Teaching in a time of coronavirus

So many of my friends who are teachers are trying to find ways to teach their students well through unfamiliar online platforms, and are rather nervous about doing so. Different schools have different expectations about how you need to manage your time online with students. Some students may not even have internet access at home, or devices that work well with remote learning. And I do not want to be yet another voice pontificating on what you should or should not do–so please take or leave these thoughts as you will.

My background is in high school English literature, so a lot of these thoughts are coming from that experience.

  1. The essentials

There’s nothing like a crisis to get you to focus on what is essential and what is not. A couple of years ago I was asked to help co-teach an Algebra 1 class in March, since sixteen or so of the twenty-four students were failing. We really had to sit down and think about what really matters. What do they need to know in order to have a solid grasp of algebra before the end of the year? What do we need to let go of?

In the time of the coronavirus, this question is all the more poignant. What do kids need to know? What, in your subject, and in an age-appropriate manner, can speak into the abrupt changes in their lives? What wisdom, what love, can you offer?

And what do you have to let go this year? There will be a lot of that.

If you are a science teacher, what things could you be investigating with students that renew and deepen their appreciation of what doctors and medical workers do? In history, what are examples of human beings coming together in remarkable ways to help one another in movements of solidarity and courage?

I’m not saying that you need to bend over backwards in inauthentic ways to make content “relevant”… but, think about how your specific subject area can speak into your students’ lives in this time. I mean, that should always be a question teachers are asking, but the current coronavirus crisis is an opportunity for deeper revelation.

As Flannery O’Connor observed when asked why her characters have to undergo such violent and intense experiences, “It is the extreme situation that best reveals what we are essentially.”

2. No busy work

Maybe this doesn’t need to be said, but I’m going to say it anyway. The temptation all teachers have at certain times, especially when trying to manage a tricky class situation, is to “keep the kids busy.” There is some merit to this idea (“get to work!” thank you, Harry Wong) … but not much.

The goal is not to lower your standards, but to consider how your assignments are inviting students to spend their time. Are you assigning a project that requires a lot of online research and scrolling? If so, is that the best thing to do right now, when all of your students’ classes are currently conducted online and many people are spending far too much time on the internet scrolling through New York Times articles in order to have a sense of control over an unpredictable and scary situation? (I’m guilty of this, by the way.)

Assigning practice problems (esp. for Math and similar subjects) is often very necessary — we learn by practicing! — but consider how many problems are really needed here.

Really ask yourself: is this just busy work? Will my kids see it as busy work? If I think it’s meaningful and worth doing, how do I help them see that, to the extent that I can?

3. Assignments that lead students away from the computer and towards the people and world around them (with appropriate 6 feet distances!)

As an English teacher, I would be thinking if I were teaching right now, “How could I get my kids to interview their parents or grandparents on pivotal moments in history in their time? How could I encourage them to have meaningful, truth-seeking, and frank discussions that enlarge and deepen their understanding of the past to give them some context and wisdom for the present?”

Maybe, instead of having them type up these interviews, have them do an audio recording of them to minimize screen time.

If they need to do a writing assignment for you, does it HAVE to be typed? Could they write some (shorter) assignments by hand, take a picture of it, and upload it that way? (If their family has only one computer at home but several kids in school, this might be really helpful).

Are there assignments they can do by going outside for walks in their neighborhoods with their family, taking pictures of beautiful things they see?

I’m thinking about those Italians singing out their windows to encourage one another. What are ways my students could make art to add more beauty to the world right now? Could they write music? Poetry? Draw? How might they share their art with you and one another?

How can your class become a place where engagement with the truly and deeply human things is encouraged?

4. Checking in with smaller groups

As a for-credit assignment, make a sign up sheet for them to choose a time to do a short video chat with you once a week (30m or less) in small groups. Depending on how many students you have, a good idea would be to make these smaller chats with 10 students or less, if possible. (When I had 120 students, this would mean 12 different chats a week… that’s a lot. Do what you can.)

