By Ariel Sacks
Some people thought the pandemic would propel us into a new era of online learning, replacing many teachers with computer programs. But for me, it’s pretty clear that my students need community and connection, and virtual learning simply did not facilitate these two needs. I continue to believe that being together in the same space with their teachers and classmates positively impacts all aspects of students’ learning and socialization. I am so happy to be back with my students in person every day—after a year and a half of teaching middle school ELA remotely—and my students are thrilled, too.
I did my best to rise to the occasion of teaching over Zoom. I learned plenty but, ultimately, I am more than ready to leave almost all of it behind. This is not because I’m tech phobic or resistant to change—Google Classroom was already a part of my teaching and I’d been collaborating with educators across the country on Zoom for years. It was a relatively comfortable move to try teaching middle school virtually. What I found, though, was that for most students it was not a positive experience. Students’ home environments were generally not ideal for learning, and students’ entire social lives were being conducted online via social media and video games. Many students were home alone or with siblings all day. The isolation was unhealthy and, coupled with the other stressors of the COVID pandemic, was one of the root causes of widespread depression.
I tried to create community virtually. In some groups, it kind of worked. Some lessons generated a sense of community, but even at these times I knew that so many students were shifting in and out of engagement for a whole range of reasons. In the end, I found only two aspects of remote teaching to be really valuable: (1) the efficiency of being paperless and (2) the private chat function, which allowed shyer students to communicate privately with me and participate anonymously at any moment. I suppose the ability for anyone to take a bathroom break in their own home could also be counted. There were a few students who really benefited from being remote, too, but those cases were the exception.
Fast forward to September 2021, as I watched students bound into school with an eagerness that felt foreign. The quarantine had me in a bit of a stupor. I had accepted its conditions so fully that I had forgotten what teaching in person was like. When I finally came back to school, met with my colleagues in person, and began teaching English to my new group of seventh graders, I was moved by how good it felt. While there were still many questions about how the year would unfold, I was filled with energy and optimism.
Each day, I take in treasured yet forgotten experiences that can only occur in the physical classroom: the silence of a room full of twelve-year-old students reading independently; the buzz of students talking to each other about what a piece of text implies; the physicality of writing in a composition notebook; the energy of a group of students asking if they can keep writing in their notebooks for the whole period, and me saying yes without wondering if anyone is actually just playing video games in another window. Almost daily, I’m inspired to take out my camera and snap a photo or video of a moment. I’m reconnected to what I love about teaching.
I also use time differently when teaching in person. While students took a writing assessment the other day, I noticed how bare my classroom walls were. (My old posters had been removed when the walls were cleaned in March 2020, and I had accidentally thrown them away.) As some students finished the assessment and others were still working, I assigned them to make posters of literary terms that had come up so far during the year: pesky ones that seventh graders still mix up, like fiction and non-fiction and 1st and 3rd person narrators, and new terms like “rhetoric” that came out of unplanned, teachable moments. The students worked in pairs to quietly create the posters, while the other students continued their writing. By the end of the period, not only had everyone finished the assessment, but the walls now had decorative teaching references created by students!
In itself, having students make posters for the walls is basic, but this moment struck me because on Zoom I would have just dismissed students early when they finished the assessment, or given them some task to work on while muted. In the physical classroom, a “problem” of unfilled time led to a more creative solution that benefitted the entire class.
As we enter the season of thanksgiving, I am grateful every day to be in the same space with my students. It was no small feat to utilize technology in so many new ways to continue learning while we needed to be apart; and I’m also grateful I was able to teach through that phase of the pandemic. But I’m so much more absorbed in my work now, and so are my students. The hallways filled with voices and laughter, the developing friendships, and the vitality of academic discourse in the classroom bring me to work every day with a full heart. Though we don’t know what the rest of the school year holds—whether we’re in for more changes, or whether we’ll stay in the current routine and the excitement of school life will fade I am delighting in each moment of connection and inspiration that arises from being back in the classroom.
Ariel Sacks has taught middle school English Language Arts in New York City for sixteen years. She is the author of Whole Novels for the Whole Class: A Student Centered Approach.