Top 10 Things I Want My Students to do During the Coronavirus Quarantine

Screen Shot 2020-03-20 at 7.03.55 PM

 

 

 

Dear Students,

 

A schoolteacher without a classroom is kind of like a firefighter without a fire.

 

Or a police officer without crime.

 

But here we are – self-quarantined at home.

 

Our classroom sits empty, and everyday this week we sit here at home wondering what to do.

 

I want you to know that I’ve been thinking about all of you.

 

I hope you’re doing alright during this unprecedented moment in history. It probably seemed like a lot of fun when it first happened.

 

No school for the foreseeable future!

 

The whole thing came together so quickly that our district didn’t even have time to get together work to send home with you. And like most schools throughout the country, many of you don’t have home internet access so we can’t fairly give you on-line lessons, either.

 

So you’ve been at home with little guidance from us. Sure we have free breakfast and lunches available for pick up at the school, but you’re probably growing a bit stir crazy.

 

I know I am. (And I’m sure your folks are, too!)

 

I’m at home with my daughter trying to keep her busy.

 

We’ve been creating Mario Maker boards for each other on our Nintendo 3DS and Switch.

 

We keep trying to stump each other, and me, being a teacher, I keep trying to get her to think outside of the box.

 

“Why don’t you try making a board where you have to get a mushroom through a maze?”

 

Or

 

“Why don’t you try making a board where the walls close in?”
Or

 

“I wonder if you could beat a Thwomp in a race down a pit?”

 

We were having a really good time until I tried to get her to watch a science video. I put on the original Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” from the early 1980s.

 

My daughter loves looking up at the stars and asking me questions about the constellations. I thought this would be a perfect fit – after all, Sagan was an astronomer and can answer her questions way better than I can.

 

However, the old school effects were simply no match for today’s aesthetic. She revolted after about 20 minutes.

 

Today I won her over though with the new Cosmos series featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson. She turned to me after about five minutes and said, “Much better.”

 

We’ve been drawing and reading and playing video games and having a good ol’ time.

 

I hope you have people at home who can help you get through all this, too.

 

I’ve been getting a lot of emails recently from your folks.

 

They want to know what they should be doing to help you academically.

 

Whenever this whole thing is over – and it will be over someday soon I hope – they want to make sure you won’t fall too far behind.

 

Let me start with a word of caution.

 

We don’t know how long this self-quarantine will last.

 

We’re trying to stay home to stop the spread of this virus – COVID-19. It can be deadly to some people – even some young people like you.

 

It’s in everybody’s best interest that we wait this thing out so that the hospitals can deal with the people who get sick.

 

Then when the disease has passed, we can continue our normal lives.

 

But no one knows how long that will take. It could be a few more weeks – but more likely months.

 

It is very possible that we will not go back to school again until after the summer.

 

So it’s hard to say exactly what you should do to keep yourself in the best academic shape because we don’t know what you’ll be coming back to.

 

We DO know that we won’t have to make up some or all of the days we missed.

 

And we know we won’t (here in Pennsylvania) have to take the PSSA or Keystone tests this year.

 

But when this is over, what grade will you be in? Will you just move on to the next grade or will there be a bit of mopping up to do first? And if you don’t finish the curriculum, will you be ready for the challenges ahead?

 

We don’t know any of that yet.

 

But here are a few guidelines and some things you might want to do while you’re at home.

 

You don’t have to do all of them, but they’re some things to think about.

 

So here’s my top 10 things for my students to do during quarantine:

 

1) Finish Whatever School Work You Can

 

You may have some outstanding school work with you in your book bag. I know I sent my seventh graders home with their poetry projects. My eighth graders should either be done or have taken their projects home to finish.

 

So if you have work that’s not done, finish it to the best of your ability. You certainly have enough time.

 

2) Read a Book

 

I ask all of may students to have a self-selected book handy for sustained silent reading in class. Hopefully you brought it home. If not, take a look around the house. Maybe you’ve got a dusty tome hanging out in some corner. Or – hey – if you have Internet access, you probably have the ability to get an ebook.

 

Read something – anything you want.

 

It will while away the hours, relax you and maybe get your mind to thinking about things above and beyond how much mac and cheese you’ve got stored in the cupboard.

