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2 Teachers Reflect On Lessons Learned Amid The Pandemic

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

The school year is now about half over, depending on where you live, but teachers everywhere are getting ready for a new year, as we all are. Over the break, many teachers are asking, what worked? What didn't? And where will this leave the children that we teach? For our series Learning Curve, where we check in on the many challenges of this very peculiar academic year, we are putting those questions to two high school educators. Michael Terich teaches 11th and 12th grade in Santa Ana, Calif.

Welcome to you.

MICHAEL TERICH: Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lyschel Shipp from Suwanee, Ga., also teaches juniors and seniors.

Welcome to you.

LYSCHEL SHIPP: Thank you so much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You both teach in very different learning environments. Michael, you teach in one of the least affluent districts in California - English as a second language for most kids there. Yet most of your students are in the International Baccalaureate program. Tell me a little bit about what this has been like. What have you seen while you've been doing this? What have been some of the challenges?

TERICH: Some of the biggest challenges have been trying to balance the expectations of academic rigor with the realities of the obstacles kids are facing in doing the simplest task, like just getting on the Internet. Access to technology, especially wireless, is been the biggest challenge for most of my students. Once the world shuts down and now the Starbucks isn't there and the McDonald's isn't there and all these other reliable sources for free Internet that they've been using while they're doing in-person learning - once those disappeared, then the reality of how many of our kids didn't have access and couldn't do their assignments or even attend class with fidelity really became stark. And that has been by far the biggest challenge.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lyschel, you have a hybrid, right? You have online students. Some are in person. You teach in Suwanee, Ga. Tell me a little bit about your student population. I understand that students there are better off financially.

SHIPP: Yes, they are, actually. I think we all accepted the fact that we had a lot of resources at the school, and a lot of the students in the community also had a lot of resources. But then there are students who didn't. And so we had these very high expectations for what students should have been able to do without thinking about the realities of, you know, students who don't have that kind of access.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Talk to me about getting students to simply turn on their cameras. I have a close friend who's a public school teacher, and she says that's one of the hardest things to do - simply to make sure that they're actually on the other end of the call.

TERICH: Yeah, I've experienced a lot of that. So I started just asking, like, hey, why don't you have your camera on? You know, let me know why you don't have your camera on. Just send me a private chat or whatever if you don't want to express why. And I found that at least half my students - the reason why their cameras weren't on is because they had anxiety, or they had shame about the environment in which they were living. And I've got students who have seven, eight, nine people in one bedroom. And they'll wrap themselves up in blankets and go sit outside when it's, you know, 48, 49 degrees outside just to attend class.

So a lot of the conception of kids not turning on their cameras because, you know, they're on TikTok or they're playing video games or they're doing something else that - you know, being disengaged from class - I do think that is a problem. But I didn't realize the percentage of my students that - they're not turning on their cameras to hide the conditions in which they're living.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Do you grade differently? Are you making allowances for this moment?

SHIPP: Absolutely. I am definitely grading differently. So a lot of my students do work, and I didn't realize that at the beginning of this pandemic. When schools shut down, I was wondering why students weren't coming online to class. And so students would text me and ask if they could have extensions on assignments or if I could record the class sessions so that they could watch it because they got off work late.

And then I also have a daughter who is doing virtual school. She's in kindergarten. And so me coming home from work after, you know, teaching in this hybrid situation and then coming to help her with her assignments - that was a little difficult. And I was thinking about the students whose parents are also at work and can't help them, or the students are at work but then they're also helping their siblings when they're at home. So a lot of times, there are three or four siblings all using the same Wi-Fi, all, you know, working together. And sometimes not just the camera situation, but also the microphone - a lot of students mute their microphone. And some of them tell me it's because their siblings are in the background.

TERICH: Yeah. I mean, to echo what Lyschel said, you know, with the microphone situation, I've had multiple times where we're having kind of a group discussion. And there's a kid - I'll call on them to weigh in. And when they unmute that microphone, just the amount of noise going on in the background - to what Lyschel said earlier, I mean, I can hear four or five people speaking. I hear other teachers teaching classes to their younger siblings in different grades. How in the world can I expect this kid to focus on, like, complex topics if they can't hear anything I'm saying?

So all those things have really led to looking at grading and looking at, you know, rubrics and looking at, OK, as I understand, trying to hold everyone to a certain standard. But if everyone's not in the same environment, then how can I expect them to be at the exact same standard?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So let me ask you this to both of you - real talk - Lyschel first and then Michael. Are they getting the education that they should at this time? There's a lot of concern, as you know, that this year is going to be a lost year. And the kids that you're teaching are going to need a certain skill set to get into university or to take the next step. So what do you think?

SHIPP: So I still wanted to maintain that same level of rigor, but I tried to make sure that every single thing that we did was purposeful and meaningful and something that they could learn from.

TERICH: Yeah, and I completely agree. I mean, the shift for me has been the volume of work has reduced dramatically. But the rigor, I believe, has stayed the same and in some ways has even been raised because now my focus is all on critical thinking. It's on analysis. It's on the idea of, how am I relating to the world around me? How am I relating to this content? Like, we just finished reading "The Stranger" by Albert Camus in my senior class. And seeing the way in which the kids interacted with that material and the different responses it produced - like, that's really where I'm pushing everything 'cause I feel like at the very least, I can get them to think in such a way and to critically reflect in such a way and respond that that's going to be a skill set that they can then translate to wherever.

SHIPP: Of course, there were things that I needed to teach as far as curriculum, but how we did that and some of the text that we included in doing that - a lot of that came from the students. And so we had a few projects where students were able to be creative, to think outside of the classroom. The things that we were doing were meaningful, and it was no longer, here, I'm posting this on a platform. Complete your assignment for a grade. And I think that kind of encourages students to really engage in class.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is your big takeaway from this? What is, you know, the thing that you have really learned in this moment?

SHIPP: I learned that young people are so very resilient. My students really showed up, and I'm just so proud of them for doing that. And I know that they had a lot of different circumstances, but they still came. I also learned how important relationships are and building relationships are. Just checking on students, I think, even kind of furthered that desire to engage in class and gave them a little bit of the motivation that they needed to finish out the semester. And I think if I didn't do that and we didn't do that together, I would have lost a lot of students along the way.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lyschel Shipp is a high school teacher in Georgia, and Michael Terich teaches high school in California.

Thank you to you both.

SHIPP: Thank you so much.

TERICH: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF DR. TOAST'S "A PREHISTORY OF THERMODYNAMICS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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