As the fall semester begins, schools nationwide face unprecedented challenges during the pandemic. Some have opted for socially distanced classes, others for virtual lessons, or a hybrid of both. And, of course, administrators and faculty are prepared to adjust their plans at any time. We asked a number of authors who are also teachers how they are adapting and maintaining optimism for themselves and their students.
Author of Letters from Cuba (Penguin/Paulsen, Aug.)
I’ve taught cultural anthropology for over 30 years at the University of Michigan, and this will be the first time I’ll miss the excitement of greeting my students in person on the first day of class. I’m nervous about how I’ll maintain the spirit of community I strive to create in the classroom. For my undergrad class about Cuba and its diaspora, I bring in plantain chips and guava pastries and sugary Cuban coffee to talk about culture and food, but I won’t be doing that this time around. My seminar on ethnographic writing starts at noon on Mondays, and this time I won’t get to enjoy the scent of the various delicious lunches my busy grad students consume as we discuss their research essays. Though we won’t have these sensual experiences to share, the pandemic is giving us an opportunity to create a different sense of intimacy, trust, and reciprocity as we gaze at each other up close on our screens with the awareness that we are keeping each other safe by being distant. I have a feeling that in this time of uncertainty we’re all going to be feeling more vulnerable and our hearts will be more open and that everything we learn together is going to carry real weight for each of us and stay with us long after the pandemic passes.
Debut author of Efrén Divided (HarperCollins/Quill Tree, Mar.)
The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly thrown the education profession for a loop. Despite my being a veteran teacher, insecurity and stress have wiped out 25 years of teaching experience, leaving me feeling anew. In almost a panicked state, I’ve embarked on a frenzied journey to learn all about the latest apps, websites, and teaching platforms—anything and everything to help motivate my students and build their autonomy.
Then after a significant amount of reflection, I have begun remembering all the former students whom I’ve had the privilege of running into over the years. Without exception, none of them focus on the curriculum. Instead, they share stories of fun moments and laughs they shared with friends in the classroom—sometimes teachers. They speak fondly of field trips, group projects, and celebrating birthdays at school.
Perhaps these simple everyday interactions are just as impactful as the curriculum we teach.
Author-illustrator of Lizard in a Zoot Suit (Lerner/Graphic Universe, Aug.)
The biggest impact distance learning has had on me as an art teacher is that I don’t have the ability to work with students in real time. I’m trying to mimic looking over their shoulder with discussion threads and posts, and learning the new platform tools and limitations has been interesting as well. I know this isn’t ideal, but as long as I have the ability to communicate with my kids and deliver instruction I think they’ll be okay. Art class is unique in that the kids can work alone and thrive and the tech gives them the ability to still share art and express themselves—which is very important right now. The kids are handling this better because they are so adaptable and resilient and, in my case, extremely patient as I learn.
Author of Tigers, Not Daughters (Algonquin, Mar.)
As a person who typically thrives in a steady, predictable environment, these last few months have been admittedly difficult. I’ve been finishing up teaching summer courses online at a community college, while planning to shift to hybrid (a mix of face-to-face and online) courses at a different school this fall. There’s a lot to learn (as the online learning platforms are different), and when I’m overwhelmed, I develop a kind of paralysis. I take pride in my teaching, but it’s difficult to try and perform at a high caliber when my mood is constantly swinging or my toddler develops an ear infection and needs even more of my attention. All the emails I receive from the school about enhanced safety procedures and the various cleaners and wipes in the classrooms just serve in making me feel less safe. There has been so little novel writing—basically just going through old pages written before all this started. But, I have taken a couple of online writing workshops and have produced a couple of poems. I was feeling like writing a poem was “do-able” and could capture an emotion or an idea quickly. Writing those poems made me feel productive, before I get crushed again by the chaos.
Author of Little Blue Bridge (Scholastic Press, Apr. 2021)
I’m both a picture book author and public-school teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In reflecting on how the pandemic-induced shutdown and school uncertainty have affected my role as an educator, I wanted to find some small bit of positivity to share. That’s a classic teacher response: find some kernel of good in the bad. Tomorrow will be better. But two days into our new school year, I can’t do that. I mean, not unless I lie.
I teach in Oklahoma. Teachers here (like many other places) are famously underpaid. A few years ago, due to budget cuts, my full-time gifted education position was cut to part-time, causing me to serve two schools instead of one. Due to the pandemic, I am now serving students at both sites in-person, plus any students from both sites who’ve opted to learn virtually. I’m now doing double classes compared to last year. Did I mention duty teachers aren’t available either, so I’m also doing 75-plus minutes of duties per day? There isn’t adequate time to serve the number of students I see, and I use my evenings to adapt regular lessons to virtual lessons or make completely different ones. That makes dinners hours later. It also means my own children aren’t getting the attention they deserve. And like other teachers, between classes I use my stockpiled wipes and sanitizer to clean tables and chairs. If we had more funding, we could hire the needed staff, but we don’t. So we make do by doing more. The pandemic has highlighted so many disparities among our students, but it’s also exacerbated the financial troubles our public schools already had.
