In Essays & Poems, Voices

Through the Thicket: Distance Learning

by Shannon McCabe


At the start of the 2019-2020, I was an ordinary English Language Arts teacher having the best year since early in my teaching career. It was so empowering that at a faculty meeting, I selected from a list of movie titles ranging from best to worst the “As Good As It Gets” award during our Oscars themed checkin.

On March 13, after spending a quarter on an argument unit with 6th graders, we received news of school closures due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Ironically, the unit we had been studying asked the essential question: is technology more beneficial or disadvantageous? Most students agreed that excessive use of technology especially for teens was harmful.

At this point, being trained as a teacher about 30 years ago, I had no experience teaching virtually and didn’t imagine the decision to close schools for the remainder of the school year into the fall. I thought, great, a few weeks of an extended spring break to keep everyone safe and healthy. When the district announced an entire quarter, then the entire school year, I was forced into the woods. I now had to teach remotely from my home and try to connect with kids, who receive Title 1 funding because they live in households that experience poverty. Many were without Internet, devices, and had multiple siblings vying for the same hotspot or device. I, an individual, who doesn’t even own a TV, was asked to accept the circumstances and turn the ordinary world of in-person education into the special world of virtual education. At the same time, I was called to my 8 year old daughter’s classroom as her 1:1 instructional aide and support system.

With my own students, I had entered a cemetery in the black of night. Names of students were engraved like tombstones in bold letters against windows of a black background in the silence of muted microphones. A few faces occasionally appeared like spirits in the night. While the faceless names haunted me, the spotlighted faces I took in.

It is there where I needed to connect.

My daughter had different access and opportunity issues compared to my middle school students. She is a student who has Down syndrome. School closures opened my eyes to the lack of support given people with

disabilities especially in a high “standardized test” performing school with affluence. She left school in March with her books and notebooks jammed into her backpack, but the pages were blank. Though her accommodations were clearly documented in her Individualized Education Plan, they hadn’t been implemented by her in-person teacher or service providers. I also became painfully aware of the messaging she had been given. In Zoom class with me, she’d script her experiences in school. “You are the worst student ever. You deserve nothing.” she exclaimed with confidence. It broke my heart.

Eager to enter into the thicket of my students’ and my daughter’s zoom rooms, I summoned my superpowers to confront systemic failures of policy and practice. I was now (still am) zooming in and out of classrooms, with no fixed position or focus trying to navigate a wilderness of complexities that are shared by both students of color and students with disabilities.

Inspired by Ibram X. Kendi, who asks in How To Be An Antiracist: “What if different environments lead to different kinds of achievement rather than different levels of achievement? … What if we measured intelligence by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environments? What if we measure intellect by an individual’s desire to know? What if we realized the best way to ensure an effective educational system is not by standardizing our curricula and tests but by standardizing the opportunities available to all students?” (103).

In the chaos of closure, standard practices of curriculum delivery and assessments vanished from the forest of what we call school. I had to ask myself, knowing that years of policy and practice have failed the most marginalized students, what is the most critical competency in a time of crisis?

I believe the most important skill for students especially in a time of intense difficulty is self-awareness, which also leads to identity and agency.

My middle school students begin class each day with a quick write. Quick writes are designed to capture thoughts in about 5 minutes connected to a particular theme. The writing helps students to become conscious of their own feelings, motives and character. By modeling the writing and sharing myself, I show students that it is beneficial to “check yourself” and connect with others. It is a powerful tool for any age and develops a life long practice of self-reflection. Though it seems scary, it is a way to bring us together and share understanding.

In our study of “Diary 42” from The Freedom Writers’ Diary, we have learned that we are all heroes by the simple effort to share our experiences, good and bad, with others. According to Miep Gies, “We are all ordinary people. Even an ordinary secretary, housewife or teenager, can within their own small ways, turn on a small light in a dark room.”

Similar to my students who share slices of their lives like beams of light, my daughter brightens up her Zoom room. Though she is heavily supported by me with accommodations and modifications, her teacher gives her access to the same curriculum and content as her peers. She unmutes at the end of each day with an “I love you” and generous smile for her teacher and classmates as a bright sun through the shadows of tall trees.

As students share their quick writes and my daughter spreads her simple joy, the tombstones and unfinished pages transform to shiny images embossed on my chest. Imagining that nothing else better is possible, I can breathe for a moment. If only for an instant, I have moved from my head to my heart, where not only their names, but also their faces and experiences are engraved forever.

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