2 stories, and a special guest

Hope everyone is holding up OK and finding good stuff to watch on TV. Yesterday was my birthday — and while I can’t say it was my best one — I did do some reflectin’ on the year and felt genuinely grateful that I’m still in this field, reporting stories for all of you. This newsletter also recently celebrated its 2nd anniversary! So thanks for being here, and helping me do this work.

I have two new stories to share this week, and a letter I received from my favorite high school teacher about what it’s been like to teach virtually during coronavirus. He has has given me permission to reprint it here.

The Washington Monthly, a really fantastic 50-year-old magazine I interned for in 2013, set out in their latest issue to investigate the policy consequences of re-electing Trump. Different journalists were asked to explore what a second Trump term could mean for immigration, civil liberties, the social safety net, health care, and more. You can read the full series here, and my contribution for it, on what a 2nd Trump term would likely mean for workers + labor.


You probably know that schools nationwide are closed and millions of educators and students are grappling with remote online learning for their very first time. Many are doing it on the fly, many low-income and rural households lack the home wi-fi and technology to jump right into it, and online schooling can be challenging enough for students even with good tech access and no pandemic. I myself struggle to retain focus on Zoom calls even with just my friends.

For The 74, which is an education news site, I looked at virtual charter schools, the one set of schools that has been able to operate largely unimpeded during this crisis. I talked with virtual charter leaders in states like Oregon, Oklahoma, Indiana and Pennsylvania to hear how they’re sharing, or in some cases leveraging, their experience with online learning. You can read that story here.

So one thing I’m thankful for is the continued relationship I have with my high school teacher, John Grace, who taught me history in tenth grade. Remarkably we have kept in touch for eleven years beyond when I was sitting in his class, and it’s a friendship I really cherish. I asked him the other week how it’s been to transition abruptly to online schooling during COVID. I’m sharing what he said below, in part because I think it’s too rare that we get to hear candidly from educators, unless, you know, they’re on strike and then the press covers that. (reader guide: “JJG” = his initials, “LM”= Lower Merion High School and “LMSD” = Lower Merion School District).

Dear Rachel,

The sudden, not unexpected, shift of teaching and learning from a school to home depends, of course, on a foundation that has three elements.

Most importantly, can I teach kids from home, without depending so completely on practices I never use, or used?  Am I going to succeed or fail with Zoom?

If I have established a foundation with each student in the same way I have tried my entire career- to know an individual student well enough intellectually, academically and personally- I have a chance of succeeding and so does a student.  If she disappears with all her classmates to thirty homes, and I am expected to ‘teach’ her, do I know her well enough even to try?  My answer is, I hope so.  We both know it is how I try to teach- find the balance between an investigation of a global effect of World War I and each kid.  Give all students a degree of choice, to chart ‘semi-independently’ a path toward history and historical understanding.

So, if I can do it in the classroom, can I transfer this relationship to learning from home?

Very hard to do, even with broad support from LM and the LMSD.

For me, this historic experiment in education dependent on home and remote instruction succeeds or fails on the willingness of a student to contact me.  It depends not on whether I invite 30 kids to a Zoom meeting.  It depends on whether a student can find it within herself to write an email, and admit to me she has a structure to life at home, finds time to discipline herself to read and to take notes on a reading and then send a piece of work to me…

…or can write to me and admit that none of those things are remotely possible.

As you realize, both of those students live in Lower Merion, and I teach more of the latter type than I do the former.

So, the first problem is also to recognize a second one: it is the limit to which things we ‘do’, as teachers, reach their outer limit at the door to the school.  Think about it…how many teachers do you recall, and have you observed in writing now, who characterize too many students by a profile of what they ‘don’t’ or ‘won’t’ do, at home?  That vocabulary, those unexamined assumptions about students’ lives, is huge, right now, because students do not have the chance to leave home and attend school, with all its recognizable, and, for many, comforting structure.

So, everything depends first, and fundamentally, on students’ willingness to contact me, and at least to answer the basic question, How are you?  When she writes, and answers, then I have reestablished the relationship individually from my classroom.

Next, I need to diagnose which kinds of work are possible, and which kinds of work will yield too much frustration.  That diagnosis is challenging, unless I already try to teach kids with a range of choices- in the questions they might answer, and in the selections of things to read and, eventually, in the type of work they want to use, to demonstrate their ability.

A traditional quiz, test, assignment approach gives all of us a greater challenge to overcome.

And, you recall, those traditional practices are not in my repertoire.

So, because a student has already navigated our class realizing there is some value to some choice, we can try to transfer that approach to home, and it might have a greater chance of succeeding, especially if I have established the first foundation, contact.

The third element, or problem to solve, is defined within the context of support from the LMSD and LM.  The support depends on technology, sure.  But, most importantly for me, it is the empathy, sympathy, patience and grace encouraged by the district-level administrators in all their communications to families and teachers.  Those communications are overlapping; this is a good thing.  Emphasizing the shared responsibility among administrators, building-level principal and assistant principals, teachers and families has been an extension of the way I have always appreciated LM’s support.  It is clear; we share different responsibilities for succeeding- not for ‘making’ kids work from home but, instead, for finding somewhere, somehow a plan for each student.

I value that view of education that defines Lower Merion.  I think it is the support key to anchor the first two elements.

Measures of proof?  How is JJG succeeding or failing?

On this Friday afternoon, after three weeks, after nine email letters home from me, three big sets of guidelines sent from the LMSD and LM, 70 of 132 students are in touch with me, and for whom I can admit confidently we are learning and teaching from home.  I have zero research, nor does anyone, anywhere, to verify that I am doing well, so I need to do better- not to threaten kids with ‘getting a zero’ for not contacting me but instead to find the right language, to work a little better toward reestablishing that classroom connection.

Working on, it, as soon as I conclude my letter!