A grocery store cashier.
A radiology technician.
A pregnant mother of two.
A pizza delivery driver.
A Type 1 diabetic.
A person in the middle of a mental health crisis and a few others who have had recent suicide attempts and ideations.
These are just some of the folks most vulnerable to the negative effects of the COVID-19 pandemic due to essential work and a lack of physical or mental well-being. They’re also some of the students I taught last semester in my first-year college course and who I will teach in the semesters to come.
The challenges all of our students face that are exacerbated by the pandemic don’t go away when our (virtual) classes start. So how can we possibly hold classes and teach reading, writing, mathematics, science and other subjects without acknowledging the pandemic in our (and their) own backyard?
The answer is we can’t—not if we want to salvage our chances of leading intentional and authentic learning.
I’ve been a student through many national and global tragedies. I was a K-12 student when school shootings began popping up all across the country. I’ve attended a university where a hate crime occurred less than a mile from where I laid my head down at night to sleep. As a grad student, I studied and lived in a college town where a fellow student went missing from the very same street my friends and I frequented. Seeing news cameras from my room was the norm, as the case was covered by virtually every major news source. Although I don’t remember every single detail of those uncertain times, I do remember the educators who made space in their classrooms for us students to be human—to talk about our fears, to ask questions and to attempt to make meaning of unfortunate tragedy and trauma.
Now, as I’m teaching first-year college students about writing, critical thinking and other lifelong learning skills during the COVID-19 pandemic, the shoe is on the other foot. What I once needed from educators I must now provide to students. I’m looking to uplift reality and relevance in the classroom now more than ever.
The pandemic is an ever-evolving collective trauma. Education has been especially dicey; transitioning out of traditional classrooms is far from ideal, and emergency remote instruction has been touch and go for many students and educators alike. In my experience, even amidst all of these changes, three things have helped me to maintain reality and relevance in the virtual classroom. Essentially, I’ve looked for ways to incorporate the pandemic—and the ways my students are surviving it—in my curriculum and my pedagogy. By sharing my experiences in this piece, I hope that other educators will deeply consider doing the same. Here are a few ways to start.
Acknowledge and Legitimize the Effects of the Pandemic.
Last semester, one early assignment I gave my students was a student well-being check-in. I asked them to respond to a few questions about the recent changes the pandemic has ushered into their lives, particularly as students. I asked them to talk about what they were most and least looking forward to in the online learning transition. I was not looking for sugar-coated answers (and I never am); I wanted students to be OK with expressing the good, the bad and the ugly (and more of the latter two, naturally).
In my weekly video and email announcements (video and print for accessibility), I regularly reminded students to cut themselves some slack during this time and commend themselves for their resilience as students and as people, period. This, along with Zoom office hours and open communication between students and me, worked last semester to continue the safe space we established.
Consequently, students were comfortable sharing with me the stressful situations they were enduring because of the pandemic, including the loss of employment, housing security and loved ones from COVID-19. I, in turn, ended up sharing with them my own loss when a family member died from COVID-19 in Long Island, New York.
I was able to individually adjust their learning experiences, including assignments and deadlines, and work with them to be sure they were properly supported and still able to learn.
Engage the Pandemic as a Topic.
Reading and responding to articles from mental health experts about the effects of the pandemic on mental health and well-being was the very first assignment I asked my students to complete when I started online teaching last semester. I think assigning texts that are pandemic-related can really set the stage for the learning community itself.
Making our own experience a subject of study showed students not only that the classroom is a place where the lived experience of surviving a pandemic can be studied, but also that their lived experience itself is worthy of study and academic space.
Give Students Space to Analyze the Pandemic and Be Their Own Experts.
The culminating paper I assigned my students charged them with re-imagining initial responses to the pandemic in an ethical argument paper. They argued for what should have been done for the common good of all in regard to the economy, education and health care. They considered personal versus government accountability. And they created ads that advocated for their proposed changes.
Giving students room to find and share their voices during a time when traditional experts often hold the mic is vital. They need to know and own that they are experts of their own lived experiences; what they’re learning as students in the writing classroom (and any other classroom) is simply helping them to build ethical reasoning and argumentation skills and enhance the way they communicate their expertise, their own narratives.
As educators, we know that those in the margins (the under-insured and the over-worked, the underserved and the oppressed) suffer the most when pandemics and other atrocities come to pass. Some of us who work in colleges teach adults who are working through the pandemic in jobs that increase their chances of exposure to the virus. Others teach children of essential workers or students who are more susceptible to the virus.
On the other hand, some of us may teach students who have been somewhat unscathed by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic—those in households with the means to properly socially distance, with steady incomes and relatively good health. But regardless of who your students are, you should make it your duty to bring reality to your classroom—and bring your classroom to reality. Our reality is this: The pandemic could have and should have been handled differently, and millions of lives have been adversely affected as a result.
In a time when discomfort and pain pervade the lives of our students and society at large, we have to remember teaching as a revolutionary act, as work that we do to help students evoke change and resist old, antiquated ways that do not serve the common good.
And when we do forget, when we get too complacent with the status quo, let bell hooks remind us: “True resistance begins with confronting pain … and wanting to do something to change it.”
It’s time to be more intentional than ever before about our pedagogy. Our survival depends on it.