It’s not easy to teach middle school, or to be in middle school, or to raise a middle schooler. This year, a very hard thing has gotten even harder for teachers, students, and families.
t’s not easy to teach middle school, or to
be in middle school, or to raise a middle
schooler. This year, a very hard thing
has gotten even harder for teachers,
students, and families.
I have taught 8th grade for over a decade.
I know firsthand that most students really
want to learn. They react well to work that is
challenging and important and interesting.
When they are physically in school, I can use
proximity and presentation and pressure to
get them to do all sorts of stuff they don’t
want to do.
That gets a lot more challenging when I’m
teaching from my home to theirs.
Pandemic teaching is at its worst when it
tries to re-create school: Asking kids to sit
for hours, asking teachers to watch students
while they try to sit for hours—the idea that
watching someone teach is the same as
learning doesn’t hold up. I spend five times
more energy to produce lessons that are far,
far less impactful.
At its best, pandemic teaching lets go of a
lot of the stuff of school—worksheets, dress
codes, and lectures—and focuses instead on
the goal of learning. We teachers are finding
success when we rely more on creativity
than compliance. Yes, there’s lots of trial and
lots and lots of failure. But I’ve never been
disappointed by what students can do when
they’re given a chance.
Last spring, we were just getting by, doing
anything to keep kids engaged and to give
their brains a chance to think about things
other than the world burning down around
them. We showed them grace and concern
when it was all too much. I gave a final project
where students were able to pick anything
they were passionate about and find a way to
share that passion with each other from a distance. There were podcasts about the NBA,
impassioned pleas for gun control, treatises
on alternative fuels, and essays about the
removal of politics from school (I have my
own feelings on this, but the writing was
amazing). One of my favorite projects was an
insightful critical analysis of Sharknado 2.
This fall, we’re all getting used to whatever
“this” is and settling in for months and months
more of it. We all realize we’re going to need
to get some work done.
We miss seeing each other in person. Students, especially, are increasingly desperate
to get back to school, but they’re also getting
better at using email and message features to
ask questions and stay in touch with teachers.
They are more willing to share their jokes,
their pets, their feelings, their lives with each
other. They are showing up.
This fall, my last class of the day was having
an impromptu argument over Fat Bear Week
2020, which is a competition to vote on which
bear at Katmai National Park in Alaska is most
ready for winter. The class had taken sides for
either Chonk (the former champion) or 747
(the young challenger). As 747 pulled ahead,
one student shouted, “just wait until Alaska
votes! Everyone knows Alaska is a swing state
for bears! Chonk will pull ahead!”
Another student picked up his ukelele
and spoke directly to the classmate who was
hoping Alaska would put Chonk over the top.
“I wrote a song just for you,” he said, before
strumming a few chords. Then, he looked into
his camera and said, deadpan, “We all know
747 is the fat king. Stop trying.”
It’s early, but I already know this will be a
strong contender for best moment of the
year for me because it reminded me for the
millionth time that the kids are OK. The kids
are weird and hilarious and brilliant, and they
just need all the chances we can give them
to show it.
Tom Rademacher (B.A. ’04, M.E. ’07) teaches English at St. Anthony Middle School in the New Brighton school district. He was named the 2014 Minnesota Teacher of the Year