Today, it’s a pretty dark time to be teaching. But who knows? Maybe tomorrow will be better.
Author of Grandpa Grumps (Little Bee Books, Apr.)
Uncertainty about when and how schools will reopen has had a huge effect on me as an author and a teacher. As an author, there’s nothing more exciting than being able to share your book with a real audience. Since Grandpa Grumps published smack-dab in the middle of this pandemic, there wasn’t an opportunity to attend any of the planned events, or have those magical moments. As a teacher, it’s been pure survival mode... at first wishing for back-to-normal, then quickly creating a new normal, to making the most of the less than ideal situations we’re all faced with. Days away from the start of school, there’s still so much uncertainty, and never-ending changes, but there’s also so much hope.
I was worried about Grandpa Grumps not finding its way to readers since bookstores have been closed and events canceled. I was worried about my students and my own kids not getting the quality of education they needed through remote learning. So I’ve been touched by the readers who have reached out to tell me how much they love the book. I’ve been brought to tears by photos and videos shared of children reading and hugging my book. I’ve been surprised by how adaptable my students and own children have been—how we’ve found ways to laugh, have fun, and learn together. I’ve realized that though the times right now remain less than ideal, there are still real connections being made. And no matter how much will continue to change, and what happens when school reopens, I remain hopeful that this upcoming school year will be bright... and certainly one for the books!
Cory Putman Oakes
Author of The Second-Best Haunted Hotel on Mercer Street (Abrams, Aug.)
For me, all of this uncertainty reinforces the importance of books—for my students and for my own kids at home. Right now, when kids are more isolated than they’ve ever been, they need windows into the world. They need stories to talk about, to write about, and to question. They need new perspectives. They need inspiration and challenges and comfort. Books can give them all of these things. I think that as long as we can keep them reading, the kids are going to be okay.
Author of Trowbridge Road (Candlewick, Oct.)
For the past five months, I have been living in a bubble of five. The only people I have been near, besides a handful of trusted friends, are my husband, my two sons, and my 78-year-old mother. We have been in mourning. In April, my father passed away from advanced stage heart and kidney disease. He died alone in a hospital bed without any of us holding his hand because the threat of Covid prevented us from being there with him. We had to say goodbye over the phone. Since then, I have been on a desperate, obsessive and fruitless mission to keep everyone I love safe. So far, none of us has gotten sick. We wash our hands. We stay away from people. We disinfect our groceries.
Now it is the week before school starts. Yesterday, I had a meeting with 10 colleagues. I tried to find a place in the classroom that would allow me to have a wide berth, but no matter where I moved, I found myself closer than I wanted to be. We were all masked, but I kept noticing how this person’s mask would slide down a little and they would have to yank it back up, or that person had gaps around their chin and cheeks, and I began to imagine the virus seeping from their mouths like billowing, poisonous clouds. I kept moving closer to the door. I nodded and participated. I laughed when it was time to laugh. I raised good points. I have had OCD since I was 10 years old. I have learned to be an excellent actor when I need to be. When the meeting was over, I thanked my colleagues, grabbed my stuff and walked away as quickly as I could to my classroom where I closed my door and cried.
Next week my classroom will be filled with eighth graders. They will have the chance to see each other for the first time in five months. They will be hungry for discussion and connection and community, and they deserve all of that. So much has happened since last March. There has been loss and uncertainty. There have been protests. There has been fear and unrest. They will need the time to talk and process and ask questions. I run the drama club. I know how to act like I am okay. But I also know there will be days when I will close my door and cry. May this be a year when I learn to become more comfortable with uncertainty and imperfection. May my bubble be strong enough to include these young people who will, for better or for worse, become part of my family for as long as I can hold them. May we keep each other safe on this journey through an imperfect and uncertain world.
Rebecca Van Slyke
Author of Lana Lynn and the New Watchdog (Peachtree, fall 2021)
It was a Friday the Thirteenth to end all thirteenths. In the afternoon of March 13, we received an email that school would be closed for six weeks to effectively shut down a new strain of the flu, Covid-19. As I sent my students out to the busses that afternoon, I made sure they had their reading books and library books and gave them an extra-big hug, one that would last throughout the six weeks we might not see each other. In the coming days we found out that we would give them work to maintain their learning, then provide for new learning, all on new-to-us platforms. The whole school rallied to support our kids and their families, from lunchroom workers who served thousands of free-to-any-child lunches; to bus drivers who delivered packets of work; to secretaries and para-educators who made contact with families; to custodians who deep-cleaned the school to make it a safer place when students returned. The six weeks became three months, and teachers made packets of work, explained new concepts with daily videos, read to children via Facebook and YouTube videos, called families, and sent postcards to kids to lift their spirits.
