By Christa Forster
I miss the physicality of school. By “physicality,” I do not mean physical education, nor do I mean movement exactly. I mean all the ephemera we leave in our wakes as we sail—smoothly or tempest-tossed—through our daily schedules, together yet apart. Heads tilted toward one another, whispering or chatting, sighing or groaning; nods and waves and smiles during passing period; laughter in the halls during quiet moments in class; the pods of bodies in the cafeteria or library; the forlorn study guides, spiral notebooks, binders, water bottles, hoodies on the floors; lockers slamming shut; empty candy and cough drop wrappers littering the spaces. All of this “stuff” contributes to the feel of school and therefore to the feel of learning.
The poet Theodore Roethke, in his luminous poem “The Waking,” offers this question: “We think by feeling. What is there to know?” I cherish Roethke’s villanelle, but without this pandemic, I could not have understood his question’s urgency. In the coronavirus era, we face the legitimate challenge of embodying the feel of school within our virtual realms. As I head into week eight of teaching synchronously via Zoom, I am (to allude to another poet, Rainer Maria Rilke) living the questions such as this one.
I teach high school English. Right now, I meet my tenth and twelfth graders for sixty minutes twice a week. Just as we did before quarantine, we write for much of the class period in a variety of modes: freely, reflectively, analytically, creatively. The one we start every class with is the writer’s notebook (WNB). I do not collect or assess the writing students do here; however, I do consider this practice foundational for their writing fluency and comfort and for the development of their voices. I time WNB practice sessions (four to six minutes), and I keep the directions simple: “Be specific. Feel free. Persevere.” By persevere, I mean, “don’t stop writing until you hear my timer go off.”
Before, I gave them optional topics; now I require them to do one of two things: either Lynda Barry’s “Basic Quick Diary Format” from her remarkable book Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor (Drawn & Quarterly 2014), or something from “12 Ideas for Writing through the Pandemic with The New York Times” (The NYTimes Learning Network).
For the “Basic Quick Diary Format” (aka the LBQ for “Lynda Barry Quad”), students quickly capture seven specific things they did, seven specific things they saw, something specific they overheard, and a specific visual image, all from the course of a day. Barry, the graphic artist and educator who received a 2019 Macarthur grant, composed Syllabus to document her investigation into “what ideas look like when they are taking physical shape.”
The quad’s genius obliges students to capture the physical ephemera of their day-to-day. When I ask my students about the value of creating these quads, they say that the LBQ helps them remember things; it keeps them more aware and awake; it encourages them to notice things they normally do not, or would not, notice.
After students write in their WNBs (currently they do them digitally), they screen-share their entries in small breakout groups for four minutes. Unanimously, students love this part of class. They find it interesting to see how similar and different everyone’s days are in quarantine. They report that having this view into their classmates’ lives, especially because they can’t meet in person, helps them understand the struggles of others during this hard time.
Students find The New York Times’ activities refreshing. They like that the Learning Network editors change their writing prompts every day and that prompts appeal to teens’ interests. Students can share their points of view about lighter topics such as humor in tough times or their favorite books. They can sharpen their critical thinking skills with picture puzzles. Or they can wrestle with topical issues such as essential workers’ fight to gain better protections and benefits. Students working on Times activities may opt to post their writing in the online comments section, receiving attention and potentially responses from students all over the US and the world.
“We think by feeling. What is there to know?” As we navigate the unknown before us, I want to keep pursuing this question. Asking our students to keep writing through this new normal, one way or another, and creating spaces for them to share what they write, we may feel our way into thinking about how to not only survive, but also thrive.
Christa Forster’s experience comes from over two decades of teaching in public and independent schools. Currently, she teaches English at The Kinkaid School in Houston, TX, where she offers a popular poetry class that she designed for high school seniors: Visions of Apocalypse: from Dante to Dylan to Dr. Dre. In 2014, she founded the Kinkaid Faculty Mindfulness Study group, and she teaches mindfulness to students as well. Her literary work has been published in print anthologies and in online literary journals. Additionally, her feature work appears in The New York Times, Houston Chronicle, Cite Magazine, and Sculpture Magazine. She offers online academic readiness workshops for high school and college students. Find out more about these workshops and about Christa via her blogs, Antilogical Pedagogical and Ysidora. You can also follow her on Instagram and Twitter @xtaforster.