 

3) Keep a Journal

 

Do you realize you’re living through a moment of history? People will look back on this and wonder how people got through it. You could fill in the blanks for some future researcher. Just a description of your everyday activities, what you’re thinking and feeling, your hopes and dreams – all of it has historical value. Plus, you’ll get some practice expressing yourself in writing. And just think – a simple story about how you survived the great toilet paper shortage of 2020 could end up being taught in the classrooms of the future!

 

Make it a good one!

4) Take a Break from Video Games

 

I know some of you have built a fort out of sofa cushions, covered it in blankets and are nestled in this hideaway doing nothing but playing Fortnite or Roblox or Minecraft with friends on-line. And you know what? There’s nothing wrong with that. You go ahead and do that.

 

Just remember to take breaks for more than just food and the bathroom. Getting lost in a fantasy world is great so long as you leave yourself a trail of breadcrumbs to get back out again.

 

Don’t forget the trail. Don’t forget there’s a world out there that needs you. Set definite limits for how long you spend in there and try really hard to adhere to them.

 

5) Watch Something Educational on TV or the Internet

 

Education isn’t limited to something a teacher told you to do. Find a video or TV show that explains something you never knew before. Youtube is great for this if you know what to look for.

 

I don’t mean to find some rant by your favorite Youtuber. I mean find something about science, history, art, literature, math, etc. Make it something you care about but might not watch just for fun.

 

You’ll be surprised at what you can find out there. The channel CrashCourse with author John Greene (“The Fault in Our Stars”) and his brother Hank is particularly informative, entertaining and far reaching. I also love John Michael Godier for all things astronomy and Composer David Bruce for discussions of music.

 

6) Watch/Read the News

 

There are extraordinary things happening every day. Knowing about them can help you prepare for what’s next and think about what we can and should be doing to make things better.

 

7) Listen to Music/ Draw/ Do Something Creative

 

I know you. You’re a bundle of creative energy bound together waiting to explode. Go do that. Whatever you enjoy doing, create something. Write a song, make a comic book, paste together a collage. Express yourself, and if you’re not in the mood for that – enjoy the expressions of others. Listen to music, read a poem, watch a movie.

 

8) Help Out Your Folks

 

We, adults, can seem like we’ve got it all under control. We don’t. We’re just as anxious, fearful and uncertain as you about this whole self-quarantine thing. None of us were around the last time something like this happened (the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic). Anything you can do – helping take out the trash, cleaning up messes, even just trying extra hard not to argue with your siblings – can be a big help.

 

9) Talk to Friends and Family about How You’re Feeling

 

No one expects you to be a robot. These are trying times. It’s okay to feel a certain way about that. Share those feelings with someone you trust. And be a sympathetic ear for them to do the same. The best way we can get through all this is with each other’s help.

 

10) Know That You Are Loved

 

My dear precious little students! There are people out there who love you so much. There are people who would move Heaven and Earth to keep you safe. I know you’re scared and bored and anxious. But remember we’re in this together. And no matter where you are or what you’re doing there’s at least your crazy English teacher who loves you very much and can’t wait to see you all again.

 

Stay safe!

 

89984455_10157624686428860_90771698554503168_n

 


 

Like this post?  You might want to consider becoming a Patreon subscriber. This helps me continue to keep the blog going and get on with this difficult and challenging work.

Plus you get subscriber only extras!

Just CLICK HERE.

Patreon+Circle

I’ve also written a book, “Gadfly on the Wall: A Public School Teacher Speaks Out on Racism and Reform,” now available from Garn Press. Ten percent of the proceeds go to the Badass Teachers Association. Check it out!

thumbnail_IMG_8249

Great Reading Must Be Felt, Not Standardized

black-history-month-featured-photo-520x345

I made my classes cry today.

That sounds terrible, but if I’m honest, I knew it would happen and meant to do it.

I teach in an urban district and most of my 8th grade students are African American and/or impoverished. We’re reading Harper Lee’s classic novel “To Kill a Mockingbird” together, and the kids were loving it.

Until today when we got to the verdict in the Tom Robinson trial.

Jaquan closed his book with wide eyes.

“What the heck happened?” he asked.

Other students in the room murmured their agreement.

“They found him guilty!? What the F!?”

“I hate this book.”

“This is so freakin’ racist.”

I let them go on for a moment.

Frankly, it was the reaction I had been expecting.

It happens every year around this time.

