8 Ways the Pandemic Has Changed How I Teach High School English
Nick Ripatrazone Recommends Flexibility, Care, and Rest
Fellow high school teachers, say it with me: this year has been exhausting. So many of the elements of teaching that have drawn us to the profession—community, spontaneity, energy—have been diluted. Masked in the classroom since August, my hyperbolic Sicilian facial expressions have disappeared behind cloth. I can’t see my students grimace at my bad jokes. We are all just errant eyes: darting here, there.
I’ve learned a lot during my 17th year in the classroom. In some ways, this year was a revelation; in other ways, it was a reminder—a time for clarity. Here are eight ways the pandemic will forever change how I teach high school English.
1. Be flexible, or fail.
Teach your students, not the syllabus. Veteran teachers will remember the mantra of “monitor and adjust”: the dictum to teach the students in front of you, and not the hypothetical student who cruises through your curriculum. There will always be powers beyond us—and, unfortunately, among us—who pressure us to sprint through material and teach to the test. Yet this year has been a severe and necessary reminder that the classroom is not a vacuum. In my AP Language and composition course, on the precipice of our exam—a 3 hour and 15 minute marathon of analysis and argument—I decided to pause our review. My students were about to begin reading No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre, and we were discussing existentialism. Halfway through the class period, I shelved my original plan, and asked them to write a light-hearted meditation on an existential crisis they experienced; a time when they were forced to reconsider their assumptions and values, and make difficult choices. They wrote powerful and heartfelt tragicomic stories of their attempts to find meaning in their lives. We talked about their present, and their future. It was cathartic and authentic—exactly what writing should be, and just what they needed at the moment. What they needed; we’re here for them, after all.
2. Short and slow.
Seek depth over breadth. Our Covid-mangled schedule at my school caused our typical 40 minute classes to balloon into hour-long sessions. Rather than pack in more content, I decided to pare away so that we could pause. One class period we spent an hour with “All Hallows” by Louise Glück. We read, discussed, reconsidered, and made connections. Then we took one line—“And the soul creeps out of the tree”—and thought about where it might take us. We pondered lineation and syntax. We talked about fear. We might all try to do less and think more.
3. Model forgiveness.
If we believe that the Humanities can help us be human, then I am charged with helping my students see the worth of everyone among us. If this year hasn’t taught us to be more gentle with each other, than nothing will. Forgive kids. Any of us with good fortune in this life has been the recipient of forgiveness—whether we are aware of that grace, or not.
4. Rethink deadlines.
In the other part of my life, as a Culture editor for a literary magazine, I know that writers miss deadlines. Life intervenes. These are professional, talented writers who need more time. A publication and a classroom are not the same, but sometimes rules and traditions in the classroom have evolved from arbitrary to absolute. Be firm in our fairness. Use missed deadlines as the opportunity to begin a conversation about responsibility.
5. Make sure that kids tell the stories of their lives.
In every English classroom, there should be the opportunity for students to tell the stories of their lives. Of course it is essential to write in response to texts, classic and contemporary—but writing about their lives helps students think their ways through their experiences and values. Feedback is great to offer, but also give students the opportunity to follow the routes of their writing to unexpected places, and to sometimes do so in their own, silent rooms.
6. Make sure that kids mine the history of their communities.
While literature courses should expose students to worlds they have not yet encountered, we should not ignore the rich stories in our own communities. When students realize that they are surrounded by paradoxes, they might recognize that their own life is more complex than they realize. Send them through the archives of local newspapers. Help them follow the trails of history, and to place themselves within that lineage.
7. Laud language.
Not all kids love English class—but all kids use language. They talk, text, tweet, joke, plead, complain, and ponder. Fellow English teachers: many of us teach this discipline because we absolutely love words. What a joy to read a sentence from a student that sings! We are pressured to assess language, but we are called to help students discover a love for language. If nothing else, let us leave our students a little better, a little sharper, with their words. I watch my students evolve from confusion to frustration to fascination as they read The Bald Soprano by Eugène Ionesco. By rejecting profluence and subverting the expectations of language, Ionesco forces my students to build language anew. They realize that language, however imperfect, is the best tool we have to praise the glories and lament the injustices of this world.
8. Naps are glorious.
Please get some rest. Actually, please get a lot of rest. You deserve it.