A teacher’s journey through the shutdown nightmare The Mesa Tribune | The Hometown Newspaper for the city of Mesa, AZ

A teacher’s journey through the shutdown nightmare

A teacher’s journey through the shutdown nightmare

By Cathryn Creno
Tribune Guest Writer

Right before spring break, I gave my Mesa Westwood High School students pieces of colorful poster paper and asked them to map out their futures in the Spanish future tense.

It was a way for them to practice grammar and to ponder things that are on the minds of most high school students: Graduation, college or trade school, first jobs, first apartments, love and marriage.

As students finished, we pinned their posters to the walls and admired them. Some included big dreams like having a business career in Dubai or becoming doctors or lawyers.

Others detailed plans to stay in Arizona and attend state universities. Some students even wanted to buy houses for their parents when they settled into careers.

We ended the quarter in a festive mood and even talked about a year-end party for May. 

No one had an inkling we would not be together again after winter quarter.

My students began talking about the COVID-19 virus in late January, but only because one girl’s sister was acquainted with a member of the Arizona State University community who had spent time in Wuhan, China this past winter. He was quarantined after becoming Arizona’s first known COVID-19 patient.

Fortunately, COVID-19 was not passed to my student. But kids being kids, students began joking that they felt feverish and needed to go home — the way teenagers will see rain sprinkles and say that they need to leave class before the school floods.

None of us really thought at the time COVID-19 would shut down Westwood, or any other school in Arizona.

Still, as I left for spring break, I knew from news reports that I was going to need to step up my daily classroom cleaning routine.

Like most teachers, I use disinfectant on desks every day or so and keep a supply of tissues around for runny noses. Finding tissues in Westwood supply cabinets had become a challenge during cold and flu season this year so I made a mental note to purchase my own supply over break. I also made a plan to ration alcohol wipes, which many students request from me like to wipe down desks and textbook.

But by the end of break, it became clear that I would not be putting a new cleaning routine to work anytime soon. Driving back from a trip to the Grand Canyon, I heard the news that Disneyland had closed indefinitely because of COVID-19.

Even though no formal announcement had been made about Arizona schools, I knew in my heart that if things were so bad that Disney had shut down its signature property, kids would not been gathering in classrooms anytime soon.

Just the thought of school closing for an extended period of time before the end of the year made me indescribably sad.

Sure, most teachers look forward to and appreciate their breaks from the classroom. But that does not mean that most of us don’t love and bond with our students during the nine months we are with them.

“To me what has been hardest about this is not having closure or an opportunity to prepare my students or say goodbye to them,” said Melinda Rohman, a friend who teaches Spanish at Kyrene Akimel A-al Middle School.

Rohman called the situation “heartbreaking.”

“We are missing out on all of my favorite end of year activities,” she said.

I had a hollow feeling in my belly as I contemplated the same thing. Spring quarter typically is everyone’s favorite time of year.

After some discussion by administrators, Westwood teachers were each given a few minutes to return to their classrooms after the end of break to gather materials we would need to teach our classes online. When I arrived, I spent some of my time looking at and snapping photos of the students’ maps, with all of their dreams for the future – prom, graduation parties, award ceremonies were about to evaporate for the 2020 graduating class.

In the following days, I posted some Spanish music and grammar videos and phoned my 150 students to let them know I was thinking about them.

I didn’t reach everyone, but I promised those I talked to that I would get them through their Spanish classes by the end of the school year. I told everyone I spoke with how much I missed them.

By March 30 I, along with most other teachers around the state, set my own emotions aside so I could get to work on something brand new — teaching classes entirely online.

Public school educators often talk about using technology in the classroom, but typically that means students using laptops to takes notes and quizzes, using search engines for research and creating slide presentations.

Teachers use technology to project videos and slides on the classroom screen. But there has been no need for lectures on web conferencing software because kids normally are still in the classroom.

On Monday, when many students returned to class online, that had changed.

Jim Archambault, an Advanced Placement physics teacher at Gilbert Highland High School, was online last week with the majority of his students. The previous week, they had answered online surveys about their home technology and it turned out that most kids at the middle-class school had enough equipment to continue their courses online.

Archambault said he would conduct videoconferences with students from a spare room in his home after moving a sofa and a foosball table.

He is confident that his students can take a home version of AP physics exam that will be given students this year.

But he expressed sadness that his students won’t have the full experience of doing physics experiments in class with lab partners the way they normally would.

“Online physics will be 50 percent of what they would have had in class,” he said. “You can’t learn physics just by reading about it.”

My teaching situation could be described as the mirror-image of Highland High’s.

Many Westwood students are from low-income homes with little in the way of technology. While all have been issued laptops by the school, some lack home internet connections.

Many also lack time to attend video conferences during the school day because they are now looking after younger siblings who normally are in preschool or elementary school.

So, I have been putting links to grammar and vocabulary lessons into our classroom website and asking students to do small projects as time permits. Spanish One students recently emailed me photos of objects from their homes that they had labeled in Spanish.

Spanish Three students emailed me video or audio recordings of themselves talking about their favorite mysteries — from the construction of pyramids in central Mexico to UFOs.

The lessons have been a sea change for my students, who are used to being called on in class to talk in front of groups and also writing out notes and classwork on linked paper and keeping it in three-ring binders.

As a writer, I believe that the more students write out by hand what they need to know, the better they remember it.

I’m fairly certain that every teacher in Arizona right now is coping with similar challenges.

So, Westwood principal Christopher Gilmore set up a web conference chat that has pretty much run continuously since Westwood teachers learned they would not be returning to their classrooms this spring. Questions have ranged from how to connect families to food banks to whether its school wanted us to track daily attendance in our virtual classrooms.

Little by little our questions have been answered and Gilmore, like many other education leaders around the state, has called for patience and compassion. Right now, relationships matter more than straight A’s and perfect attendance.

“I am proud of the heavy lifting, positive attitude, and ‘whatever it takes’ attitude the Westwood staff has had,” he told me in an email.

As student assignments have trickled into my email this week, I can say the same about the kids who are enrolled in my classes. I’m proud. I know they also have that “whatever it takes” attitude to come through this. γ

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