These video chats (via Google hangouts or Zoom or whatever) could be opportunities for them to share assignments with you, discuss readings of course… but more importantly it is time for them to see your face, to see that you care for them, that you are involved and engaged.

If your school is trying to have you record lectures and teach that way, talk frankly with your principal about alternatives. Real learning happens in the context of relationships, of real-time interaction. How might you facilitate that with your kids?

5. Be flexible and gentle

Be flexible and gentle– especially with yourself! Just as you would be patient with a student learning something for the very first time, be patient with yourself as you navigate online teaching.

Be honest with your kids — “Hey guys, this is new for me too. We are in this together to see what works and what doesn’t.”

More thoughts to come.

If you are a teacher, what have you been trying? What’s been working well? What hasn’t? Or, if you are a parent, what have you seen your children doing with assignments?

And for all of you who are teachers, trying your best, making mistakes, spending time trying to teach your kids in new and challenging ways, God bless you.

Country Schoolhouse, 1879 By Morgan Weistling

“Courage, dear heart”

I’ve been unsure whether and what to write in the last few days. The temptation to offer uneducated opinions seems to be strong in much of the online community, and I don’t want to add my voice to the noise.

Yet there has been a lot of beautiful communication as well; people offering to help out, teachers offering assistance to parents homeschooling in the coming days, folks eager to make deliveries / shopping runs for older people or others more vulnerable to the illness. It’s good to remember how wonderful human beings can be.

I’m thinking about writing some posts in the next few weeks with ideas/resources for ELA teachers who are transitioning to teaching online, so watch for those and feel free to share with parents or other teachers who might find them useful.

In the meantime, a passage from C. S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader I have always loved, that seems timely. Of course, the situation in the story is by no means an accurate analogy for our situation now — but Lucy’s response feels right. A long excerpt below (Lewis’ works are now in the public domain).

The crew of the ship are headed into a mysterious darkness hovering over the sea:

So the three lanterns, at the stern, and the prow and the masthead, were all lit, and Drinian ordered two torches amidships. Pale and feeble they looked in the sunshine. Then all the men except some who were left below at the oars were ordered on deck and fully armed and posted in their battle stations with swords drawn. Lucy and two archers were posted on the fighting top with bows bent and arrows on the string. Rynelf was in the bows with his line ready to take soundings. Reepicheep, Edmund, Eustace and Caspian, glittering in mail, were with him. Drinian took the tiller.

“And now, in Aslan’s name, forward!” cried Caspian. “A slow, steady stroke. And let every man be silent and keep his ears open for orders.”

With a creak and a groan the Dawn Treader started to creep forward as the men began to row. Lucy, up in the fighting top, had a wonderful view of the exact moment at which they entered the darkness. The bows had already disappeared before the sunlight had left the stern. She saw it go. At one minute the gilded stern, the blue sea, and the sky, were all in broad daylight: next minute the sea and sky had vanished, the stern lantern – which had been hardly noticeable before – was the only thing to show where the ship ended. In front of the lantern she could see the black shape of Drinian crouching at the tiller. Down below her the two torches made visible two small patches of deck and gleamed on swords and helmets, and forward there was another island of light on the forecastle. Apart from that, the fighting top, lit by the masthead light which was only just above her, seemed to be a little lighted world of its own floating in lonely darkness. And the lights themselves, as always happens with lights when you have to have them at the wrong time of day, looked lurid and unnatural. She also noticed that she was very cold.

How long this voyage into the darkness lasted, nobody knew. Except for the creak of the rowlocks and the splash of the oars there was nothing to show that they were moving at all. Edmund, peering from the bows, could see nothing except the reflection of the lantern in the water before him. It looked a greasy sort of reflection, and the ripple made by their advancing prow appeared to be heavy, small, and lifeless. As time went on everyone except the rowers began to shiver with cold.

Suddenly, from somewhere – no one’s sense of direction was very clear by now – there came a cry, either of some inhuman voice or else a voice of one in such extremity of terror that he had almost lost his humanity.

Caspian was still trying to speak – his mouth was too dry – when the shrill voice of Reepicheep, which sounded louder than usual in that silence, was heard.