Until this moment, my kids were really into the book. They were enjoying the case and excited by how well the defense attorney, Atticus Finch, had proven that Tom, a black man in the 1930s South, is innocent of raping a white woman.

But even last night I knew what was coming. The next day – today – I’d have to go and break their hearts when they read what the jury actually decides. Some of them were bound to be crushed. And today they were.

For those who haven’t cracked this book open in decades, let me recap.

There is no physical evidence that the crime actually took place. Moreover, because of a crippling injury as a child, Tom is physically incapable of perpetrating the crime in the first place.

In a world where black males could be tortured and killed just for whistling at a white woman – like Emmett Till – it’s clear that Tom is the victim, not the aggressor.
It seems like a slam dunk case. Yet the all-white jury finds Tom guilty, and ultimately he is shot 17 times in prison after losing all hope and trying to escape.

It’s no wonder that when we read that cascade of Guilty’s from the jury’s mouths today, my kids couldn’t believe it.

Some of my best students closed the book or threw it away from them.

So I let them express their frustrations. Some talked about how the story hit too close to home. They have family members in jail or who have been killed in the streets by police. One girl even told us that she’s never met her own mother. The woman has been locked away since the child was an infant, and because of a missing birth certificate, my student hasn’t even been allowed to visit.

“Mr. Singer, when was this book written?” one of the girls in the back asked.

“The late 1950s,” I said.

“I thought you were going to say it just came out.”

And so we talked about what the book has to do with things happening today. We talked about Eric Garner. We talked about Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and Freddie Gray.

At a certain point, conversation ceased.

My class of rowdy teenagers became quiet. We could hear people stomping in the hall, a movie being shown a few doors down.

There might have been a few tears.

I knew it would happen.

Last night I debated softening the blow, preparing them for what was about to take place. When we read “The Diary of Anne Frank” a month ago, I made sure they’d know from the very beginning that Anne dies. It should have been no surprise to them when Anne and her family are captured by the Nazis. It’s scary and upsetting but not entirely unexpected.

However, with “Mockingbird” I just let events unfold. And I stand by that decision.

It’s frustrating and painful, but my students need to feel that. It’s something I can’t shield them from.

It’s not that they have never felt this way before. Many of them have experienced racism and injustice in their everyday lives. But for this book to really have the desired impact, they need to FEEL what the author meant. And it needs to come from the book, itself.

A book isn’t just sheets of paper bound together with glue and cardboard. It’s a living entity that can bite. That’s the power of literature.

I can’t in good conscience shield them from that. They need to see it and experience it for themselves.

Writer Flannery O’Connor put it like this:

“I prefer to talk about the meaning in a story rather than the theme of a story. People talk about the theme of a story as if the theme were like the string that a sack of chicken feed is tied with. They think that if you can pick out the theme, the way you pick the right thread in the chicken-feed sack, you can rip the story open and feed the chickens. But this is not the way meaning works in fiction.

“When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of a story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it. A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way, and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is. You tell a story because a statement would be inadequate. When anybody asks what a story is about, the only proper thing is to tell him to read the story. The meaning of fiction is not abstract meaning but experienced meaning, and the purpose of making statements about the meaning of a story is only to help you experience that meaning more fully.”

This is what our policymakers either misunderstand or forget when they demand we assess understanding with standardized tests.

The meaning of a story is not expressable in discrete statements A, B, C, or D. We wouldn’t read them if it was.

Every person is unique. So is every reaction to literature.

You can’t identify the meaning of this story on a multiple choice test. You can’t express what it means to YOU. All you can do is anticipate the answer the test maker expects. And that’s not reading comprehension. It’s an exercise in sycophantry. It teaches good toadying skills – not good reading strategies.

Perhaps that’s why Common Core encourages us to shy away from complex texts like “Mockingbird.” We’re told to focus on short snippets of fiction and to increase our student’s diet of nonfiction. Moreover, we’re told to stay away from narratives like Anne Frank’s. Instead, we should have our children read from a greater variety of genres including instruction books, spreadsheets, recipes – just the facts – because as Common Core architect David Coleman famously said, “No one gives a shit what you think or feel.”

Frankly, we don’t do a whole lot of that in my class. We still read literature.

Today, even after the blowout, we kept reading “Mockingbird.”

My kids suffered along with Jem and Scout. They reveled in Atticus’s example. They feared where it was all going.

