The Missing Year: Reflections from four school teachers

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This feature story appears in the Rosh Hashanah 2021 edition of 
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The CJN asked four educators from across the country to tell us about their  unprecedented experiences in the classroom and their hopes for the new year.

Heidi Crowley: Finding closeness amid the distance

As a social studies teacher, I know that at times geography can be destiny; with the COVID restrictions on how students and I could move about the school and the classroom, never was this more true. I am lucky enough to work in a school with large rooms and space. This  allowed us to have all students at school every day this year, apart from the two periods of provincially mandated remote learning. Down  the street, at other schools, I knew students and teachers alike were having a different year, with one or two days at school and rotations,  which were essential for health protocols but difficult to learn or teach in. I had my students all there every day. The difference for me was  that I did not have a room to call my own; I had a cart. 

When I first started teaching 15 years ago, I had a cart and would rotate from room to room based on availability. I remember my joy at  first sharing a classroom and then having my own space, a room to set up to support my students as we explored social studies together.  I was the teacher who brought in local art and framed student work for our gallery wall, tried to minimize plastic so students would come  into contact with both synthetic and natural materials throughout the day, and had a kettle ready for any students who felt sniffly. I loved my  classroom because it made me feel able to meet quietly with students after class when extra help was needed. It had a wall of windows  that allowed me to rarely turn on the overhead lights. I worked hard to build a space in which students felt comfortable enough to dive into  tough topics and free enough to be creative.  

And now all of this needed to be on a cart. 

I called my cart Phyllis. She was a no-nonsense taupe-coloured, three-shelf steel tank who had seen the ’70s and lived to tell the tale. Her  wheels would fall off if you lifted her and she had very strong opinions about uneven surfaces of any kind. Together we were a team as we  moved from floor to floor, going to where each student cohort had been stationed for their year. If I ever wondered if students had appreciated the classroom I had spent so much care creating, I found out that first week in September. 

In a continuous stream, students would stop me to say how much they missed my room or check in to see how cart-life was treating me. By week three we had all discovered that the magic of a classroom, with discussions based on trust and vulnerability, is portable. It has limits. It does not seem to spring up as organically online without mindful nurturing and it can be tampered with by the exhaustion and stress the year brought.  

My students came in each day with open hearts and minds in a time when there were a thousand extra tensions and reasons to shut down  or just go through the motions. This year my students sometimes saw me in a flap. The days when the wheels had literally or figuratively come off; they had them too. They showed me deep understanding and patience when I had those moments and I tried to do the same for them.  

One thing I did not like was being in or even going past my old classroom. My students had said it felt strangely like the soul had gone out  of the room and I knew what they meant. It was like driving past a house you used to live in and knowing every inch of it but still feeling like  an interloper.  

I was given another unexpected gift; with no classrooms to work in, the school library was set up as a teacher work space. I had never had  a communal space before, surrounded by teachers as they came, prepped, and left to teach. I suddenly had access to a dozen people all around me who would bounce ideas off one another, share resources, and more than anything show me a thousand times a day their passion for teaching, the students, and their humanity. 

I went from feeling anchorless, a roaming cart woman with no place to call home, to a new arrival in a bustling community of educators. We  had worked together for years but the pace of the workday and the distance between our rooms meant I rarely saw most people more than a  handful of times outside of personal development days.  

Next year I refuse to give up these relationships, even if I am back in my classroom. I am scheduling lunch dates and summer book clubs  because these connections have become essential for me to truly thrive at school. Phyllis is sticking close too. She will have a place of  honour in the classroom, enjoying a well-deserved rest after a demanding career. 

Heidi Crowley teaches at Gray Academy of Jewish Education in Winnipeg. For 15 years, Heidi has worked with students from grades 7 to  12, exploring civics, history, and geography.

Carol Klarman: Mr. Polansky’s 100th birthday, my kindergarten class and COVID

The last two days—they are both my most and least favourite days of the school year. Where I stand on the precipice of what was and what will be. My last opportunity to be the daily educator of many of my students.

Those beautiful, happy, eager faces who invariably tell me that I am the best teacher ever—and I wonder: “What have you got to compare  it to?”  