“Who calls?” it piped. “If you are a foe we do not fear you, and if you are a friend your enemies shall be taught the fear of us.”

“Mercy!” cried the voice. “Mercy! Even if you are only one more dream, have merry. Take me on board. Take me, even if you strike me dead. But in the name of all mercies do not fade away and leave me in this horrible land.”

“Where are you?” shouted Caspian. “Come aboard and welcome.”

There came another cry, whether of joy or terror, and then they knew that someone was swimming towards them.

“Stand by to heave him up, men,” said Caspian.

“Aye, aye, your Majesty,” said the sailors. Several crowded to the port bulwark with ropes and one, leaning far out over the side, held the torch. A wild, white face appeared in the blackness of the water, and then, after some scrambling and pulling, a dozen friendly hands had heaved the stranger on board.

Edmund thought he had never seen a wilder-looking man. Though he did not otherwise look very old, his hair was an untidy mop of white, his face was thin and drawn, and, for clothing, only a few wet rags hung about him. But what one mainly noticed were his eyes, which were so widely opened that he seemed to have no eyelids at all, and stared as if in an agony of pure fear. The moment his feet reached the deck he said:

“Fly! Fly! About with your ship and fly! Row, row, row for your lives away from this accursed shore.”

“Compose yourself,” said Reepicheep, “and tell us what the danger is. We are not used to flying.”

The stranger started horribly at the voice of the Mouse, which he had not noticed before.

“Nevertheless you will fly from here,” he gasped. “This is the Island where Dreams come true.”

“That’s the island I’ve been looking for this long time,” said one of the sailors. “I reckoned I’d find I was married to Nancy if we landed here.”

“And I’d find Tom alive again,” said another.

“Fools!” said the man, stamping his foot with rage. “That is the sort of talk that brought me here, and I’d better have been drowned or never born. Do you hear what I say? This is where dreams – dreams, do you understand, come to life, come real. Not daydreams: dreams.”

There was about half a minute’s silence and then, with a great clatter of armour, the whole crew were tumbling down the main hatch as quick as they could and flinging themselves on the oars to row as they had never rowed before; and Drinian was swinging round the tiller, and the boatswain was giving out the quickest stroke that had ever been heard at sea. For it had taken everyone just that half-minute to remember certain dreams they had had – dreams that make you afraid of going to sleep again – and to realize what it would mean to land on a country where dreams come true.

Only Reepicheep remained unmoved.

“Your Majesty, your Majesty,” he said, “are you going to tolerate this mutiny, this poltroonery? This is a panic, this is a rout.”

“Row, row,” bellowed Caspian. “Pull for all our lives. Is her head right, Drinian? You can say what you like, Reepicheep. There are some things no man can face.”

“It is, then, my good fortune not to be a man,” replied Reepicheep with a very stiff bow.

Lucy from up aloft had heard it all. In an instant that one of her own dreams which she had tried hardest to forget came back to her as vividly as if she had only just woken from it. So that was what was behind them, on the island, in the darkness! For a second she wanted to go down to the deck and be with Edmund and Caspian. But what was the use? If dreams began coming true, Edmund and Caspian themselves might turn into something horrible just as she reached them. She gripped the rail of the fighting top and tried to steady herself. They were rowing back to the light as hard as they could: it would be all right in a few seconds. But oh, if only it could be all right now!

Though the rowing made a good deal of noise it did not quite conceal the total silence which surrounded the ship.

Everyone knew it would be better not to listen, not to strain his ears for any sound from the darkness. But no one could help listening. And soon everyone was hearing things. Each one heard something different.

“Do you hear a noise like . . . like a huge pair of scissors opening and shutting .. . over there?” Eustace asked Rynelf.

“Hush!” said Rynelf. “I can hear them crawling up the sides of the ship.”

“It’s just going to settle on the mast,” said Caspian.

“Ugh!” said a sailor. “There are the gongs beginning. I knew they would.”

Caspian, trying not to look at anything (especially not to keep looking behind him), went aft to Drinian.

