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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.



We Must All Do Our Part For Schools

2020 July 20
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by Mike Vial
These two kids are handling month four of this pandemic with resilience and creativity, but they need your help.
They have sacrificed a lot, and they so badly want to go to school in September. (Ginny packed her new school bag in June! She cried yesterday, after I introduced the idea that school opening in the fall could be online.)
Their father, a high school teacher, wants the same. He misses his students. He doesn’t see a positive way forward, though; he only sees bad, bad, and worse choices for the fall. (He cried yesterday, with his daughter, as they hugged after discussing the possibility of school being online, for them both.)
He also cried because he is tired of people pretending the Coronavirus is a political division. He is tired of certain politicians, ones that will remain nameless, dividing teachers against families with their empty rhetoric.
No–this writer is a teacher and a father. You can’t split him in half with words. His heart has been hurting for months, but his children have kept him together.
So this father and teacher is publicly telling all politicians and families that he and his kids have been doing our part, and if you expect schools to open in the fall or winter, you must do the same. His family is only four pieces of the fixable, yet painful, puzzle. All actions we take these six weeks in Michigan work for or against us. We have the power, together.
How have these two kids inspired you to sacrifice? First, Ginny and Alton have only seen their grandparents and great grandmother so far, starting in June, during this pandemic. We know that if school starts face-to-face, we may not see them for a while, so we’ve prioritized lowering our risk as potential, asymptotic spreaders. They miss playing with friends; it’s not an easy sacrifice. We are lucky to do it together.
If they can sacrifice their birthday parties, you can sacrifice your trip to a bar. Order carryout.
Potentially going back to school worries their father. He doesn’t want preschool to be without hugs for crying children, or literature lessons to be only delivered in desks, a few feet apart (six feet isn’t possible). His classroom doesn’t have windows, and the school’s HVAC system is old…He only was given $25 total for his classroom supplies this year. He can’t work his part time job, music performance, that has supplemented his classroom in previous years.
He also really doesn’t want his family to contract this novel virus.
His school’s geographic area has a low number of diagnosed cases now, but we are by the Detroit Metro Airport. In the spring, we had one student lose both of her grandparents. This teacher talked to three students on his online class roster who had lost family by May. Many parents in his district work for the airlines in Metro Detroit. If students return in his building, the virus is guaranteed to thrive.
He and his family will likely get it, too. As a second year teacher in this district, he doesn’t have enough sick days for quarantines, but that’s not as scary as the unknown.
Instead, he also worries about how NOT going back to school brings challenges for his students’ families and guardians. We are a lose/lose moment now, one he didn’t picture back in April.
In April, he thought we had learned to take this seriously for the long term. Two parents of his students last term were nurses in Covid-19 wards, unable to see their kids for weeks at a time.
During a phone conference, one parent said, “I know my daughter isn’t doing her school work, but she needs to focus on her school challenges on her own right now. I’m experiencing too much stress at my hospital to help her.” This teacher replied, “That’s ok. She’s not alone. I’m here to help her. I’ll update you how we’re doing.”
But now this teacher and father is asking for your help.
Let’s return to the picture. We are at our neighborhood, isolated park by our church, again. No one else is here. Our masks are packed in the diaper bag, but our neighborhood provides us the privilege of being safe outside, acting as if it’s a normal, sunny day. (In a way, this has been our normal.)
This father, this teacher, asks you to create your new normal that make your actions powerful against spreading the Coronavirus virus: Avoid attending or hosting large gatherings; wear masks; support essential workers; donate to food banks; stay home or go outside in safe environments as much as possible. Take this as seriously as these two kids have all spring and summer.
Ginny is five. She understands what has been happening in her own imaginative way. On her walk to the park today, she asked, “Daddy, are the princesses at Disney World being safe, too? And the princes?”
For now, I’m asking all of you princesses and princes, kings and queens, to do your part. For them.
This is my final post on this topic for the summer. Shaming people doesn’t work to persuade them. They are probably just as worried as this teacher, but demonstrating that fear differently.
Maybe looking at these two children’s hopeful faces (one obviously dressed herself today) will persuade us more to see that we have the power to stop the spread, but only if we act together, if we consider sacrifices to help our one human family.
Listen to the health experts. Expect some information to change as we learn more about the virus. Recognize that the economy won’t fully return until we manage the spread to the point that testing isn’t a week or more for results and, contact tracers can reach exposed people. This is obvious: They can’t right now…
Many people have sent supportive messages, and a few have sent this father mean ones. But the Coronavirus has no feelings; however, these two kids do, as do all other wonderful children of our state.

How to Help Small Music Venues

2020 July 15
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by Mike Vial

Hi friends, I hope everyone is finding some calmness, through the waves of anxiety, throughout this summer. My wife, kids, and I are blessed with our large yard in the outskirts of Ann Arbor, and our nature trail nearby.

I haven’t seen anyone, except my parents and wife’s parents & grandmother, throughout the pandemic. I miss you. We are prioritizing this time for our kids to see their grandparents and 91-year-old grandmother throughout the pandemic, with as close to zero risk for them, until we know what autumn will reveal.

And then Facebook reminds me how two years ago, Mike Gentry Music and I shared the best gig of my life at the The Ark – Ann Arbor. Many of you were there. (My mom and dad were too. We just celebrated my dad’s birthday at my house on July 12th.)

The Ark is having a campaign:

If we donate this month, Ford will match $15K. I urge you to find a music venue in your area to do the same. A bookstore that needs help. A friend’s small business. A musician you can buy from on Bandcamp.

Music life will never return to normal. Most independent music venues will close, since their margins were so slim to begin with. Many independent musicians won’t be releasing music for a long time, the payouts of streaming too low to even pay for the coffee we anxiously drink in the morning.

I emphasize: I’m doing OK. I’ll be teaching at Huron High for my second year, lucky not to be laid off again like last summer at Farmington.

I’ve been quiet on Facebook here, leaving space for other musicians to share their stuff. But the newness of online concerts has worn off. Now, we simply need to reach out to our musical friends and offer a hand. Buy something online. Send a gift. Do what we can.

I’ll be donating to the Ark and Trinity House Theatre this week. They are two venues that have supported me so much this decade.

Thank you for all of your support of the arts and music at the local level. The most important thing we can do doesn’t cost money: We can keep following all of the guidelines to protect our neighbors: masks, social distancing, and tight social bubbles for now.

Covid keeps knocking at the door. We need not answer, so we can be entering our music venues’ doors next year.

God how I miss you all. Online connection isn’t doing it for me anymore.