Ultimately, my biggest hope is that I have made a difference in their lives. This very odd year, I tried my best to see the silver lining and  hope that I got to make a difference in a few lives that would not have otherwise intersected.  

Let me start this story by telling you that every year I teach my class to play the handbells for the winter holiday concert. This year’s concert  was pre-recorded and played to the whole school in their classrooms over Zoom. 

In past years, we play one or two songs (“Jingle Bells” is a perennial favourite) and after the holidays the bells get put away for the next year. The  students occasionally ask for the bells, but the educational life of a kindergartener is busy, busy, busy so we move on. This year we were so  limited in what we could do that when the students asked to play, I thought it could be a good idea.  

At the same time, we were starting to work on numbers in math and I wanted them to think about the magnitude of how big numbers could  get. We were examining the number chart and saw that the numbers four and five (the students’ ages) are very close to the beginning of  the chart and that the number 100 is very far away. There are so many numbers between four and 100. 

One of the students commented on how many numbers you would have to live to get to 100 years old, and the seed was planted.  

“I have a friend who is going to be 100 years old,” I said. “No, you don’t, Ms. Klarman,” was the response. “Yes, I do and I will show you a  picture of him.”  

Over the next weeks my class learned many things about Morris Polansky, my 99-year-old friend. We Googled him and saw pictures of him selling poppies at Eglinton subway station. We learned how poppies help raise money for charity; we saw a video of him talking  about being a veteran of the Second World War; we learned what it means to be a veteran and how he helped to make Canada a safe country for us.  

The students told me that they wanted to include his birthday on our calendar countdown and they wanted to wish him a happy birthday when he turned 100. We can play the bells, I thought. And so this idea morphed into a project and then into a celebration of Mo Polansky. 

We wrote him a birthday letter and signed our names on it. We read a great book called I Wish You More and thought about what we would  wish for Mr. Polansky. As the pièce de résistance, we learned to play Somewhere Over the Rainbow, a song that came out when he was  about 18 years old and of course, we played Happy Birthday on the bells as well.  

Everything was put together into a video and sent to Mr. Polansky on that special day, which, of course, he enjoyed very much. Just today we had him as our special guest in our virtual classroom where the students got to ask him questions and tell him things.  

I have cried more than a few tears thinking about how lucky I am to have had the opportunity to bring the young and the young-at-heart  together for such an important occasion and during a time where Mr. Polansky could not be celebrated with the fanfare and appreciation  that he deserves. Maybe this would have happened without COVID, but then again, maybe not. I am forever grateful.  

Carol Klarman is a teacher with the Toronto District School Board.

Emily Caruso Parnell: Building a school from scratch

(Credit: A. Kaiser Photography)

It’s hard to write about a vortex from inside it. The noise, the chaos, and the constant demands make reflection almost impossible. Life  becomes about getting the next thing done, then the next, then the next. Often, in the middle of the night, reflection creeps in to steal a few  hours of precious sleep for second-guessing but when the sun comes up and the cell phone starts ringing again, the vortex roars.  

That’s what the last 10 months have been like as the principal of one of the online schools in Ontario. Approximately 15 to 20 percent  of students attended an online school in 2020-2021 and those schools had to be set up at record speed. What began with a ministerial  press conference on Aug. 13, 2020, was a fully functioning, online school less than a month later.  

This past year has been both the most challenging and the most rewarding of my career in education. It is rare in public education that  we get the opportunity to build things from scratch, without models, without years of history and tradition directing us. But no one had  ever built an online public elementary school in a month so we had to make up the recipe, using the best of what we knew about kids and learning and hoping it would work.  

Did it? Well, it definitely did for some students. Some students thrived. There were students who stayed online with their teachers on the  last day, not wanting to leave, wishing for one more day of school. Some students created strong bonds with their classmates and teachers,  they came to my Google recess every week, they loved being at home while going to school. Some students had their best year of school, ever. For those students, the recipe worked.  

For other students and families, it was an incredibly difficult year. There was disengagement, frustration and tears. Some students refused  to attend their online classes. Some families struggled to help them. Having a child, especially a young child, attending school in the same  space as other children or in your own workspace is very difficult (just ask my husband) and many families struggled with balancing the  needs of the children and the adults.  

