Teaching during the pandemic
By Jack Rightmyer
Like many teachers throughout New York and across the country, after COVID-19 hit in early March, I was forced to teach my courses online. As an adjunct English teacher at Siena College I was fortunate to receive some training for a week before we went completely online which was very helpful. We were encouraged to try and stay with our original course syllabus as much as possible with the realization that there would be numerous technological glitches, and we also realized that some students working from home with their parents and other family members might have some difficulty in accessing computer time.
For the most part it all worked out quite well. As an English teacher I was able to assign reading and the students also worked on a literary research essay. The Standish Library at Siena was available with all their online sources for the research my students needed, but I’m sure that math and science teachers found online teaching a bit more difficult especially if any lab work was necessary.
I held my online classes during the regular time when they originally met for usually 40 to 45 minutes. My first few sessions I kept primarily to the work we were doing but soon after I began starting each class with a question about how my students were doing. “How is everything going on in the home front?” I would ask.
My students lived in Long Island, the Bronx, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts along with various Capital District locations. They loved checking in with how they were surviving these days of isolation. It was wonderful to sit back and see them have a discussion about what they were doing to survive the tedium.
I had a few seniors who discussed how disappointed they were to spend the last part of their college experience back home. Siena has rescheduled the graduation for August, and we’re all hoping our life may return to normal by then.
“But I think we’re going to be sheltering through the summer,” one student said.
“I hope not,” another student responded. “My younger brother is driving all of us crazy.”
“Are you able to go outside, because here in the Bronx we’re practically all just staying inside our apartments or homes.”
“That must be really tough,” another student answered.
“Where I live in Long Island we all know someone with the virus. It’s really scary.”
When we did get back to the novel we were reading it was revealing to see how the discussion would often turn to what they were going through. In the book “The Color Purple” one of my students mentioned, “Celie is trapped in that house living with a guy who abuses her physically and mentally, and even though I feel trapped right now at least I’m not going through that.”
When we talked about the research paper they often mentioned the tragedies many of the authors had gone through. “It seems like everyone Edgar Allan Poe ever loved died, so it’s no wonder he drank a lot and wrote such dark stories and poems. At least I’m stuck at home with people who care about me and they’re all healthy.”
I missed the spontaneity of teaching in a classroom with a room full of students. It was just not the same with a videoconference, but we made do with what we had. It also felt a bit like I was invading their space, and I made a point of showing them my writing room where I was conducting the class sessions, what I had hanging in the room and what books were on my shelf. Some students avoided displaying their picture, and I certainly allowed that.
I think we all suspect our lives will be changed when we get through this pandemic. Some of us will grieve people we love who will not make it, and I think we will all have a greater appreciation for a time when we can once again reach out and hug our loved ones or shake hands with a friend. As I walk through my neighborhood and see friends, I feel horrible trying to stay apart from them like they are a danger to me. My dog wants to run up and greet them, and I hold him back not sure if the virus can be spread by people petting him, and it still unnerves me to walk into a store and see everyone wearing a face mask.
“Mr. Rightmyer, thanks for letting us talk about what we’re going through with this virus,” a student texted me after one class session. “It helped me realize I’m not the only one going through this.”
“I looked forward to our classes, Mr. Rightmyer,” texted another student, “because when we talked about Celie or Blanche (Streetcar Named Desire) it got me out of my head so I didn’t have to think about all the fun I was missing at school with my friends.”
Receiving texts like those reminded me of the importance of good literature and how it can shape the way we see the world. We are currently living in an age of uncertainty and when reading a classic novel like “The Color Purple” or a classic play like “A Streetcar Named Desire,” we can identify with the struggles characters like Celie and Blanche DuBois are going through. Literature also lifts us out of our everyday world and reminds us that we’re all part of something much bigger and it’s not just about us.
“I’ve never really been a big reader,” said one girl in a class discussion, “but not being able to leave my house gave me the time to read, and I really liked it.”
“And I really liked talking about the characters and what they were going through,” said another student. “I can see why book clubs might actually be fun.”
When the semester came to an end I really felt a void. I looked forward to those zoom discussions with my students where we had some real conversations about what they were feeling about this pandemic, their fears and their frustrations. It also reminded me of the importance of literature to entertain, to educate, to arouse, to anger, to make us feel strong emotions and most importantly to get us to talk about the things that are important in our lives.
Jack Rightmyer recently retired from teaching English at Bethlehem Central High School and is a frequent freelance writer for the Albany Times Union.
He has published two books, A Funny Thing About Teaching and It’s Not About Winning.
Website: jackrightmyer.com and Twitter: @jackrightmyer