“Drinian,” he said in a very low voice. “How long did we take rowing in? – I mean rowing to where we picked up . the stranger.”

“Five minutes, perhaps,” whispered Drinian. “Why?”

“Because we’ve been more than that already trying to get out.”

Drinian’s hand shook on the tiller and a line of cold sweat ran down his face. The same idea was occurring to everyone on board. “We shall never get out, never get’ out,” moaned the rowers. “He’s steering us wrong. We’re going round and round in circles. We shall never get out.” The stranger, who had been lying in a huddled heap on the deck, sat up and burst out into a horrible screaming laugh.

“Never get out!” he yelled. “That’s it. Of course. We shall never get out. What a fool I was to have thought they would let me go as easily as that. No, no, we shall never get out.”

Lucy leant her head on the edge of the fighting top and whispered, “Aslan, Aslan, if ever you loved us at all, send us help now.” The darkness did not grow any less, but she began to feel a little – a very, very little – better. […]

“Look!” cried Rynelf’s voice hoarsely from the bows. There was a tiny speck of light ahead, and while they watched a broad beam of light fell from it upon the ship. It did not alter the surrounding darkness, but the whole ship was lit up as if by searchlight. Caspian blinked, stared round, saw the faces of his companions all with wild, fixed expressions. Everyone was staring in the same direction: behind everyone lay his black, sharply-edged shadow.

Lucy looked along the beam and presently saw something in it. At first it looked like a cross, then it looked like an aeroplane, then it looked like a kite, and at last with a whirring of wings it was right overhead and was an albatross. It circled three times round the mast and then perched for an instant on the crest of the gilded dragon at the prow. It called out in a strong sweet voice what seemed to be words though no one understood them. After that it spread its wings, rose, and began to fly slowly ahead, bearing a little to starboard. Drinian steered after it not doubting that it offered good guidance. But no one except Lucy knew that as it circled the mast it had whispered to her, “Courage, dear heart,” and the voice, she felt sure, was Aslan’s […]

Reading Out Loud

There’s a famous episode in book 6 of the Confessions where Augustine takes special note of the fact that Bishop Ambrose had the habit of reading silently to himself:

But when [Ambrose] was reading, his eye glided over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were at rest. Ofttimes when we had come (for no man was forbidden to enter, nor was it his wont that any who came should be announced to him), we saw him thus reading to himself, and never otherwise; and having long sat silent (for who durst intrude on one so intent?) we were fain to depart, conjecturing that in the small interval which he obtained, free from the din of others’ business, for the recruiting of his mind, he was loth to be taken off; and perchance he dreaded lest if the author he read should deliver any thing obscurely, some attentive or perplexed hearer should desire him to expound it, or to discuss some of the harder questions; so that his time being thus spent, he could not turn over so many volumes as he desired; although the preserving of his voice (which a very little speaking would weaken) might be the truer reason for his reading to himself. But with what intent soever he did it, certainly in such a man it was good. (Confessions Book VI)

Augustine’s apparent surprise at seeing Ambrose reading without vocalizing–he even spends time speculating as to the reason why–has caused many people to wonder about how people read in the ancient world, and whether or not reading silently was an anomaly. This question seems rather controversial–and perhaps people are misreading Augustine’s surprise in this frequently referenced passage. (Check out this 2015 interview with Daniel Donoghue of Harvard on the subject.)

Others have argued that since Latin (and Greek) did not have spaces between words or punctuation, reading aloud made texts easier to comprehend. I mean, the first line of Virgil’s Aeneid would actually look like this:


Or, in English:


Imagine hundreds of lines of that!

The line reads, “Of arms and the man I sing, he who first from the shores of Troy…” For another example, take a look at this beautiful 1,600 year old illuminated manuscript page of the Aeneid digitized by the Vatican:

So you can kind of see that the argument about reading out loud for clarity as your eyes interpret a long series of letters without punctuation or spacing might have some weight.