We also had many students learning alongside grandparents who, prior to last September, didn’t know how to open an email, let alone  use Google Classroom and Jamboard. The learning curve was steep and many grandparents struggled. Others became technical experts,  surprising themselves and their families as they learned how to navigate all of the online platforms. There are few things as adorable as a  kindergarten student, sitting on the lap of their grandparent, as they both play an online game with a whole class of kindergarteners.  

This year also gave us opportunities we would never have otherwise had. One of our classes got to have a question-and-answer session  with the renowned primatologist, Jane Goodall. Other classes visited international art galleries, museums, wildlife sanctuaries and parks. Students were able to interact with experts in the trades, sciences, the arts and the environment. We ran an online recorder program. There were online talent shows. A community artist led a storytelling workshop. The world opened up to students even as they stayed home. The possibilities were limited only by our imaginations.  

Ontario geography is vast and our school board is roughly the size of Albania. Usually, students don’t get to interact with other students in the board other than those who live in the same town or neighbourhood. In virtual school, however, they got to go to school with students  from all over the board. Students who live in apartment buildings went to school every day with students who live on farms. We met their  goats. We saw the view out their windows. We watched the ice melt on their lakes. Those relationships changed how students see the  world. Their horizons broadened. What will the impact of those experiences be as those children grow up? 

And me? I’ve tried to make this year about service, about being available when my staff needed me, about listening more than I talk. I’ve  been on call for 10 months and I’m looking forward to putting my cell phone on a shelf for a while and forgetting about it. But as challenging as this experience has been, I wouldn’t trade any of it for a minute. Leading a virtual school over the past year has been a joy, a privilege, and the professional experience of a lifetime. And while we don’t yet know what next year will look like, I’m looking forward to whatever  it has to offer. I know in my bones that we can handle it. 

Emily Caruso Parnell is a principal in Sudbury, Ont.

Aaron Polowin: Looking forward to a new year, this time in the classroom

The 2020-2021 school year came to a close with much more promise ahead for fall as students logged off Google Meet for hopefully the final time, and prepared to go to day and overnight summer camps. 

These past 18 months have been extremely challenging for everyone, especially for the students who have had their learning disrupted  multiple times over these past two school years. Packed classrooms, circle-time activities and Smart Board games were replaced with  COVID protocols, hand sanitizer and online breakout rooms.  

Classrooms were closed for an indefinite period in March 2020 and the unprecedented shift to an online platform was nerve-wracking for  teachers and students alike. The hope was that this would be a short, two-week shift and in-person learning would return in early April.  

But as the weeks turned into months, the school year sadly ended in an online platform. There were many significant challenges, including  a shortage of technology, homes where multiple siblings were learning at once and too many long hours spent in front of a computer. Students have been incredibly resilient throughout the pandemic and their shift to remote learning was no different.  

As a primary teacher at the Ottawa Jewish Community School, I soon realized that I would need to change my teaching strategies and  lessons to better meet the needs of students in their homes during our time online. I quickly understood that teaching would become more about maintenance and keeping students engaged rather than teaching complicated French grammar. 

I tried to create entertaining games for my young classes, borrowing from television shows like Jeopardy and Wheel of Fortune. I decided  that I would mainly review our themes and units from our time together in person by playing these games online. There were many educational websites that were soon shared by colleagues, ones that students would find fun and engaging. 

I particularly enjoyed sharing my screen and reading Robert Munsch books in French to my classes and then discussing the story. By keeping the learning light and engaging, I found that it was more likely to lead to a higher percentage of students coming to our Google Meet classes. 

Many had predicted that the school year would be interrupted very quickly with a return to online learning. We were fortunate to be able to teach in the classroom until the province mandated a one-month shutdown in early January. This time students and teachers were better  equipped to pivot to an online platform. 

Unfortunately, after a return to the classrooms in February, the rising COVID rates put students and teachers back online from mid-April to  the end of the school year. Our school year would once again need to be ended online.  

There is much promise that lies ahead for the new school year. The hope is that we can start the Jewish new year off with a return to the  classroom and the normalcy of learning as we knew it two years ago. Students and teachers are now better equipped to work digitally and can now implement the lessons and strategies learned over these past two school years. Classrooms will once again be filled with Shabbat songs and holiday crafts.  

Aaron Polowin is a teacher at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.