Over this summer teachers have been preparing to welcome new classes, first with masks and social distancing, then, quite suddenly, remotely. We are learning new ways to interact with students both live and with online activities and videos. We are swallowing our frustrations and anxieties and choosing to be positive. And if we can’t actually give them physical hugs, we can greet our new children with enough enthusiasm and love for them to feel it, even across the internet.
Ann Marie Stephens
Author of Arithmechicks Take Away (Boyds Mills, Sept.)
I would equate my feelings to one of those giant, inflatable tube people by the side of the road. One minute I’m up smiling, going with the flow. The next minute, I’m on the ground, completely deflated. I’m extremely patient, but my new boss, Covid-19, is beyond unreasonable. I’m teaching first grade virtually. It’s devastating not being able to bond with students in person. Plus, they are missing out on my ridiculously large book collection. It’s a rite of passage for my students to put dust jackets on upside down and to leave fingerprints on my book covers. I desperately want to see their fingerprints. But for now, I toggle between the highs and lows, while I wait patiently for someone to fire my new boss. He’s the worst.
Nova Ren Suma
Co-editor of Foreshadow: Stories to Celebrate the Magic of Reading and Writing YA (Algonquin, Oct.)
This fall I teach an undergraduate course on Writing for Young Adults at the University of Pennsylvania, a class previously energized by in-person discussion and sharing of work in an intimate space, culminating with a day of portfolio readings. Adapting a creative writing seminar like this to a fully remote format seemed straightforward at first, but there has been nothing straightforward about this coming semester for my students. UPenn’s ambitious plan for a hybrid semester, with pre-testing, contact tracing, and quarantine housing, all so we could invite the students back to campus, ended up needing to be reversed in mid-August. I’m grateful that the creative writing program embraced planning for online classes sooner than that, but my biggest concern right now is finding ways to create community and connection for my students even though we are online and far apart.
I’ve had to rethink a number of things, including how I usually lead workshop discussion, so I’m taking another remote teaching training through our Center for Teaching & Learning, my head swimming with tips and tools—from Zoom breakout rooms to accessible Canvas modules to Slack workspaces to Panopto and beyond. The college experience our students were hoping for is not going to exist in the form they wanted, so at least for my one class, it’s on me to try to create a new form that energizes them still. They’ll be writing the opening pages of their own YA novels in my class, and I’m hoping this can be a creative outlet for them during such a tangled, uncertain time when we’re at war with slow Wi-Fi and trying to decipher social cues and expressions on one another’s faces in Zoom.
Alicia D. Williams
Author of Jump at the Sun (S&S/Atheneum/Dlouhy, Jan. 2021)
I sat in a morning meeting with a bubble of eight second graders. The question we pondered was: “what three words describe your first few days?” Students offered “excited,” “nervous,” “happy” (to see friends or go to PE). When my turn came my three words were “nervous,” “tired,” and “excited.” We all agreed, feeling pretty much the same way (except it’s way too hot for this old lady to play outside in PE with a mask on). But seriously, I already miss the welcoming hugs, slight silliness, and closeness that I’m accustomed to. I have to admit that I question (and worry) whether my little ones would grow comfortable in this space of distance. Many teachers, myself included, stress over the amount of direct contact we can offer children in need because even in non-pandemic life our students cry, have breakdowns, and anxiety. How can we comfort them as usual? There are times when the mask is suffocating me and I’m afraid to say that I can’t breathe because as a Black American, the context means so much, so different than my majority white peers. I can’t afford to slip into anxiety of the shootings of unarmed Blacks. So, I plaster the smile on my face that no one will see, but my dear students can hear.
I’ve also been asked to dust off my teaching artist skills to provide daily lessons to our four transitional kindergarten classes. Not to brag, but I [lead] several special classes rolled up into one—using storytelling, drama, movement, art, and music to teach. It is my intention to infuse diverse literature in my lessons. It is important that the stories I offer will plant a seed of love, inclusion, and empathy. And we all have fun doing it.
Writing is also different; it takes me longer to mentally relax after work. Yet, I still find inspiration for stories and new simplified lesson ideas for writing workshop. And, I am fiercer on protecting my mental health, which is a challenge because we give naturally, as educators and artists. And oohhh, I’m having fun with my flair—masks and lunch box—all Wonder Woman! When someone says, “Hey, Wonder Woman!” I go, “Yep, that’s me.”