Whatever the case might have been for the ancients and medievals, it seems that most of the reading we do nowadays is silent. Texting, twitter, and other social media platforms don’t require speaking out loud; nor do they usually involve in-person contact unless you happen to be showing a friend a juicy text you just received from a potential admirer. And even then, I suspect that 70% of the time people usually pass their phones over for the friend to read the text for herself.

I read rather quickly, and reading silently certainly accelerates my pace and allows me to read a lot more. But sometimes I wonder how well I read when I don’t have the demands of vocalizing or listening to others to slow me down.

In my Jane Austen seminar I’ve been reminded again just how delightful it really is to read out loud with others. Austen is more funny when you read her aloud. (So is Flannery O’Connor, by the way; so if you’ve had trouble getting into her stories make sure you’re attempting your best Southern accent with friends.) There’s kind of a social dimension to humor; we are more likely to laugh when we hear others laughing. And I don’t think this is superficial or merely herd instinct or groupthink–I think there are real elements of a text that can come out more clearly in community.

In Austen’s novels themselves you often encounter scenes where characters read aloud to one another: Mr. Collins boring the Bennet family with Fordyce’s Sermons or Henry Crawford charming Fanny Price and the Bertrams with Shakespeare. One thinks also of Marianne decrying Edward Ferris’ lifeless reading of Cowper in Sense and Sensibility:

Oh! mama, how spiritless, how tame was Edward’s manner in reading to us last night! I felt for my sister most severely. Yet she bore it with so much composure, she seemed scarcely to notice it. I could hardly keep my seat. To hear those beautiful lines which have frequently almost driven me wild, pronounced with such impenetrable calmness, such dreadful indifference!

Jane Austen herself, according to John Mullan, seems to have been a bit particular about how to voice each of her characters appropriately. In a fascinating interview you can listen to here, Mullan explains,

There’s quite an interesting, telling complaint in one of Jane Austen’s surviving letters to her sister, Cassandra, that Jane Austen and her mother have just received the first delivery of the first edition of Pride and Prejudice in January 1813, and they’re reading it aloud. She complains that her mother doesn’t make sufficient distinction between the voices of the characters, because the novel is like a play script as well as being a novel, and Jane Austen has written the dialogue in order that you be able to hear and distinguish the character voices and what they’re like from their voices, and she complains that her mum doesn’t quite get it right. So I very much think that reading aloud generated that attention to what literary critics call ‘idiolect’: the way people speak which is singular to them.

Can you imagine Jane Austen reading her newly published work out loud with her family? How wonderful to have experienced that!

When I was teaching high school, especially in the first couple of years, I was afraid to spend time in class reading passages out loud to my students lest they think I was condescending to them or treating them like little kids. But I soon discovered that some of them had never been read to at home, and many of them had trouble reading anything at all. It became clear that if many of them were going to learn how to read better or at least approach challenging works with more open-ness it would require a communal effort.

It took me a while to get the hang of it–my voice had to get stronger–and I had to be willing to take more risks in trying to adopt different voices and tones and pitches. In Huckleberry Finn Twain adjusts the spelling of his words to echo the accents of his characters, so in order to read the dialogue comprehensibly you need to adopt a Southern drawl (which tickled my Louisiana students when they heard their Boston-born teacher attempt it!)

Some of my favorite memories of teaching are the classes I spent reading out loud with my students. We could pause and I could give some explanation or background, they could ask questions about what certain words or phrases meant, and all of us could laugh out loud or gasp or groan together. You could see many of their faces light up as even Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter started to seem a little less laborious.

I was reminded of that experience again in the Austen seminar. I often take on the role of narrator, but I often ask others in the group to take on the speech of Darcy or Elizabeth or Lady Catherine, just as you might when reading a play. And the result is marvelous. Besides discussing the nuances and artistry of a well-written story, sometimes it’s just good to simply sit back and enjoy it together, to let Jane Austen speak for herself.

If you don’t currently have a space in your life where you read literature out loud with others, I highly recommend asking a friend or family member to join you to try it. It’s good for the soul.

Reading Devotions to Grandfather (1893). Albert Anker (Swiss, 1831-1910)