And when class was over, a few of them had come around.

“This is such a good book, Mr. Singer,” one girl told me on the way out.

“Is Atticus going to die?” another asked to which I smiled and shrugged.

Jaquan stayed after the bell to ask his own question.

“Do you think in a hundred years things will be any different?”

“How do you mean?”

“I mean do you think people will still do things like THIS?” he said holding up his book.

I looked at him and swallowed.

“I don’t know, Jaquan,” I said. “But things are better now than they were. We can hope.”

He nodded.

I clapped him on the back and wished him a good weekend.

You don’t get that kind of reaction from Common Core, and you can’t assess it on a standardized test.

Students can’t ask such questions to computer programs.

They need teachers with the freedom to teach and assess as they see fit.

Otherwise, it is not just Tom Robinson that suffers a miscarriage of justice.

We all do.

Why You Should Thank Harper Lee for Tearing Down Your Childhood Hero

Screen shot 2015-08-27 at 10.47.03 PM

It’s been more than 50 years since Harper Lee published her Pulitzer Prize winning novel “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

In that time, a lot has changed and nothing has changed.

Our schools are still highly segregated and unequal – but we justify that with standardized test scores. Our prisons are still disproportionately filled with black and brown people – but we justify that with the War on Drugs. Racial minorities are still gunned down in the street while their killers get off scot-free – but we justify that with a dysfunctional justice system.

Yes, we have our first black president but most people of color still live under the shadow of white privilege and a government sanctioned caste system.

Now comes “Go Set a Watchman” a book Lee wrote before “Mockingbird” but that works best as a sequel.

Does it matter? Is it still relevant?

I’d say yes.  After all, the original was written as people across the nation were struggling to overthrow the old racist system. And today many of their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are still engaged in that same struggle.

In a world where the majority cling desperately to colorblindness, it’s refreshing to read a book that proclaims black lives matter – even if it was written in the 1950s.

The most striking thing about the new novel is its portrayal of Atticus Finch. In “Mockingbird” he’s described as the quintessential hero – a white lawyer putting himself at great personal risk in a doomed attempt to defend an innocent black man. In “Watchman” Atticus is… well… a bit of a racist.

He’s 20 years older, has joined a neighborhood committee dedicated to keeping the races separate and we learn that at one time he had even been a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

How can we reconcile THIS Atticus with the one we remember from our childhoods? Is it even worth trying? Is the book worth reading?

Let’s start with the book’s literary value. Questions abound about its publication. Lee, 88, lives in a nursing home and is reportedly in ill health. After all this time, did she really want this book out there now or is that the result of overzealous publishers who know any book with her name on it will be a best seller? Moreover, her sister, Alice, served as a protector of Harper’s legacy but almost as soon as she died, the book was slated for publication.

And when you actually crack it open, it’s clear that certain passages are almost identical to others in “Mockingbird.” You can see how the one book lead to the other. Moreover, there are places that could use expansion and others that could use a bit of editing.

However, despite its shortcomings, from the first page to the last “Watchman” is like returning home to Maycomb County.

In the first chapter, we share a 20-something Jean Louise’s excitement on the train from New York south to visit her family, because we want to see these people again, too. Unlike a simple rereading of the classic “Mockingbird,” this time the characters have grown, changed and act in unexpected ways. Like our protagonist, though, we’re in for many a rude awakening.

Scout’s brother, Jem, is dead, and his absence is felt throughout most of the book. At first, I was angry about this. I thought it was simply bad writing, trying to artificially limit the characters. But then I realized Lee had already set up Jem’s demise back in “Mockingbird.” After all, their mother died around the same age from a heart attack – a congenital defect on her side of the family.

Jem’s absence is irksome because it’s real. Too many times in life people who mean so much to us just disappear leaving a hole never to be filled again.

Likewise, Dill is hardly to be seen. However, this shouldn’t be surprising. Both books are semi-autobiographical and his character is modeled after Harper’s childhood friend – Truman Capote. In the novel just as in life, our heroine, Scout/Harper, and Dill/Truman grew apart.

In his place we get Hank – a character never mentioned in “Mockingbird” but who apparently was around – somewhere. He serves as Scout’s boyfriend. Though he’s drawn a bit vaguely, through him we get to see the kind of woman Jean Louise has grown into.

