"This year has been incredibly challenging for all of us, and especially for those of us who are used to interacting with others face-to-face on a daily basis. There are days that we feel drained, exhausted, frustrated, and depressed. But even in the face of such challenges, if given the chance and scaffoldings and the necessary resources, our youth will remind us that humans are resilient and innovative."
David Upegui, Author
“This stinks! I hate not being at school.” One student said it with such passion that I had to acknowledge her frustration without feeding into her anxieties or recoiling in response.
Others shortly joined her with their own grievances about distance learning. As I listened intently, I looked for the “soft spot,” that place in the conversation where I could uplift the tone of the exchange. After a few minutes, it presented itself: “We like this class and we think you are great, but this year we won’t get to do all those things that other students got to do with you in your class.”
I shook my head in agreement and took a deep breath before addressing all the students in this Google Meet classroom.
“I hear you. This is so challenging for everyone. I personally find it so difficult to not have you in the same room—that’s my strength as a teacher, those personal connections. How can I possibly know if you are understanding the material if I can’t see your face or read your body language? Truly, I hear you! And yet, here we are, in the middle of a global pandemic. I want you to know that it is up to us to make the best of this situation. True, we won’t be able to dissect in our second week of school, as we normally would do, but we can still make something wonderful out of our time together.
It was during a pandemic that Isaac Newton, working from home, was able to use his time wisely and conduct lots of research and writing.
In other words, it is up to us to ensure that we are still learning, and I will do whatever needs to be done to provide you with activities that will challenge you and help you to become empowered with science.”
The silence seemed to last a while, but it was only seconds. That first student raised her voice again: “So, what are we going to do?”
I said, “I am so glad you asked! Surely we will be learning science and becoming more powerful. Remember that if we are ignorant about science, someone else has the power, and with education we gain that power! Part of what we will do this semester is to learn about COVID-19, the reason for our current learning situation.”
After working with freely available resources on LabXchange and from Dr. Galiatsatos of Johns Hopkins Medical School, the students in my classes participated in a series of eight lectures that ranged in topics, including the biology of COVID-19, the chemistry of hand hygiene, the physics of face masks, mathematical modeling, vaccinations, mental health, and debunking myths and lies. Additionally, using the LabXchange platform, students found information about COVID vaccinations, biotechnology, and COVID symptoms.
After these sessions and activities, my students knew more about COVID-19 than the average person; they had become student-experts. Moreover, given the fact that our school is in the city with the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the state, their expertise was not only a nicety—it was a necessity!
For the conclusion of the unit of study, my students created public service announcements (PSAs) about COVID-19. These PSAs were the tools that made my students into transformative intellectuals, people who improved their community through their education. Exactly as expected, my students’ creativity, enthusiasm, and charisma went beyond what I originally conjured.
This year has been incredibly challenging for all of us, and especially for those of us who are used to interacting with others face-to-face on a daily basis. There are days that we feel drained, exhausted, frustrated, and depressed. But even in the face of such challenges, if given the chance and scaffoldings and the necessary resources, our youth will remind us that humans are resilient and innovative. We are now seeing some of the students in-person as the infection rates drop and vaccination is widely available for adults.
Recently, a student “spit” the lyrics of a rap song about wearing a mask to avoid the SARS-CoV-2 virus; she sounded very different from that first day of class. She was eager to show me how much she had learned.
After listening to her rap, I had goosebumps and I knew that even in the midst of a pandemic, the next set of stewards of our Earth are being nurtured and they are blooming.
View other stories in the ABE Pandemic Teaching Stories series.