know if we are the iceberg or the Titanic. All I can do is create a little lifeboat, so I can help my students reflect on life and literature during a historic pandemic and still explore news, memoir, poems, songs, fiction and art.

* * * Bright Spots * * * 

There may be no light at the end of the tunnel yet, but there are a few bright spots for teachers this year: We have the opportunity to  recreate a fairer, more equitable classroom for the future now and tomorrow.

The pandemic has exposed every shadow of unfairness in society, that we subconsciously knew was there.

We can and must recreate a better education from scratch after this, and maybe even now, while wearing our masks, as long as those changes don’t make students’ more anxious.

This fall, all of our teaching must empower students; all of our lessons must begin with empathy.

  1. Should we expect perfection of rote memorization when anxiety ruins sleep and affects short term memory? If you also feel like you are forgetting where you put your stuff, picture learning 100 vocabulary words soon.
  2. This is the time to go grade-less as much as possible. We can’t grade an essay fairly with 92% vs a 94%, and during a pandemic, this seems unimportant, since we are watching our own learning curve change with social distancing, mask wearing, recognizing contact vs. respiratory spread.If epidemiology is allowed to revise their learning, why can’t our students?  The learning is in the process, and we must guide our students through it.
  3. Project-based learning can be our best route, but we must remember we must teach the skills of the project, and even value that more than the final outcome. My first years teaching, I would assign projects, but assume students would simply know what to do. During the pandemic, we’ve been participating in one giant group project, and wow has the process been important.
  4. Classic literature really can take the backseat now. How can I expect my students to care about Romeo and Juliet when they are worried about the present and reminded about it on social media daily? Shakespeare is difficult enough to teach when I have all of my tools: group work, costumes, improv, feud scenes! None of this will be allowed, so why make my students suffer through it for six weeks at their desks? No, this is the opportunity for us to modernize our curriculum.
  5. Late work–yes, we should letting students have second chances and turn work in past deadlines. For real. Look at how we don’t even know our full plans for our return to school!
    1. However, we also need to create a system that is fair and not random. The goal is for students to take ownership of their process, and reflect on it.

We are composing the history that will be retold, analyzed, and criticized in books read 100 years from now. As teachers, this can be our time to rewrite the view of our classroom.

* * *
I hope everyone is doing OK. I miss my musical friends so much. If at all possible, please put schools before large parties, bars, and higher risk activities.

Teachers  and kids need the best shot we can get, especially those of us going mask-to-mask (face-to-face) soon.


How Can We Support our First Year Teachers?

2020 August 12
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by Mike Vial

I’m thinking about the young teachers embracing their first, second, or third year in the classroom this fall. How can they even prepare? This upcoming semester must be overwhelming for them.

I’m having recurring nightmares during this pandemic, and they often bring me back to being a first year teacher…My first school meeting is in 12 days, and I still don’t know exactly what classes I’m teaching. I’m beginning to feel like a first year teacher again, in certain ways.

However, by now, I’ve taught almost every type of LA class. I have 1000+ books in my own classroom library. I have read 70% of my school’s book room. I have units and project based learning ideas that I’m considering adjusting for a potential virtual learning (which is enviable, even though we are starting mask-to-mask). I have grammar and syntax units designed, shiftable to online.

My first year at Holly, I felt terrified of the unknown, even though one knew that normal classroom’s scene. My vice principal told me classes to prepare in July, including American Lit. I had read the novels in the curriculum in two months.

Then, I showed up for the first meeting in late August, given a different class, including World Literature! Oh no! The anxiety percolated in my stomach acids all day, as staff introduced me to the other technology, the copy machines, the rules, the layout of the school, the teachers’ names.

That first day was so overwhelming; elements of that never go away each first day of school.

Every teacher at Holly gave me ideas on how to prepare classes. Amy Jo Hughes shared World Literature units. Crystal Palace gave me reading strategies.

Dan Majeske gave me supplies, and hours of his expertise throughout the years, later mentoring me through the return back to teaching.

Wendy Farkus, Renee Hard, and Libby Held checked in multiple times that first day as I was setting up my room; they later taught me how to use lit circles.

Charlie Gragg–also a first year teacher starting his second career–became a mentor for life!

Brian Hacker and Bill Broadway extended friendships that lead to being my groomsmen in my wedding party, 11 years later.

And this was just the English department helping me. There were so many others.

I have treasured these friendships, like my high school and college friendships that have lasted decades. Every in the department attended a gig or two of mine, as I started performing music on the weekends…I consider those first eight years teaching in my twenties where I learned to be an adult. I wouldn’t be the same without them.

I am not a first year teacher, now, but I’m still scared of the unknown.

We are going to need these enthusiastic, new teachers more than ever now. We need to offer our support to them in creative ways, just like our students.