The Scout of “Watchman” is different than her 6-8-year-old self, too. But it’s easy to see how the little girl of the previous book could become the intelligent but restless woman in this text.

Calpurnia is much changed. She no longer works for the family. In fact, she seems to have enclosed herself in the Quarter – the part of town where only the black people live.

With the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education,  Maycomb’s black folks seem much less inclined to smile and nod and serve every passing whim of white people. They have an inkling that maybe things could be different, that maybe they’re entitled to equal rights, after all. And these new possibilities come between Jean Louise and the woman who raised her more than any other.

Calpurnia is the one who explained to her what it means to be a woman. She explained everything from menstruation to sexual intercourse. Yet these new possibilities in social justice make it impossible for the two women to have a proper homecoming.

I wonder: would Jean Louise really not begrudge Calpurnia all the rights and privileges she so easily expects as her own right? It’s hard to say but still very sad.

On the other hand, Aunt Alexandra hasn’t changed much. She’s still disapproving, tyrannical yet emotional. Likewise, Uncle Jack is much the same. He’s grown more eccentric but it’s easy to recognize the friendly doctor who bandaged Scout’s hand after she punched her cousin for calling her father a racial epithet in “Mockingbird.” And neither does Atticus seem drastically different at first. He’s older and suffers from terrible arthritis. But at first glance he’s the same caring, wise paternal figure of our remembrances.

For about 100 pages the book is a mostly meandering return to a world we never thought we’d see again. Then everything changes with the bombshell of Atticus’ recent pro-segregation activities.

How can it be possible? Can this really be Atticus Finch? Or is this just bad writing?

We know the character is based on Harper’s own father, Amasa Lee. Is this really more of a portrait of the real man than the fictional one?

It’s hard to say. But as we read on it becomes clear that, yes, this is still the Atticus we remember. But we didn’t know him as well as we thought.

(WARNING: Limited spoilers ahead.)

The heart of the novel is when Jean Louise confronts her father about his seemingly new attitude. In typical Atticus style, he argues with her almost like he was defending himself in court. Some of his defense makes a weird kind of sense. He says he briefly joined the Klan just to see who was behind those hoods. He wanted to know whom he was dealing with. Moreover, his participation in this segregation society was to serve as a moderating influence. He wanted to make sure they didn’t get up to too much trouble.

But this is only half an answer. As he continues, it becomes clear that Atticus actually does believe some of the racist rhetoric of his times. He really doesn’t want black people and white people to be put on an equal footing. He justifies this by saying black people aren’t ready yet. They haven’t been prepared for the rights and privileges of white folks. Maybe some day they will be, but not today.

It’s a disgusting and patronizing argument – infantilizing an entire people. And hearing this out of Atticus mouth – it’s like seeing a spider crawl across a gorgeous face.

Similarly creepy is his appeal to state’s rights – an argument we still hear today from our Tea Party friends. Perhaps it WAS Southern white people’s responsibility to raise up the people of color in their midst – but if they weren’t going to do it, it was past time that someone did!

Scout doesn’t let her father get away with any of this. She does her best to verbally destroy him and run away forever.

But before she can escape, she runs into her Uncle Jack. What he does is equal parts rationality and sexism. I can’t imagine any modern author resolving the story this way. Perhaps that’s for the best. In some ways, Uncle Jack’s actions are more disturbing than Atticus’ opinions.

In the end, Scout learns to accept her father for who he is. Yes, he is dead wrong about black people, but most of the time he’s still the same loving Atticus. It’s a good point. How many people do you love who believe reprehensible things? Probably a lot. That doesn’t mean you stop loving them.

I’d say that’s the central point of the novel. Each of us is responsible for creating our own conscience. We can’t rely on any value system that comes to us prepackaged. We have to examine every facet of our worlds and decide what it is we truly believe. And in doing so we’ll probably reach divergent opinions.

The only way Lee could do that was by showing us the heroic Atticus as nothing but a flesh and blood human being, full of the same frailties and mistaken thinking.

In the end, Scout’s thoughts seem more modern than anyone else’s in the book, more in line with our own views about social justice. But her conclusion only goes so far. We’re still left with questions. How do we reach loved ones who disagree with us? How can we tell if our own ethical intuitions are correct? How can white folks best help people of color secure their rightful place in society?

None of these have answers, but Lee is still asking the right questions. More than 50 years later, we’re still searching for solutions.